Prayer is like a barbed wire fence

Somewhere, I read about a barbed wire fence as a model of a good prayer life. The wooden fence posts represent regular public worship on Sundays. The wire between the posts represents two aspects of a Christian’s private prayer life. There is a stiff, heavy barbed wire at the top and bottom of the fence. It’s primary purpose is to discourage the cattle from leaning on it and breaking the fence. The top wire works on larger animals like cows and horses, and the bottom one on smaller animals like sheep and pigs. The same barbs that hurt the cattle if they lean against the fence also inflict pain on people, thus discouraging potential intruders.
These two wires represent the Christian’s personal quiet times in the morning and evening.

Of course, the fence posts and the two stiff wires aren’t enough to make a complete fence. There must be a mesh of softer wire to fill in the gap between top and bottom as well as between one post and the next. This kind of wire represents constant, unceasing prayer throughout the day. That kind of prayer can take many forms, but it always requires discipline.

Many books of prayers have been written over the centuries, including those that take part in formal liturgies of the mass and offices of the Roman church and their equivalent in other liturgical traditions. Written prayers can certainly form the basis of morning and evening quiet times. Actually, the earliest prayer book we have occupies the very center of our Bibles–the book of Psalms. Psalms play a conspicuous role in the fence post prayers and the upper and lower barbed wire prayers of the more liturgical churches, but what about the mesh prayers?

I can think of three different approaches. Pentacostals and Charismatics pray in tongues. The spirit prays while the mind is occupied with various tasks. The Orthodox churches have preserved the tradition of the “Jesus prayer” (Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me), repeated over and over all day, every day. The third, conversational prayer, is both easier and more difficult.

One book that greatly influenced my own approach to prayer is Malcolm Boyd’s Are you running with me, Jesus? In the preface, he wrote of a distraught man at a funeral who told him, “I don’t know the words to a single prayer.” Boyd suggested that giving words to his feelings was prayer. That’s great as far as it goes. Once we realize that taking our feelings to God is a form of prayer, it’s easy. Unfortunately, our feelings are not a firm foundation for anything. If we want a kind of prayer that will protect us like a fence, we have to know how to pray in the will of God. That, in turn, means becoming very familiar with Scripture and letting it mold how we pray.

There is a wonderful prayer in the book of Jonah that can show us a lot about effective conversational prayer–including, of course, the consequences of neglecting it. Jonah is an odd book. We don’t know from the introduction whether Jonah wrote it, or if it’s just the book about Jonah, but in any case, everyone and everything in it obey God except God’s prophet. After Jonah had given the sacrificially obedient fish indigestion for three days, he decided to pray.

The prayer as preserved in the book of Jonah is a very carefully constructed poem. Surely Jonah did not compose a piece of literature in order to pray, but everything in the poem either quotes or alludes to passages in the Psalms. What Jonah actually prayed must have been substantially the same, but in a more spontaneous, conversational form. Notice the following points:


  • Jonah had immersed himself in Scripture, and particular the Psalms, and God’s written word returned to him as he prayed Scripture. What we pray in the course of our daily activity must also reflect Scripture. God’s word will not return to him without accomplishing his purpose.
  • Praise does not come easily or spontaneously when we’re in a bad situation, but the prayer of faith must be grounded in praise, even if we have to quote through gritted teeth scriptures that our feelings vehemently claim are not true.
  • We don’t need to be in nice, comfortable surroundings to pray or to meditate on the scriptures we have taken to heart over the years. In fact, the more unpleasant the place, the more steadfastly we need to pray.
  • We can get into a big mess either through our sin, someone else’s sin, or some kind of natural disaster that comes from Adam’s sin. If we get into a pickle because we disobeyed God, the best way out of it is prayer. God judges and condemns our sin, but eagerly awaits our confession and repentance so that he can receive us back into his grace.

Jonah was out of fellowship with God when he decided to flee to Tarshish. If he had kept the discipline of the fence post prayers of weekly corporate worship with an open heart, and if he had maintained the discipline of the heavy barbed wire prayers of morning and evening personal devotion, perhaps he would have obeyed the first time God called. We would miss a great story, but he would have been better off. As it was, his prayer life was well enough grounded in these disciplines that, when he finally got around to a conversational prayer like the mesh, everything came together and saved him from the trouble he had gotten himself into. Anyone can learn to do the same.

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