Author: Elisabeth Elliot
A very tall man, wrapped in a steamer rug, kneeling alone by a chair. When I think of my father, who died in 1963, this is often the first image that comes to mind. It was the habit of his life to rise early in the morning--usually between 4:30 and 5:00--to study his Bible and to pray.
We did not often see him during that solitary hour (he purposed to make it solitary), but we were used to seeing him on his knees. He had family prayers every morning after breakfast. We began with a hymn; then he read from the Bible to us; and we all knelt to pray. As we grew older, we were encouraged to pray alone as well.
Few people know what to do with solitude when it is forced upon them; even fewer arrange for solitude regularly. This is not to suggest that we should neglect meeting with other believers for prayer (Hebrews 10:25), but the foundation of our devotional life is our own private relationship with God.
My father, an honest and humble disciple of the Lord Jesus, wanted to follow his example: "Very early in the morning Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed" (Mark 1:35).
Christians may (and ought to) pray anytime and anywhere, but we cannot well do without a special time and place to be alone with God. Most of us find that early morning is not an easy time to pray. I wonder if there is an easy time.
The simple fact is that early morning is probably the only time when we can be fairly sure of not being interrupted. Where can we go? Into "your closet," was what the Lord said in Matthew 6:6, meaning any place apart from the eyes and the ears of others. Jesus went to the hills, to the wilderness, to a garden; the apostles to the seashore or to an upper room; Peter to a housetop.
We may need to find a literal closet or a bathroom or a parked car. We may walk outdoors and pray. But we must arrange to pray, to be alone with God sometime every day, to talk to him and to listen to what he wants to say to us.
The Bible is God's message to everybody. We deceive ourselves if we claim to want to hear his voice but neglect the primary channel through which it comes. We must read his Word. We must obey it. We must live it, which means rereading it throughout our lives. I think my father read it more than forty times.
When we have heard God speak, what then shall we say to God? In an emergency or when we suddenly need help, the words come easily: "Oh, God!" or "Lord, help me!" During our quiet time, however, it is a good thing to remember that we are here not to pester God but to adore him.
All creation praises him all the time--the winds, the tides, the oceans, the rivers, move in obedience; the song sparrow and the wonderful burrowing wombat, the molecules in their cells, the stars in their courses, the singing whales and the burning seraphim do without protest or slovenliness exactly what their Maker intended, and thus praise him.
We read that our Heavenly Father actually looks for people who will worship him in spirit and in reality. Imagine! God is looking for worshippers. Will he always have to go to a church to find them, or might there be one here and there in an ordinary house, kneeling alone by a chair, simply adoring him?
How do we adore him? Adoration is not merely unselfish. It doesn't even take into consideration that the self exists. It is utterly consumed with the object adored.
Once in a while, a human face registers adoration. The groom in a wedding may seem to worship the approaching bride, but usually he has a few thoughts for himself--how does he look in this absurd ruffled shirt that she asked him to wear, what should he do with his hands at this moment, what if he messes up the vows?
I have seen adoration more than once on faces in a crowd surrounding a celebrity, but only when they were unaware of the television cameras, and only when there was not the remotest possibility that the celebrity would notice them. For a few seconds, they forgot themselves altogether.
When I stumble out of bed in the morning, put on a robe, and go into my study, words do not spring spontaneously to my lips--other than words like, "Lord, here I am again to talk to you. It's cold. I'm not feeling terribly spiritual...." Who can go on and on like that morning after morning, and who can bear to listen to it day after day?
I need help in order to worship God. Nothing helps me more than the Psalms. Here we find human cries--of praise, adoration, anguish, complaint, petition. There is an immediacy, an authenticity, about those cries. They speak for me to God--that is, they say what I often want to say, but for which I cannot find words.
Surely the Holy Spirit preserved those Psalms in order that we might have paradigms of prayer and of our individual dealings with God. It is immensely comforting to find that even David, the great king, wailed about his loneliness, his enemies, his pains, his sorrows, and his fears. But then he turned from them to God in paeans of praise.
He found expression for praise far beyond my poor powers, so I use his and am lifted out of myself, up into heights of adoration, even though I'm still the same ordinary woman alone in the same little room.
Another source of assistance for me has been the great hymns of the Church, such as "Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven," "New Every Morning Is the Love," "Great Is Thy Faithfulness," "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken," and ''O Worship the King." The third stanza of that last one delights me. It must delight God when I sing it to him:
Thy bountiful care, what tongue can recite?
It breathes in the air, it shines in the light;
It streams from the hills, it descends to the plain,
And sweetly distills in the dew and the rain.
That's praise. By putting into words things on earth for which we thank him, we are training ourselves to be ever more aware of such things as we live our lives. It is easy otherwise to be oblivious of the thousand evidences of his care. Have you thought of thanking God for light and air, because in them his care breathes and shines?
Hymns often combine praise and petition, which are appropriate for that time alone with God. The beautiful morning hymn "Awake, My Soul, and With the Sun" has these stanzas:
All praise to Thee, who safe hast kept,
And hast refreshed me while I slept.
Grant, Lord, when I from death shall wake,
I may of endless light partake.
Direct, control, suggest, this day,
All I design, or do, or say;
That all my powers, with all their might,
In Thy sole glory may unite.
Adoration should be followed by confession. Sometimes it happens that I can think of nothing that needs confessing. This is usually a sign that I'm not paying attention. I need to read the Bible. If I read it with prayer that the Holy Spirit will open my eyes to this need, I soon remember things done that ought not to have been done and things undone that ought to have been done.
Sometimes I follow confession of sin with confession of faith--that is, with a declaration of what I believe. Any one of the creeds helps here, or these simple words: "Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. Lord, I believe; help my unbelief."
Then comes intercession, the hardest work in the world--the giving of one's self, time, strength, energy, and attention to the needs of others in a way that no one but God sees, no one but God will do anything about, and no one but God will ever reward you for.
Do you know what to pray for people whom you haven't heard from in a long time? I don't. So I often use the prayers of the New Testament, so all-encompassing, so directed toward things of true and eternal importance, such as Paul's for the Christians in Ephesus: ''I pray that you, rooted and founded in love yourselves, may be able to grasp how wide and long and deep and high is the love of Christ" (Ephesians 3:17, 18). Or I use his prayer for the Colossians, "We pray that you will be strengthened from God's boundless resources, so that you will find yourselves able to pass through any experience and endure it with joy" (Colossians 1:11). I have included many New Testament prayers in a small booklet entitled "And When You Pray (Good News Publishers).
My own devotional life is very far from being Exhibit A of what it should be. I have tried, throughout most of my life, to maintain a quiet time with God, with many lapses and failures. Occasionally, but only occasionally, it is impossible. Our Heavenly Father knows all about those occasions. He understands perfectly why mothers with small children bring them along when they talk to him.
Nearly always it is possible for most of us, with effort and planning and the will to do his will, to set aside time for God alone. I am sure I have lost out spiritually when I have missed that time. And I can say with the psalmist, "I have found more joy along the path of thy instruction than in any kind of wealth" (Psalms 119:14).