Old Wisdom

What it is to pray with the Spirit (Part 2 of 4).

by John Bunyan, modernized with HCSB

SECOND. I will pray with the Spirit.

Now to pray with the Spirit—for that is the praying man, and none else, in order to be accepted of God—it is for a man, as we have said, sincerely and sensibly, with affection, to come to God through Christ, and so on.  That sincere, sensible, and affectionate coming must be by the working of God’s Spirit.

There is no man nor church in the world that can come to God in prayer, but by the assistance of the Holy Spirit. “For through Christ we both have access by one Spirit to the Father” (Eph 2:18).  Therefore, Paul also writes, “In the same way the Spirit also joins to help in our weakness, because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings. And He who searches the hearts knows the Spirit’s mind-set, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Rom 8:26-27). And because there is in this scripture so full a discovery of the spirit of prayer, and of man’s inability to pray without it; I shall in a few words comment upon it.

For we.” Consider first the person speaking—even Paul, and, in his person, all the apostles! We apostles, we extraordinary officers, the wise master-builders, that have some of us been caught up into paradise (Rom 15:16; I Cor 3:10; II Cor 12:4).  “We know not what we should pray for.” Surely every person must admit that Paul and his companions were as able to have done any work for God, as any pope or proud prelate in the church of Rome, and could as well have made a Common Prayer Book as those who at first composed the one in use—Paul and the Apostles being not a whit behind them either in grace or gifts.

For we know not what we should pray for.” We don’t know the matter of the things for which we should pray—neither object to whom we pray, nor the medium by or through whom we pray; we know none of these things except by the help and assistance of the Spirit. Should we pray for communion with God through Christ? Should we pray for faith, for justification by grace, and a truly sanctified heart? We don’t know! “For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the spirit of the man that is in him? In the same way, no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.” (I Cor 2:11). But here, alas! the apostles speak of inward and spiritual things, which the world knows not (Isa 29:11).

Again, as they don’t know the matter of prayer without the help of the Spirit; neither do they know the manner of prayer without the Spirit.  Therefore, Paul adds, “we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings.” Notice—they could not so well and so fully accomplish this duty, as these in our days think they can!  The apostles, when they were at the best, yes, when the Holy Ghost assisted them, yet then they were glad to pray with sighs and groans, falling short of expressing their mind, but with sighs and groans which cannot be uttered.

But now, the wise men of our days are so well skilled that they have both the manner and matter of their prayers at their fingertips, setting such a prayer for such a day, and that twenty years before it comes! One for Christmas, another for Easter, and six days after that. They have also determined how many syllables must be said in every one of them at their public exercises. For each saint’s day, also, they have them ready for the generations yet unborn to say. They can tell you, when you shall kneel, when you shall stand, when you should stay in your seats, when you should go up into the chancel, and what you should do when you come there. All which the apostles came short of, as not being able to compose so profound a manner; and that for this reason included in this scripture, because the fear of God tied them to pray as they ought.

For we know not what we should pray for as we ought.” Mark this, “as we ought.” For not considering this word, or at least not understanding it in the spirit and truth of it, has caused these men to devise, as Jeroboam did, another way of worship, both for matter and manner, than is revealed in the Word of God (I Kings 12:26-33). But, Paul says, we must pray as we ought; and this we cannot do by all the art, skill, and cunning device of men or angels.  “we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself” helps our weakness; not the Spirit plus man’s desires, what man of his own brain may imagine and devise—this is one thing, and what they are commanded and ought to do, is another thing. Many ask and have not, because they ask amiss; and so are never closer to enjoying those things they petition for (James 4:3). It is not to pray at random that will put off God, or cause him to answer. While prayer is making, God is searching the heart, to see from what root and spirit it arises (I John 5:14). “And he that searches the heart knows,” that is, approves only, the meaning “of the Spirit, because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” For in that which is according to his will only, he hears us, and in nothing else. And it is the Spirit only that can teach us so to ask; it only being able to search out all things, even the deep things of God. Without which Spirit, though we had a thousand Common Prayer Books, yet we know not what we should pray for as we ought, being accompanied with those infirmities that make us absolutely incapable of such a work. Which infirmities—although it is a hard thing to name them all—yet following are some of them:

Without the Spirit, we cannot think right of God.

First. Without the Spirit man is so weak that—by any means—he cannot think one right saving thought of God, of Christ, or of his blessed things.  Therefore He says of the wicked, “God is not in all his thoughts,” (Psa 10:4); unless they imagine him to be one such as themselves (Psa 50:21). For “every scheme his mind thought of was nothing but evil all the time,” and that “from his youth” (Gen 6:5; 8:21). If they couldn’t conceive properly of God to whom they pray, of Christ through whom they pray, nor of the things for which they pray, as we have showed—how then shall they be able to address themselves to God, and help this weakness without the Spirit? Maybe you will say, by the help of the Common Prayer Book, but that cannot do it, unless it can open the eyes, and reveal to the soul all these things before touched. And it is evident that it cannot, because that is the work of the Spirit only. The Spirit itself is the revealer of these things to poor souls, and that which enables us to understand them. Therefore Christ tells his disciples, when he promised to send the Spirit, the Comforter, “He shall take of mine and show unto you”; as if he had said, I know you are naturally dark and ignorant as to the understanding any of my things; though you try this course and that course, yet your ignorance will still remain; the veil is spread over your heart, and there is none can take it away, nor give you spiritual understanding—except the Spirit. The Common Prayer Book will not do it, neither can any man expect that it should be instrumental that way, because it is none of God’s ordinances; but was written after the Scriptures, patched together one piece at one time, and another at another; a mere human invention and institution, which God is so far from owning, that he expressly forbids it, with any other such invention, by manifold sayings in his most holy and blessed Word. (See Mark 7:7-8, and Col 2:16-23; Deut 12:30-32; Prov 30:6; Deut 4:2; Rev 22:18). For right prayer must, not only in the outward part of it, the outward expression, but also in the inward intention, it must come from what the soul understands in the light of the Spirit.  Otherwise, it is condemned as vain and an abomination, because the heart and tongue do not go along together; indeed they cannot, unless the Spirit help our infirmities (Mark 7; Prov 28:9; Isa 29:13). David knew this full well, which made him cry, “Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare Your praise.” (Psa 51:15). It is obvious that David could speak and express himself as well as others, indeed, as well as anyone in our generation, as we see clearly in his words and his works. Nevertheless, when this good man—this prophet!—comes into God’s worship, still the Lord must help, or he can do nothing. “Lord, open thou my lips, and” then “my mouth will declare Your praise.” He could not speak one right word, except the Spirit itself gave utterance! “because we do not know what to pray for as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with unspoken groanings.”

Without the Spirit, we are cold and inappropriate in our prayers.

Second. It must be a praying with the Spirit, that is, the effectual praying; because without that, as men are senseless, so hypocritical, cold, and inappropriate in their prayers; and so they, with their prayers, are both rendered abominable to God (Matt 23:14; Mark 12:40; Luke 18:11, 12; Isa 58:2, 3). It is not the excellency of the voice, nor the appearance of affection, and earnestness of the one who prays, that is at all regarded of God without the Spirit. For man, as man, is so full of all manner of wickedness, that as he cannot keep a word, or thought—much less a piece of prayer—clean and acceptable to God through Christ, and for this cause the Pharisees and their prayers were rejected. No question but they were excellently able to express themselves in words, and also for length of time, too, they were very notable; but they had not the Spirit of Jesus Christ to help them, and therefore they did what they did with their infirmities or weaknesses only, and so fell short of a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of their souls to God, through the strength of the Spirit. That is the prayer that goes to heaven, which is sent in the strength of the Spirit.

Without the Spirit, we cannot see our own misery and need of prayer.

Third. Nothing but the Spirit can show a man clearly his misery by nature, and so put a man into a posture of prayer. Talk is but talk, as we use to say, and so it is but mouth-worship, if there is not a sense of misery, an effective sense of it. Oh, the cursed hypocrisy that is in most hearts, and that accompanies many thousands of praying men that would be so seen in this day, all for want of a sense of their misery! But now the Spirit will sweetly show the soul its misery, where it is, and what is likely to become of it, and the intolerableness of that condition. For it is the Spirit that effectually convinces of the sin and misery that is without the Lord Jesus, and so puts the soul into a sweet, sensible, affectionate way of praying to God according to his word (John 16:7-9).

Without the Spirit, we would not pray.

Fourth. If men did see their sins, yet without the help of the Spirit they would not pray. For they would run away from God, with Cain and Judas, and utterly despair of mercy, were it not for the Spirit. When a man is indeed sensible of his sin, and God’s curse, then it is a hard thing to persuade him to pray; for his heart says, “There is no hope,” it is in vain to seek God (Jer 2:25; 18:12). I am so vile, so wretched, and so cursed a creature, that I shall never be heard! Now here comes the Spirit, and steadies the soul, helping it to hold up its face to God, by letting into the heart some small sense of mercy to encourage it to go to God, and therefore the Spirit is called “the Comforter” (John 14:26).

Without the Spirit, we wouldn’t know how to come to God.

Fifth. It must be in or with the Spirit; for without that no man can know how he should come to God the right way. Men may easily say they come to God in his Son: but it is the hardest thing of a thousand to come to God correctly and on his own, without the Spirit. It is “the Spirit” that “searches everything, even the depths of God” (I Cor 2:10). It is the Spirit that must show us the way of coming to God, and also what there is in God that makes him desirable: “I pray,” saith Moses, “please teach me Your ways, and I will know You and find favor in Your sight” (Exo 33:13). And, “He will take from what is Mine and declare it to you” (John 16:14).

Without the Spirit, we couldn’t claim God’s mercy.

Sixth. Because without the Spirit, though a man did see his misery, and also the way to come to God; yet he would never be able to claim a share in either God, Christ, or mercy, with God’s approval. How great a task is it, for a poor soul that becomes sensible of sin and the wrath of God, to say in faith, but this one word, “Father!” I tell you, no matter what hypocrites think, the Christian that is a Christian indeed finds all the difficulty in this very thing: it cannot say God is its Father. “Oh!” The Christian says, “I dare not call him Father,” and hence it is that the Spirit must be sent into the hearts of God’s people for this very thing, to cry Father!  It is too great a work for any man to do knowingly and believingly without the Spirit (Gal 4:6). When I say “knowingly,” I mean knowing what it is to be a child of God and to be born again. And when I say “believingly,” I mean for the soul to believe, from good experience, that the work of grace is worked in him. This is the right calling of God Father—not as many do, in a babbling way, say the so-called Lord’s prayer by heart, as it lies in the words of the book.

No, here is the life of prayer, when in or with the Spirit, a man is made sensible of sin, and of how to come to the Lord for mercy—he comes, I say, in the strength of the Spirit, and cries Father! That one word spoken in faith is better than a thousand “prayers,” as men call them, written and read in a formal, cold, lukewarm way. Oh, how far short are those people of being aware of this, who count it enough to teach themselves and children to say the Lord’s prayer, the creed, along with other sayings, when—as God knows—they are senseless of themselves, their misery, or what it is to be brought to God through Christ! Ah, poor soul! Study your misery, and cry to God to show you your confused blindness and ignorance, before you be so hasty in calling God your Father, or teaching your children to do the same! And know, that to say God is your Father, in a way of prayer or conference, without any experiment of the work of grace on your souls, it is to say you are Jews and are not—it is to lie. You say, “Our Father;” God says, “You blaspheme!” You say you are Jew, that is, true Christians; God says, you lie!

“Take note! I will make those from the synagogue of Satan, who claim to be Jews and are not, but are lying” (Rev 3:9). And “I know the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9). And the sin is so much greater by how much the more the sinner boasts it with a pretended sanctity, as the Jews did to Christ, in the 8th chapter of John, which made Christ—in in plain terms—to tell them their doom, despite all their hypocritical pretences (John 8:41-45).

And yet indeed, every pimp, thief, and drunk, every swearer, and perjured person; not only those who have been so previously but even those who are still: these, I say, by some must be counted the only honest men, merely because with their blasphemous throats and hypocritical hearts, they will come to church, and say, “Our Father!” Further, these men, though every time they say to God, “Our Father,” most abominably blaspheme, yet they must be compelled to do so! And because others that are of more sober principles doubt the truth of such vain traditions, they must be looked upon to be the only enemies of God and the nation: when as it is their own cursed superstition that sets the great God against them and causes him to count them as his enemies (Isa 53:10). And yet just like Edmund Bonner, that blood-red persecutor, they praise, these wretches, although so vile, if they conform with their traditions, to be good churchmen, the honest subjects—while God’s people are, as it has always been, looked at as a turbulent, seditious, and factious people (Ezra 4:12-16).

Therefore, give me leave a little space to reason with you, you poor, blind, ignorant sot.

Cautions of “the Lord’s Prayer”

(1.) It may be your great prayer is to say, “Our Father which art in heaven,” etc. Do you know the meaning of the very first words of this prayer? Can you truly, with the rest of the saints, cry, Our Father? Are you truly born again? Have you received the spirit of adoption? Do you see yourself in Christ, and can you come to God as a member of him? Or are you ignorant of these things—and yet you dare to say, Our Father? Isn’t the devil your father? (John 8:44). And don’t you do the deeds of the flesh? And yet you dare say to God, Our Father? No, aren’t you a desperate persecutor of the children of God? Haven’t you cursed them in your heart many times? And yet out of our blasphemous throat you allow these words to come, even our Father? He is their Father whom you hate and persecute. But as the devil presented himself among the sons of God, (Job 1), when they were to present themselves before the Father, even our Father, so is it now: because the saints were commanded to say, “Our Father,” therefore all the blind ignorant rabble in the world must also use the same words, “Our Father.”

(2.) And do you also say, “Hallowed be thy name” with your heart? Do you study, by every honest and lawful way, to advance the name, holiness, and majesty of God? Does your heart and conversation agree with this passage? Do you strive to imitate Christ in all the works of righteousness, which God commands of you, and prompts you to do? It is so, if you are one who can truly with God’s permission cry, “Our Father.” Or is it not even the smallest of your thoughts all the day? And do you not clearly make it seem like you are a cursed hypocrite, by condemning with your daily practice what you pretend in your praying with your dishonest tongue?

(3.) Would you really have the kingdom of God come in fact, and also have his will to be done in earth as it is in heaven? No, not only if you say it according to the form, “Thy kingdom come,” yet wouldn’t it make you panic to hear the trumpet sound, to see the dead arise, and yourself to go this moment and appear before God, to account for all the deeds you have done in your body? Isn’t the very thought of it entirely displeasing to you? And if God’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven—won’t it be your ruin? There is never permitted a rebel against God in heaven, and if he should act so on earth, won’t it whirl you down to hell?

And so with the rest of the petitions. Ah! How sadly would those men look, and with what terror would they walk up and down the world, if they realized the lying and blaspheming that came out of their mouths, even in their most pretended holiness? The Lord awaken you, and teach you, poor souls, in all humility, to be careful that you are not rash and unadvised with your heart, and much more with your mouth! When you appear before God, as the wise man says, “Do not be hasty to speak, and do not be impulsive to make a speech before God,” (Eccl 5:2); especially take care not to call God Father, without having the blessed experience of when you have come before God!

Without the Spirit, our hearts cannot pray.

Seventh. It must be a praying with the Spirit if it be accepted, because there is nothing but the Spirit that can lift up the soul or heart to God in prayer: “The reflections of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the Lord.” (Prov 16:1). That is, in every work for God, and especially in prayer, if the heart is to go along with the tongue, it must be prepared by the Spirit of God. The tongue is very apt, of itself, to run without either fear or wisdom: but when the tongue is the answer of the heart—such a heart as is prepared by the Spirit of God—then it speaks as God commands and desires.

They are mighty words of David where he says that he lifts his heart and his soul to God (Psa 25:1). It is a great work for any man, without the strength of the Spirit! I see that this is one of the great reasons why the Spirit of God is called a Spirit of supplications (Zech 12:10), because this Spirit is that which helps the heart when it supplicates indeed to do it; and therefore Paul writes, “pray at all times in the Spirit with every prayer and request” (Eph 6:18). And so in my text, “I will pray with the Spirit.” Prayer, without the heart in it, is like a sound without life; and a heart, unless it is lifted up of the Spirit, will never pray to God.

Without the Spirit, our hearts could not continue to pray.

Eighth. As the heart must be lifted up by the Spirit, if it would pray, so also it must be held up by the Spirit when it is up, if in order to continue to pray. I do not know what, or how it is with others’ hearts, whether they be lifted up by the Spirit of God, and so continued, or not: but this I am sure of: first, it is impossible that all the prayer-books that men have made in the world can lift up, or even prepare the heart—that is the work of the great God himself. And, in the second place, I am sure that they are as far from keeping it up, when it is up. Here is the life of prayer: to have the heart kept with God in the duty. It was a great matter for Moses to keep his hands lifted up to God in prayer; but how much more then to keep his heart in it! (Exo 17:12).
The lack of this is what God complains about; that they draw near to him with their mouth, and honour him with their lips, but their hearts were far from him (Isa 29:13; Eze 33)—chiefly, that they walk after the commandments and traditions of men, as the scope of Matthew 15:8-9 testifies.

And very truly, I may speak my own experience, and tell you the difficulty of praying to God as I should—it is enough to make your poor, blind, carnal men to think strange things about me!  For, as for my heart, when I go to pray, I find it so reluctant to go to God, and when it is with him, so reluctant to stay with him, that many times I am forced in my prayers, to first to beg of God that he would take my heart and set it on himself in Christ, and, when it is there, that he would keep it there. No, many times I don’t even know what pray for, I am so blind—nor how to pray, I am so ignorant; only: blessed be grace, the Spirit helps our infirmities (Psa 86:11)!

Oh! the starting-holes that the heart has in the time of prayer! No one knows how many roads the heart has, and how many back alleys, to slip away from the presence of God! How much pride also, if it is enabled with expressions. How much hypocrisy, if we are before others. And how little conscience is there made of prayer between God and the soul in secret, unless the Spirit of supplication be there to help? When the Spirit gets into the heart, then there is prayer indeed, and not till then.

Without the Spirit, we could not pour out ourselves before God sincerely.

Ninth. The soul that rightly prays must be in and with the help and strength of the Spirit; because it is impossible that a man should express himself in prayer without it. When I say it is impossible for a man to express himself in prayer without it, I mean that it is impossible that the heart, in a sincere and sensible affectionate way, should pour out itself before God with those groans and sighs that come from a truly praying heart without the assistance of the Spirit. It is not the mouth that is the main thing to be looked at in prayer, but whether the heart is so full of affection and earnestness in prayer with God, so much that it is impossible to express their sense and desire—for then a man desires indeed, when his desires are so strong, many, and mighty, that all the words, tears, and groans that can come from the heart cannot utter them! “The Spirit — helps our infirmities, and makes intercession for us with [sighs and] groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom 8:26)!

That is but poor prayer which is only discovered in so many words. A man that truly prays one prayer, shall after that never be able to express with his mouth or pen the unutterable desires, sense, affection, and longing that went to God in that prayer.

The best prayers have often more groans than words: and those words that it has are but a lean and shallow representation of the heart, life, and spirit of that prayer. You do not find any words of prayer, that we read of, come out of the mouth of Moses, when he was going out of Egypt, and was followed by Pharaoh, and yet he made heaven ring again with his cry (Exo 14:15). But it was inexpressible and unsearchable groans and cryings of his soul in and with the Spirit. God is the God of spirits, and his eyes look further than merely at the outside of any duty whatsoever (Num 16:22). I doubt this is more than slightly thought on by the majority of those who would be viewed as a praying people (I Sam 16:7).

The closer a man comes in any work that God commands him to do according to his will, the harder and more difficult it becomes; and the reason is because man, as man, is not able to do it. But prayer, as we have said, is not only a duty, but one of the most eminent duties, and therefore so much the more difficult: therefore Paul knew what he said when he said, “I will pray with the Spirit.” He knew deeply it was not what others wrote or said that could make him a praying person; nothing less than the Spirit could do it.

Without the Spirit, we would fail to pray.

Tenth. It must be with the Spirit, or else as there will be a failing in the act itself, so there will be a failing, yes, a fainting, in the completion of the work. Prayer is an ordinance of God that must continue with a soul as long as it is on this side of glory. But, as I said before, it is not possible for a man to get up his heart to God in prayer; so it is as difficult to keep it there, without the assistance of the Spirit. And so, for a man to continue from time to time in prayer with God, it must of necessity be with the Spirit.

Christ tells us that men ought always to pray, and not to faint (Luke 18:1). And again tells us, that this is one definition of a hypocrite, that either he will not continue in prayer, or that if he will pray, it will not be in the power, that is, in the spirit of prayer, but in the form, for a pretence only (Job 27:10; Matt 23:14). It is the easiest thing of a hundred to fall from the power to the form, but it is the hardest thing of many to keep in the life, spirit, and power of any one duty, especially prayer; that is such a work that a man without the help of the Spirit cannot so much as pray once, much less continue, without it, in a sweet praying disposition, and in praying,  so to pray as to have his prayers ascend into the ears of the Lord God of Sabaoth.

Jacob did not only begin, but held it: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen 32). So did the rest of the godly (Hosea 12:4). But this could not be without the Spirit of prayer. It is through the Spirit that we have access to the Father (Eph 2:18).

The same is a remarkable place in Jude, when he exhorts the saints by the judgment of God upon the wicked to stand fast, and continue to hold out in the faith of the gospel, as one excellent means to do so, and without which he knew they could never stand. He says, “build yourselves up in your most holy faith and pray in the Holy Spirit,” (Jude 20). As if he had said, brothers, as eternal life is laid up for only the persons who hold out, so you cannot hold out unless you continue praying in the Spirit.

The great cheat that the devil and antichrist use to delude the world it is to make them continue in the form of any duty, the form of preaching, of hearing, or praying, and so on.

These are they that have “the form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid these people!” (II Tim 3:5).

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