by Hannah More, 1745-1833
"Lord, teach us to pray." Luke 11:1
"He who has learned to pray as he ought, has learned the secret of a holy life!" Wilson
"When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Matthew 6:6
Prayer is . . .
the application of need to Him who alone can relieve it,
the confession of sin to Him who alone can pardon it,
the urgency of poverty,
the prostration of humility,
the fervency of penitence,
the confidence of trust.
Prayer is . . .
not eloquence, but earnestness,
not the definition of helplessness, but the feeling of it,
the "Lord, save us — or we perish!" of drowning Peter,
the cry of faith to the ear of mercy.
Adoration is the noblest employment of created beings.
Confession is the natural language of guilty creatures.
Gratitude is the spontaneous expression of pardoned sinners.
Prayer is desire — it is . . .
not a mere conception of the mind,
not an effort of the intellect,
not an act of the memory.
Prayer is . . .
an elevation of the soul towards its Maker,
a pressing sense of our own ignorance and infirmity,
a consciousness . . .
of the perfections of God,
of his readiness to hear,
of his power to help,
of his willingness to save.
Prayer is not an emotion produced in the senses, nor an effect wrought by the imagination — but a determination of the will, an effusion of the heart.
Prayer is an act both of the understanding and of the heart. The understanding must apply itself to the knowledge of the Divine perfections, or the heart will not be led to the adoration of them. It would not be a reasonable service, if the mind were excluded. It must be rational worship, or the human worshiper will not bring to the service the distinguishing faculty of his nature, which is reason. It must be spiritual worship, or it will lack the distinctive quality to make it acceptable to Him who is a spirit, and who has declared that he will be worshiped "in spirit and in truth."
Man is not only a sinful being but also a helpless being, and therefore a dependant being. This offers new and powerful motives to prayer, and shows the necessity of looking continually to a higher power, to a better strength than our own. If God sustains us not, we fall; if He directs us not, we wander. His guidance is not only perfect freedom, but perfect safety.
Our greatest danger begins from the moment we imagine we are able to go alone. He who does not believe this fundamental truth, "the helplessness of man," on which the other doctrines of the Bible are built — or he who nominally professes to assent to it as a doctrine of Scripture, yet if he does not experimentally acknowledge it — if he does not feel it in the convictions of his own awakened conscience, in his discovery of the evil workings of his own heart, and the wrong propensities of his own nature, all bearing their testimony to its truth — such a one will not pray earnestly for its cure — will not pray with that feeling of his own helplessness, with that sense of dependence on Divine assistance — which alone makes prayer efficacious.
Nothing will make us truly humble, nothing will make us constantly vigilant, nothing will entirely lead us to have recourse to prayer, so fervently or so frequently as this ever-abiding sense of our corrupt and helpless nature, as our not being able to ascribe any disposition in ourselves to anything that is good; or any power to avoid, by our own strength, anything that is evil.
Prayer is right in itself, as the most powerful means of resisting sin and advancing in holiness. It is above all right, as everything is which has the authority of Scripture, the command of God, and the example of Christ. There is perfect consistency in all the ordinances of God — a perfect congruity in the whole scheme of his dispensations.
If man were not a corrupt creature — such prayer as the gospel enjoins would not have been necessary. Had not prayer been an important means for curing those corruptions — a God of perfect wisdom would not have ordered it. He would not have prohibited everything which tends to inflame and promote our corruptions, had they not existed; nor would he have commanded everything that has a tendency to diminish and remove them, had not their existence been fatal. Prayer, therefore, is an indispensable part of his economy, and of our obedience. We cannot attain to a just notion of prayer, while we remain ignorant . . .
of our own nature,
of the nature of God as revealed in Scripture,
of our relations to him, and
of our dependence on him.
If, therefore, we do not live in the daily study of the holy Scriptures — we shall lack the highest motive to this duty, and the best helps for performing it. If we do live in the daily study of the holy Scriptures — the cogency of these motives, and the inestimable value of these helps, will render argument unnecessary, and exhortation superfluous.
One cause, therefore, of the dullness of many Christians in prayer, is their slight acquaintance with the sacred volume. They hear it periodically, they read it occasionally, they are contented to know it historically, to consider it superficially; but they do not endeavor to get their minds imbued with its spirit. If they store their memory with its facts — they do not impress their hearts with its truth. They do not regard it as the nutriment on which their spiritual life and growth depend. They do not pray over it; they do not consider all its doctrines as of practical application; they do not cultivate that spiritual discernment which alone can enable them judiciously to appropriate its promises, and apply its denunciations, to their own actual case. They do not use it as an unerring line to ascertain their own rectitude, or detect their own crookedness.
Though we cannot pray with a too deep sense of sin — we may make our sins too exclusively the object of our prayers. While we keep, with a self-debasing eye, our own corruptions in view — let us look with equal intentness on that divine mercy which cleanses from all sin. Let our prayers be all humiliation — but let them not be all simply a pondering over our sinfulness. When men indulge no other thought but that they are rebels, the hopelessness of pardon hardens them into disloyalty. Let us look to the mercy of the King — as well as to the rebellion of the subject. If we contemplate his grace as displayed in the gospel, then, though our humility will increase — our despair will vanish.
Gratitude in this, as in human instances, will create affection: "We love him, because he first loved us." Let us, therefore, always keep our unworthiness in view, to remind us that we stand in need of the mercy of God in Christ, but never plead it as a reason why we should not draw near to him to implore that mercy. The best men are unworthy for their own sakes; the worst, on repentance — will be accepted for His sake and through his merits.
In prayer, then, the perfections of God, and especially his mercies in our redemption, should occupy our thoughts as much as our sins; our obligations to him as much as our departures from him. We should keep up in our hearts a constant sense of our own weakness, not with a design to discourage the mind and depress the spirits — but with a view to drive us out of ourselves in search of the Divine assistance. We should contemplate our infirmity — in order to draw us to look for his strength, and to seek that power from God which we vainly look for in ourselves. We do not tell a sick friend of his danger in order to grieve and terrify him, but to induce him to apply to his physician, and to have recourse to his remedy.
The success of prayer, though promised to all who offer it in perfect sincerity, is not so frequently promised to the cry of distress, to the impulse of fear, or the emergency of the moment — as to humble perseverance in devotion. It is to patient waiting, to assiduous solicitation, to unwearied importunity — that God has declared that He will lend His ear, that He will give the communication of His Spirit, that He will grant the return of our requests. Nothing but this holy perseverance can keep up in our minds a humble sense of our dependence upon God. It is not by a mere casual petition, however passionate — but by habitual application, that devout affections are excited and maintained, that our converse with Heaven is carried on. It is by no other means that we can be assured, with Paul, that "we are risen with Christ" — but this obvious one:
that we thus seek the things which are above;
that the heart is renovated;
that the mind is lifted above this low scene of things;
that the spirit breathes in a purer atmosphere;
that the whole man is enlightened, and strengthened, and purified;
and that the more frequently so — the more nearly we approach to the throne of God.
We shall find also, that prayer not only expresses but elicits the Divine grace. Prayer draws all the Christian graces into its focus. It draws LOVE, followed by her lovely train:
her forbearance with faults,
her forgiveness of injuries,
her pity for errors,
her compassion for neediness.
Prayer draws . . .
repentance, with her holy sorrows, her pious resolutions, her self-distrust;
faith, with her elevated eye;
hope, with her grasped anchor;
beneficence, with her open hand;
zeal, looking far and wide to serve;
humility, with introverted eye, looking at Jesus.
Prayer, by quickening these graces in the heart . . .
warms them into life,
fits them for service, and
dismisses each to its appropriate practice.
Holy prayer is mental virtue; Christian virtue is spiritual action. The mold into which genuine prayer casts the soul, is not effaced by the suspension of the act — but retains some touches of the impression until the act is repeated.
He to whom the duty of prayer is unknown, and by whom the privilege of prayer is unfelt; or he by whom it is neglected; or he who uses it for form and not from feeling, may probably say, "Will there be no period when God will dispense with the regular exercise of prayer? Will there never be such an attainment of the end proposed, as that we may be allowed to discontinue the means?
To these interrogatories, there is but one answer — an answer which shall be also made by an appeal to the inquirer himself. If there is any day in which we are quite certain that we shall meet with no trial from Providence, no temptation from the world; any day in which we shall be sure to have no wrong tempers excited in ourselves, no call to bear with those of others, no misfortune to encounter, and no need of Divine assistance to endure it — on that morning we may safely omit prayer.
If there is an evening in which we have received no protection from God, and experienced no mercy at his hands; if we have not neglected a single opportunity of doing or receiving good; if we are quite certain that we have not once spoken unadvisedly with our lips, nor entertained one vain or idle thought in our heart — on that night we may safely omit to praise God, and to confess our own sinfulness — on that night we may safely omit humiliation and thanksgiving.
Sincere prayer gives . . .
a tone to our conduct,
a law to our actions,
a rule to our thoughts,
a bridle to our speech,
a restraint to wrong passions,
a check to ill tempers.
How many excuses do we find for not spending time in prayer! How many apologies for brevity in prayer! How many evasions for neglect of prayer! How unwilling, too often, are we to come into the divine presence, and how reluctant to remain in it? Those hours which are least valuable for business, which are least seasonable for pleasure — we commonly give to religion. Our energies which were so exerted in the society we have just left, are gone as we approach the divine presence. Our hearts, which were all alacrity in some frivolous conversation — become cold and inanimate, as if it were the natural property of devotion to freeze the affections. Our animal spirits, which so readily performed their functions before, now slacken their vigor and lose their vivacity. The sluggish body sympathizes with the unwilling mind, and each promotes the deadness of the other — both are slow in listening to the call of duty — both are soon weary in performing it. As prayer requires all the energies of the compound being of man — so we too often feel as if there were a conspiracy of body, soul, and spirit, to decline and disqualify us for it.
To be deeply impressed with a few fundamental Scripture truths, to digest them thoroughly, to meditate on them seriously, to pray over them fervently, to get them deeply rooted in the heart — will be more productive of faith and holiness than to labor after variety, ingenuity, or elegance.
The indulgence of imagination will rather distract, than edify. Searching after ingenious thoughts will rather divert the attention from God to ourselves, than promote . . .
fixedness of thought,
singleness of intention,
and devotedness of spirit.
If we do not guard the mind, it will learn to wander in quest of novelties. It will set more value on original thoughts than devout affections. It is the business of prayer to cast down imaginations which gratify the natural activity of the mind, while they leave the heart unhumbled.
We should confine ourselves to the present business of the present moment. We should keep the mind in a state of perpetual dependence. "Now is the accepted time." "Today, we must hear his voice." "Give us this day, our daily bread." The manna will not keep until tomorrow. Tomorrow will have its own needs, and must have its own petitions. Tomorrow we must seek the bread of Heaven afresh.
We should however avoid coming to our devotions with unfurnished minds. We should be always laying in materials for prayer . . .
by a diligent course of serious reading,
by treasuring up in our minds the most important truths,
and by a careful and solemn self-examination.
If we rush into the divine presence with a vacant, or ignorant, or unprepared mind, with a heart filled with the world — we shall feel no disposition for the work we are about to engage in, nor can we expect that our petitions will be heard or granted. There must be some congruity between the heart — and the object; some affinity between the state of our minds — and the business in which they are employed, if we would expect success in prayer.
We are often deceived both as to the principle and the effect of our prayers. When from some external cause the heart is glad, the spirits light, the thoughts reasonable, the tongue voluble — a kind of spontaneous eloquence is the result. With this we are pleased, and this ready flow we are ready to impose on ourselves as genuine piety.
On the other hand, when the mind is dejected, the physical strength low, the thoughts confused, when appropriate words do not readily present themselves — we are apt to accuse our hearts of lack of fervor, to lament our weakness, and to mourn that, because we have no pleasure in praying, our prayers have, therefore, not ascended to the throne of mercy.
In both cases we perhaps judge ourselves unfairly. These unready accents, these faltering praises, these ill-expressed petitions — may find more acceptance, than the ornate talk with which we were so self-satisfied. The latter consisted, it may be, of shining thoughts floating on the imagination, eloquent words dwelling only on the lips. The former, it may be, was the sighing of a contrite heart, abased by the feeling of its own unworthiness, and awed by the perfections of a holy and heart-searching God. The heart is dissatisfied with its own dull and tasteless repetitions, which, with all their imperfections — infinite goodness may perhaps hear with favor.
We may not only be elated with the fluency, but even with the fervency of our prayers. Vanity may grow out of the very prayers, and we may begin to feel proud at having humbled ourselves so eloquently.
There is, however, a strain and spirit of prayer equally distinct from that facility and copiousness for which we certainly are never the better in the sight of God — and from that constraint and dryness for which we may be never the worse. There is a simple, solid, pious strain of prayer, in which the supplicant is so filled and occupied with a sense of his own dependence, and of the importance of the things for which he asks, and so persuaded of the power and grace of God through Christ to give him those things — that while he is engaged in it, he does not merely imagine, but feels assured that God is near to him as a reconciled Father, so that every burden and doubt are taken off from his mind. "He knows," as John expresses it, "that he has the petition he desired of God," and he feels the truth of that promise, "while they speak — I will hear." This is the perfection of prayer.
Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire,
that trembles in the breast.
Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear;
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is nigh.
Prayer is the simplest form of speech,
The infant lips can try;
Prayer the sublimest strains that reach
The majesty on high.
Prayer is the Christian's vital breath,
The Christian's native air,
His watchwords at the gates of death;
He enters Heaven by prayer.
Prayer is the contrite sinner's voice,
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice,
And say, Behold he prays!
The saints in prayer appear as one,
In word, and deed, and mind,
When with the Father and the Son,
Their fellowship they find.
Nor prayer is made on earth alone:
The Holy Spirit pleads;
And Jesus on the eternal throne,
For sinners intercedes.
O You, by whom we come to God;
The Life, the Truth, the Way;
The path of prayer yourself have trod
Lord, teach us how to pray.
— James Montgomery
Chapter 1. The ADVANTAGES of Private Prayer.
INTRODUCTION. It is the indispensable duty of every Christian to pray in private.
Our Savior has enjoined it on all his followers, by precept, by promise, and by his own blessed example, "When you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly." Matthew 6:6
The precept is positive — the promise is certain. Christ here says to each of his followers, "Enter into your closet." "Pray to your Father." Your Father shall reward you. As obedience to the divine precepts is generally attended with a present blessing, so is it here. For private prayer sweetly inclines and disposes a person to a cheerful performance of every other religious duty and service; and the power of godliness in the soul flourishes or decays as the private duties of the closet are attended to or neglected.
This, in conjunction with the precept, promise, and example of the Savior, furnishes the true Christian with powerful motives for continuing instant in private prayer even unto the end — when his heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will, in an especial manner, openly reward him.
The Savior's example of private prayer arrested the attention of all the evangelists. How often do we read of his sending the multitude away, and going up into a mountain apart to play! (Matthew 14.24. Mark 6.46.) Mark mentions his rising up a great while before day for that purpose. And Luke records one instance (doubtless it was not the only one) of his going "out into a mountain to pray, and continuing all night in prayer to God." (Luke 6. 12.)
For the sake of private prayer, he would forego the pleasure of conversation with His disciples on the most interesting subjects. When his heart was full of heaviness, and is soul exceeding sorrowful, instead of telling the particulars of the sad tale in the ears of his disciples, who loved him, he said unto them, "Sit here, while I go and pray yonder." (Matthew 26.36.) There he unbosomed his soul to his Father, offering up "prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears, unto him who was able to save him friom death, and was heard in that he feared." (Hebrews 5.7)
"Night is the time to pray;
Our Savior oft withdrew
To desert mountains far away,
So will his followers do;
Steal from the throng to haunts untrod,
And hold communion there with God."
— James Montgomery
What an illustrious example. Did He spend whole nights in private prayer on a cold mountain, for our sakes — and shall we think it too much to spend a portion of the day in our closets, for the furtherance of our own spiritual and eternal welfare? Oh, that we were daily imitating more that noble pattern which his holy life exhibits, by being much alone with God!
What is Christianity, but an imitation of all the matchless perfections of the Saviour? A Christian's whole life should be a visible representation of Christ. The example of patriarchs, prophets, apostles, and saints, as recorded in the Old and New Testaments, plainly show, that, to be "followers of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises," we should be much in private prayer. But, to the spiritually-minded Christian, the example of Christ vastly transcends all others. The examples of the best of men are defective. His alone is the perfect pattern. To be an imitator of him in all his moral virtues is the duty and privilege of a Christian. And, of all others, they are the happiest who come the nearest to his bright example.
Private prayer has many advantages.
In secret we may more freely, fully, and safely unbosom our souls to God, than we can do in the presence of others.
In public, confessions of sin are made in general terms. In private, we may descend to particulars. "The heart knows his own bitterness." (Proverbs 14.10.) Every Christian has his secret faults, from which he desires to be cleansed. (Psalm 19.12). He has not the grosser vices of the ungodly to confess. But, becoming daily more acquainted with the spirituality of God's law, and the deep depravity of his own heart — he feels himself continually prone to err, and discovers within him a variety of things of a sinful nature, which he desires heartily and sincerely to confess at the throne of grace:
the thought of foolishness,
a proud look,
a vain imagination,
a sinful inclination,
a secret murmur,
a repining thought,
the slightest indication of an unforgiving temper,
the remains of unbelief,
a lack of watchfulness,
formality in holy duties,
the comparative coldness of his affections towards heavenly things,
the smallest degree of worldly-mindedness,
the risings of envy, vainglory, or spiritual pride,
the lack of love towards God or man,
a hasty expression or an unguarded word, though perhaps unobserved by others.
These, and a variety of similar things, which at times disturb a pious mind, and grieve his heart, will furnish him with abundant matter for confession before God, in whose word it is written, "He that covers his sins shall not prosper; but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy." (Proverbs 28.13.) As a patient, afflicted with a loathsome disease, speaks not publicly of all the symptoms of his case, but takes a convenient opportunity of mentioning them to his physician — so the Christian will not publish to the world all the corrupt workings of his heart, which he feels and laments; but, availing himself of the fit opportunity which private prayer affords, will freely confess them to his heavenly Physician, Christ Jesus, who alone can forgive all his sins, and heal all the spiritual diseases of the soul.
Confession of sin, however, is but one part of a Christian's duty in his closet. While passing through this valley of tears, he has his peculiar trials, his peculiar needs, and his peculiar mercies. Another will scarcely be found whose experience in all points, will accord with his own. In all his trials, needs, and mercies, he alone seems to be deeply interested. No one else can so feelingly express what . . .
his sufferings under trials are,
the urgency of his needs, or
the gratitude he feels for mercies he has received.
Hence arises the insufficiency of public and family prayer for every purpose, and the necessity of the Christian's retiring to his closet — where, through our great "High Priest, who is touched with the feeling of our infirmities," he may in secret "come boldly to a throne of (race, and obtain mercy, and find grace to help in every time of need." (Hebrews 4.15, 16.)
Private Prayer is a privilege of which a Christian may at all times avail himself. Ill health, affliction in his family, unfavorable weather, the distance, and a variety of other circumstances, may detain him from the public means of grace — but none of these can prevent his praying in secret. However desirous he may be of enjoying the benefits of a family altar, a lack of piety in some, or a determined opposition to domestic worship in others, may deprive him of this means also. But neither friends nor enemies have power to prevent his holding communion with his God in secret.
No time is unseasonable for such a purpose — and no place is unfit for such devotions. There is no corner so dark — no place so secret, but God is there. He never lacks an eye to see, an ear to hear the cries and groans, nor a heart to grant the request, of him who sincerely prays to Him in secret. There are no desires so confused — no requests so broken — no effort so feeble — as to escape His notice. The eye that God has upon His people in secret, is such a special tender eye of love as opens His ear, His heart, and His hand, for their good. "The eyes of the Lord are over the righteous, and His ears are open to their prayers." Psalm 34:15.
Should their petitions be feeble and faint, and seem to them scarcely to reach the heavens, He will graciously bow down His ear, and attend to the prayer from sincere lips. He knows the intentions of the heart. He perceives the motions of the soul. He records them all in the book of His remembrance, and will one day openly reward all these secret transactions!
Did Christians more fully believe this, and more seriously consider it — they would . . .
live more thankfully,
labor more cheerfully,
suffer more patiently,
fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil, more manfully,
and lay themselves out for God, his interests, and glory, more freely.
Private Prayer is a scriptural means of obtaining a clearer knowledge of the revealed will of God. It has been compared to a golden key unlocking the mysteries of the divine word. "If any man lacks wisdom, let him ask of God." (James 1.5.) The knowledge of many choice and blessed truths is but the returns of private prayer.
We have a remarkable instance of this in the history of Cornelius. "At the ninth hour (says he) I prayed in my house, and behold a man stood by me in bright clothing, and said, Cornelius, your prayer is heard. (Acts 10.30, 31.) Send men to Joppa and call for Simon, whose name is Peter, who shall tell you words whereby you and all your house shall be saved." (Acts 11.13, 14.) His prayer was not only heard and accepted, but graciously answered, in the knowledge he obtained of salvation by Jesus Christ.
Another instance may be adduced from the book of Daniel. He was a man who studied the sacred Scriptures, (Daniel 9.2,) and in answer to prayer, obtained a clearer knowledge of their contents. "While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel and making my request to the LORD my God for his holy hill — while I was still in prayer, Gabriel, the man I had seen in the earlier vision, came to me in swift flight about the time of the evening sacrifice. He instructed me and said to me, "Daniel, I have now come to give you insight and understanding. As soon as you began to pray, an answer was given, which I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed. Therefore, consider the message and understand the vision." Daniel 9:20-23
To have clearer views of the revealed will of God, was a great blessing; but, not a greater than that gracious assurance with which the communication of that knowledge was accompanied, namely, that he was in the favor of God, a "man greatly beloved." Happy is he who in sincerity seeks instruction at the fountain-head of all spiritual wisdom! The Holy Spirit is promised to teach us all things. (John 14.20.)
The promises of God should be pleaded in prayer. He delights to lade the wings of secret prayer with his sweetest, choicest, richest blessings. Hence it is that the word of Christ dwells most richly in those who are most diligent and fervent in pouring out their hearts to him in secret.
Those who piously and conscientiously discharge the duties of the closet, generally prosper both in temporals and spirituals. "Godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come." (1 Timothy 4.8.) To enter into our duties in the fear of God, and to do all with a view to his glory, is the surest way to obtain the blessing of Heaven.
Temporal affairs are best expedited when they are made the subjects of secret prayer. Generally speaking, he who prays fervently in his closet, will speed well in his shop, at the plough, or in whatever he may turn his hand unto. "Those who honor me (says the Lord,) I will honor; and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed." (1 Samuel 2.30.) All the worthies, who are mentioned in Scripture as men of private prayer, prospered in the world. God blessed to them their blessings, and eventually made their cup of temporal mercies to overflow. And in the last great day, when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, and shall openly reward those who have prayed to him secretly — it will be manifest to assembled worlds, that no families have been so prospered, protected and blessed, as those who have been most diligent in maintaining secret communion with him.
As to spiritual things, it is most certain that private devotion prepares the heart, and fits the soul, so to speak, for the public duties of religion. He who willingly neglects one — has seldom much enjoyment in the other. But he who in secret waits upon God sincerely, will, in the public means, frequently find his spiritual strength renewed, his languishing graces revived, his fellowship with Heaven more pure, his hopes more elevated, and his enjoyments more spiritual.
Lack of private prayer may be one great reason why many are so heavy and dull, so formal and careless, so unfruitful and lifeless, under the public means of grace. Oh, that Christians would seriously lay this to heart! He who would have . . .
his soul athirst for God,
public ordinances delightful to his soul,
his drooping spirits refreshed,
his weak faith strengthened,
his strong corruptions subdued, and
his affections set on heavenly things —
should be frequent and fervent in secret prayer.
How strong in grace,
how victorious over sin,
how dead to the world,
how alive to Christ,
how fit to live,
how prepared to die,
might many a Christian have been, had he more diligently, seriously, and conscientiously discharged the duties of the closet!
Diligence and perseverance in secret prayer may be regarded as a certain evidence of sincerity.
Private prayer is not the hypocrite's delight. He can find no solid satisfaction in such exercises. He loves to pray where others may notice his devotions, and commend him — and he has his reward. (Matthew 6.5.) The Scriptures record nothing of Saul and Judas, Demas and Simon Magus, that affords the slightest evidence of their having addicted themselves to secret prayer. The Scribes and Pharisees assumed the garb of exterior sanctity, but we never read of their retiring to a solitary place to pray. A good name among men is more valued by a hypocrite, than a good life or a good conscience.
Under some temporary alarm, he may cry aloud upon his bed, or seek relief on his knees in retirement. But, "Will he delight himself in the Almighty? Will he always call upon God?" (Job 27.10.) If the cause is removed, the effect will cease. When his fears have subsided, and his spirits are calmed, he will discontinue the practice, laying aside his private prayers as an irksome task. Secret duties are not his ordinary work. Self is the oil of his lamp — worldly interests and the plaudits of men, nourish its flame. If these are lacking, its brilliancy declines; and, as his hope of these fail, its light gradually or instantly expires. "Can papyrus grow tall where there is no marsh? Can reeds thrive without water? So are the paths of all who forget God. The hope of the hypocrite shall perish." (Job 8. 11,13.)
He does not forget God, who perseveres in the duties of the closet. God is the object, and his glory the end, of his secret devotions. He retires from the observation of men, to "give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name, and to worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness." (Psalm 29.2.) He is not satisfied with a mere external performance of the duty. He examines his motives, scrutinizes the workings of his heart, and afterwards reviews the whole transaction. "I call to remembrance my song in the night; I meditate within my heart, and my spirit makes diligent search." (Psalm 77.6.)
Not so the hypocrite. "Praying always, with all prayer and supplication in the spirit, and watching thereunto, with all perseverance," (Ephesians 6.18) is not his practice. He has ever at hand some excuse for the neglect of private prayer. Though he squanders perhaps every day more than an hour of his time in frivolous conversation or unnecessary amusements — he can persuade himself that his engagements are so many and so urgent, that he has no time for retiring to his closet without neglecting his worldly business, in which he must be diligent from a regard to the divine precept (Romans 12.11.) and for his family's sake.
Or, should his conscience testify that he has time sufficient, another circumstance will furnish him with an excuse — the lack of a convenient place. Oh, let it ever be remembered, that the most illustrious example we have of diligence and perseverance in this sacred duty, Jesus, was pressed for time more than any man, through a multiplicity of other engagements; so much so, that at times he "had no time so much as to eat." (Mark 6.31.) And as to place, "The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head." (Matthew 8.20.) Yet, by rising early, and by late retiring to rest (compare Mark 1.35, with Luke 6.12,) he found sufficient time — and in the open air, on a mountain, or in a garden, a convenient place for pouring out his soul to God.
The hypocrite needs a heart for it, more than he needs sufficient time or a convenient place. However regular he may be in his attendance on public prayer, he does not love private devotion, and, therefore, does not habituate himself to the practice of it.
The true Christian loves to pray secretly, and values such exercises for the effect they have on him in . . .
humbling the soul,
weaning the heart from the world,
rendering the mind more spiritual, and
exalting the Savior in the affections.
He habituates himself to, and perseveres in the practice of, secret prayer. And a diligent and conscientious continuing in such well-doing, most assuredly affords a decisive evidence of sincerity.
There is no means of grace more enriching to the soul than private prayer.
It is a golden pipe, through which the Lord is graciously pleased to convey spiritual blessings to the soul. He knows all our needs, and, without our asking him, could supply them all in the best manner, and at the best possible time. But he will be inquired of by the house of Israel, to do for them according to the exceeding great and precious promises he has given. (Ezekiel 36.37.)
How often has the believer found the Lord's promises of grace here verified, and been enabled to look forward, with joyful hope, to the fulfillment of those which relate to glory hereafter — while he has been engaged in his private devotions! When he has entered his closet, he has been, perhaps, like the Hannah, "of a sorrowful spirit," and, like her, has poured out his heart before the Lord in "bitterness of soul" — and the God of Israel has granted his petition, and he has gone on his way no longer sad. (1 Samuel 1.15, 18.) How often in these private exercises, particularly when the believer has felt himself "in heaviness through manifold temptations," (1 Peter 1.6.) "encompassed with infirmities," (Hebrews 5.2.) and has "groaned being burdened," (2 Corinthians 5.4.) not knowing "what he should pray for as he ought," (Romans 8.26) — has the Holy Spirit helped his infirmities — "making him to know his transgression and his sin," (Job 13.23.) and causing him to "abhor himself and repent as in dust and ashes." (Job 42.6.)
Then, in the language of the psalmist, he has prayed, "The troubles of my heart are multiplied; bring me out of my distresses!" (Psalm 25.17.) God has heard this prayer, and fulfilled his own most gracious word, "Before they call I will answer, and while they are yet speaking I will hear." (Isaiah 64.24.)
The Savior's promise also has been verified, "Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and manifest myself to him," (John 14.21.) The Holy Spirit has taken of the things of Jesus, and has shown them unto his servant, (John 16.14,) and the believer has been enabled with lively gratitude and joy, to adopt the language of the prophet, "I will praise you, O LORD. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The LORD, the LORD, is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation." (Isaiah 12.1-3.)
Thus the Christian, withdrawn for a season from the world, and realizing the immediate presence of God, the solemness of eternity, and the vast importance of heavenly things — prays to his Father, who sees in secret. He gets more humbling views of himself, and makes fresh discoveries . . .
of the exceeding sinfulness of sin,
of the super-aboundings of Divine grace,
of the long-suffering patience of the Lord,
of the grace he has bestowed on him,
of the deliverances he has wrought for him, and
of the abundant mercy which is treasured up in Christ Jesus for all true believers. Thus he, who began his secret prayers "with groanings that cannot be uttered" . . .
finds spiritual enlargement;
is "strengthened with might in the inner man;"
is enriched with the light of God's reconciled countenance;
and comes forth from his closet in a more humble, more watchful, more spiritual, more holy, more heavenly frame. And, consequently, is more fit for the public duties of religion, or the particular duties of his calling — the Lord having put into his heart more gladness than an increase of corn and wine could give, (Psalm 5.7,) and caused his holy comforts to delight his soul. (Psalm 44.19.)
Chapter 2. On the NEGLECT of Private Prayer
How lamentable it is, that a duty so obvious, a privilege so great, a means of grace so enriching to the soul — should ever be neglected! What are the causes to be assigned for it?
If the neglect is total and permanent — then impenitency of heart may be suspected as the cause. To perceive no necessity for secret prayer — to have no mind, no will, no heart to such a duty — to make no effort to discharge it, and to feel no remorse of conscience for neglecting it — are fearful signs of an unhumbled, unrenewed, impenitent heart! While the cause remains, the effect will continue; therefore, let such beseech God to grant them true repentance, and his Holy Spirit, that their indisposition to call upon him in private may be removed, that their secret prayers may be accepted, and openly rewarded, by him, and that the rest of their life may be pure and holy, so that at the last they may come to his eternal joy, through Jesus Christ our Lord.
If the neglect is temporary and voluntary — then some sin, or sins, committed against light and knowledge may be the cause. Such sins . . .
load the conscience with guilt,
weaken the spiritual strength of the Christian,
becloud his evidences of grace,
make him a terror to himself, and afraid of drawing near to God in secret. Just as our first parents, from conscious guilt, would have "hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God, among the trees of the garden" — so he, by neglecting the positive and known duty of secret prayer, flies, as it were, from the Lord's presence, to forget his transgression — by occupying his time and thoughts with the affairs of this world.
But this is folly. To add sin to sin — the sin of omission to the sin of commission — gives the enemy of souls a powerful advantage over him. It invariably . . .
increases his guilt,
benumbs his conscience,
strengthens his inbred corruptions, and
renders his return to spiritual duties increasingly difficult.
However painful it may be to draw near to God in secret, with a solemn consciousness of guilt on the soul — it should not be shunned. It is vastly better, while the conscience is feelingly alive to the wound it has received — to hasten to the throne of grace, and sincerely to confess the sin, looking to the cross of Christ, and imploring the pardon of it for his sake, and grace to be more watchful in future. It must be done, or the consequences will be most awful; and the sooner it is done the better, "For with the Lord there is mercy, and with him is plenteous redemption, and he shall redeem Israel from all his iniquities." (Psalm 130.7,8.)
If the neglect is partial — then spiritual declension is probably the cause. While the believer, with deep humiliation, reviews the evils of his past life — reflects upon the awful consequences of sin, and contemplates, with adoring gratitude, the astonishing love of God the Father, the amazing condescension of God the Son, and the stupendous work of God the Holy Spirit, as exhibited in the economy of redemption, and feels "the love of God shed abroad in his heart," (Romans 5.5) — he does not neglect the private duties of the closet, but anticipates with delight the return of those seasons of private prayer in which he has frequently enjoyed sweet communion with the Lord, and found his service perfect freedom.
Having "escaped the pollutions of the world," and being watchful lest he be "again entangled therein and overcome," (2 Peter 2.20) — a temptation from that quarter excites his alarm, leads him to his closet, and makes him more earnest in prayer — thus the purposes of the enemy in presenting the temptation, are defeated.
But he is liable to an attack in a more vulnerable part. Religion is his delight. He does not suspect an evil in a religious garb. Ignorant in some measure of the devices of his spiritual adversary, he has little or no apprehension of meeting him transformed into an angel of light. He is not aware of the paralyzing effects which an inordinate zeal for the non-essentials of religion has upon the inner man, nor of the intoxicating nature of that busy, prying curiosity, which intrudes too far into those mysterious and deep things of God and religion, which are most remote from the understanding of the best and wisest of men.
Having tasted much of the pleasantness of religion, and being anxious in the pursuit of more — he eagerly grasps at anything that may be urged by those whom he highly esteems and regards as fathers in Christ, as absolutely necessary to render his Christianity more pure and primitive, or to increase his measure of religious knowledge.
This is an important crisis — a time of much spiritual danger — the enemy of souls is ever watchful to hinder the Christian in his course — whatever diverts his attention from the weightier matters of religion to those which are comparatively unimportant, does this. Hence it is, that such as have their thoughts more occupied with the non-essentials of religion than with the power of godliness in the soul — seldom make much progress in humility or heavenly-mindedness, and are often lamentably deficient in the duties of the closet.
The temptations of the enemy which have the semblance of religion are the most artful. What is called a religious controversy — a dispute about the government and discipline of Christian Churches — the modes of public worship and administering the ordinances of baptism and the Lord's supper — or on some abstruse theological subject — often follows. Perplexed with the discordant opinions of the controversionists, the pious Christian laudably resolves to examine and weigh for himself the arguments on both sides; on the outcome of his inquiry, much depends.
If, happily, he discovers that the disputation does not relate to matters affecting religion itself, but to non-essentials, concerning which good men may decidedly differ, without the smallest diminution of liberality, or Christian forbearance, towards those of a contrary opinion — then it is well. His perplexity ceases, and his heart is enlarged in Christian love towards all who love the Lord Jesus Christ in sincerity; and he finds additional pleasure in his secret prayers, when, in giving vent to the pious feelings of his soul, he copiously intercedes for the universal Church of Christ.
But if, unhappily, he conceives the disputable articles to be very important, and imbibes a controversial spirit, he receives a wound materially affecting his spiritual health — his mental appetite becomes vitiated — he cannot feed on the most important truths, unless the mode of serving them up precisely fit his humor. His zeal is soon diverted to a new channel, and his thoughts are wholly occupied with arguments in support of his favorite position. He begins to feed, as it were, on the very husks of religion.
A vast declension in spiritual things then takes place in him, and he perceives it not. He frequently neglects private prayer, (not voluntarily indeed, but) having his mind fully occupied with things that have the semblance of religion, he forgets to retire. When he recollects himself, he hastens to his closet — and should the work of his favorite author in the controversy, be near his Bible, he cannot resist the temptation to read just a page or two in that. He reads — he finds his time almost gone — the reading of the Scriptures is postponed to a more convenient opportunity, that he may spend his few remaining moments in prayer. With his lips he goes over, as it were, mechanically, a few important petitions, while a multitude of thoughts are rushing into his mind. This corroborates his own arguments; that refutes the argument of an opponent. He rises from his knees with a mind, as he conceives, stored with wisdom — he feels himself qualified, had he the power, to reorganize the church, to introduce such a mode of worship and discipline, and so to define the most abstruse points of doctrine, as would, unquestionably, meet the views and wishes of all, and effectually put his opponents to the blush.
But where is . . .
that Christian love,
that hatred of sin,
that watchfulness against pride, self-conceit, and vain-glory, which the Christian ought ever to seek diligently and earnestly in private prayer? Alas, the crown is fallen from his head!
Non-essentials have no place in Heaven — doubtful disputations never enter there. Controversial knowledge is no qualification or fitness for the saints in light. Happy is he who avoids disputes about things indifferent, and learns to admire, in the Scriptures, the depths he cannot reach, and to adore the mysteries he cannot comprehend.
If the Christian conceives in his heart an excessive desire of some temporal good, however lawful the possession of the thing may be in itself — the effect will be very similar: spiritual declension will follow, and private prayer will be neglected — though less in the form, probably, than in the spirit of it.
An inordinate desire of anything, not inseparably connected with piety — engrosses the attention, and pre-occupies the thoughts to the exclusion of meditation, the handmaid of private devotion. And like "the cares of this world" in general, and "the deceitfulness of riches" in particular — chokes the precious seed, and renders it unfruitful. With his affections thus obstructed, the Christian may retire to his closet — but the object which he is pursuing with impassionate ardor will follow him thither. He may bend his knees — but the ardently desired good will present itself, in its most engaging forms, to his imagination, and possess his thoughts. He may draw near unto God with his lips, "but his heart will be far from him;" for "where his treasure is — there will his heart be also."
Should an apparently favorable opportunity present itself for pursuing the object of his inordinate desire, at the very period of time he has been accustomed to retire for private prayer — a barter of time succeeds. His prayers are deferred to another opportunity — and the present fortunate moment, as he conceives, is eagerly seized as most fit for prosecuting his favorite schemes. But no time is found for his secret devotions, until the accustomed period again returns. Thus in the form, as well as the spirit of it, is secret prayer neglected, through an inordinate desire of some temporal good. He who has left his first love, should remember from whence he has fallen, and repent, and do his first works. (Rev. 2.4, 5.)
Whatever is the cause — the neglect of secret prayer is culpable and dangerous.
It gives the enemy an advantage against the soul, and, by damping the ardor of spiritual affections, strengthens inbred corruptions. It . . .
fosters spiritual sloth,
engenders earthly mindedness,
blunts the edge of conscience,
induces a laxity of Christian morals,
and eventually, if persevered in, induces an indisposition to the public duties of religion. It should be dreaded as an alarming indication of indifference to the promised help of the Holy Spirit, and an awful slighting of the rich mercies offered to us in the gospel.
How very different is every instance of real neglect of secret prayer, in its character and consequences — to that imaginary kind over which the pious Christian sometimes mourns. Incapacitated for retiring to his closet, by some bodily disease, which renders the constant attendance of another person upon him necessary — he is deprived of the opportunities of private devotion, for which he thirsts, and is frequently interrupted when mentally calling on his God. Being thus prevented from pouring out his heart before the Lord, with all that copiousness and enlargement he could desire (though he prays sincerely and very earnestly in the way of short ejaculatory prayers,) he feels a deficiency; and, without considering the circumstances under which he is placed, suspects himself of neglect, and is much grieved. This is his infirmity — it is not neglect, though it seems to him to be such. If the cause were removed — then the effect would immediately cease. He does not voluntarily absent himself from his closet — his heart is still there — and thither would he resort, if restored to health. In the meantime, the secret aspirations of his soul will be favorably regarded, and will ultimately be openly rewarded by his heavenly Father, as prayers offered to him in secret.
In like manner the Christian may suspect himself guilty of some neglect of secret prayer, when his mind is affected, and he is dismayed with some physical malady which does not confine him to his bed, but unfits his mind for exertion, and disqualifies him for bending his knees in prayer, or prevents his continuing long in that position. Under such an affliction he may feel . . .
his thoughts confused,
his desires languid,
his affections cold,
his petitions faint,
his praises inanimate,
and be much grieved — ascribing to it an indisposition to private prayer, bordering on a neglect of the duty. But, can this be neglect? Does it border upon it? He has a mind, a will, a heart, to pray in secret — and, notwithstanding his bodily indisposition, makes an effort to do so. "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak." The lamented deficiencies of his prayers will be graciously pardoned, and his imperfect petitions mercifully accepted and answered — for his heavenly Father, who sees in secret, "searches the heart, and knows what the mind of the spirit is" (Romans 8.27;) and will register the sorrowful sighings of his contrite ones, to be openly rewarded, in the Last Great Day.
It will, doubtless, be evident to those who are disposed to practice it . . .
that secret prayer is the duty of all;
that its advantages are many and great;
and that the neglect of it is sinful and dangerous.
For the benefit of such, shall be added a few directions for a devout discharge of so important and necessary a duty.
A Few DIRECTIVES for a Devout Discharge of this Important and Necessary Duty.
Private Prayer, as a means, tends to counteract the corrupt workings of the heart, and to give a proper bias to the faculties of the soul. It should therefore be performed frequently.
It is far better to pray often, than to make long prayers. As in our taking frequently a temperate supply of fresh nourishment — the Lord providentially repairs the continual wastes of our bodies, and keeps the fluids in a healthy state; so, in our frequent use of private prayer, he graciously restores the soul (Psalm 23.3.) and causes it to prosper and be in health. (3 John 2.) The Christian, therefore, cannot too frequently contemplate and desire heavenly treasures. He cannot too frequently approach his blessed Savior, and hold communion with his God in secret prayer.
The fittest season should be taken for this sacred duty. Some, who are subject to drowsiness in the later part of the day, prefer the morning, before their minds have been occupied, and their spirits damped, with temporal concerns. And it is doubtless most fit that God should be worshiped by everyone, before he enters on the business of the day. Others, who are constitutionally heavy and dull in the morning, and almost unfit for anything — are quite alert in the evening, and exempt from that heaviness, of which so many complain, as peculiarly unfitting them for prayer.
Everyone, therefore, must be left to determine, which, in his case, are the fittest parts of the day to be the stated periods of his private devotions. But the Christian's experience varies. There are seasons when he feels his mind more than usually solemnized, and everything connected with religion appears to him of the utmost importance. His conscience at one time is peculiarly tender, his soul within him deeply humbled under a sense of sin, his heart broken and contrite, and he is very sorrowful. At another time, his faith in the promise of God is vigorous, his hope animated, his love to the Savior ardent, and he is very thankful. Seasons like these should be embraced, as especially fit to be extraordinary times of secret devotion.
The Christian should be constant in the discharge of his duty. It is not very probable that the incalculable benefits of secret prayer should be experimentally known by those who retire to their closets by fits and starts only. If it is necessary for a man to pray in secret, when he is suffering from the upbraidings of his conscience, or smarting under the rod of affliction — it is equally so in the time of prosperity, when it is probable, his danger is greater, and fresh trials may await him.
The Christian should "pray without ceasing." Not actually, indeed, for private prayer, like every other kind, must have its intermissions; but the heart should be in a disposition for it, at all times, in all places, and under all circumstances — and in the actual practice of it, at fit times, he should persevere. It is not he who begins in the spirit and ends in the flesh — but he who endures to the end, that will be saved.
Important as secret prayer is, and necessary to his soul's health, it must not be trusted in. Christ alone is the foundation of our hope. If we are not savingly interested in him, we may perish with the words of prayer on our lips! (Matthew 25.11, 12.) It is the Savior's free grace, infinite mercy, everlasting love — his full, perfect, and sufficient atoning sacrifice — his pure, spotless, perfect, and glorious righteousness — which form the proper basis of the Christian's trust and confidence. He must not therefore trust in his prayers — but in his Savior. And doubtless the enemy of his soul will tremble to see him go, and leave his closet — trusting and glorying alone in Jesus. Thrice happy is he, whose secret prayers lead him, as the star led the eastern Magi, to the feet of the Savior! — and who, like them, when there, is disposed willingly to offer the choicest and best things he has, not indeed "gold and frankincense and myrrh," but himself, his soul and body — to be a reasonable, holy, living sacrifice unto God.
The Christian, in all his prayers, should look well to his heart. The eye of God is then, in an especial manner, upon it. He does not look at the eloquence, the length, the number of the prayers — but at the sincerity of the heart. He approves, accepts, and rewards no prayer — but that in which the heart is engaged. It is not . . .
the lifting up of the voice,
the wringing of the hands,
or the smiting on the breast —
that he regards, but the motions of the heart. He hears with approbation, no more than the heart speaks in sincerity.
Every prayer should be offered in the name of Jesus. Through him alone, we have access with boldness to the throne of grace. He is our advocate with the Father. When the believer appears before God in secret, the Savior appears also — for "He ever lives to make intercession for us." He has not only directed us to call upon his Father as "Our Father," and to ask him to supply our daily needs, and to forgive us our trespasses — but has graciously assured us that "whatever we shall ask in his name, he will do it, that the Father may be glorified in the Son." (John 14.13.) And says, "if you shall ask anything in my name, I will do it." And again (John 16.23, 24.) "Truly, truly, I say unto you, whatever you shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it to you. Hitherto have you asked nothing in my name; ask, and you shall receive, that your joy may be full."
That is, all needful blessings suited to our various situations and circumstances in this mortal life — all that will be necessary for us in the hour of death, and all that can minister to our felicity in the world of glory — has he graciously promised, and given us a command to ask for, in his name. And what is this but to plead, when praying to our heavenly Father, that Jesus has sent us — and to ask and expect the blessings for his sake alone?
Expect therefore an answer to prayer. "I will make an altar (said the venerable patriarch Jacob) unto God, who answered me in the day of my distress, and was with me in the way which I went." (Genesis 35.3.) He expected the blessing which he asked of the Lord, and in the dispensations of Providence towards him, he received the answer to his prayer.
"God is faithful, who has promised." He says, concerning every one who "has set his love upon him," "He shall call upon me and I will answer him, I will be with him in trouble; I will deliver him and honor him." (Psalm 91.14,15.) His promises are evidently designed to direct us in our supplications, and to excite in us an expectation of their fulfillment.
And what is prayer, but the offering up of the desires of the heart for some good thing, which the Lord has directly or indirectly promised in his holy word to bestow? The very act itself implies that a blessing may be given, in answer to our petitions; and his promises assure us they will — though the time and manner of conferring it, are reserved to himself. He best knows what will suit us, and the best possible time of bestowing it. Therefore he who . . .
obeys the divine precepts heartily,
pleads the promises in prayer perseveringly,
waits their fulfillment patiently, and
is content if God be glorified, though he himself is not gratified —
may confidently expect seasonable and suitable answers to all the prayers he offers in sincerity at the throne of grace, in the name of Jesus.