Devoted to Prayer: Lessons from Andrew Bonar

I have recently been reading through the life and diary of Andrew Bonar. Bonar was one of the great nineteenth-century Scottish Evangelicals. He is probably most known for his biography of Robert Murray M'Cheyne, with whom he was close friends. Perhaps what has struck me most in reading Bonar's life and diary are his struggles with and persistence in prayer. He is remarkably honest about his failures in prayer; he is remarkably resolute in his persistence to grow in prayer; and he is remarkably wise in developing strategies for prayer.

Regarding his failures, on July 22, 1838, Bonar wrote: "In the morning was specially impressed with the awful fact that by losing one hour of prayer every day by not rising early, I lost twenty days of prayer in the course of a year." On January 3, 1842, he was still lamenting his failures in prayer: "On looking back I am grieved and vexed, most of all at my few hours of real prayer all this year. How little have I done for God in the Spirit." Even fifteen years later, the struggles continued. April 4, 1857: "For nearly ten days past have been much hindered in prayer, and feel my strength weakened thereby."

One gets a flavor of his resolution to grow in prayer, even in the face of his weakness and failure, in the following entry from September 26th of that same year: "I purpose (and yet I cannot effect even this unless I get help from the Lord) to go earlier to bed and rise at six; and spend from six to eight in prayer for myself, my parish, and the cause of God through the world. Oh, if I could do this all the days of my life while I have health, for I have never yet succeeded in such resolutions, and never yet have I given much time to prayer daily."

These kinds of confessions are both encouraging and challenging. They are encouraging because I also struggle to keep my resolutions in prayer, and I am heartened that one of these great saints from the past also struggled. It makes me feel that I am not alone. And it gives me hope that I may yet develop a deep and consistent prayer life.

But I am also challenged because Bonar never gave up in his fresh resolutions for prayer. Statements like those above occur again and again, decade after decade, often with reports of significant times spent in prayer. For example, on April 25, 1840, he wrote, "Felt a heart to pray much and earnestly; have felt it easy to pray all day." On August 4, 1842: "Passed six hours today in the church in prayer and Scripture reading, confessing sin, and seeking blessing for myself and the parish." And on September 16, 1851: "In prayer in the woods for some time, having set apart three hours for devotion; felt drawn out much to pray for that peculiar fragrance which believers have about them, who are very much in fellowship with God."

Perhaps most helpful are the strategies that Bonar developed to strengthen his prayer life. For example, he learned:

  • To pray while traveling: September 19, 1840: "God has this week been impressing much upon me the way of redeeming time for prayer by learning to pray while walking or going from place to place."
  • To give prayer first place every day: September 29, 1848: "By the grace of God and the strength of His Holy Spirit I desire to lay down the rule not to speak to man until I have spoken with God; not to do anything with my hand till I have been upon my knees; not to read letters or papers until I have read something of the Holy Scriptures."
  • To take advantage of short but frequent praying: August 25, 1849: "Led to think today that my way of praying is chiefly to be by bolts upward, not by very long prayers at one time."
  • To pray every hour of the day: January 3, 1856: "I have been endeavoring to keep up prayer at this season every hour of the day, stopping my occupation, whatever it is, to pray a little, seeking thus to keep my soul within the shadow of the throne of grace and Him that sits thereon."

Are you failing in prayer? Take heart from this great man of God. Resolve afresh to devote yourself to prayer and develop strategies to help you. And remember that learning to pray will be a lifelong journey, just as it was for Andrew Bonar.

Making It Personal

  • Can I honestly say that I am devoted to prayer?
  • Despite my failures in prayer, is my life marked by consistent desire and renewed resolutions to grow in prayer?
  • Have I grown in prayer in the past five years?
  • Which of Andrew Bonar's strategies for prayer might be helpful in my prayer life?
All quotations taken from Diary and Life by Andrew A. Bonar (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1984 reprint, 1893 original).

NOTE: This article was originally written for Pastor Connect in September 2006.

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