S. S. Lappin served as editor of Christian Standard from 1909 to 1917, and he then wrote hundreds of articles for the magazine until his death in 1960. Here are excerpts from an essay he wrote about prayer.
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Praying and Saying Prayers
Bible prayers are brief but they are genuine and fervent. Ours are too long and we “say” them
By S. S. Lappin
March 2, 1940; p. 7
. . . When prayer becomes self-conscious it ceases to be a prayer; it is merely saying a prayer. A certain Pharisee could not make the grade with his formal, studied, well-wrought-out petition, but a publican standing near crashed the mercy gates with eight impassioned words from his penitent heart.
The close friends of Jesus must have been praying men, much as we are today; but something in His intimate appeals to God caused them to preserve His prayers and to ask that He teach them to pray. . . .
THERE is but one long prayer in the Old Testament, and the king who made it backslid in his later years. That of the upper room is the longest in the New Testament, and it can be read in less than three minutes. Besides these there are certain extended prayers of thanksgiving and adoration, as those of Hannah, Jonah, Mary and Zacharias.
The prayer of Abram for the righteous in Sodom, though it took the form of an argumentative appeal, used but 154 words. Lot, after his flight into nowhere, made out his pathetic status in a friendless world with seventy-six words. Elijah put the prophets of Baal out of action with sixty-five words. Jacob, wrestling with a divine presence during the long hours of a dark night, spoke, when at last he did speak, but twenty-five words. Moses prayed once with fourteen words, Samson with twenty-seven, Hannah with fifty-four, while the prayer Jesus taught His disciples was but sixty-five, including a gloss and an added amen. Perhaps the briefest and best of all Biblical petitions is that of Simon Peter when about to sink. His “Lord, save me” got instant answer. Had he taken the time for a formal petition, such as we have come to believe necessary, he would indeed have “sunk.”
I AM convinced there should be fewer and briefer public prayers. Nobody should ever “say a prayer” in public—or anywhere else, for that matter. And, if this is to be, few will pray in public; and those who do will make careful preparation of heart and mind in the light of the day and its needs.
If only those who actually do pray—can pray—were asked to lead public prayer much valuable time would be saved; but the prayer period would become the fervent, ruddy, life-giving center of the worship. Everyone would listen. Every one would join in confession of sin, pleading for forgiveness, praise to God and petition for life’s vital needs. As it is, even the communion service is often made to drag drearily along because the elders ministering at the table say prayers instead of offering thanks. . . .
Public prayer is grievously abused when prayers are merely said. It is an abuse of public prayer to be formal or grandiloquent; to pray long; to be bound by customary phrasing such as has been in use by moldy saints for generations past; to attempt the sensational or spectacular to catch the ears of hearers; to unwittingly think only of those present, while forgetting God. . . .
A hymn we once used declares that, “There is always a blessing, a blessing in prayer.” But there is no blessing in merely saying prayers. Saying prayers is not praying. When Eli watched Hannah, her face tense with depth of emotion, he thought she was drunk; little did he know about prayer. The account says “She spake in her heart; only her lips moved: but her voice was not heard.” She was praying. That was a new thing to the priest, as it would be to many priests in our day, and as well to many of us who count ourselves “kings and priests” before God. . . .
THE BRIEFEST and most effectual prayer I have ever heard was from the lips of my mother. It was phrased with five impassioned words. We were living in a small log house in the woods that used to be in southern Illinois, my mother and her orphaned brood, the eldest but sixteen years old. A terrible summer storm swept the forest. Trees were falling all about us. Lightning was constant and peal after sharp peal of thunder followed in quick succession. A wind of hurricane dimensions swept the forest. In the midst of it our west door was blown from its fastenings. It seemed that all the terrors of earth were let loose. We took refuge under the two beds. In one brief silence I heard my mother pray. She moaned trembling and trustingly, “O God, save us all.” And God did. Sixty years have passed and her five are still alive and well; only she is gone. And before she laid down her worn body I said to her once, “I don’t yet see how you got us through.” And she answered simply, “I did it by prayer.” And yet, save that once, I never heard her pray.
Is there not here a resource of power and guidance that we Christians are failing to utilize? We inject our vain worries into these various problems of ours and get nervous prostration as a result; what we need to do is to pray and trust God. We argue over our differences and they grow larger all the time; if we prayed together they would melt away. We lament the decline in evangelism, but do not “pray the Lord of the harvest to send forth laborers to his harvest.” We deplore it that prayer is so nearly a lost art; we study about it, preach about it and write articles about it, when WHAT WE NEED IS TO PRAY.”
Let us pray! “Lord, teach us to pray.”
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This essay does not delve much into private prayer, except to say, “One can not be long contented to ‘say prayers’ in private; he will become tired or ashamed to take time for such silliness. He will either learn to pray or give up the counterfeit stunt.”
—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard
(Image: The author calls Simon Peter’s “Lord, save me” as “perhaps the briefest and best of all Biblical petitions.” This image is from a plate engraved for the Macklin Bible after a specially commissioned painting by Philippe Jacques De Loutherbourg (1795). Coutesy of Wikimedia Commons.)