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Learning how to Pray with the Greats

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There is hardly a single Christian who doesn't struggle with prayer. Some of us start and get stuck, while others can't even start. We are surrounded by advice and helps, but can find that yet another book on how to 'prioritise our prayer life' or pray using candles/pebbles/a maze is more of a discouragement than an inspiration. Help is at hand as we listen back over the centuries and hear the prayers of our fathers and mothers in the Church. A solid guide is the great man of prayer: the Puritan Matthew Henry (1662-1714). He is known perhaps best for his commentary on the whole Bible, yet his book A Method for Prayer deserves a place on everyone's bookshelf.

Prayer begins with God

Henry says that, as we begin thinking about prayer, it is a given that we are

‘…composed into a very reverent serious frame, our thoughts gathered in, and that that is within us, charged in the Name of the great God, carefully to attend the solemn and awful service that lies before us, and to keep close to it, we must with a fixed attention and application of mind, and an active lively faith, set the Lord before us…’

In a Christian culture that values informality and tends to approach prayer casually, these words might seem a bit strange. Henry wants us to take seriously the fact that we are coming to a holy and awesome Majesty, gathering up our thought to set the Lord before us. Rather than simply understand this and hold it in mind when we pray, we ought to affirm these truths in our prayer as we address the Lord:

‘Holy, holy, holy Lord God Almighty, which art, and wast, and art to come… O thou who are the true God, the living God… and the everlasting King, the Lord our God, who is one Lord’

Letting these things go unsaid can easily lead to letting them slip from our thoughts altogether. The great danger is that we might soon take for granted the ‘inestimable privilege that we are not only admitted, but invited and encouraged to draw nigh to God in prayer.’ To remind us of the great grace that calls us to enter, Henry reminds us we must come ‘in the name of the great High Priest, who is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God’, calling on the Father to ‘behold… our shield, look upon the face of thine anointed, in whom that hast by a voice from heaven declared thyself to be well pleased; Lord, be well pleased with us in him.’ Praying 'in Jesus' name' is more than just verbal punctuation – it's a way to acknowledge the wonderful privilege we're enjoying in prayer.

Prayer means humility

The holy purity of God exposes our own great sinfulness. Henry says we must next ‘take shame to ourselves, which is our due, and humble ourselves before him in the sense of our own sinfulness and vileness…’.  In other words, our very next move ought to be confession.

‘If thou, Lord, shouldst mark iniquities, O Lord who should stand!  But there is forgiveness with thee, that thou mayest be feared; with three there is mercy, yea, with out God there is plenteous redemption…’. 

It is good for us to acknowledge thoroughly before God our weakness and sin; its 'injustice, foolishness, unprofitableness, deceitfulness, offensiveness', and the damage it does to ourselves. Things we have done, failed to do, said, and thought. 

Henry suggests we confess that we often sin with a sense of self-security and with hypocricy; we sin in the face of God’s mercy, ignoring the warnings of scripture; and even sin in spite of our own efforts to stop. We may begin to wonder if he’s being a bit heavy on sin at this point, but there is no hint of beating ourselves up over our faults. Confessing sin is to know the freedom of real honesty before God without needing to hide, explain, or justify ourselves. It's to give up the pretence of holiness or morality and own-up to being helpless sinners before a holy God. Henry says, ‘That which is at the bottom of it all, is the evil heart of unbelief in us which inclines us to depart from the living God.’ If we can openly admit this to God and ourselves, then we are ready to hear God's word of forgiveness in the gospel.

Prayerful confession of sin is never without an eye on the mercy of God on which we rely as we come before him.

‘Thou has said it, and hast confirmed it with an oath, that thou hast no pleasure in the death of sinners, but rather that we should turn and live: Therefore we will rend our hearts… and turn to the Lord God; for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness… O that our heads were waters, and our eyes fountains of tears, that we might weep day and night for our transgressions, and might in such a manner sow in tears as that at last we may reap in joy…’

Prayer relies on God

‘Having opened the wounds of sin, both the guilt of it, and its remainders in it, we must next seek unto God for the remedy, for healing and help… And we must now affect our hearts with a deep sense of the need we have of those mercies which we pray for…’

Next, we come to ask God for the good things we need, knowing that he is our provider. Henry reminds us that we are not telling God what to do since he knows us better than we know ourselves, but that prayer is our opportunity to ‘open our wants and desires, and then refer ourselves to his wisdom and goodness.’ The Lord is generous and can supply every need. If we come with nothing more than a shopping list or a ultimatum we've missed the wonder of prayer. We should understand it as the ‘way he has appointed, of fetching mercy from him' – the means God has given us to access his unfailing stores of kindness and provision.

Similarly,

‘We do not think that we shall be heard for our much speaking; for our Father knows what things we have need of before we ask him; but our Master hath told us that, whatsoever we ask the Father in his name, he will give it us.’

We come to the Father for the good that we need in the name of the Son, knowing that he will freely give to all in Christ. Henry encourages us to affirm this as our foundation for all our asking and petitioning. He suggests praying that we may have peace with God, know his blessing, be aware of his presence, feel assurance of our forgiveness and acceptance, be protected from Satan’s temptations, that we would be kept from sinning, that people would come to Christ, that the Church would continue to grow, for our own discipleship and sanctification, for faith, for the fear of God, for brotherly love, for humility, for contentment and peace, for hope and perseverance, that we would be honest hard workers, for our growth in wisdom, for help in our trouble, that God would provide everything we need for living each day.

Prayer is thanksgiving

When we have a picture of our helplessness before the Lord, and the way we rely entirely on his goodness, we see that we have a great deal to pray about! We also begin to see how much we are blessed, protected, provided for, and loved. It’s easy to confess we sometimes take God's goodness for granted – it’s another thing to consciously spend time in grateful thanksgiving.

Henry encourages us to be specific, but he also thinks we should start broadly: praising God for his creation and especially the unique place he has given to humans.

‘Blessed be the Lord, who daily loads us with his benefits… Many a time we have eaten and been filled, and have delighted ourselves in thy great goodness.’

If you struggle to think of things to say thank you for, simply remember the best meals you’ve ever eaten and thank the Lord for them! If you have never been forced to go without food, have a home to call your own, have a job or access to education, you should consider yourself one of the most richly blessed people in history.

We ought to praise God for our salvation: the grace he has showed to humanity since the creation, the incarnation of his Son, Jesus’ death on the cross for sin, the resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ intercession for us and his expected return. We ought to praise God for his gifts of the Holy Spirit, of the scriptures, the ordinances (sacraments), for teachers and pastors. We should praise God for the growth of the Church in the world, for the martyrs and role models that have gone before us, for the communion of saints we have now and expect to have in the new creation, for his Spirit’s work that changes us, for the forgiveness of our sin, for answers to prayer, and for his faithfulness.

Shopping lists are not a good way to ask for things from the Lord, but listing his blessings and gifts is always a brilliant exercise. If you have never tried it, write out 150 things that you thank God for – you will soon feel like you need far more paper.

Prayer is selfless

Prayer is selfless in that it relies totally on the external grace and goodness of God. It is also selfless in that we are called to pray

‘not only with, but for others… And we must not that when we are in this part of prayer, we may let fall our fervency, and be more indifferent, because we ourselves are not immediately concerned in it, but rather let a holy fire of love, both God and man here, make our devotion yet more warm and lively.’

So Henry next guides us through praying for the lost world, the spread of the gospel and growth of the church, the conversion of the Jewish people, the persecuted church, the conversion of the enemies of the gospel, for our own country and surrounding nations, for the monarch and leaders of the country, for the young and old, rich and poor, for our enemies and our friends.

As prayer draws to a close, Henry tells us we should fix our eyes on Christ, ‘Now the Lord direct our hearts into the love of God, and into patient waiting for Christ.’ We should acknowledge the weakness of our prayers, and ‘recommend ourselves to the conduct, protection, and government of the divine grace.’ He suggests a number of ‘doxologies’ praising the Triune God,

‘Now to God the Father, and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, hat he might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father, be glory for ever and ever.’

Finally, he tells us it is ‘proper’ to end by saying the Lord’s prayer.

Prayer is biblical and theological

One of the things that may have struck you as you have read excerpts of Matthew Henry’s prayers is the way they are saturated with scripture. Throughout A Method for Prayer all the words he suggests are without exception drenched in the language, truth, and beauty of the Bible. Here was a man who knew the power of praying the words of God’s promises; owning them by vocally affirming faith in Christ before the Father. Yet more than simply praying the words of scripture by rote, his praying is itself steered and informed by what the Bible reveals about God, reality, humanity, and salvation. This is surely a challenge to modern evangelical culture where we tend much more towards spontaneous prayer.

More than a hundred years before Henry was born, John Bradford wrote a series of Daily Prayers and Meditations. These are brilliant examples of the way our daily routine of prayer can feed directly on the truth of scripture. Bradford simply walks us through the day, and gives us example prayers and meditations which are orientated around the spiritual truths embedded in the creation. The idea is to use the regular events of a normal day to drive us to prayer and reflection on Christ. As soon as you wake up in the morning and the sunlight streams through the window, Bradford suggests praying like this:

O Lord, thou greatest and most true Light, whence this light of the day and of the sun does spring! O Light, which does lighten every man that comes into this world! O Light, which knows no night nor evening, but are always a midday, most clear and fair, without whom all is most dark darkness by whom all are most resplendent… Lighten mine eyes, O Lord! That I sleep not in death, lest mine enemies say, “I have prevailed against him.”

When you’re stumbling around the room pulling on your socks, Bradford suggests you meditate on the way Christ clothes us in his righteousness, and gives this scorching example of a ‘getting dressed’ prayer,

O Christ, clothe me with thine own self, that I may be so far from making provision for my flesh to fulfill the lusts of ... Be thou unto me a garment to warm me from catching the cold of this world if thou be away from me, dear Lord, all things will forthwith be unto me cold, weak, dead, &c. But if thou art with me, all things will be warm, lively, fireside &c. Grant therefore, that as I compass this my body with this coat, so thou would clothe me wholly, but especially my soul, with thine own self. Put upon me as the elect of God, mercy, meekness, love, peace, &c.

As we go through the day, Bradford asks us to meditate on the way we appear before God rather than thinking about what other people might be thinking about our clothes. Moving on to eating a meal, Bradford gives us a great model for saying grace:

This is a wonderful mystery of thy work, O Maker and Governor of the world, that thou dost sustain the lives of men and beasts with these meats! Surely this power is neither in the bread nor food, but in thy will and word, by which word all things live and have their being… I therefore heartily pray thee, O most liberal Lord and faithful Father, that as thou by meat through thy word dost minister life to these our bodies, even so by the same word with thy grace do thou quicken our souls; that both in soul and body we may please thee till this our mortal body shall put on immortality, and we shall need no more any other food, but thee only, who then wilt be all in all.

Taste and see that the Lord is good! A good theology of food should transform the way we say grace and enjoy our mealtimes.  They could even become an evangelistic opportunity.

As the day draws to a close, Bradford has us meditating on the setting sun: we don’t mind it going down over the horizon since we know it will soon rise again, and this ought to equip us to face death with the hope of the resurrection. And while the sun rises and sets, the light of Christ is constant. While we’re undressing for bed, we ought to be thinking of putting-off the old man of sin; while we’re pulling our bedclothes on, we should meditate on the way sleep points us to death,

As you are not afraid to enter into your bed, and to dispose yourself to sleep; so be not afraid to die, but rather prepare yourself for it; think that now you are nearer your end by one day's journey, than you were in the morning.

Finally, as your eyelids are heavy and sleep is beginning to take over, he gives us a final prayer for sweet, happy dreams of the new creation:

O Lord Jesus Christ, my Watchman and Keeper, take me to thy care; grant that while my body is sleeping my mind may watch in thee, and be made joyful by some sight of that celestial and heavenly life wherein thou art the King and Prince, together with the Father and the Holy Ghost.

That’s how to spend the day in prayer! Henry and Bradford remind us that speaking with the Living God is the lifeblood of Christian experience. As we approach the Father through the Son in the power of the Spirit, we are exercising all that our salvation has brought: fellowship with the Triune God, welcomed as the Father’s beloved children in Christ. In all that life brings, whatever trials and temptations, our access to God is a never-failing promise and a well of comfort. As the hymn writer and poet William Cowper wrote,

That were a grief I could not bear,
Didst thou not hear and answer prayer;
But a prayer hearing, answering God
Supports me under every load!

Daniel Hames

Daniel Hames is part of Union's Executive Team and lectures in systematic theology and preaching. He is a curate at St Aldates, Oxford, and is completing a PhD in theology at the VU Amsterdam.

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