Ryle is concerned with the spiritual state of the universal Church. That is plainly evident from this tract on prayer. And Ryle’s concern is primarily directed at a perceived (private) prayerlessness among most church members and Christians. Of course, private prayer is a hard thing to measure, but I think Ryle’s accurate rebuke is just as fitting today as it was a century ago.
Throughout this small tract’s pages, Ryle presses home one question: do you pray? And he is relentless in stressing the importance of prayer in the life of the believer. He also attests to the encouragement, ease, and benefits of prayer (as well as the dangers of neglect). The first half of the book stressed private prayer as the most reliable evidence of conversion. Over and over, Ryle stresses that a man may publicly attend services, lead his family in worship, and serve in ministry but still be a stranger to God. But Ryle notes, “a man seldom goes into his closet, and pours out his soul before God in secret, unless he is in earnest” (6). This is helpful not just in my own soul, but also in discerning the spiritual state of others. Early on Ryle contrasts these true private prayers with ‘false’ prayers of heartlessness. Especially with regards to family members and seeking to do evangelism, this is a really good category to think through.
The other particularly stinging and striking passage was Ryle’s comparison of those saints growing and those saints that are stagnant. Some Christians shine as bright lights and some only offer a faint glow. What could possible account for the difference between these Holy Spirit-indwelled believers? Ryle responds, “I believe the difference, in nineteen cases out of twenty, arises form different habits about private prayer” (14). He continues by stating that there is a correlation between prayerfulness and holiness. This is both convicting and encouraging. Convicting because I do desire to be holy, and yet find that I am often lacking in my prayers. But this is encouraging because here I am shown the way unto holiness (that “holiness without which no one will see the Lord” [Hebrews 12:14])! And the path is the road of prayer. Yet why is prayer so difficult for me?
Ryle answers with a sharp rebuke for people like me. He writes that “it is not fashionable to pray” and “To dress well, to go to theaters, to be thought clever and agreeable, all this is fashionable, but not to pray” (9). O Lord help me! It is fashionable to know theology, be able to analyze the culture, and be read up on all the recent literature on Second Temple Judaism. But to be devoted to prayer is to suffer the loss of the respect that these activities engender. This was a very helpful, convicting booklet. I heartily recommend it.