I recently began to read Andrew Murray's spiritual classic, With Christ in the School of Prayer. The missionary to Africa bids his fellow disciples in Christ to beg with the 12, "Lord, teach us to pray."
Murray's philosophy of the education of prayer is thoroughly classical. His desire for the student is two-fold. First, the one who would come to Christ to learn how to pray must admit his ignorance of how to pray. Second, he must whole-heartedly trust in the efficacy of the teaching of Christ, the true Teacher. In the classically-informed program in which I teach, my goal is to help my students see their own ignorance, but also indicate to them that the truth is there for them to grasp, if they seek it.
Murray's words also cut straight to the heart. How do we learn ignorance? His answer is simply that our prayer lives are probably weak, displaying a distinct lack of faith and strength in God our Father.
The words of the tutor who points us to the Teacher are wanted now to encourage us to pray as we ought:
‘Lord, teach us to pray.’ Yes, we feel the need now of being taught to pray. At first there is no work appears so simple; later on, none that is more difficult; and the confession is forced from us: We know not how to pray as we ought. It is true we have God’s Word, with its clear and sure promises; but sin has so darkened our mind, that we know not always how to apply the word. In spiritual things we do not always seek the most needful things, or fail in praying according to the law of the sanctuary. In temporal things we are still less able to avail ourselves of the wonderful liberty our Father has given us to ask what we need. And even when we know what to ask, how much there is still needed to make prayer acceptable. It must be to the glory of God, in full surrender to His will, in full assurance of faith, in the name of Jesus, and with a perseverance that, if need be, refuses to be denied. All this must be learned. It can only be learned in the school of much prayer, for practice makes perfect. Amid the painful consciousness of ignorance and unworthiness, in the struggle between believing and doubting, the heavenly art of effectual prayer is learnt.
One of the most attractive things about Christianity is that God wants to hear our prayers and gives us "wonderful liberty" to tell Him about what we need. As with all good things, however, a certain degree of understanding and effort must be applied to the task. If "it can only be learned in the school of much prayer" and "practice makes perfect" then I had better get started!
Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.