by John Bunyan, modernized; scripture quotations from HCSB
1. What it is to pray.
2. What it is to pray with the Spirit.
3. What it is to pray with the Spirit and with the understanding.
4. Use and application
Now, with a word or two of application, we will conclude with, first, a word of information; second, a word of encouragement; and third, a word of rebuke.
A word of information.
For the first to inform you; as prayer is the duty of every one of the children of God, and carried on by the Spirit of Christ in the soul; so every one who offers to take up the task of praying to the Lord must be very wary, and go about that work especially with the dread of God, as well as with hopes of the mercy of God through Jesus Christ.
Prayer is an ordinance of God, in which a man draws very near to God, and therefore it calls for so much more of the assistance of the grace of God to help a soul to pray as is needed for one that is in the presence of him. It is a shame for a man to behave himself irreverently before a king, but a sin to do so before God. And as a king, if wise, is not pleased with an oration made up with unseemly words and gestures, so God takes no pleasure in the sacrifice of fools (Eccl 5:1, 4). It is not long discourses, nor eloquent tongues which are the things that are pleasing in the ears of the Lord—but a humble, broken, and contrite heart is that which is sweet in the nostrils of the heavenly Majesty (Psa 51:17; Isa 57:15).
Therefore, for information, know that there are these five things that are obstructions to prayer, and even make void the requests of the creature:
1. When men regard sin in their hearts, at the time of their prayers before God. “If I had been aware of malice in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Psa 66:18). When there is a secret love for a sin, though your misleading lips pray for strength against it, your heart may be tempted even in prayer. For this is the wickedness of man’s heart, that it will even love, and hold fast, that which with the mouth it prays against—these are they that honour God with their mouth, but their heart is far from him (Isa 29:13; Eze 33:31). Oh, how ugly would it be in our eyes to see a beggar ask for money so that he could throw it to dogs! Or that he should say with one breath, “give me this!” and with the next, “Please, don’t give it to me!” Yet this is how it is with these kind of people; with their mouth they say, “Your will be done,” and with their hearts no thought is further. With their mouth they say, “Holy be your name!” and with their hearts and lives they love to dishonor God all day long. These are the prayers that become sin (Psa 109:7), and though they may be prayed often, the Lord will never answer them (II Sam 22:42).
2. When men pray for a show to be heard, to be thought to be somebody in religion, and the like; these prayers also fall far short of God’s approval, and are never likely to be answered, with regard to eternal life. There are two sorts of men that pray to this end:
(1.) Your greedy clergymen, who thrust themselves into wealthy families, pretending the worship of God, when in truth the great business is their own bellies; great examples of which were Ahab’s prophets, and also Nebuchadnezzar’s wise men, who, though they pretended great devotion, yet their lusts and their bellies were the great things aimed at by them in all their pieces of devotion.
(2.) Them also that seek fame and applause for their eloquent terms, and seek more to tickle the ears and heads of their hearers than anything else. These are those who pray to be heard of men, and have all their reward already (Matt 6:5). They may be discovered by these things: (a.) They only take care to the sound of their expressions. (b.) They look for praise when they are finished. (c.) Their hearts either rise or fall according to their praise or promotion. (d.) The length of their prayer pleases them; and they repeat things over and over so that it will be long (Matt 6:7). They study for advancements, but don’t look at the heart from which they come; they look for returns, but all they have is the windy applause of men. And so, they do not love to be in private, but prefer to be among others: and if at any time conscience thrusts them into private, yet hypocrisy will cause them to be heard in the streets; and when their mouths have finished moving, their prayers are ended; for they wait not to listen what the Lord will say (Psa 85:8).
3. A third sort of prayer that will not be accepted of God, it is, when either they pray for wrong things, or if for right things, so that they may be spent upon their desires, and given for wrong purposes. Some have not, because they ask not, says James, and others ask and have not, because they ask amiss, that they may spend it on their passions (James 4: 2-4). Ends contrary to God’s will is a great argument with God to frustrate the requests presented before him. This is why so many people pray for this and that, and yet don’t receive it. God answers them only with silence; they have their words for their labor; and that is all. You may object that God does hear some persons, although their hearts are not right with him, as he did Israel, in giving quails, though they spent them upon their desires (Psa 106:14). Yet, even if God does, it is given in judgment, not in mercy. He indeed gave them their desire, it would have been better if they had been without it, for he “sent leanness into their soul” (Psa 106:15). Woe be to that man that God answers this way!
4. Another sort of prayers there are that are not answered; and those are such as are made by men who are not in the Lord Jesus, but who present to God in their own persons only. For though God has given prayer, and promised to hear the prayer of the creature, yet he has not promised to hear the prayer of any creature that approaches not in Christ. “If you shall ask anything in my name.” And whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Col 3:17). “If you ask anything in my name,” etc., (John 14:13, 14). Even if you are never so devout, zealous, earnest and constant in prayer, it is still in Christ only that you must be heard and accepted. But, alas! The majority of people don’t know what it is to come to him in the name of the Lord Jesus—which is the reason they either live wicked, pray wicked, and also die wicked. Or else, that they reach nothing else but what a mere natural man may attain, to be exact in word and deed among men, and to appear before God with still only the righteousness of man.
5. The last thing that hinders prayer is, the form of it without the power. It is an easy thing for men to be very eager for such things as forms of prayer, as they are written in a book; but yet they are altogether forgetful to inquire with themselves, whether they have the spirit and power of prayer. These men are like a painted man, and their prayers like a false voice. They in person appear as hypocrites, and their prayers are an abomination (Prov 28:9). When they say they have been pouring out their souls to God, He says they have been howling like dogs (Hosea 7:14).
When, therefore, you wish, or have a mind to pray to the Lord of heaven and earth, consider these following particulars: Consider seriously what you want. Do not, as many who in their words only beat the air, and ask for such things as they don’t actually desire, or even see that they need. Second, when you see what you want, keep to that, and be careful to pray sensibly.
Objection: But I have an awareness of nothing, so, by your argument, I must not pray at all.
Answer. 1. If you find yourself unaware in some sad measure, yet you cannot complain of that lack of awareness, but by being aware there is a lack. According to what awareness you have, then, that you have the need of anything, pray for that; (Luke 8:9)—so if you are aware of your lack of awareness, pray that the Lord would make you aware of whatever your heart is unaware of. This was the usual practice of the holy men of God. “Lord, reveal to me the end of my life,” said David (Psa 39:4). “What does this parable mean,” said the disciples (Luke 8:9). And to this is given the promise, “Call to Me and I will answer you and tell you great and incomprehensible things you do not know,” that you are not aware of (Jer 33:3).
But, also—be careful that your heart goes to God as well as your mouth.
Don’t allow your mouth to go further than your heart will be drawn along with it. David would lift his heart and soul to the Lord; and good reason; for so far as a man’s mouth goes along without his heart, it is but lip-service only; and though God calls for, and accepts, the calves of the lips, yet the lips without the heart argues, not only for unawareness, but for our being without a sense of our lack of awareness, and therefore if you have a mind to grow in prayer before God, see that you pray with your heart!
Lastly, be careful of emotional, highfalutin expressions, which please yourself with the use of them, lest you forget the life of prayer.
I shall conclude this section with a caution or two. First, be careful that you don’t throw off prayer, through sudden convictions that you don’t have the Spirit, nor pray by the Spirit. It is the great work of the Devil to do his best—or rather, worst—against the best prayers. He will flatter your false pretentious hypocrites, and feed them with a thousand fancies of doing well, though even their duties of prayer, and everything else, stink in the nostrils of God. But when he stands at a poor Joshua’s hand to resist him—that is, to persuade him!—that neither his person nor his actions are accepted of God (Isa 65:5; Zech 3:1). Be careful, then, of such false conclusions and groundless discouragements; and though such persuasions encroach upon your spirit, react by being so far from discouraged by them, that you instead use them to turn you to further sincerity and restlessness of spirit, as you approach God.
The second caution is this: as such sudden temptations should not stop you from prayer, and from pouring out your soul to God, neither should your own heart’s corruptions hinder you. (Let not your failures stop your prayers). It may be you will find in yourself all those things before mentioned, and that they will be attempting to bring themselves forth in your prayers to God. Your business is to judge them, to pray against them, and to lay yourself so much more at the foot of God, in a sense of your own vileness, and instead, make an argument from your vileness and corruption of heart, that you may plead with God for justifying and sanctifying grace, than that you will pray to God of discouragement and despair. David went this way. “Because of Your name, Yahweh,” he said, “forgive my sin, for it is great” (Psa 25:11).
A word of encouragement.
And therefore, secondly, to speak a word by way of encouragement, to the poor, tempted, and cast down soul, to pray to God through Christ. Though all prayer that is accepted of God in reference to eternal life must be in the Spirit–for that only makes intercession for us according to the will of God, (Rom 8:27)–yet because many poor souls may have the Holy Spirit working on them, and stirring of them to groan unto the Lord for mercy, although through unbelief they do not, indeed, cannot believe that they are the people of God, in whom He delights; yet forasmuch as the truth of grace may be in them, I have some more particulars to say, for their encouragement.
persistence is effective.
That scripture in Luke 11:8 is very encouraging to any poor soul that hungers after Christ Jesus. In verses 5-7, he tells a parable of a man that went to his friend to borrow three loaves, who, because he was in bed, denied him; yet when the man was persistent, the friend did arise and give him, clearly signifying that although poor souls, through the weakness of their faith, cannot see that they are the friends of God, yet they should never leave asking, seeking, and knocking at God’s door for mercy. Mark, says Christ, “I tell you, even though he won’t get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his friend’s persistence, he will get up and give him as much as he needs.” Poor heart! You cry out that God won’t regard you, you aren’t a friend to him, but rather an enemy in your heart by wicked works (Col 1:21). It is as if you heard the Lord saying to you, “Don’t trouble me, I can’t give you anything,” as the man in the parable—yet, I say, continue knocking, crying, moaning, and wailing! I tell you, “though he won’t get up and give you anything because you are his friend, yet because of your persistence, he will get up and give you as much as you need!” The same thing occurs in Luke 18, in the parable of the unjust judge and the poor widow; her persistence prevailed with him. Indeed, my own experience tells me, that there is nothing more effective with God than persistence. Isn’t this what happens when beggars come to your door? Though you have no heart to give them anything at first, yet if they follow you, bemoaning themselves, and refuse to take no for an answer, you will give them what they ask; for their continual begging overcomes you. Are there depths in you that are wicked, and will they be worked upon by a persistent beggar? Go and do likewise. It is an effective motive, and proven by good experience, that he will arise and give you as much as you need (Luke 11:8).
God sits on a mercy-seat.
Another encouragement for a poor trembling convinced soul is to consider the place, throne, or seat, on which the great God has placed himself to hear the petitions and prayers of poor creatures; and that is a “throne of grace” (Heb 4:16). “The mercy-seat” (Exo 25:22). Which is a sign that in the days of the gospel God has taken up his seat, his abiding-place, in mercy and forgiveness; and from there he does intend to hear the sinner, and to commune with him, as he says (Exo 25:22),–speaking before of the mercy-seat–”I will meet with you there,” mark, it is upon the mercy-seat: “There I will speak with you, and” there “I will meet with you, from above the mercy-seat.” Poor souls! They are very apt to entertain strange thoughts of God, and his attitude towards them: and suddenly to conclude that God will have no regard for them, when yet he is upon the mercy-seat, and has taken up his place on purpose there, to the end he may hear and regard the prayers of poor creatures. If he had said, I will speak with you from my throne of judgment, then indeed you might have trembled and fled from the face of the great and glorious Majesty. But when he says he will hear and speak with souls upon the throne of grace, or from the mercy-seat, this should encourage you, and cause you to hope, no, to “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us at the proper time.” (Heb 4:16).
Beside the mercy seat is Christ.
There is yet another encouragement to continue in prayer with God: and that is this: as there is a mercy-seat, from which God is willing to speak with poor sinners; so there is also by his mercy-seat, Jesus Christ, who continually sprinkles it with his blood. Thus it is called “the blood of sprinkling” (Heb 12:24). When the high-priest under the law was to go into the holy of holies, where the mercy-seat was, he might not go in “without blood” (Heb 9:7).
Why so? Because, although God was upon the mercy-seat, yet he was perfectly just as well as merciful. Now the blood was to stop justice from running out upon the persons involved in the intercession of the high-priest, as in Leviticus 16:13-17, to signify that all your unworthiness that you fear should not hinder you from coming to God in Christ for mercy. You cry out that you are vile, and therefore God will not regard your prayers; it is true, if you delight in your vileness, and come to God out of a mere pretence. But if from a sense of your vileness you do pour out your heart to God, desiring to be saved from the guilt, and cleansed from the filth, with all your heart; don’t worry, your vilness will not cause the Lord to stop his ear from hearing you! The value of the blood of Christ which is sprinkled upon the mercy-seat stops the course of justice, and opens a floodgate for the mercy of the Lord to be extended unto you. You have, therefore, as we have said, “boldness to enter the sanctuary through the blood of Jesus,” which has made “a new and living way” for you, you shall not die (Heb 10:19, 20).
Besides, Jesus is there, not only to sprinkle the mercy-seat with his blood, but he speaks, and his blood speaks; he has God’s ear, and his blood has God’s ear; insomuch that God says, when he merely sees the blood, he “will pass over you. No plague will be among you to destroy you,” (Exo 12:13).
I shall not detain you any longer. Be sober and humble; go to the Father in the name of the Son, and tell him your case, in the assistance of the Spirit, and you will then feel the benefit of praying with the Spirit and with the understanding also.
A word of reproof.
1. To those who never pray.
This speaks sadly to you who never pray at all. “I will pray,” says the apostle, and so says the heart of those who are Christians. Then you are not a Christian who are not a praying person. The promise is that every one who is righteous will pray (Psa 32:6). You, then, are a a wicked wretch that prays not. Jacob got the name of Israel by wrestling with God (Gen 32). And all his children bore that name with him (Gal 6:16). But the people that forget prayer, that do not call on the name of the Lord, they have prayers made for them, but it is prayers like this, “Pour out Your wrath on the nations,” O Lord, “and on the families that don’t call on Your name,” (Jer 10:25). How do you like this, oh you that are so far off from pouring out your heart before God, that you go to bed like a dog, and rise like a hog, or a sot, and forget to call upon God? What will you do when you are damned in hell, because you could not find in your heart to ask for heaven? Who will grieve for your sorrow, that did not count mercy worth asking for? I tell you, the ravens, the dogs, and all, shall rise up in judgment against you, for they will, according to their kind, make signs, and a noise for something to refresh them when they want it; but you have not the heart to ask for heaven, though you must eternally perish in hell, if you don’t have it!
2. To those who blaspheme the Spirit.
This rebukes you that make it your business to slight, mock at, and undervalue the Spirit, and praying in that way. What will you do, when God shall come to account for these things? You consider it high treason to speak but a single word against the king—no, you tremble at the thought of it—and yet, in the meantime, you will blaspheme the Spirit of the Lord! Is God indeed to be dallied with, and will the end be pleasant for you? Did God send his Holy Spirit into the hearts of his people, to that end that you should taunt it? Is this to serve God? And does this demonstrate the reformation of your church? No, it is the mark of implacable reprobates. Oh fearful! Can you not be content to be damned for your sins against the law, but you must sin also against the Holy Spirit?
Must the holy, harmless, and undefiled Spirit of grace, the nature of God, the promise of Christ, the Comforter of his children, that without which no man can do any service acceptable to the Father—must this, I say, be the theme of your song, to taunt, deride, and mock? If God sent Korah and his company headlong to hell for speaking against Moses and Aaron, do you that mock the Spirit of Christ think to escape unpunished? (Num 16; Heb 10:29). Did you never read what God did to Ananias and Sapphira for telling but one lie against the Spirit? (Acts 5:1-8). Also to Simon Magus for merely undervaluing it? (Acts 8:18-22). And will your sin be a virtue, or go unrewarded with vengeance, that makes it your business to rage against, and oppose the Spirit’s office, service, and help, that it gives to the children of God? It is a fearful thing to spite the Spirit of grace (Compare Matt 12:31, with Mark 3:28-30).
3. To those who pray by man’s form.
As this is the doom of those who openly blaspheme the Holy Spirit, in a way of disdain and reproach to its office and service: so it is also sad for you, who resist the Spirit of prayer, by a form of man’s inventing. A very juggle of the devil—that the traditions of men should be of better esteem, and more to be owned than the Spirit of prayer! How is this any less than that accursed abomination of Jeroboam, which kept many from going to Jerusalem, the place and way of God’s appointment to worship; and by that means brought such displeasure from God upon them, as to this day is not appeased? (I Kings 12:26-33). One would think that God’s judgments of old upon the hypocrites of that day should make them that have heard of such things take heed and fear to do so. Yet the theologians of our day are so distant from taking warning by the punishment of others that they desperately rush into the same transgression—that is, to set up an institution of man, neither commanded nor commended of God; and whoever will not obey it, they must be driven either out of the land or the world.
Has God required these things at your hands? If he has, show us where? If not, as I am sure he hasn’t, then what cursed presumption is it in any pope, bishop, or anyone else, to command that in the worship of God which he has not required? Further, it is not that part merely of the form itself, which is several texts of Scripture that we are commanded to say, but even all must be confessed as the divine worship of God, despite those absurdities contained in the forms, which because they have been well discussed by others, I won’t rehearse. Again, though a man be willing to live entirely peaceably—yet, because he cannot, for conscience sake, own forms to be one of the most eminent parts of God’s worship, although he never commanded them—therefore, that man must be looked upon as factious, seditious, erroneous, heretical; a disparagement to the church, a seducer of the people, and what not? Lord, what will be the fruit of these things, when for the doctrine of God there is imposed, i.e., more than merely taught, the traditions of men? Thus is the Spirit of prayer abandoned, and the form imposed; the Spirit humbled, and the form exalted; they that pray with the Spirit, though humble and holy, counted fanatics; and they that pray with the form, though with mere words, counted virtuous! And how will the favorers of such a practice answer that Scripture, which commands that the church should turn away from such as have “the form of godliness but denying its power”? (II Tim 3:5). And if I should say that men that do these things, do advance a form of prayer of other men’s making, above the spirit of prayer, it would not take long time to prove it. For he that puts the book of Common Prayer above the Spirit of prayer, advances a form of men’s making above the Spirit. But is what all those do who banish, or desire to banish, those that pray with the Spirit of prayer; while they hug and embrace those that pray by that form only, because they pray by that form. Therefore they love and advance the form of their own or others’ inventing, before the Spirit of prayer, which is God’s special and gracious appointment.
If you desire the clearing of the minor, look into the jails in England, and into the alehouses of the same; and you will find those that plead for the Spirit of prayer in the jail, and those that look after the form of men’s inventions only in the alehouse. It is evident by the silencing of God’s dear ministers, though never so powerfully enabled by the Spirit of prayer, if they in conscience cannot accept that form of Common Prayer. If this is not exalting the Common Prayer Book above either praying by the Spirit, or preaching the Word, I have missed my mark. It is not pleasant for me to dwell on this. The Lord in mercy turn the hearts of the people to seek more after the Spirit of prayer; and in the strength of that, to pour out their souls before the Lord. Only let me say it is a sad sign, that the thing which is one of the most eminent parts of the pretended worship of God is Antichristian, when it has nothing except the tradition of men, and the strength of persecution, to uphold and plead for it.
I shall conclude this discourse with this word of advice to all God’s people:
- Believe that, as surely as you are in God’s way, you will meet with temptations.
- The first day, therefore, that you enter into Christ’s congregation, look for temptations.
- When they do come, beg God to carry you through them.
- Be jealous of your own heart, that it doesn’t deceive you in your evidences for heaven, nor in your walking with god in this world.
- Be careful of the flattery of false brothers.
- Keep in the life and power of truth.
- Look most at the things which are unseen.
- Be careful of little sins.
- Keep the promise warm upon your heart.
- Renew your acts of faith in the blood of Christ.
- Consider the work of your generation.
- Aim to run with the forerunners of your generation.
Grace be with you.