Private Prayer

Arthur Pink

"But you, 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 who sees in secret, shall reward you openly" (Matthew 6:6). Eight times in the space of this verse, is the pronoun used in the singular number and the second person—a thing unique in all Scripture—as though to emphasize the indispensability, importance and value of private prayer. We are to pray in the closet as well as in the church: in fact if the former be neglected, it is not at all likely that the latter will be of much avail. He who is an attendee at the prayer meetings in order to be seen of men, and is not seen alone in his closet by God—is a hypocrite. Private prayer is the test of our sincerity, the index to our spirituality, the principle means of growing in grace. Private prayer is the one thing, above all others, which Satan seeks to prevent—for he knows full well that if he can succeed at this point, the Christian will fail at every other.

Alas, how remiss we have been, how sadly we have failed to discharge this duty, and what irreparable losers are we by this sinful neglect. Is it not high time that some of us heeded that word, "Consider your ways!" (Hag. 1:5, 7) Shall this year witness a repetition of the sad failures of the past? Can we go on robbing God of His due, and our souls of the blessedness of communion with Him? The secret place of the Most High, is one of vision, peace, joy. The closet is where strength is renewed, faith is quickened, graces are revived. It is not always the cares or pleasures of this world which are the hindering cause—some allow the discharge of public duties to prevent the performance of private ones. Beware, my reader, of being so busy in running from one meeting to another—that personal dealings with God in secret are crowded out. Some are so busily engaged in reading, and preparing sermons—that private communion with God is prevented.

Not a few are puzzling their brains over prophecy, when they should be on their knees before God. "The Devil knows he is no loser, and the curious soul but a little gainer—if he can but persuade him to spend most of his precious time in pouring over the mysteries and hidden things of God. He who affects to read the Revelation of John—more than his plain Epistles; or Daniel's prophecies—more than David's Psalms; and is more busy about reconciling difficult Scriptures—than he is about mortifying of unruly lusts; or is set more upon vain speculation—than upon things that make for edification—he is not the man that is cut out for closet prayer. Such as search after speculative notions, obscure expressions, are but a company of wise fools, who will never take any delight to be with God in private prayer. O how holy, happy, heavenly, and humble might many men have been—had they but spent half the time in closet prayer—that they have spent in searching after those things which are hard to be understood" (Thomas Brooks, Puritan).

The most eminent saints, in Old and New Testament times, applied themselves to private prayer. "And Abram planted a grove in Beersheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, the everlasting God" (Gen. 21:33). Why did Abram plant that grove—but that he could have a secluded spot where he might pour out his soul before his Maker. "And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide" (Gen. 24:63): the Hebrew word for "meditate" also signifies to pray, and is elsewhere rendered "commune" and "pray." So, too, Jacob, Moses, Samuel, David, Elijah, Hezekiah, etc., were men whose private devotions are recorded in Holy Writ. Concerning Daniel, we read, "he kneeled upon his knees three times a day, and prayed, and gave thanks before his God" (6:10). As busy as he must have been, he allowed not public duties to crowd out private devotions.

Christ Himself, when upon earth, did much exercise Himself in private prayer: ponder such passages as Matthew 14:23, Mark 1:35, 6:46, Luke 5:16, where it will be found that He retired "into a mountain," "into a solitary place," "into the wilderness" that He might be alone with God, free from disturbance and distraction. But why was He so much in private prayer? Another has suggested the following reasons.

First, to put a very high honor and value upon the same: to enhance and magnify this duty.

Second, that He might avoid all shows and appearances of ostentation and popular applause: He was very shy of the mere shadow of pride and vainglory.

Third, to set us such a blessed pattern and gracious example that we should not content ourselves with public prayers only, nor with family prayers only—but that we should also apply ourselves to secret prayer.

Fourth, that He might approve Himself to our understandings and consciences to be a merciful and faithful High Priest "who ever lives to make intercession for us."

It is the exercising of ourselves in secret prayer, which distinguishes us from hypocrites, who go through their religious exercises merely to be seen of men: Matthew 6:1, 2, 5, 16. The hypocrite places a far higher value upon the applause of his fellows—than he does upon the approbation of his Maker. The praise of men is his meat and drink. The prominent mark of a hypocrite is that he is one thing in public—but quite another in private. But the genuine Christian makes conscience of his prayer life, knows that God sees and hears him in secret, and cultivates communion with Him in the closet. The diligence with which we perform our private devotions, is the criterion of our sincerity. We never read in Scripture that Pharaoh, King Saul, Judas, Demas, Simon Magus, and the scribes and Pharisees ever poured out their souls before the Lord in secret! The hypocrite is more concerned about a good name—than a good life; of a reputation for piety—than a clear conscience—not so God's children.

In secret we may more freely, fully, and safely, unbosom our souls to God—than we can in the presence of our fellows. There is no danger in opening our heart and confessing in detail our vilest sins before God in a corner—but there might be a considerable hazard in doing so even before our fellow Christians. No one with wisdom and refinement, would think of exposing his bodily ailments and diseases to any but his bosom friend or physician. Neither should he make known his weaknesses and wickedness to any but to his best Friend, the Great Physician. There need be no restraint or reserve in confession, when we are apart with God. It was when David was alone in the cave (see the Psalm heading) that he poured out his complaint and "showed Him his trouble" (Psalm 142:2). Observe carefully the repeated "every family apart" and "their wives apart" of Zechariah 12:12-14—to manifest not only the soundness of their sorrow—but to show their sincerity.

It is striking to note that God has often granted the freest communications of Himself to those who were before Him in secret. It was so with Moses on the mount, when Jehovah gave him the Law—and again when He gave him the pattern for the tabernacle. It was while Daniel was engaged in private prayer, that God sent His angel to reveal to him the secrets of His counsel concerning the restoration of Jerusalem and the duration thereof even unto the Messiah (9:3, 21-27); as it was also during a season when he was alone before the Throne of Grace that God assured him he was "a man greatly beloved" (10:11, 19). It is in the secret prayer closet, that God usually bestows His sweetest and choicest blessings. Cornelius was highly commended and graciously rewarded, upon the account of his private prayer (Acts 10:1-4). Peter was granted that wondrous vision concerning the Gentiles, while praying alone (Acts 10:9-13).

Scripture records much to illustrate and demonstrate the great prevalence of private prayer. O the wonders which followed secret wrestling with God, the grand mercies which have been obtained, the judgments which have been diverted, the deliverances which have been secured! When Isaac was all alone entreating with God for a good wife, he met Rebekah (Gen. 24:63, 64). While Hezekiah was weeping and praying in private, God sent the prophet Isaiah to assure him that He would add unto his days fifteen years (Isaiah 38:5). When Jonah was shut up in the whale's belly, he was delivered in answer to his supplication (2:1-10). O the power of private prayer: it has issued in the dead being raised to life—1 Kings 17:18-22, 2 Kings 4:32-35. May the Holy Spirit graciously use these considerations to stir up writer and reader.

"My voice shall You hear in the morning, O Lord; in the morning I will direct my prayer unto You, and will look up" (Psalm 5:3). Let this be our resolve, and, so long as we are spared, our practice, throughout the year we have just entered. It is both our wisdom and our duty to thus begin each day with God. "Should not a people seek unto the Lord their God?" Surely the light of nature dictates that we ought to do so, while the light of the Gospel affords us ample instruction and encouragement for the same. When He says to us "Seek My face," should not our hearts answer as to One we love, "Your face, O Lord, I will seek" (Psalm 27:8)? But suppose our hearts have grown cold, and we have wickedly strayed from Him? Well, when He says "Return backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings," should we not readily reply, "Behold, we come unto You, for You are the Lord our God!" (Jer. 3:22)

O my reader, is there not much that we need to say to the Lord our God, the One whom we serve? How many and important are the concerns which lie between us and Him. We are constantly dependent upon Him—all our expectation is from Him. Is not all our happiness for time and eternity bound up in His favor? Have we not need to seek His approbation—to seek Him with all our hearts; to beg as for our very lives that He will lift up the light of His countenance upon us, to plead Christ's righteousness as that through which alone we can hope to obtain God's loving-kindness (Psalm 71:16)?! Are we not conscious that we have deeply offended the Lord our God by our numerous and grievous sins, and have contracted defilement thereby? Should we not confess our folly, and seek forgiveness and cleansing by the blood of Christ? Have we not received innumerable bounties and blessings from Him—must we not acknowledge the same, and return thanks and praise? Yes, prayer is the very least we can offer unto God.

Let us now make a few suggestions upon HOW this duty is to be performed.

First, reverently. In all our approaches to God we should duly consider His exalted majesty and ineffable holiness—and humble ourselves before Him as Abraham did (Gen. 18:27). The word "direct my prayer unto You" (Psalm 5:3) signifies a fixedness of thought or close application of the mind. We need to set about the discharge of this duty solemnly, as those who have at heart something of great importance which we dare not trifle with. When we come before the Throne of Grace and address the Most High, we must not offer the sacrifice of fools: "be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything before God" (Eccl. 5:2). He who shoots an arrow at a mark, directs it with a steady hand and fixed eye—so when engaging the heart to approach unto God, it must be disengaged from everything else. O to be able to say, "My heart is fixed, O God" (Psalm 57:7). See to it that the awe of God's greatness be upon your soul, together with a deep sense of your utter unworthiness.

Second, sincerely. We cannot be too strongly or too frequently warned against that mere external worship to which we are so constantly prone, and which is the bane of all spiritual good. Of old, Israel was charged with making mention of God's name, "but not in truth" (Isaiah 48:1). The desire of our heart must genuine, and correspond to the petitions we present. How we need to beg God that this may be wrought into our spirits. How we need to search our hearts and see to it that we mean what we say, for "The Lord will not hold him guiltless, who takes His name in vain" (Exo. 20:7). Form the habit of challenging yourself by inquiring, Am I consistent with myself when I invoke God—or do I think I can impose upon Him with hypocrisy. "The Lord is near unto all those who call upon Him, to all who call upon Him in truth" (Psalm 145:18). As an aid to this, ponder the high value of those spiritual things you ask for—your deep need of them—and inquire, Do I really desire the same?

Third, submissively—that is, subserviently to God's glory and our own highest good. Our petitions should ever be presented with the provision, "If it be Your will." We are ever prone to act amiss and often know not "what manner of spirit we are of" (Luke 9:55). The prayer of faith includes submission, as truly as it does confidence, for if the latter be without the former, it is presumption—and not faith. To pray in faith is not to ask in the certain belief that God will give us what we ask for—but rather that He will grant us what is wisest and best. If we knew assuredly beforehand, that God would certainly give us the very things we ask for—we would have reason to be afraid to pray, for often we desire things which would prove a curse if we got them! Our wisdom as well as our duty is to pray, conditionally and submissively. We must bow before God's sovereignty.

Fourth, confidently. There are some men, who because of their high station or known sternness towards all inferiors, we would be afraid to approach. And because we have none to introduce and speak a good word for us, we would therefore abandon the idea of speaking to them. But there is no reason why a believer should be discouraged from speaking to God—nay, He bids us to "come boldly unto the Throne of Grace, that we may obtain mercy": (Hebrews 4:16). Let not, then, a sense of God's greatness or holiness, nor a realization of your own entire unworthiness, deter you. Such are God's compassions unto humble supplicants, that even His terror should not make them afraid. It is directly against His revealed will, that His people should frighten themselves thus. He would have them encourage themselves as children: "for you have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but you have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father" (Romans 8:15). By that very spirit of adoption we were brought into the nearness, freedom, and liberty of the children of God, and though we are still full of sin—yet, "we have an Advocate with the Father" (1 John 2:1).

Fifth, fervently. David said, "I entreated Your favor with my whole heart" (Psalm 119:58). It is not sufficient that our tongues babble out a mere form—our hearts must be in this work—we are to be more concerned about the exercise of our affections, than in the selection of our words. It is to be feared that we pray far more from our memories, than our consciences. But let it be pointed out that fervency in prayer is not a working up of our animal spirits so that there is shouting and shaking of the body—actors work themselves up into a great heat to move their audience, and lawyers to impress a judge. Fervency is expressed in Scripture as a calling upon the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13), a stretching out the hands toward Him (Job 11:13), a following hard after Him (Psalm 63:8), a laying hold of Him (Isaiah 64:7), a pouring out the heart before Him (Psalm 62:8). It is a striving in prayer (Romans 15:30). God hates lukewarmness. Note Daniel's intensity: 9:19. David compared his prayers to "incense" (Psalm 141:2), and no incense was offered without fire!

Let us now anticipate an OBJECTION. I would be often in praying before God—but sin has so much power over me, that it severs communion, and utterly quenches the spirit of prayer in my heart—I feel so polluted that it would be a mockery for me to appear before the thrice holy God. Ah—but God's hearing of our prayers does not depend upon our sanctity—but upon Christ's mediation, "I do not do this for your sakes, O house of Israel—but for My holy name's sake" (Ezek. 36:22). It is not because of what Christians are in themselves—but because of what they are in Christ, that God responds to their requests: "to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:5). When God answers our petitions—it is not for our sakes, nor for our prayers' sake—but for His Son's sake: see Ephesians 4:32. Seek to remember, my distressed brethren, that you are a member of the mystical body of Christ, and as Luther said, "What man will cut off his arm, because it is dirty?"

The more desperate be our case, the greater is our need to pray: if grace in us be weak, the continued neglect of prayer will make it weaker. If our corruptions be strong, the omission of prayer will make them stronger. Sins which are bewailed, never hinder the access and success of our petitions. Jonah was a man full of sinful passions—yet his prayers prevailed with God: (2:1, 2, 7, 10). David said, "iniquities prevail against me," yet he at once added, "as for our transgressions, You shall purge them away" (Psalm 65:3). On another occasion he said, "The Lord has heard the voice of my weeping" (Psalm 6:8)— his very tears prayed! God hears the sighs and groanings of those who cannot put them into words. Also, encourage yourself by the greatness of God's mercy, His covenant promises, His Fatherhood, and by the answers you have received in the past.