Cultivating Private Prayer as a Pastor

Desiring God 2011 Conference for Pastors

The Powerful Life of the Praying Pastor: In His Room, With His Family, Among the People of God

Notes taken during the session.

It is always convicting to receive the assignment to speak on prayer to other pastors. And as I was writing the book that Dr. Piper referenced on prayer, I became increasingly convicted by the Puritans about how little I pray. So tonight, I am preaching first of all to myself. This topic is at the heart of revival of the church of Jesus Christ. My father told me when I was a teenager that the greatest problem of the church today is prayerless praying.

The sermons of the Reformers and Puritans are not that different than ours. We’re saying essentially the same thing. What was so different was their prayer lives. My aim is that we would truly pray in our prayers. So turn with me to Isaiah 64:6-9 and James 5:13-18.

True prayer is putting ourselves into our petitions, crying out to God Almighty and praying in our prayers. The problem is not that we don’t pray, but rather that seldom we truly prayerfully pray in our prayers. What is this praying? The primary exercise of faith. Private prayerful praying is the work of the triune God. It has more to do with God than with us. It is Heaven’s greatest weapon that we have at our disposal as a minister of the gospel. This kind of praying is supposed to be half of our vocation—giving ourselves to the Word and to prayer.

The giants of church history dwarf us because of the time and energy that they devoted to private prayer. They were Daniels in private and in public. Luther spent the first two hours of every day in prayer. He once said to Melanchton that he had so much to do that he needed to spend an extra hour in prayer. On the contrary, we too often see prayer as an interruption to our ambition.

Luther was not shy in is prayers. He would often pray loudly and boldly. He said praying was hard work. And he’s right. There is so much working against us in our prayers. Distraction arises in our cold heart and disturbance comes up in those around us.

In all of his busyness, Calvin spent hours in prayer every day. Unless we fix certain hours of every day in prayer, he said, it would slip from our memory. We must taste the sweetness of the fellowship of God in our prayer. We need to strive to grow in prayer.

The Puritans were the same way. They often would rise early, hours before sunrise, to fellowship with God in prayer. John Knox said that the prayers of the great cloud of witnesses rebuked us in our prayerlessness. In 1651, a group of Scottish ministers gathered together in fear of losing their spiritual vitality and wrote up a joint confession. Number twelve on their list was their prayerlessness. Tragically, our prayer life is often like a building closed for repairs.

We intend to do it better, to get more serious about it. We get down about it. Eventually we begin to call our prayerless praying real prayer. Prayerful praying pierces Heaven and warms the soul. We so often struggle in public prayer because we so rarely draw near to God in private. The problem with many of us is that our prayer lives have grown dull. We know that backsliding begins in the inner closet of prayer. Yet, we carry on with the commendation of people while not carrying on with God in prayer.

What we need to do tonight is not just confront this problem of prayerless praying, but search for conclusions. All of our excuses are obnoxious in the eyes of God. It is tragic when a minister of the gospel, who is called to be a man of prayer, can rest comfortably in this wicked prayerless condition. It is easier perhaps to riddle ourselves with guilt than to do something about it.

I do not aim to beat you with guilt but to awake you and me up to the need to lay hold of eternal life through the pursuit of a more faithful, more fervent prayer life with your Savior and your God. This will require us to take hold of ourselves and to take hold of God. How? 


Take Hold of Yourself in Prayer - Seven Principles

1. Remember the Value of Prayer. As ministers, we must remember that prayer is essential for our ministry and every duty we do as a minister of the gospel. Make it a rule to never engage in any activity in ministry without first seeking God in prayer. I have got to go to God in prayer. It is the most Christ-like thing we can engage in, brothers.

What a blessing that we have been called to be men of prayer. Many other men have to work ten hours a day in their secular vocation and we get to spend hours praying. Again my father told me just to have a place to go with your every need is worth more than anything money can buy.

William Bridge said that a praying man can never be miserable because he has the ear of God.

Nothing is so valuable as prayer. The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel. This is Heaven’s greatest weapon.

2. Maintain the Priority of Prayer. Jesus said, “Without me, you can do nothing.” Prayer has got to be first. It has to be our priority in every need. Spurgeon wrote, “Your prayers will be your greatest aid in your preparations. And after the sermon, how can a preacher give vent to his soul if the mercy seat were denied him.” How hard do you pray after your sermon is over? They would pray after the sermon, “Please, Lord. Don’t let the birds take away the seeds of that sermon.”

I fear that the pressures of the ministry today to be a jack-of-all-trades, pressures at home, pressures in the media crowd out our time for the priority of this ministry of prayer. We lose our power and authority. You have to have windows of prayer between your visits and appointments. That is the way to do it. Keep prayer your priority, not just during your times when you feel like a sailboat gliding effortlessly but also when you feel like an ice breaker.

3. Prayer With Sincerity. Psalm 62:8. The way to pray is to tell the Lord everything about you like he didn’t know anything about you all the while knowing he knows everything about you. Sometimes praying with sincerity means praying briefly, “Oh, God! Oh, God! Oh, God!” God does not look at the logic of your prayers or the style of your prayers but the sincerity of your prayers.

Sincerity in prayer requires integrity in our marriages. Let your prayers be not hindered. Taking hold of our prayers may mean to take hold of our bad attitudes or our treatment of our wives. You have to do something about that. Perhaps praying first a prayer of repentance. We need to avoid professionalism in our prayers because it is not about our prayers but about our hearts. Spurgeon was asked how to get better at praying in public. He responded, “Pray more in private.”

4. Cultivate a Continual Spirit of Prayer. Isn’t it true that when you are really close to God that you have those “occasional prayers”? You pray your way through the day. You pray without ceasing. It is not just during your set times of prayer. We should be like a bird returning to its nest when we return to God in prayer. That is praying in your prayer—having the sense of relationship and knowing that your prayers reach the courts of Heaven.

It struck me how much Calvin used the example of a child crawling up into his father’s lap in relation to prayer. Pray continually. Ask God to help you do that. Whenever you have the least impulse to pray, pray! We have so few impulses to pray that we ought to take advantage of every one of them.

5. Work Toward Organization in Intercessory Prayer. We are ministers. We owe it to our people to pray for every single one of them. We know them and we should pray for them one by one. How? Be strategic. Have set lists that you have organized and categorized to pray for other people. Newton said his best friends were those who prayed for him. It will be encouraging to your people for them to know you are praying for them. I take the church directory and pray for the people on one page each day. You love your people and you know their needs.

6. Read the Bible for Prayer. Prayer is a two-way conversation. God comes to us in prayer and we return to him in prayer. Read verse-by-verse, and pray verse-by-verse. Pray your way through the Scriptures. Turn the psalms into prayer.

Fill your mind with Scripture and your prayers will gain life. In the house churches in China, they had no Scriptures in print but had so much memorized that their prayers were filled with it. When I get discouraged in my prayers, I often look to volumes of saints’ prayers from the past. I have found that they are filled with Scripture.

7. Keep Biblical Balance in Your Prayers. There are many different kinds of prayers in Scripture, aren’t there? We need to examine our prayer life from time to time and check to see if our prayers are repetitive. Are we covering the same bases when we pray? Listen to others pray. We can learn from others in how we pray.


Take Hold of God in Prayer - Three Principles

1. Plead God’s Promises in Prayer. David says, “My soul clings to you.” God is tender to his own handwriting. That is especially true of his own promises. It is no arrogance or presumption to pray to God his own promises. Prayer is nothing less than the promise reversed and retorted back to God. Beseech God with his own promises. Cast your burdens on the Lord and then trust him. Don’t take them right back.

2. Cling to This Glorious Trinity in Prayer. Like Elijah and Isaiah, cling to it. True prayer is not self-congratulatory but self-condemning and Christ-congratulatory. We should dwell on the Trinity and how the three persons draw us to God. We should meditate on who our God is. We need all three persons. We come in a Trinitarian fashion. We know our Father’s hands are full of grace because the Son’s hands were pierced for us. We can come boldly to throne of grace. As ministers, we can always say our time is a time of need. We are full of needs. Bring them to God.

God loves a returning minister who grieves over not turning to him in prayer. When he takes hold of you, you can take hold of him. Let us arise from our prayerlessness and cling to God Almighty, trusting in him, believing in him. We have access by one Spirit unto the Father. John Owen said we ought to labor in prayer to know each person of the Trinity one by one. In our prayer lives, we need an experiential knowledge of the Triune God.

We do not just pray for God’s benefits but God himself. We need God intimacy and God dependency. When we come to our people when we have come out of our closets, they can sense the presence of God. Then our people will begin to understand what prayerful praying is all about.

3. Believe that God Answers Prayer. Too often I will cry out to God and am surprised when he answers. Faithless prayer is fruitless prayer. When we don’t trust God, we make a mess of everything.

Let me end by giving you cautionary conclusion. If you want to know something about a man, ask him about his prayer life. Beseech him for mercies upon the church. In prayer, you know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge.

My aim is not to discourage you. Don’t despair no matter how bad your prayer life is right now. Don’t compare yourself to the saints of past. Let them encourage you that there is more for you in prayer. Let them stir you up! That is the way to use Isaiah 64 and the prayer life Knox, Luther and Calvin. Battle unbelief and despair with prayer. We need not be crushed by demands to pray for hours but to pray with earnestness. Take hope in the almighty, Triune God who loves to be prayed to.

is president of the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, and a Pastor of Heritage Netherlands Reformed Congregation in Grand Rapids.