Prayer is no easy thing. Many are ready to grasp hold of another new method in the hope that it will make it easier. Or less intentionally they begin to imitate a particular style or manner. But prayer is not a technique to be mastered. We can also go to the other extreme of letting our words run loose without engaging our thoughts and affections. It is not necessarily more sincere and authentic because it is uncontrolled. Neither is it better because it is longer or more logical. “God looks not at the oratory of your prayers, how elegant they may be; nor at the geometry of your prayers, how long they may be; nor at the arithmetic of your prayers, how many they may be; not at logic of your prayers, how methodical they may be; but the sincerity of them he looks at” (Thomas Brooks). These matters are addressed by Christ in the teaching He gives in relation to prayer.
Christ said there is a twofold danger of “vain repetitions” and “much speaking” (Matthew 6:7-8). We can do this by going over the same things again and again. Or we may use the same words as merely filling a gap or weakly expressing some fervency. This may include unthinkingly uttering many words that have no real significance, worse if it is God’s name that is used in this way. Or perhaps we pray at greater length simply thinking that this is more acceptable or spiritual. In these things the Saviour expands on the teaching we have in Ecclesiastes 5:2.
Thomas Manton (a member of the Westminster Assembly) says that we must avoid the two extremes of having too much to say for the sake of it or having nothing much to say because our hearts are not truly prepared.
He points out that some repetition is not empty. Christ prayed the same words three times in the greatest fervency (Matthew 26:44). Daniel uses God’s name with great weight and reverence over and over again (Daniel 9:17-19). The problem is when we “speak words without need and without affection”. The “general rule is, let your words be concise, but full of affection”.
As Christ says, our wrong approach to prayer can reveal a wrong approach to God. In expounding Christ’s words Thomas Manton shows us what the Saviour requires in terms of our words, thoughts and affections in prayer. This shows us what prayer is and how to pray.
The Larger Catechism Q185 gives emphasis to our thoughts and affections in defining how we are to pray. We need to understand from Scripture how to approach God in prayer with right thoughts and affections.
We are to pray with an awful apprehension of the majesty of God, and deep sense of our own unworthiness, necessities, and sins; with penitent, thankful, and enlarged hearts; with understanding, faith, sincerity, fervency, love, and perseverance, waiting upon him, with humble submission to his will.
1. How Should We Engage Our Words in Prayer?
Words are used in prayer, to stir up, convey, and give vent to affection (Hosea 14:2). This is to be considered either when we are alone or in company.
(a) When we are alone. Take the advice of the Holy Spirit (Ecclesiastes 5:2) and let your words be few, How few? Few in weight, conscience, reverence.
Few in weight
Speak substance rather than mere words; concisely and feelingly rather than with intricacy, to express what you have to say to God.
Few in conscience
Superstition is an illegitimate religion and is tyrannous requiring tedious service sometimes beyond our strength. Therefore pray neither too short nor too long; do not merely lengthen out the prayer as counting it the better for being long. The shortness or the length of it must be measured by the fervency of our hearts, the many necessities and as it tends to inflame our zeal. As it can get up the heart, let it still be subservient to that.
Few with reverence
Managed with that gravity, awe, and seriousness as would become an address to God. Abraham had been reasoning with God and continues to do so with reverence (Genesis 18:31).
(b) When we are in company. There our words must be apt and orderly, as moving as possible for the benefit of the hearers. It must be managed with such reverence and seriousness as suits the gravity of the duty. It should not increase but cure the dullness of those with whom we join. We may choose out words to reason with God (Job 9:14) in public, making preparation and thinking a little beforehand so that we may go about the duty with seriousness and not with indigested thoughts.
2. How Should We Engage Our Thoughts in Prayer?
To conceive aright of God in prayer is one of the greatest difficulties in this duty.
(a) Thoughts of the nature and being of God
Everyone that would come to God must fix this in their mind, that God is, and that God is a spirit; and accordingly He must be worshipped as is most fitting (Hebrews 11:6; John 4:24), Oh, then, whenever you come to pray to God, fix these two thoughts, let them be strong in your heart. God is; do not speak to an idol, but to the living God. God is a spirit; and therefore He is not so much pleased with reasoned speech or tuneful cadence of words, as with a right condition of heart. When we come to pray we think little that God is, or what God is. Much of our religion is performed to an unknown God, and, like the Samaritans, we worship we know not what.
It is not speculations about the divine nature, or high-strained conceptions, which fit us for prayer. I do not urge you to use theological terms. What fits us for prayer is such a sight of God as prompts us to worship Him reverently and seriously. We have right notions of God in prayer, when we are affected as Moses was, when God showed him His back-parts and proclaimed his name. “He made haste, bowed his head, and worshipped” Exodus 34:8). When our worship suits the nature of God, it is spiritual and holy, not full of theatrical pomp.
Our worship is right when it proclaims to ourselves and all that observe us that there is a great, an infinite, eternal power, which governs all according to His own pleasure. The worship of many is flat atheism; they say in their hearts either there is no God, or believe there is no God. Therefore, do you worship Him as becomes such a glorious being? Is His mercy seen in your faith and confidence, His majesty in your humility and reverence, His goodness in your soul’s rejoicing, His greatness and justice in your trembling before His throne? The worship must be like the One worshipped, it must have His stamp on it.
God is a spirit
The soul must therefore be the chief agent in the business, not the body, or any member of the body. Spirits converse with spirits. The body must not guide and lead the soul but be led by it. Be sure to have the spirit engaged, otherwise that which is most essential to the worship is lacking. To have nothing employed except the tongue, and the heart engaged about other business, is not to conduct yourselves towards God who is a spirit. Ask yourselves “where is my soul in this worship, and how is it affected towards God?
(b) Thoughts of God’s Fatherly Relation
As there must be thoughts to direct us in God’s being and nature, so also in His relation as a father, as one that is inclined to pardon, pity, and help you. We have the spirit of adoption given us for this very end and purpose, that we may cry, “Abba, Father” through the ministry of the Spirit (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15). We have received the Spirit of adoption, crying, Abba, Father so that we may come to God in a child-like manner, dealing with Him as with a father, acquainting Him with our needs, necessities and burdens, with hope of relief and provision.
(c) Thoughts of God’s attributes
Matthew 6:7-8 offers three aspects of God’s attributes to consider. God’s omniscience, (He knows); His fatherly care (Your Father knows) and His readiness to help, even before we ask (Your Father knows what you need).
He knows us in person and name (John 10:3). He knows our state and condition (Psalm 56:8). He observes us in the very posture when we come to pray, and where. The Lord takes notice, in such a city, in such a street, in such a house, in such a room, and what you are doing when you are praying (Acts 9:11). He sees not only that you pray, but how you pray (Romans 8:27), He can discern between words that are of the flesh and such as are the breathings of the spirit.
He knows what burdens you. It is not said, that He may care but that He does take care (1 Peter 5:7). God is ahead of us and our anxiousness takes the work out of God’s hand which He is doing already. Our worries are needless, fruitless, burdensome; but His concerns are assiduous, powerful and blessed. A small matter may cause much vexation to us, but to Him all things are easy. Praying for what we need, we should give thanks for what we have (Philippians 4:6; Matthew 6:32). His fatherly love will not allow Him to neglect His children or any of their concerns. Therefore, if you are tempted to anxiety of mind, and do know not how to get out of such a difficulty and conquer such a problem, remember you have a Father to provide for you: this will prevent tormenting anxiety, which is good for nothing but to anticipate your sorrow.
Readiness to help
This should be deeply impressed upon your minds, and you should habituate yourself to these thoughts, how ready God is to help and to run to our cry (Psalm 32:5; Isaiah 65:24; Jeremiah 31:18). He is more ready to give than you to ask. This will help and direct you mightily in the business of prayer. God has a care for His children and is very ready to help the weak, and relieve them in all their troubles.
3. How Should We Engage Our Affections in Prayer?
Three things are required in expressing affection in prayer: fervency, reverence, and confidence.
This usually comes from two things, a broken-hearted sense of our needs and a desire for the blessing we need. For the broken-hearted sense of our needs, especially spiritual. Weaknesses afflict the best. All Christians have a continual need to cry to God. We have continual necessities both within and without. Go cry to God your Father without affectation, but not without affection! Seek what you need from Him. The more grace is increased, the more sense of need is increased because sin is more hated, defects are less tolerated. There must be a desire for the blessing, especially spiritual. Our needs must stir up fresh longings and holy desires after God (Mathew 7:7; Luke 11:8). We spend the earnestness of our spirits in other matters, in disputes, contests, earthly pursuits; our importunate earnestness runs in a worldly channel. But there must be sincerity in pouring out our hearts before Him; no sacrifices without fire, the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man (James 5:16).
Reverent, respectful behaviour towards our heavenly Father is essential. There is in God a mixture of majesty and mercy; so there must be in us a mixture of joy and trembling (Psalm 2:11). God’s love does not abase His majesty, nor does His majesty diminish His love. We ought to know our distance from God, and to think of His superiority over us; therefore we must be serious. Remember that “God is greatly to be feared in the assembly of the saints, and to be had in reverence of all them that are about him” (Psalm 89:7).
There is boldness in pouring out our requests to God, who will certainly hear us, and grant what is good (Ephesians 3:12). We must rely on His goodness and power in all our necessities. He is so gracious in Christ that He will do that which is best for His glory and our good, and we should not seek it on other terms.
If you would not turn prayer into babbling and much speaking into affectation of words, take heed of how prayer is abused in these ways and strive to bring your hearts to God in this way.
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