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

Well, I stand before you tonight as a convicted man. Whenever you get the assignment to talk to other ministers about prayer, you can’t help but be convicted yourself. And what happened actually was I was in the process of writing the book that Dr. Piper just held up when I got the invitation from him and then decided, well, I needed to really push on this book and to get it out in time. But as I did so, and as I immersed myself in the reformers and puritans in the last months and their views of prayer, I became increasingly convicted and overwhelmed at how far short we fall in this critical subject of developing private prayer for ourselves, for our families, for our churches.

What I intend to deliver to you tonight, I want to say to you I’m preaching to myself first of all, and I am so convicted that this subject is at the heart of the revival of the churches of Jesus Christ throughout the world today, and that we need to deliver ourselves from the bondage of prayerless praying and learn to take up, as the reformers and puritans did, their mantle of prayer and dependency on the Holy Spirit and storm the mercy seat and take the kingdom of heaven by violence, for the violent take it by force.

Missing the Mark of the Reformers

When I was a teenager, my father once said to me, “The greatest problem of the organized church today is prayerless praying.” And when I went to Westminster Seminary for my doctorate in Philadelphia and enrolled in the post-Reformation coursework, I immersed myself in Luther and Calvin and the other reformers, and I was convicted that what my dad said was right. This is the difference between them and us. If you read their sermons, well, the sermons aren’t that much different than ours. I mean, maybe they’re a bit better, but we’re saying the same things. It was their prayer life that arrested me. And I said, “This is the secret as to why their times were often so much more blessed and their ministries were so much more blessed than ours.” And so this evening, I want to bring to you a message first about our prayerless praying, and then about how, by the grace of God, to take hold of God and to truly pray in our prayers.

Turn with me please to Isaiah 64:6–9. I want to read a few verses there and then a few from James 5. The passages reads:

But we are all as an unclean thing,
     And all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;
And we all do fade as a leaf;
     And our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
And there is none (this is the key verse) that calleth upon thy name,
     That stirreth up himself to take hold of thee:
For thou hast hid thy face from us,
     And hast consumed us, because of our iniquities.

But now, O Lord, thou art our father;
     We are the clay, and thou our potter;
     And we all are the work of thy hand.
Be not wroth very sore, O Lord,
     Neither remember iniquity for ever:
     Behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people (Isaiah 64:6–9; all Scripture quotations from the KJV).

And then turn with me to James 5, please. I want to read James 5:13–18:

Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. Confess your faults one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed. The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much. Elias was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain: and it rained not on the earth by the space of three years and six months. And he prayed again, and the heaven gave rain, and the earth brought forth her fruit.

Now in James 5:17, that word “earnestly” in the King James Version has marginal notes with this translation: prayed in his prayers. In other words, his prayers were more than a formal exercise. He poured himself into his prayers. Spurgeon says, “Sometimes when I preach it’s like I’m shooting arrows, and sometimes I actually put myself into the gun and I shoot myself as well because I care so deeply about my people.” Well, this is what true prayer is. We put ourselves into our petitions and we cry out to God almighty and we pray in our prayers.

Alexander Ross says that this idiom communicates intensity. A man may pray with his lips and not pray yet with an intense desire of the soul. But Elijah prayed in his prayers, which we might call prayerful praying. So our greatest problem you see, isn’t that we don’t pray, but our greatest problem is that we seldom pray in our prayers — truly prayerfully pray.

Private, Prayerful Praying

Private prayerful praying, that’s what we need. What is it? Well, it’s the prime exercise of faith whereby all our saving graces converge to climax in both the highest expression of delight in God and the deepest expression of humility with regard to ourselves, as well as the broadest expression of love for those for whom we intercede. Thomas Watson put it this way:

Private prayerful prayer is the soul’s breathing itself into the bosom of its heavenly Father.

It is a holy art taught by a groaning, wrestling Spirit who uses our impossibilities, the impossibilities of our sin-stained life, to pencil on us the image of Christ. Private prayerful praying is the fruit of God triune. The Father is giver and decreer of prayer, the Son as meritor and perfector of prayer, the Spirit is the wrestler and indweller of prayer. Private prayerful praying has more to do with God than with us, more to do with changing us than changing God. It is wrapped in holy concern for the glory and the kingdom of God. Private prayerful prayer is heaven’s greatest weapon that we have at our disposal as ministers of the gospel. And personally, domestically, congregationally, this is called to be half of our occupation.

This is why the deaconry was established (Act 6:4), that we might give ourselves to prayer and the preaching of the Word. And yet, I among them must say that as ministers today, if we spend five percent of our time in really private prayerful praying, we are blessed men. You see brothers, there’s nothing so essential and so neglected as private prayerful praying. This is why the church history giants dwarf us so easily. It’s not because they were more educated, or that they were less distracted by cares and duties, or that they lived in more godly times. They had their own trials, they had their own crosses. They were busy men as well, but they made time, and energy was devoted to prayer. They were Daniels in private and in public.

A Legacy of Prayer

Martin Luther is legendary for his prayer life. He spent the best of two hours every day alone with God. One time he said to Philip Melanchthon, his right-hand man, “Philip, I’ve got so much to do tomorrow, I need to spend an extra hour in prayer.” And what do you do? What do I do? When we have a lot to do, our prayer time goes in like an accordion rather than going out. And the reason why is that we often think of prayer as an appendix to our work, rather than the foundation of our work. Sometimes, God forbid, but sometimes, like Roland Hogben said, “We too often regard prayer as an interruption of our personal ambition.”

Luther always prayed aloud. He said, “I want even the devil to hear me pray.” Philip Melanchthon once came around the corner and heard Luther storming the mercy seat and he just stopped in his tracks and listened, and he walked away and went back and wrote in his diary these words:

Gracious God, what faith, what spirit, what reverence. And yet, with what holy familiarity did Master Martin pray.

And yet Luther himself said that prayer was hard work, the most difficult of all works. He said:

Prayer is a difficult matter, far more difficult than preaching the word or performing other official duties in the church. And this is perhaps the reason why it is so rare.

Luther is right. There’s so much that wages war against private personal prayer. Our threefold enemy, if not able to dissuade us from praying, works to discourage and distract and disturb us while we pray. And our discouragement, as Felicity Houghton writes, “rises from our unbelief and our darkened understanding of who God really is, and our distraction arises from our cold heart and our wandering imagination, and the disturbance arises from all the outward pressures of time and noise and busyness and those around us and our refusal to get alone to be with God.”

Well, Luther is legendary, but most people don’t know that Calvin also spent hours in all his busyness in prayer every day. He writes in his commentary:

It is good to have certain hours appointed for prayer, not because we’re tied to hours, but unless we would ever become unmindful of prayer.

And in another place he says:

Unless we fix certain hours in the day for prayer, it slips from our memory.

Well, I’m not asking you to try to spend hours in prayer. I think you’ll fall flat on your face and so will I. The goal isn’t necessarily long periods of time, the goal is more quality in our prayer. And as we get more quality, no doubt the quantity will enlarge itself as well as we taste the sweetness of being in God’s presence — an experience of which Thomas Brooks said, “He comes to kiss me when I’m engaged in private prayerful praying.” We need more quality, brethren. We need to strive to grow in prayer.

Praying Through the Night

John Welsh, the son-in-law of John Knox, also prayed several hours a day. His wife said of him after he died that he left a robe beside his bed and never a night went past that he didn’t get up in the middle of the night and go out into the cold side room of Northern Scotland and began to pour out his soul to God. And his wife was afraid he’d catch cold and get pneumonia and die or something, so she’d follow him out. She wouldn’t dare go in the room. It was too sacred, she said. But she’d stand outside the door and she’d say, “John, honey, don’t you think you should come to bed?”

And he’d call back out through the door, “Oh my dear, I’ve got 3,000 souls to care for and I know not how it is with many of them.” He was praying through them one by one in the middle of the night. And then she’d stand and listen and he’d say, “Lord, Lord, give me Scotland. Give me Scotland.” He would say big prayers and small prayers — prayers for nations and prayers for individuals. He was a man who wrestled with God.

The puritans were the same way. Joseph Alleine’s wife wrote of him after he passed away:

He did rise constantly at 4:00 in the morning on the Sabbath, even sooner, and would often be ashamed if he heard the shoemakers or the blacksmiths at their trades before he was in his duties with God, saying, “How this noise shames me. Does not my master deserve more than theirs?” And from 4:00 a.m. till 8:00 a.m., he spent in holy prayer, holy contemplation, and singing of psalms, which he most delighted in and did daily practice alone as well as in his family.

Well, you know the prayers of John Knox. We’re surrounded, brethren, we’re surrounded by a cloud of witnesses of faithful men and women throughout the centuries whose prayers rebuke our prayerlessness.

Losing the Vitality of Personal Religion

So what is our prayer life like? Is it like a toy that Satan can sleep beside, or do we use it as heaven’s greatest weapon? Does it bring us shame? Does it bring us glory? In 1651, there was a group of ministers in the Church of Scotland who got together because they were convicted that they were losing the vitality of their personal religion in the ministry, and in the meeting, much like this meeting, they wrote up a mutual confession and they confessed their sins to God. There were 20 or 30 of them. And they wrote up their confessions in a most moving document, and number 12 was their prayerlessness. This is what they said:

We have not been in a prayer. The spirit of prayer is slumbered amongst us. The closet has been too little frequented and delighted in. Idle visiting, foolish talking, jesting, idle reading, and unprofitable occupations have engrossed our time that might have been redeemed for prayer. Why is there so little anxiety to get time to prayer? Why so little forethought in the laying out of time and employments so as to secure a large portion of each day for prayer? Why so much speaking and so little prayer? Why so much hustle and business and bustle, yet so little prayer? Why so many meetings with fellow men and so few meetings with God? Why so much fear of being alone with God? For it is when coming out fresh from communion with God that we go forth to do his work successfully. It is in the closet that we get our vessels so filled with blessing that when we come forth, we cannot contain it to ourselves but must, as by a blessed necessity, pour it out wherever we go.

Tragically, our prayer life is often like a building closed for repairs. I longed for many years to see Zwingli’s Zurich Cathedral. I thought it was going to be fantastic if I could get to Switzerland, get to Zurich, and see the father of the Reformed movement. I studied him, I loved the man. I went there and finally got there, and there’s a sign on the front door, “Closed for repairs.” So I came back several years later and said, “I finally will get to see Zurich Cathedral.” Again, it said, “Closed for repairs.” That’s the way our prayer life often is. We intend to do it better, we intend to get more serious about it, but what happens is we get dragged down and then we begin to even call our prayerless praying prayerful praying, and we forget that there’s a great difference between the two.

Both come with empty hands to God, but prayerless praying comes with listless hands. Prayerful praying clings with one hand to heaven’s foot stool and with the other hand to Calvary’s cross, as it were, and it stirs up itself to take hold of God. Prayerless praying freezes before it reaches heaven, prayerful praying pierces heaven and warms the soul. It’s no wonder we struggle in public prayer if we don’t know what it means to pour out our souls in private prayer. Jesus actually warns us that if we never draw near to God in secret, then if we try to draw near to him in public but we have no content, no substance, no reality, we’re actually hypocrites — then we don’t just need a new method of prayer, but we need a new heart from the Holy Spirit. We need Christ to save us.

Backslidings Begin in the Secret Place

But it’s more likely that for many of us the problem is our prayer life has just grown dull, and sometimes we’re not hardly aware of it. God helps us perhaps in public ministry, but in private, we’re cold and we’re distant and we know, of course, theologically that backsliding begins in the inner closet of prayer, but somehow we go on and we make ends meet and we carry ourselves along by what people say about us and about our ministry, rather than having real and vital communion with God.

And how tragic it is that we then slip away until prayer actually becomes a burden. An 18th century minister, Thomas Adams, wrote it this way:

I pray faintly and with reserve (maybe you and I can resonate with him) merely to quiet conscience for present ease, almost wishing not to be heard. Prayer and other spiritual exercises can be a wariness to me, a task and a force upon my nature. I’m too well pleased with pretenses for omitting them, but when they are over, I feel myself at ease as it were like after the removal of a heavy weight. Whenever I attempt to pray for others, I’m soon made sensible that I do it in a cold heartless manner, a plain indication that love is not at the bottom. It is an awful moment when the soul meets God in private to stand the test of his all searching eye.

Solutions for Prayerless Praying

So what we need to do tonight is not just confront this problem of prayerless praying, but we need to look for solutions. Where do we go? What do we do? Charles Bridges, in that great book, The Christian Ministry — if you don’t have it, you have to get that from Banner of Truth; it’s the best book overall in ministry I think that’s ever been written — comments on Acts 6:4 and says:

“We will give ourselves continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word” means that prayer is one half of our ministry and it gives to the other half all its power and success. Many can set their seal to Luther’s testimony that he often obtained more knowledge in a short time by prayer than by many hours of laborious and accurate study. Living near to the fountainhead of influence, we shall be in the constant receipt of fresh supplies of light, support, and consolation to assist us in our duties, to enable us for our difficulties, and to assure us of our present acceptance and a suitable measure of ultimate success.

So all our excuses — “I’m too busy to pray. I’m too tired to pray. I feel too dry spiritually to pray. I feel no need to pray. I’m too bitter to pray. I’m too ashamed to pray. God already knows what I need” — they’re obnoxious excuses in the eyes of God. As Greg Nichols points out:

A prayerless person is ungrateful because he doesn’t thank God. He’s self-righteous because he doesn’t confess his sins to God. He’s self-centered because he doesn’t ask God to bless other people. He’s presumptuous because he doesn’t pray for his daily needs. He’s irreverent because he does not praise God nor pray for his kingdom to come. And he’s unfriendly to God because his prayerlessness evidence is he doesn’t enjoy being with God.

But how tragic if a minister of the gospel, a minister of the triune God, who’s called to be a man of prayer, can rest comfortably in this wicked condition. Well, it’s easier perhaps to riddle ourselves with great guilt over our prayerlessness than it is to do something about it. My purpose tonight is not to riddle you with guilt and leave you there, but I do want to awaken myself and I do want to awaken you that we do have a problem, brethren, and we need to do something about it. Paul says to us, “Exercise thyself rather unto godliness” (1 Timothy 4:7). He says, “Fight the good fight of faith. Lay hold on eternal life” (1 Timothy 6:12). That’s why I plead with you tonight, to aggressively and dependently and prayerfully seek a more fervent and faithful prayer life with your Sender, your Caller, your worthy triune God.

And that will require of us two things. It will require of us to take hold of ourselves and it will require of us to take hold of God — to take hold of ourselves and to take hold of God. Now how do you do that?

Taking Hold of Ourselves

Let me give you several principles of how to take hold of yourself. Take hold of yourself for prayer. I’ve got seven of them.

1. The Value of Prayer

Number one: remember the value of prayer. You see, prayer is so valuable that we should be like Daniel, we would be willing rather to die than to give up private prayer. And we should always remember as ministers that prayer is essential for the wellbeing of our own soul. It lies at the heart of our ministerial calling. It’s essential for our sermon preparation, for our pulpit ministry, for our pastoral counseling, and for every duty that we ever do as a minister of the gospel.

When I was a young minister, I had a man say to me, “Young man, when you get older, you’ll be tempted to try something in the ministry without praying first, but make it a rule right now while you’re young never to engage in any activity of ministry without seeking God’s face first.” Well, I can’t always say I’ve prayed in my prayers before every activity of ministry, but that stuck. That made sense to me. No matter if I’ve done it 20, 30, or 50 times, I’ve got to go to God in prayer. Prayer is the most Christ-like thing we can engage in, brother.

Its value is priceless. You heard about the bricklayer in front of Spurgeon’s house, did you? He was swearing and cursing and Spurgeon brought him in and gave him 100 pounds, or some outrageous amount of money, if he would never use the name of God and never call upon God again. The guy pocketed the money, went home, and his daughter got sick. She was sick three nights in a row. He wanted to pray for her but he couldn’t use the name of God, so he got more and more desperate. Finally, he took the money and he threw at Spurgeon’s feet, and he said, “The value of prayer, the value of calling upon God’s name is greater than all the money of this world.” What a blessing that we have actually been called to be men of prayer. What a blessing that we’ve been called to set time aside.

Many other men have to work 10 hours a day in their secular occupation. We’ve been called to exercise this value of prayer. Unanswered prayer is even valuable. My dad used to say to me as a boy, in fact when I was nine years old, once he set me on his bed and he said, “Son, remember this. Just to have a place to go with your every need is something the unbeliever doesn’t have, but as a believer, it’s worth more than anything money can buy.” Isn’t that right? Just to be able to pour out your heart to God, even if no circumstances change. William Carey labored as a missionary in India for eight years before baptizing the first convert from Hinduism to Christ. And yet in those years, he learned to pray as never before, and he said:

I feel that it is good to commit my soul, my body, my all into the hands of God. Then the world appears little, the promises appear great, and God is my all sufficient portion.

You see, God’s delay became marrow for Carey’s soul. Puritan William Bridge put it this way:

A praying man can never be very miserable whatever his condition be, for he has the ear of God, the Spirit within to indict, a friend in heaven to present, and God himself to receive his desires. Truly it is a mercy just to pray, though I never received the mercy prayed for.

Answered Prayer

But if unanswered prayer is sweet, how much more sweet is answered prayer? Listen to Joseph Hall:

Good prayers never come weeping home. I’m sure I shall either receive what I asked or what I should have been asking for in the first place.

You see, God does exceeding abundantly above, doesn’t he, what we ask or think, when we go to prayer. That’s the beauty. God out-leaps us (Ephesians 3:20) and goes beyond us, and later we look back and say, “Lord, you’re amazing. You’re just amazing.”

So we need to refuse to leave God alone. We need to maintain the priority. Prayer is valuable. There’s nothing so valuable as prayer. Thomas Watson said:

The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer that fetched the angel.

We’ve got to beg, you see, that the Lord would bring back those days of John Knox when his enemies dreaded his prayers more than the armies of 10,000 men. This is heaven’s greatest weapon.

2. The Priority of Prayer

Number two, maintain the priority of prayer. This is similar to number one, but it’s still different. Jesus said, “Without me, ye can do nothing” (John 15:5). John Bunyan said:

You can do more than pray after you pray, but you can’t do more than pray until you pray.

In other words, prayer has to be first. It has to be our priority in our every need, especially as ministers. Charles Spurgeon wrote to us:

Your prayers will be your ableist assistance while your discourses are yet upon the anvil. Prayer will singularly assist you in the delivery of your sermon. In fact, nothing can so gloriously fit you to preach as descending fresh from the mount of communion with God to speak with men. And after the sermon, how could a conscientious preacher give vent to his feelings and find solace for his soul if access to the mercy seat were denied him?

Ask yourself this question, how hard do you pray after your sermon is over? Our forefathers did that. They didn’t just pray before they preached, and even while they were preaching, sending up little darted petitions to God — “Help me, Lord. Power, Lord” — but afterward, they went on their knees and they cried, “Oh God, bring home that sermon. Don’t let the birds pluck it away.” They wrestled for benediction upon their sermons. Spurgeon goes on to say that our prayers are worth more than all our libraries for sermon preparation. That’s a really convicting statement.

You see, priority. Priority means you rank it higher than everything else. And sometimes, I fear that all the pressures on the ministry today to be a jack of all trades, as well as pressures in the home, as well as getting sucked in hours on end by the modern media — be it internet, be it television, be it radio, even all these many things that are legitimate that we watch without even talking about risque things now — and so many things that we do and we try to keep up with in our busy world as ministers of the gospel crowd out our time for this priority. And so we have just a few minutes left. And we lose our power. We lose our authority.

You see, when you do your schedule, you ought to have open window space. I tell our theological students, you ought to have open window space for prayer before everything and behind everything so you just don’t hop from one thing to the other. If you say, “I’m going to visit her for 30 minutes then her for 30 minutes,” leave 15 minutes in between. So as you travel over there, you’re praying as you’re going in the car. For the next visit, you’re praying about the last visit, and you pray your way through the day. That’s the way to do it. So no matter what, keep prayer your priority, not just at times when you are feeling like a sailboat gliding forward in a favoring wind and prayer comes easily, but also we must press on when we feel like an icebreaker smashing our way through an arctic sea, one foot at a time. We have to keep on and persevere. Make it and keep it your priority.

3. The Requirement of Sincerity

Number three, pray with sincerity. This is far more important than the length of our prayers. Psalm 62:8 says:

Trust in him at all times; ye people,
     Pour out your heart before him:
     God is a refuge for us.

Octavius Winslow says in one of his books that his mother said to him:

You know what the way to pray is, son? The way to pray is to tell the Lord everything about you as if he knew nothing about you, yet knowing he knows everything about you.

Pouring out your heart to pray with your mouth what is not in your heart is hypocrisy unless you are confessing the coldness of your heart and crying out for heartwarming grace. And sometimes to pray what’s in your heart means to pray something fairly lengthy because you have a lot of things on your heart. Sometimes it means to pray something short like, “Unite my heart to fear thy name” (Psalm 86:11). Sometimes it means just to pray, “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” Even the name of God is a prayer. Or sometimes it means to pray, “Be merciful to me, a sinner,” and nothing more.

But either way, you see, we can’t settle for less than sincerity in our prayers. Thomas Brooks put it so well. He said:

God doesn’t look at the elegancy of your prayers to see how neat they are, the geometry of your prayers to see how long they are, the arithmetic of your prayers to see how many they are, or at the music of your prayers or at the sweetness of your voice or at the logic of your prayers, but at the sincerity of your prayers to see how hearty they are . . . There’s no prayer acknowledged, approved, accepted, recorded, or rewarded by God, but that where in the heart is sincere and whole. The true mother would not have the child divided; as God loves a broken and a contrite heart, so he loathes a divided heart.

Now sincerity in prayer then spills over into every area of our lives. Sincerity in prayer requires, just to take one example, integrity in our marriages. Isn’t that what Peter said in 1 Peter 3:7?

Likewise, ye husbands, dwell with them according to knowledge, giving honour unto the wife, as unto the weaker vessel, and as being heirs together of the grace of life; that your prayers be not hindered.

So taking hold of ourselves in prayer may require taking hold of our bad attitude or our mistreatment of our wives. It’s a bad sign when your wife has to sit in church and she hears you pray publicly and instead of, “Amen,” she thinks, “Hypocrite.” You have to do something about that. You’ve got to pray perhaps, first of all, a prayer of repentance of how you haven’t shown compassion and honor to your helpmate. I think that’s why one reason why Piper has warned us to avoid professionalism in our prayers. It’s not just about the right words, you see, it’s about the right heart, and then the words will come. One young minister came to Spurgeon and said, “How can I pray better in public?” He was looking for this checklist. Spurgeon said, “Pray more in private.”

4. A Continual Spirit of Prayer

Number four, cultivate a continual spirit of prayer. Pray without ceasing, says 1 Thessalonians 5:17. And there’s always been a debate about exactly what this means. Once there was a group of ministers — John Newton and Richard Cecil were among them — and they would get together for ministerial fellowships and they’d have discussions once a month on a biblical question, which is a great idea. And this was their question one month, “What does it mean to pray without ceasing?” And they got into a debate about it, and they disagreed with each other. And finally there was a young woman who was serving them, and one minister said, “Maybe you know.” “Oh sir,” she said, “it’s really not a problem. When I get up in the morning and I clothe myself, I pray that I might be clothed with the righteousness of Christ today. And when I serve you bread, I pray that Jesus might be my bread of life. When I dust the furniture, I pray that the filth he would take out of my heart. When I set before you your drink, I pray that Jesus might be the water of life. And I just kind of pray my way through the day like that.”

Well, isn’t it true when you’re really close to God? Isn’t that what happens spontaneously? It’s not just what the Puritans called the deliberate, set times of prayer, but it’s also what they called occasional prayers. Those prayers in between your set times when you’re not backsliding. When you’re living close to God, they flow, don’t they? And you cry and you sigh and you pray your way through the day. That’s what it means, I think, to pray without ceasing. It’s not just set times and seasons, but it’s to pray with importunity and vehemence, and to improve every occasion to pray throughout the day.

Listen to Spurgeon once more:

If there be any man under heaven who’s compelled to carry out the precept “pray without ceasing”, surely it must be the Christian minister. He has peculiar temptations, special trials, singular difficulties, and remarkable duties. He has to deal with God in awful relationships and with men in mysterious interests. He therefore needs much more grace than common men. And as he knows this, he has led constantly to cry to the strong one for strength and say, “I will lift up my eyes into the hills from whence cometh my help.”

Like a Bird to Its Nest

Then he goes on to quote Joseph Alleine who said that he once wrote to a dear friend:

Though I am apt to be unsettled and quickly set off my hinges, yet me thinks I’m like a bird out of my nest when I don’t pray, and I’m never quiet again until I’m back in my old way of communion with God.

What a graphic picture. It’s like a bird going back to his nest, that’s how I feel coming back to the heart of my Father in Christ. I’m not content, I feel something’s wrong, I’m restless, I’m just discombobulated until I’m back in the nest of prayer. That’s praying in your prayer, having that relationship at the center of your prayers. Feeling the contact, knowing the presence of God, knowing you have the ear of the Lord, knowing your prayer reaches the courts of heaven and the ear of the Almighty. What a blessing.

I studied John Calvin’s prayer life in his long beautiful chapter in the Institutes on prayer a few months ago, and it struck me how much Calvin used this example. Only, he spoke of it as a child in the lap of his father. And he said that’s what prayer is. We climb up into our Father’s lap and we whisper into his ears our needs and our desires and we praise him and adore him and confess our sins and thank him as we sit in his lap. What a beautiful picture. Pray continually. Ask God to help you do that.

And one way to help is whenever you have the least impulse to pray, pray. I was taught that lesson powerfully one time about 17 years ago. I was sitting in my computer and I was working on a sermon. I had a flurry of thoughts come to my mind, four or five of them. I wanted to get them down. I was typing as fast as I could. I had one of those rare moments of a writer’s high and it was going well, and all of a sudden, I had this strong impulse came to pray. And I said, “Lord, wait a minute.” I got the five thoughts down but I lost the impulse. Now I’m not being mystical here, but we have so few impulses to pray as we ought that we ought to take advantage of every one of them and to pray to God at that moment was far more than those five thoughts, far more.

5. Organization in Intercessory Prayer

Number five, work towards organization in intercessory prayer. This is something I’ve struggled with for years and I believe that we just have to do the hard work. We’re ministers, we owe it to our people to pray for them, not just for the five or six or 10 listed in the bulletin that are sick, but we owe it to pray for the entire body. We know their needs, we know their secrets, we know their burdens, we know their joys, and we know their spiritual life. You’ve got to pray for them one by one. How do you do it?

Well, I was just saying at the dinner with the speakers with Dr. Piper that I have a friend in South Africa who actually spends 5:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m. every morning doing nothing but intercessory prayer. He has three lists, and I think it’s a wonderful idea. He prays for certain people very close to them, or people that are worldwide influential in ministry. He prays for them every day. Other people he prays for once a week, and other people that prays for once a month. But he spends that hour just focused in non-self-centered, intercessory, God-glorifying prayer. What a blessing he is. There’s so many people. John Newton said, “I count my best friends to be those who pray for me,” and we ought to be the best friend of our people in that way. They ought to have the quiet conviction, “My pastor is habitually praying for me.”

Now you can find your own way here. I’ll just tell you the best way for me is to just take a page from my church directory every day, just eight or nine names on a page, and pray through those eight or nine families, according to what I know of their needs. By the time it comes around again, a couple months later, a month later, maybe those needs have changed. It won’t always be the same. You can get diversity when you pray for your people and you love them and you know their needs.

6. Reading Scripture for the Sake of Prayer

Number six, read the Bible for prayer. I think one reason we fail so miserably at prayer so many times is that we neglect the Scriptures. Prayer is a two-way conversation. God comes to us through his word and we go back to God in prayer. So we need to listen to God and then talk to him. And I think the best way of doing that is reading the Word verse by verse. And in private prayer, what I like to do is I like to read a verse and then pray, read a half a verse and then pray, or read a phrase and then pray. You don’t have to read 10 verses then try to pray. Pray your way through the Scriptures. Have you ever tried to turn the Psalms into a prayer? It’s wonderful. Commune with God. He comes to you in the Psalms and you go right back to him.

With those very Psalms, God is tender of his own handwriting. He likes to see it. Show it to him.

If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you (John 15:7).

Fill your mind with Scripture and your prayers will gain life. In the house churches in China, they were persecuted. Many Christians had no Bible, but they had memorized long portions of Scripture and their prayers were full of Scripture, sometimes even reciting their theology through the recitation of scriptural texts. We need to pray to God in his own language.

Now sometimes, just like you, I get discouraged in ministry and I actually have behind me in my study five or six prayer books. I’ve got Spurgeon’s prayers, I’ve got William Jay’s prayers, I’ve got Edward Bickersteth’s prayers. I like these old prayer volumes. And I get a bit discouraged, I just open them up and I just read them. And what strikes me about all of them is that they’re almost just a string of scriptural text interwoven in different ways. They’re using the word of God, coming back to God. So when you read the Bible, do so with intent to respond to God in secret with prayer.

7. Keeping Biblical Balance

Number seven, keep biblical balance in your prayers. The Bible presents various kinds of prayers, doesn’t it? Praise of God’s glory, confession of our sins, petition for our needs, thanks for God’s mercies, intercession for others, our affirmation that we’re confident that God is willing and able to answer what we prayed. There’s a whole host of things. Now we’re all prone to gravitate one direction or another. Some do more intercessory prayer and neglect thanksgiving. Others delight in praising God, but shy away from confessing sin. And so on it goes. Well, we need to examine our prayer life from time to time and ask ourselves, are we really covering the various areas, the various spheres of prayer? Do our prayers sound in some way like the Apostle Paul’s magnificent prayers? We’re not as gifted, of course, but are we covering the same bases? And when you go places, listen to the way other fellow ministers pray and ask yourself other areas of their prayers that you’re just lacking in. We can learn from each other.

I just love going to Northern Ireland because the ministers there seem to have a way of praying and pouring out their soul in adoring God. The first five or six minutes of their prayer is just praising God before they get to any petitions at all. Well, learn from each other this way.

Taking Hold of God in Prayer

Well, what about taking hold of God in prayer? Taking hold of God in prayer? This, after all, is the ultimate goal. We need to take hold of ourselves, but we also need to take hold of God. And of course, we can only do that by the Spirit in Jesus Christ. Hebrews 10:19–22 says that it’s only by his blood and intercession as our high priest that we can boldly enter into the holiest place where God dwells.

1. Plead God’s Promises

Now let me just give you three principles for taking hold of God and then I’m done. Number one, plead God’s promises in prayer. David says:

My soul cleaveth unto the dust:
     Quicken thou me according to thy word (Psalm 119:25).

I mentioned already that God is tender of his own handwriting. That is particularly true of his promises. A few years back, I had an aged elder who brought me a letter my father had written when my father was 30 years old. My father was converted when he was 28. He was in his first love of Christ when he was about 30, and the letter was a five-page letter from beginning to end just filled with his love for Christ and what God had done for him. My father passed away actually right on the pulpit. He had a heart attack. He went straight from the pulpit with the glory 17 years ago. But when I looked at that letter and saw my dad’s handwriting, the elder said to me, “I thought you might like to see this.” I said, “Like? I would love to see this. I’d love to have it.” He said, “It’s yours.” But imagine how much God likes to see his own promises pleaded as his child wrestles, bringing back his own word to him. “Do as thou has said, Lord.” God loves to hear it.

It’s his own handwriting. It’s his own Word. Bring to God your Father, your Father’s handwriting. Puritan John Trapp put it this way:

Promises must be prayed over. God loves to be burdened with and to be urgently pressed with requests in his own words. He loves to even be sued upon his own bond, for prayer is putting God’s promises into suit. And it is no arrogancy nor presumption to burden God, as it were, with his own promises. Such prayers will be nigh the Lord day and night and he can as little deny them as he can deny himself for all his promises are yes and amen in his own Son.

And William Gurnall put it this way:

Prayer is nothing but the promise reversed, or God’s word turned inside out and formed into an argument and retorted back again upon God by faith.

Now, what is the greatest promise by Jesus Christ? Bring to him his unspeakable gift. Tell him it’s his church. It’s his ministry, not yours. Beseech him for blessing on his own Word, his own work, his own people, his own church, and his own ministry in you. And then trust him. That’s sometimes the hardest part, isn’t it? We cast our burdens upon the Lord and we take them right back. We give him our petitions and we take them right back. And we try to solve it ourselves, we don’t plead his promises and believe he’ll answer them.

2. Cling to the Trinity

Number two, cling to this glorious trinity in prayer. This is like Elijah praying in his prayer, like Isaiah refers to holding God, as it were, clinging to him. You see, God dwells in our prayers most when our minds most dwell on God.

And therefore, true prayer is not self-congratulatory, but self-condemnatory and Christ-congratulatory. And therefore, when we pray, we should meditate on how the gospel reveals the Father, the Son, and the Spirit to draw us to God. So before we pray, we ought to just pause a moment, don’t you think? We have to fixate our minds on this glorious Father, this glorious Son, and this glorious Spirit — how wonderful they are, how rich they are, how full they are, how fatherly they all are. It’s not just the Father; it’s also the Son. He was called “everlasting Father” and “prince of peace”, and the Spirit is fatherly in indwelling us. We’re coming to our fatherly, triune God, and we ought to come that way, meditating on who our God is and then approach him and cling to each person. And we can say with Samuel Rutherford, “I know not which divine person I love the most, but this I know, I love each of them and I need them all.”

So we come in a trinitarian fashion, praying with confidence that our Father’s hands are full of grace because our Savior’s hands were pierced for us, not being unbelieving, but believing. So we come with boldness, seeing we have a great high priest who’s passed into the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, who’s tempted at all points like as we are, yet without sin. Let us come then boldly to the throne of grace, for grace to help and mercy in time of need (Hebrews 4:14–16). And as ministers, we can say our time is always a time of need. We’ve got plenty of needs in our own lives and our families and our churches. We’re a bundle of needs often like a bundle of sticks, as Robert Murray M’Cheyne put it, bursting with strings. We’re full of needs. Bring them to God. Come to your Father in heaven. Run to him. He’ll run to meet you.

After all, he’s the prodigal’s God. He runs even to meet his backsliding servants who come back to meet him. And he’ll kiss you. He’ll approach you and he’ll kiss you with the kisses of his lips, and he’ll run to you with legs of mercy. Matthew Henry says of the prodigal’s father that he ran with legs of mercy and he wrapped around in arms of mercy and he kissed him with lips of mercy and he wept over him with tears of mercy. Oh, God loves a returning minister who grieves over not taking hold of him, who weeps in the inner place, “Oh God, let me take a hold of thee.” God comes and takes hold of you. And that’s the greatest blessing, he takes hold of you. And when he takes hold of you, you can take hold of him. Isn’t that what Jacob was all about at in Genesis 32:22–32? He clung to God, the angel of the covenant. Oh, let us arise from our prayerlessness and cling to God Almighty, trusting him, believing in him, believing in the trinitarian character, like Ephesians 2:18, which says, “For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Ephesians 2:18 KJV).

The Golden Chain of Prayer

I like to think of prayer like a golden chain. It runs from the Father, decreed by the Father, through the Son who merits it, and through the Spirit who wrestles it and groans it out within us. And then it’s sent back up by the Spirit and ourselves as we co-labor in prayer, back to the Son, who through his intercession, salts it with salt the of his own suffering and presents it acceptable to the Father who answers it. Maybe that’s why John Owen said, “We ought to labor in prayer to know each of the persons in the Trinity one by one.” The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, and the communion of the Holy Ghost be with you all (2 Corinthians 3:14). You see, Owen said:

In our prayer lives, we need an experiential knowledge of the riches of grace, in Christ’s person and work, of the glory of the electing and adopting love of the Father, and the comfort of fellowship with God by the indwelling Spirit.

So in our prayers as we take hold of God, we don’t just pray for God’s benefits, we pray for God himself. We need him. We need him for our own souls. We need him to be our delight. We need God-intimacy and God-dependency. And then when we come to our people from out of the privacy of the inner closet of intimacy and dependency, they can feel the savor upon our ministry. That’s why, M’Cheyne said, “A people will seldom rise above the holiness of their minister.” We bring to our people the word of God, which is suffused with an intimate and dependent relationship that we forged by the grace of God, or God is given to us rather, in the inner closet as we take hold of him and take hold of ourselves, that our people begin to understand what prayerful praying is all about and begin to emulate that and seek that and desire that and grow in that.

3. Believe God Answers Prayer

Lastly, believe that God answers prayer. That’s the way to take hold of him. You see, so often — at least that’s my problem, maybe not yours — I pray, I pour out my soul, I cry to God, and then afterward, I’m too often surprised when he answers. It’s like that old story of the tavern keeper who built a tavern next door to the church and there were wild parties, late night hours, and sinful indulgences, and there was morning garbage from the bar that so distressed the church that the minister said to the people, “We have to pray to stop this tavern somehow. We can’t do anything, but let’s pray.” So they went to their prayer meeting. They prayed that God would intervene and God did. He actually sent a tornado and it took out the tavern and left the church. And so the tavern owner took the church to court, but the people said, “We have nothing to do with this. We’re innocent.” And do you know what the judge said? And he said, “This is really a strange case.” He said, “An atheist is coming to me and he believes in God, and the church people seem not to believe in God.”

Faithless prayer is fruitless prayer. When we don’t trust God, we make a mess of everything. So brothers, let me end by giving you a cautionary, encouraging conclusion. Alexander White once said, “If you want to humble a man, ask him about his prayer life.” I think that’s true. Prayer is difficult, demanding work. Sometimes we get on our knees and we arise, and you as well as I know, we haven’t truly prayed. And you find yourself going right back down to your knees and you say, “No, I’m going to pray until I get hold of God’s ear.” And you cry out again. And sometimes you still don’t seem to get it, but other times, it’s delightful work.

Other times, it seems like the moment you bend your knees, you’ve got contact with God and you can pray with freedom and you can unbosom yourself and tell him everything. You can tell him how wonderful he is, tell him what you need, and beseech him for his mercies upon the church, and it’s glorious and you wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. And then in prayer, you know the love of Christ that passes knowledge and you’re filled with all the fullness of God.

Exhorted, Not Crushed

Well, my aim in this address has not been to discourage you, but I want to end with this caution. Don’t despair no matter how bad your prayer life is right now. And don’t set up Luthers and John Welsh’s and people of that nature and say, “If I don’t reach up to where they are, I’m not really praying in my prayers.” Don’t do that, but let them encourage you. Let them convince you there is more. Let them convince you you can have a closer life with God. It’s like reading a good biography. If you read it and compare yourself to it, you get depressed.

But if you read it and say, “There’s more to know about God, there’s a closer life with God, there’s a richer life,” it can stir you up. That’s the way to use this praying Elijah. That’s the way to use Isaiah 64. That’s the way to use the prayer life of Knox and Luther and John Welsh. So ask God to make you a praying Elijah who knows what it means to battle unbelief and despair even as you strive to grow in prayer and grateful communion with God. I find it so interesting that James presents Elijah as someone really quite like you and me. He prayed in his praying, but he could also despair in his despairing.

That’s what we need, not just to be hectored for our lack of praying, not just to be crushed with the incessant and insatiable demands of praying for two hours, but what we need is to pray for our own prayer life, to pray for grace to believe, and to be thankful that God hears prayer, decrees prayer, gives prayer, and answers prayer. Pray to be a contemporary Elijah to some degree, who truly prays in your prayers to the Almighty triune God of amazing grace, that God who’s always worthy to be served and worshiped and loved and feared and prayed to, so that you too will be prepared for that great eternity, where all your prayer will be turned into eternal praise. Amen.

is chancellor and professor of homiletics and systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary and pastor of the Heritage Reformed Congregation, Grand Rapids, Michigan.