Column: How to Pray When Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

By Drew Williams

How do we pray on those days when faith feels more like a smoldering wick than a fiery flame? I can attest to the truth that in times of challenge there have been days when my faith felt tested and was considerably more smoke than flame. On days like those, my prayers generally started with a petition for a day off; a twenty-four hour pass was about as much as I had faith to pray for. But on reflection, I see now that I always received a great deal more. Here are a few things I learned about prayer and the faithfulness of God on the days when smoke gets in our eyes.

First, if there is any fire in us at all, any inclination to pray (no matter how small we might think it is), it is God who put it there. In Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis observes the extraordinary ways that God takes us in all our weakness and breathes His prayer through us. He writes, “An ordinary simple Christian kneels down to say his prayers. He is trying to get in touch with God. But, if he is a Christian he knows that what is prompting him to pray is also God: God, so to speak, inside of him. But he also knows that all his real knowledge of God comes through Christ, the Man who was God – that Christ is standing beside him, helping him to pray, praying for him…The man is being caught up into the higher kinds of life – what I called Zoe or spiritual life: he is being pulled into God, by God, while still remaining himself.”

Second, God is very good at picking out the good parts from the ash heap of my prayers and making sense of my caliginous thoughts. It was tempting to imagine that if I did a better job with my prayer life – if I was a bit more holy – then surely my prayers would please God more. The Apostle James will have absolutely none of this. He reminds us, “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours…” (and he does not say this in a flattering way!). James continues, “…and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth.” (James 5:17) Do we think that God heard Elijah because he and his prayer life were faultless? A quick study of Elijah’s career as a prophet makes impressive reading, but it was certainly not without fault. Elijah’s prayer life, however, was not founded upon his own merits and accomplishments but upon the grace of God who promises us to this day, “…call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Psalm 50:15)

Finally, a seemingly insignificant spark always has the capacity to start a forest fire. A spark has the capacity to enlarge itself, and grow higher and higher. In John Bunyan’s classic Christian allegory, Pilgrim’s Progress, the hero sees water being poured onto a fire that is burning against a wall. He fears that the work of God’s grace is being extinguished by the devil. “But,” we are told, “his wonder grew when he saw how the flames burned higher and hotter. He was then shown the other side of the wall where he saw a man with a vessel of oil in his hand of which he did continually cast, but secretly into the fire. This, it was explained to him, is Jesus who continually with the oil of His grace maintains the work already begun in the heart.”

So, how do we pray? At the end of a smoke-damaged, gray prayer (however weak and ineffectual I thought it to be) I have always found myself, by the sheer grace of God, in a distinctly brighter place. God clearly has more patience with my smoky soul than I do. Writing in the early 1600s, theologian Richard Sibbes would concur. He concludes, from his own smoke-filled heart, “Pray as we are able, hear as we are able, according to the measure of grace received. God in Christ will cast a gracious eye upon that which is His own.”