The Meaning of Prayer by Ole Hallesby

OLE HALLESBY (1879-1961) was one of Norway’s leading Christian teachers and devotional writers. During World War II, he was imprisoned for his resistance to the Nazi regime. He worked as a seminary professor in Oslo until his death. While having a background in liberal theology, he experienced a radical conversion, which also made him a determined enemy of the liberal phalanx. He was fearless and outspoken and led an intelligent campaign against the liberals, which won him the confidence of conservative ministers and lay organizations. The following excerpt is taken from Prayer by O. Hallesby, trans. by Clarence J. Carlsen (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1959), 125-127. The chapter from which this excerpt was taken was reprinted with permission in The Christian’s Vital Breath: An Anthology on Prayer by Ralph I. Tilley (Sellersburg, IN: 2014), 17-19.

ABOUT TWENTY YEARS AGO I made a fairly extended trip to Germany for the purpose of studying there. After having worked hard for some time, I had decided to take a little vacation. Accordingly, I planned a trip to Switzerland to pay a visit to the old patriarch, Samuel Zeller (1834-1912), in Mannedorf. He conducted a “spiritual sanatorium” on the shores of Lake Zürich for people who desired rest, not only for their bodies but also for their souls.
          Zeller was an unusually gifted man, both by nature as well as by spiritual endowment. He was an excellent organizer and had succeeded in gradually building up a large institute for the care of people who were mentally or physically ill, tired, or worn out nervously.
          He was an outstanding speaker. I have heard men with greater natural ability as speakers, but I have never heard anyone who has surpassed Zeller as a preacher. He succeeded in accomplishing what should be the real objective in all preaching: to bring the listeners into the presence of God by means of the Word. It was as though all else faded away and we stood in the presence of God alone when Zeller spoke.
          He was exceptional also as a pastor. I, at least, have never met anyone in whom such a profound knowledge of human nature was coupled with such tender, sympathetic love.
          Lastly, he had received the extraordinary gift of grace of healing by prayer. By the prayer of faith, he was able to help a large number of people and set them free from many a physical and spiritual infirmity.
          And yet none of these things made the deepest impression upon me. My strongest impression was that of Zeller in prayer.
          I do not think that I exaggerate when I say that I have never heard anyone pray as he did, although I have heard many who were more emotional and more fervent when they prayed. Zeller, on the contrary, was quiet and confident while he prayed. He knew God well, and for that reason he was confident.
          I do not believe that I have ever heard anyone expect so much of God and so little of his own prayers as he did. He merely told God what was needed. He knew that God would take care of the rest. His prayers were reverent, but natural, conversations with God, as though God were sitting in the first pew and Zeller were standing before Him.
          Zeller had much to pray for when we assembled for morning devotionals. First, he prayed for our fellowship, then for the whole institution with all its aged and infirm patients, and finally for all the sick and unfortunate everywhere who had sent him letters asking for intercession. During the short time that I was there, letters came to him from every country in Europe, with the exception of Norway and Sweden.
           Thus he prayed every day for many people and for many things. But as I listened to these prayers of his I had to say to myself, “After all, he prays only one prayer, namely, that the name of God might be glorified.”
          Oftentimes he prayed for miracles. But never without adding, “If it will glorify Thy name.” Nor was he afraid to pray for instantaneous healing, but always with the provision mentioned above.
          He made no attempt to dictate to God or to force Him by His own promises. Miracle-working prayer was not to Zeller a means of escaping tribulation; it was only a means of glorifying the name of God.
          For that reason he would often say, “If it will glorify Thy name more, then let them remain sick; but, if that be Thy will, give them power to glorify Thy name through their illness.”
          And he did not only pray that way for others. He who had been instrumental in healing others was himself afflicted with a dangerous internal ailment, which might at any time cause his own painful death. He knew that he was called to glorify God through his ailment.
          Here the purpose and meaning of prayer dawned upon me for the first time. Here I was privileged to see more clearly than ever before the purpose of prayer: to glorify the name of God.
          The scales fell from my eyes. I saw in a new light the misuse of prayer and the difficulties connected with prayer as well as the place of our own efforts in prayer.