Many of us find that the best time to pray is first thing in the morning. Speaking personally, if I don’t get up early to pray, I find it almost impossible to set my heart to pray later in the day. We know that the Lord Jesus “rose in the morning, a great while before day, and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed” (Mark 2:35). He couldn’t face the day without spending time alone with his Father.
But it’s never easy to follow that example. Some of us find getting up in the morning hard at any time of year. And it can be especially hard on these cold, dark winter mornings. I was amused and yet encouraged when I read John White’s account of his first attempts as a teenager to rise and pray.
“..I set my alarm for 6.00 AM, determined to begin the day with two hours of prayer and Bible study. It was winter. English houses are not only dark but miserably cold in the early morning. My eyes were sore. My nose ran. I shivered and still felt dirty, even though I had washed and shaved. The silent house seemed strangely unfriendly. Determinedly I prayed – for my immediate family; for distant cousins, uncles, aunts; for neighbours and friends. Then I looked at my watch to find that only five minutes had gone by. Somehow I had to carry on for another hour and fifty-five minutes. Time stretched ahead like a cold eternity…” (from The Fight IVP 1977).
That rings so true in my experience. And yet John did learn the joy of regular, disciplined prayer. And I know that with God’s help, I can learn too.
Charles Simeon, perhaps the most influential evangelical preacher in England two hundred years ago, struggled too. Simeon
“..invariably arose every morning, though it was the winter season, at four o’clock; and after lighting his fire, he devoted the first four hours of the day to private prayer and the devotional reading of the Scriptures. He would then ring his bell, and calling in his friend with his servant, engage with them in what he termed his family prayer. Here was the secret of his great grace and spiritual strength. Deriving instruction from such a source, and seeking it with such diligence, he was comforted in all his trial and prepared for every duty.
This early rising did not come easily to him; it was a habit resolutely fought for and acquired. Finding himself too fond of his bed, he had resolved to pay a fine for every offence, giving half-a-crown to his servant. One morning, as he lay warm and comfortable, he caught himself reasoning that the good woman was poor and that the half-crown would be very useful to her. But that practical fallacy was not to be tolerated; if he rose late again, he would walk down to the Cam and throw a guinea into the water. And so he did, though not without a great struggle, for guineas were not abundant in his purse… But for his Lord’s sake the coin was cast in, and there it lies yet, no doubt, in the river’s keeping. Simeon never transgressed in that way again…”
Simeon found an unusual but effective way to remind himself of the importance of rising early to pray. It’s not a way that we would recommend to everyone. But each of us can look for practical strategies that will help us to discipline ourselves. Maybe you need an alarm-clock so painfully loud that you can’t ignore it. But don’t have it in your bedroom: have it in the next room so you have to get up to turn it off. One person may keep a flask of hot coffee ready at the bedside so that the moment the alarm sounds, it’s waiting for him. Somebody else doesn’t need the coffee but does make sure she has a wet flannel to hand, to wipe the sleep away from her eyes. Two friends may arrange to telephone one another ten minutes after their agreed getting-up time, so that if one has dozed back off, the other will rouse him again.
If we are determined to rise and pray, we will find ways of making it happen. And if we don’t make time to pray, it can only be because we don’t really think it’s important.
Why is it so important that we discipline ourselves to pray? I could give lots of reasons: because it brings pleasure to the heart of God when his children pray; because in prayer we draw near to God and have fellowship with him; because as we pray for the things that God has willed, we ourselves become more God-like and holy; because God has commanded us to pray. All of these are great reasons to pray. But there’s one even more obvious reason. It’s this.
If we don’t ask God for things, we won’t get them. There are lots of things I need. If I ask God to give them to me, he will. If I don’t ask him, he won’t. There are endless situations I’m worried about. If I ask God to change them, he will. If I don’t ask him, he won’t. There are so many people I know who are struggling. If I ask God to help them, he will. If I don’t ask him, he won’t. The kingdom of God is under attack in our country. If we ask God to defend and extend it, he will. If we don’t ask him, he won’t. I’m a weak, tempted believer. If I ask God to give me his Holy Spirit, he will. If I don’t ask him, he won’t.
Prayer isn’t a luxury. It’s a necessity. The Bible says, “You do not have because you do not ask” (James 4 :2). Without it, I won’t get the things I want and need.
If the only time in the day I can pray is first thing in the morning, and if I don’t pray then, I’ve lost the opportunity to get the things I want. For the sake of another hour in bed, I’ve thrown away the gifts I could have had freely from God.
That’s the incentive that gets me out of bed when nothing else can. I daren’t not pray – because I know that if I don’t pray, I won’t receive. Instead, my problems will get worse, my temptations will get stronger, the things I fear will come about, the things I long for, won’t.
Perhaps you used to get up regularly to pray in the mornings. But bit by bit you’ve let the habit slide. When will you start again? When Spring comes and brings lighter mornings? Or before that – at New Year? Will that be your New Year’s resolution? Why wait till then if God is willing to give you good gifts now? Why not set the clock tonight and rise to be with God tomorrow? Fix the habit now, in the winter, and you won’t lose it in the summer!
Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to give thanks for modern heating! Things have got easier for most of us since John White wrote the words I quoted above. Robert Kilvert, an Anglican minister a hundred and thirty years ago, wrote these words in his diary:
“Sunday, Christmas Day 1870. As I lay awake praying in the early morning I thought I heard a sound of distant bells. It was an intense frost. I lay down in my bath upon a sheet of thick ice which broke in the middle into large pieces whilst sharp points and jagged edges stuck all round the sides of the tub like chevaux de frise, not particularly comforting to my naked limbs, for the keen ice cut like broken glass. The ice water stung and scorched like fire. I had to collect the floating pieces of ice and pile them on a chair before I could use the sponge and then I had to thaw the sponge in my hands for it was a mass of ice. The morning was most brilliant. Walked to the Sunday School with Gibbins and the road sparkled with millions of rainbows, the seven colours gleaming in every glittering point of hoar frost. The Church was very cold in spite of two roaring stove fires…”
Read, shiver, and ask yourself, “If he could get up in winter, why can’t I?”