Old Wisdom

What is Prayer (Part 1 of 4)

John Bunyan ~ modernized, with Scripture quotes from the HCSB.

I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with my understanding. – 1 Corinthians 14:15

PRAYER is an ORDINANCE [law] of God, to be used both in public and private.  It is such an ordinance that it brings those with the spirit of supplication into great familiarity with God; and is also so powerful in action, that it gets great things of God, both for the person that prays, and for those who are prayed for.  Prayer is the opener of the heart of God, and a means by which the soul, although empty, is filled. By prayer the Christian can open his heart to God, as to a friend, and obtain fresh testimony of God’s friendship to him.

I might spend many words in distinguishing between public and private prayer; as also between that in the heart, and that with the vocal voice. Something also might be spoken to distinguish between the gifts and graces of prayer; but eschewing this method, my business shall be at this time only to show you the very heart of prayer, without which, all your lifting up, both of hands, and eyes, and voices, will be to no purpose at all. “I will pray with the Spirit.”
The method I will use is this: 1) To show you what true prayer is. 2) To show you what it is to pray with the Spirit. 3) What it is to pray with the Spirit and understanding also. And, 4) To make some short use and application of what shall be spoken.


First, what true prayer is.  Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God hath promised, or according to the Word, for the good of the church, with submission, in faith, to the will of God.

In this description are these seven things: 1) It is a sincere; 2) A sensible; 3) An affectionate, pouring out of the soul to God, through Christ; 4)  By the strength or assistance of the Spirit; 5) For such things as God hath promised, or, according to his word; 6) For the good of the church; 7) With submission in faith to the will of God.

Prayer is sincere.

For the first of these, it is a SINCERE pouring out of the soul to God. Sincerity is such a grace as runs through all the graces of God in us, and through all the actions of a Christian, and is the motivation of them, too, or else their actions  are not any thing regarded of God.  And so also in prayer, of which particularly David speaks, when he mentions prayer:

I cried out to Him with my mouth,
and praise was on my tongue.
If I had been aware of malice in my heart,
the Lord would not have listened.
Ps. 66:17-18

Part of the exercise of prayer is sincerity, without which God doesn’t consider it prayer in a good sense (Ps. 16:1-4). Then “you will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.” (Jer 29:12-13). The lack of sincerity made the Lord reject their prayers in Hosea 7:14, where he says, “They do not cry to Me from their hearts,” that is, in sincerity, “rather, they wail on their beds.” They prayed only for a pretence, for a show in hypocrisy, to be seen of men, and applauded by men.  Sincerity was that which Christ commended in Nathaniel, when he was under the fig tree. “Here is a true Israelite; no deceit is in him.” Probably this good man was pouring out of his soul to God in prayer under the fig tree, and in a sincere and honest spirit before the Lord. The prayer that hath sincerity as one of its principal ingredients is the prayer that God looks at. Thus, “The prayer of the upright is his delight” (Prov 15:8).
And why is sincerity essential to prayers that are accepted of God?  Because sincerity carries the soul in all simplicity to open its heart to God, and to tell him the case plainly, without equivocation; to condemn itself plainly, without dissembling; to cry to God heartily, without complimenting.

I have heard Ephraim moaning,
“You disciplined me, and I have been disciplined
like an untrained calf.
Restore me, and I will return,
for you, Lord, are my God.
(Jeremiah 31:18)

Sincerity is the same in a corner alone as it is before the face of the world. It knows not how to wear two faces, one for an appearance before men, and another for a short snatch in a corner; but it must have God, and be with him in the duty of prayer. It is not referring to lip-labour, for it is the heart that God looks at, and that which sincerity looks at, and that which prayer comes from, if it be that prayer which is accompanied with sincerity.

Prayer is sensible.

Secondly, prayer is a sincere and SENSIBLE pouring out of the heart or soul. It is not, as many take it to be, even a few babbling, prating, complimentary expressions, but a sensible feeling there is in the heart. Prayer has in it a sensibleness of diverse things; sometimes sense of sin, sometimes of mercy received, sometimes of the readiness of God to give mercy, and so on.

A sense of the want of mercy, by reason of the danger of sin. The soul feels, and from feeling sighs, groans, and breaks at the heart. For right prayer bubbles out of the heart when it is overpressed with grief and bitterness, as blood is forced out of the flesh by reason of some heavy burden that lies upon it (I Sam 1:10; Psa 69:3). David roars, cries, weeps, faints at heart, fails at the eyes, loses his moisture, etc. (Psa 38:8-10). Hezekiah mourns like a dove (Isa 38:14). Ephraim bemoans himself (Jer 31:18). Peter weeps bitterly (Matt 26:75). Christ has strong cryings and tears (Heb 5:7). And all this from a sense of the justice of God, the guilt of sin, the pains of hell and destruction.

The ropes of death were wrapped around me,
and the torments of Sheol overcame me;
I encountered trouble and sorrow.
Then I called on the name of Yahweh:
“Yahweh, save me!”
(Psalm 116:3-4)

And in another place, “My hands were continually lifted up
all night long” (Psa 77:2). Again, “I am bent over and brought low; all day long I go around in mourning.” (Psa 38:6). In all these instances, and in hundreds more, you see that prayer carries in it a sensible feeling disposition, firstly from a sense of sin.

Sometimes there is a sweet sense of mercy received; encouraging, comforting, strengthening, enlivening, enlightening mercy, etc. Thus David pours out his soul, to bless, and praise, and admire the great God for his loving- kindness to such poor vile wretches. ”

My soul, praise Yahweh,
and all that is within me, praise His holy name.
My soul, praise the Lord,
and do not forget all His benefits.
He forgives all your sin;
He heals all your diseases.
He redeems your life from the Pit;
He crowns you with faithful love and compassion.
He satisfies you with goodness;
your youth is renewed like the eagle.
(Psa 103:1-5)

And thus is the prayer of saints sometimes turned into praise and thanksgiving, and yet are still prayers. This is a mystery; God’s people pray with their praises, as it is written, “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6).  A sensible thanksgiving, for mercies received, is a mighty prayer in the sight of God; it is unspeakably effective with Him.

In prayer there is sometimes in the soul a sense of mercy to be received. This again sets the soul all on a flame. “You, Lord of Hosts,” says David, “have revealed this to Your servant when You said, “I will build a house for you.” Therefore, Your servant has found the courage to pray this prayer to You” (2 Sam 7:27). This provoked Jacob, David, Daniel, with others–a sense of mercies to be received–which caused them, not by fits and starts, nor yet in a foolish frothy way, to babble over a few words written in a paper; but mightily, fervently, and continually, to groan out their conditions before the Lord, as being sensible—sensible, I say, of their wants, their misery, and the willingness of God to show mercy (Gen 32:10,11; Dan 9:3,4).

A good sense of sin, and the wrath of God, with some encouragement from God to come to Him, is a better Common-prayer-book than that which is taken out of the Papistical mass-book, being the scraps and fragments of the devices of some popes, some friars, and I know not what.

Prayer is affectionate.

Prayer is a sincere, sensible, and an AFFECTIONATE pouring out of the soul to God. Oh, the heat, strength, life, vigour, and affection, that is in right prayer!

As a deer longs for streams of water,
so I long for You, God.
(Psa 42:1)
How I long for Your precepts!
(Psa 119:40)
“I long for Your salvation!
(Psa 119:174)
I long and yearn
for the courts of the Lord;
my heart and flesh cry out for the living God.
(Psa 84:2)
I am continually overcome
with longing for Your judgments.
(Psa 119:20)

Notice this, “My soul longeth,” it longeth, it longeth, and so on! Oh, what affection is here discovered in prayer! The same thing you have in Daniel. “Lord, hear! Lord, forgive! Lord, listen and act! My God, for Your own sake, do not delay, because Your city and Your people are called by Your name.” (Dan 9:19). Every syllable carries a mighty vehemence in it. This is called the fervent, or the working prayer, by James. And again, “Being in anguish, He prayed more fervently” (Luke 22:44). Or had his affections more and more drawn out after God for his helping hand.

Oh! How far are the majority of men with their prayers from this prayer, that is, PRAYER in God’s account! Alas! The greatest part of men make no notice at all of the duty; and as for them that do, it is to be feared that many of them are very great strangers to a sincere, sensible, and affectionate pouring out their hearts or souls to God; but even content themselves with a little lip-labour and bodily exercise, mumbling over a few imaginary prayers. When the affections are indeed engaged in prayer, then, then the whole man is engaged, and in such a way that the soul will spend itself to nothing, as it were, rather than go without that good it desires—even communion and solace with Christ. And so it is that the saints have spent their strengths, and lost their lives, rather than go without the blessing (Psa 69:3; 38:9,10; Gen 32:24,26).

All this is far too evident by the ignorance, profaneness, and spirit of envy, that reign in the hearts of those men that are so hot for the forms and not the power of praying.  Scarce one of forty among them know what it is to be born again, to have communion with the Father through the Son; to feel the power of grace sanctifying their hearts: but for all their prayers, they still live cursed, drunken, whorish, and abominable lives, full of malice, envy, deceit, persecuting of the dear children of God. Oh what a dreadful thunder is coming upon them! Such that all their hypocritical assembling themselves together, with all their prayers, shall never be able to help them against, or shelter them from.

Again, It is a pouring out of the heart or soul. There is in prayer an unbosoming of a man’s self, an opening of the heart to God, an affectionate pouring out of the soul in requests, sighs, and groans. “My every desire is known to You,” says David, “and my sighing is not hidden from You” (Psa 38:9). And again, “I thirst for God, the living God. When can I come and appear before God?  I remember this as I pour out my heart” (Psa 42:2,4). Mark, “I pour out my soul.” It is an expression signifying that in prayer the very life and whole strength goes to God. As in another place, “Trust in Him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts before Him” (Psa 62:8). This is the prayer to which the promise is made, for the delivering of a poor creature out of captivity and thralldom. “But from there, you will search for the Lord your God, and you will find Him when you seek Him with all your heart and all your soul.” (Deut 4:29).

Prayer is to God.

It is a pouring out of the heart or soul TO GOD. This shows also the excellency of the spirit of prayer. It is the great God to which it retires. “When shall I come and appear before God?” And it argues that the soul that truly prays to God sees an emptiness in all things under heaven; it sees that in God alone there is rest and satisfaction for the soul. “The real widow, left all alone, has put her hope in God” (I Tim 5:5). So saith David,

Lord, I seek refuge in You;
let me never be disgraced.
In Your justice, rescue and deliver me;
listen closely to me and save me.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
where I can always go.
Give the command to save me,
for You are my rock and fortress.
Deliver me, my God, from the power of the wicked,
from the grasp of the unjust and oppressive.
For You are my hope, Lord God,
my confidence from my youth.
(Psa 71:1-5)

Many speak of God with their words, but right prayer makes God his hope, stay, and all. Right prayer sees nothing substantial, and nothing worth looking after, except God. And that, as I said before, it does in a sincere, sensible, and affectionate way.

Prayer is through Christ.

Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, THROUGH CHRIST. This “through Christ” must needs be added, or else it is to be questioned, whether it be prayer, though in appearance it be never so eminent or eloquent.

Christ is the way through whom the soul hath admittance to God, and without Him it is impossible that so much as a single desire should come into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth (John 14:6). “Whatever you ask in My name”; “if you ask Me anything in My Name, I will do it” (John 14:13,14). This was Daniel’s way in praying for the people of God; he did it in the name of Christ. “Therefore, our God, hear the prayer and the petitions of Your servant. Show Your favor to Your desolate sanctuary for the Lord’s sake.” (Dan 9:17). And so David, “Because of Your name, Yahweh,” that is, for Your Christ’s sake, “forgive my sin, for it is great” (Psa 25:11).

However, it is not every one that mentions Christ’s name in prayer, that does indeed and in truth effectually pray to God in the name of Christ, or through him. This coming to God through Christ is the hardest part that is found in prayer. A man may more easily be sensible of his works, indeed, and sincerely too desire mercy, and yet not be able to come to God by Christ. That man that comes to God by Christ, he must first have the knowledge of him; “for the one who draws near to Him must believe that He exists” (Heb 11:6). And so he who comes to God through Christ must be enabled to know Christ. Lord, says Moses, “please teach me Your ways, and I will know You” (Exo 33:13).

This Christ can be revealed by no one except the Father (Matt 11:27). And to come through Christ is for the soul to be enabled of God to shroud itself under the shadow of the Lord Jesus, as a man shrouds himself under a thing for safety (Matt 16:16).  Thus it is that David so often terms Christ his shield, buckler, tower, fortress, rock of defence, etc., (Psa 18:2; 27:1; 28:1). Not only because by him he overcame his enemies, but because through him he found favour with God the Father. And so he saith to Abraham, “Fear not, I am your shield,” etc., (Gen 15:1).

The man then that comes to God through Christ, must have faith, by which he puts on Christ, and in him appears before God. Now he that has faith is born of God, born again, and so becomes one of the sons of God; by virtue of which he is joined to Christ, and made a member of him (John 3:5,7; 1:12). And therefore, secondly, he, as a member of Christ, comes to God, as a member of him, so that God looks on that man as a part of Christ, part of his body, flesh, and bones, united to him by election, conversion, illumination, the Spirit being conveyed into the heart of that poor man by God (Eph 5:30). So that now he comes to God in Christ’s merits, in his blood, righteousness, victory, intercession, and so stands before him, being “accepted in his Beloved” (Eph 1:6). And because this poor creature is thus a member of the Lord Jesus, and under this consideration has admittance to come to God; therefore, also by virtue of this union, is the Holy Spirit conveyed into him, whereby he is able to pour out himself, to wit, his soul, before God, with his audience. And this leads me to the next, or fourth particular.

Prayer is by assistance of the Spirit.

Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate, pouring out of the heart or soul to God through Christ, by the strength or ASSISTANCE OF THE SPIRIT. These things are so dependent upon one another that it is impossible that it should be prayer, without a joint concurrence of them.  For though it is never so famous, but without these things, it is only such prayer as is rejected of God.

For without a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart to God, it is but lip-labour; and if it be not through Christ, it falls far short of ever sounding well in the ears of God. So also, if it be not in the strength and assistance of the Spirit, it is but like the sons of Aaron, offering with strange fire (Lev 10:1,2). But I shall speak more to this under the second head; and therefore in the meantime, that which is not petitioned through the teaching and assistance of the Spirit, cannot be “according to the will of God (Rom 8:26,27).

Prayer is for the things God has promised.

Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart, or soul, to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Spirit, FOR SUCH THINGS AS GOD HATH PROMISED, &c., (Matt 6:6-8).

It is “prayer” when it is within the compass of God’s Word, and it is blasphemy—or at best vain babbling—when the petition is beside the book. David therefore in his prayer kept his eye on the Word of God. “My life,” he says, “is down in the dust; give me life through Your word.” And again, “I am weary from grief; strengthen me through Your word” (Psa 119:25-28; see also 41, 42, 58, 65, 74, 81, 82, 107, 147, 154, 169, 170).  And, “remember Your word to Your servant;
You have given me hope through it” (ver 49). And indeed the Holy Spirit doesn’t immediately quicken and stir up the heart of the Christian without the Word, but by, with, and through the it, by bringing the Word to the heart, and by opening of it, whereby the man is provoked to go to the Lord, and to tell him how it is with him, and also to argue, and supplicate, according to the Word.

This is how it was with Daniel, that mighty prophet of the Lord. He, understanding by books that the captivity of the children of Israel was hard at an end, according to that word made his prayer to God. “I Daniel,” he said, “understood from the books,” that is, the writings of Jeremiah, “according to the word of the Lord to Jeremiah the prophet that the number of years for the desolation of Jerusalem would be 70. So I turned my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and petitions, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes.” (Dan 9:2,3). So that I say, as the Spirit is the helper and the governor of the soul, when it prays according to the will of God; so it guides by and according to, the Word of God and his promise. Hence it is that our Lord Jesus Christ himself did make a stop, although his life lay at stake for it: “Or do you think that I cannot call on My Father, and He will provide Me at once with more than 12 legions of angels? How, then, would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen this way?” (Matt 26:53,54). As who should say, Were there but a word for it in the scripture, I should soon be out of the hands of mine enemies, I should be helped by angels; but the scripture will not warrant this kind of praying, for it says otherwise. It is a praying then according to the Word and promise. The Spirit by the Word must direct, as well in the manner, as in the matter of prayer. “I will pray with the Spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also” (I Cor 14:15). But there is no understanding without the Word. For if they reject the word of the Lord, “what wisdom is in them?” (Jer 8:9).

Prayer is for the good of the church.

This clause reaches in whatsoever tends either to the honour of God, Christ’s advancement, or his people’s benefit. For God, and Christ, and his people are so linked together that if the good of the one be prayed for, to wit, the church, the glory of God, and advancement of Christ, must be included. For as Christ is in the Father, so the saints are in Christ; and he that touches the saints touches the apple of God’s eye; and therefore pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and you pray for all that is required of you. For Jerusalem will never be in perfect peace until she is in heaven; and there is nothing that Christ desires more than to have her there. That also is the place that God through Christ has given to her. He then that prays for the peace and good of Zion, or the church, asks in prayer that which Christ has purchased with his blood, and also that which the Father has given to him as the price of it.

Now he that prays for this, must pray for abundance of grace for the church, for help against all its temptations; that God would let nothing be too hard for it; and that all things might work together for its good, that God would keep them blameless and harmless, the sons of God, to his glory, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation—this is the substance of Christ’s own prayer in John 17. And all Paul’s prayers also ran that way, as one of his prayers eminently shows:

And I pray this: that your love will keep on growing in knowledge and every kind of discernment, 10 so that you can approve the things that are superior and can be pure and blameless in the day of Christ, 11 filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ to the glory and praise of God.
(Phil 1:9-11)

This is but a short prayer, you see, and yet full of good desires for the church, from the beginning to the end; that it may stand and go on, and that in the most excellent frame of spirit, even without blame, sincere, and without offence, until the day of Christ, let its temptations or persecutions be what they will (Eph 1:16-21; 3:14-19; Col 1:9- 13).

Prayer submits to the will of God.

Because, as I said, prayer doth SUBMIT TO THE WILL OF GOD, and say, Thy will be done, as Christ has taught us (Matt 6:10); therefore, the people of the Lord in humility are to lay themselves and their prayers—and all that they have—at the foot of their God, to be disposed of by him as he in his heavenly wisdom sees best. And yet, not doubting that God will answer the desire of his people in a way that shall be most for their advantage and his glory. When the saints pray with submission to the will of God, it doesn’t mean that they doubt or question God’s love and kindness to them. But because they at all times are not so wise, and that sometimes Satan may get that advantage of them, and tempt them to pray for that which, if they had it, would neither prove to God’s glory nor his people’s good. ”

Now this is the confidence we have before Him: Whenever we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears whatever we ask, we know that we have what we have asked Him for.
(1 John 5:14-15)

That is, what we ask in the Spirit of grace and supplication, for, as I said before, that petition which is not put up in and through the Spirit it is not to be answered, because it is beside the will of God. For the Spirit alone knows that, and so consequently knows how to pray according to that will of God. “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 more of this hereafter.

Thus you see, first, what prayer is.

[Here ends the first quarter of Bunyan’s “Discourse on Prayer.”  By “modernizing” I mean occasionally replacing archaic words, often replacing archaic typographical conventions (paragraph breaks, formatting), and very rarely rearranging sentences.  Time permitting, I hope to get to the rest of the discourse.]

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