How Hughes Oliphant Old Got Better at Praying

I suspect all Christians would like to improve in their ability to pray. I know I would.

Even though we don’t believe prayer is a performance, it is still something that can be done well or done poorly or somewhere in between.

But how can you improve? I’ve read various books on prayer—old and new—and they are good in so many ways, but I’ve often felt like there is a missing piece. I ask questions like: “Is there a method for using A Method for Prayer?“

If you’ve ever felt like this, here’s what you need to know: In order to improve at anything, you need to gain awareness of what you are aiming for in relation to where you are, alongside practice in attaining it. Books like Matthew Henry’s classic, A Method for Prayer, can help if you use them in the right way.

You get a sense for what this looks like in Leading in Prayer: A Workbook for Ministers. In this book, Hughes Oliphant Old describes the kind of things he did to improve his prayers and provides sample prayers, with plenty of margin space for note taking, to help us improve too.

Here’s what Old did and suggests:

  1. He set aside time to pray. For example, he used Saturday mornings to prepare prayers for Sunday. The puritans prayed well because they prayed a lot. They prayed alone, with their families, and in their churches.
  2. He learned through emulation. Like an apprentice painter that learns to paint by first painting the great works of art done by others, Old used prayers he admired from others for his own praying. He used the Psalms and the prayers of the Reformers and church fathers, for example.
  3. Old also practiced his ability to identify the qualities of good prayers (tone, parts, logic, imagery, etc.) and the deficiencies of bad prayers. Well-known books on the topic offer lists and explanations to help you with this. But it’s good to learn through close, personal observation as well.
  4. Old would also practice by rewriting or reworking prayers to fit modern English and the particular needs of the moment.

Essentially the same advice is given by Samuel Miller, Isaac Watts, and others but with more power and detail than I’ve done here.

Based on these four types of exercises, you could devise a 1-2 week plan of assignments for yourself. Then when you finish, reflect on what you’ve learned, and then do it again, work on something else, or tweak your plan and try again.

This kind of practice will help you improve your prayers and should not be disregarded lightly. But remember: In learning to emulate the patterns of holiness, guard yourself from becoming a mere mimic. Having the appearance of godliness but denying its power is not the goal.

This kind of irreverent mimicry is mockery. It happens when we trust in our own strength rather than the Spirit, and it happens when we aim to please man rather than serve God.

Instead, when you pray, offer yourself fully to God in your prayers. Seek to do his will from a sincere heart. And when you sense your weakness, rely on the Spirit to help you. Because, as it says in Romans 8:27, he will intercede for you according to the will of God.

Christopher Chelpka @christopherchelpka