by William Gurnall
"Be anxious for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known unto God." Philippians 4:6.
Prayer the sign of life. What is prayer — but the breathing forth of that grace which is breathed into the soul by the Holy Spirit? When God breathed into man the breath of life, he became a living soul. Just so, when God breathes into the creature the breath of spiritual life — he becomes a praying soul: "Behold, he prays," says God of Paul to Ananias (Acts 9:11). Praying is the same to the new creature, as crying to the natural babe. The child is not learned by art to cry — but by nature — it comes into the world crying. Praying is not a lesson got by forms and rules — but flowing from principles of new life.
Prayer and reality. Prayer is an act in which we have immediately to do with the great God, to whom we approach in prayer. It is too sacred a duty to be performed between sleeping and waking, with a heavy eye or a drowsy heart — this God complained of: "There is none that calls upon Your name, that stirs up himself to take hold of You" (Isaiah 64:7). He counts it no prayer, where the heart is not stirred up and awake. Our behavior in prayer has an universal influence upon all the passages of our whole life. As a man is in prayer — so he is likely to be in all the rest; if he is careless in praying — then he is negligent in hearing, and loose in his walking. Prayer is the channel, in which the stream of divine grace, blessing, and comfort — runs from God into the heart; dam up the channel — and the stream is stopped.
Prayer and integrity. "If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me" (Psalm 66:18). Now, when God refuses to hear, we may be sure the Spirit refuses to assist; for God never rejects a prayer which His Spirit indites. Have you defiled yourself with any known sin? Think not to have Him help you in prayer, until He has helped you to repent. He will carry you to the laver — before He goes with you to the altar.
Take heed that you pray not with a reservation. Be sure you renounce, what you would have God remit. He who desires not to be purged from the filth of sin — prays in vain to be eased of the guilt. If we love the work of sin — we must take the wages. A false heart could be willing to have his sin covered — but the sincere desires his heart may be cleansed. David begged a clean heart, as well as a quiet conscience: "Blot out all my iniquities; create in me a clean heart, O God" (Psalm 51:9, 10).
In nothing do our hearts more cheat us than in our prayers, and in no requests more than those which are leveled against our lusts. That is oftentimes least intended — which is most pretended. The saint's prayer may miscarry from some secret grudge which is lodged in his heart against his brother.
Prayer and diligence. God has appointed prayer as a help to our diligence — not as a cloak for our sloth. Idle beggars are welcome neither to God's door nor man's. What! Will you lift up your hands to God in prayer — and then put them in your pocket? Is it a lust you are praying against? And do you sit down idle to see whether it will now die alone? Will that prayer slay one lust — which lets another (your sloth I mean) live under its nose? Do you think to walk loosely all day, yielding yourself, and betraying the glory of God into the hands of your lust — and then mend all with a prayer at night?
O Christian, should it not make you blush much more, to see the whole town up, and as busy as bees in a garden, one flying this way, and another that way, and all to bring a little more of this world's perishing pelf into their hive — out of which death before long will drive them, and force them to leave what with so much pains they have gathered for others — while you sleep away your precious time, though you are sure to carry your gettings into the eternal world with you, and there enjoy the fruit of your short labor here, with everlasting glory!
Prayer and watching. He who prays and watches not, is like him that sows a field with precious seed — but leaves the gate open for hogs to come and rout it up!
"Watch and pray," says Christ to His disciples; He knew they could not do that work sleeping. But it is not enough to keep the eye awake, if you wander it to wander: "Turn away my eyes from beholding vanity; and quicken me in your way" (Psalm 119:37). To pray, and not watch what becomes of our prayer, is a great folly, and no little sin. What is this but to take the name of God in vain? Yet thus do many knock at God's door, and then run away to the world and think no more of their prayers.
Prayer and perseverance. By "praying always" we are exhorted to the daily, constant exercise of prayer; by "praying with perseverance," we are pressed to bear up against discouragements, as to any particular request we may make at the throne of grace, and not to give over, though we have not a speedy answer to it. So that the former is opposed to a neglect of the duty in its stated seasons, and the latter to a fainting in our spirits, as to any particular suit we put up.
Prayer and supplication. "Praying with all perseverance and supplication for all saints." In praying for saints, you must pray for all: I do not mean for both living and dead; prayer is a means to wait upon them in their way; at death, when they are at their journey's end, prayers are useless, and the wicked in that estate are beneath, the saints above, our prayers. We cannot help the wicked, the tree is fallen — and so it must lie. We read of a change the body shall have after death. Vile bodies may change — but filthy souls cannot after death be made glorious. If they leave the body filthy, so shall they meet it at the resurrection. As the wicked are beyond our help — so the saints are above all need of our help.
We are to love all saints, therefore to pray for all. The new creature never lacks its new nature; if God loves all His children, then will you love all your brethren. When Paul commends Christians for this grace of love, he does it thus: (Ephesians 1:15) "After I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus, and love unto all the saints." Now, if we love all, we cannot but pray for all.
Though we are to pray for all saints — yet some call for a more special remembrance at our hands: for instance, those that are near to us by bond of nature as well as of grace. "A brother beloved, specially to me — but how much more unto you, both in the flesh, and in the Lord" (Philemon 16). You are to pray particularly for those that are in distress: whoever you forget, remember these — this is a fit season for love. A friend for adversity is as proper as fire for a winter's day.
Job's friends chose the right time to visit him — but took not the right course of improving their visit: had they spent the time in praying for him which they did in hot disputes with him — they would have profited him, and pleased God more.
Prayer and thanksgiving. Prayer is a means to dispose the heart to praise. When David begins a psalm with prayer — he commonly ends it with praise. That Spirit which leads a soul out of itself to God for supply — will direct it to the same God with His praise. We do not borrow money of one man — and return it to another. If God has been your strength, surely you will make Him your song. The thief comes not to thank a man for what he steals out of his yard. Mercies ill gotten, are commonly as ill spent, because they are not sanctified, and so become fuel to feed lusts.
As a necessary ingredient in all our prayers: Let your requests be made known with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6). This spice must be in all our offerings. He who prays for a mercy he wants, and is not thankful for mercies received, may seem mindful of himself — but is forgetful of God. God will not put His mercies into a rent purse; and such is an unthankful heart.
Daniel, when in the very shadow of death, the plot being laid to take away his life, prayed three times a day, and gave thanks before his God (Dan. 6:10). To have heard him pray in that great strait would not have afforded so much matter for wonder; but to have his heart in tune for giving thanks in such a sad hour, was admirable.
Prayer and trial. When prayer cannot prevail to keep a temporal mercy alive — yet it will have a powerful influence to keep your heart alive when that dies. O, it is sad, when a man's estate and comfort are buried in the same grave together. None will bear the loss of an enjoyment so patiently — as he who was exercised in prayer while he had it. The more David prayed for his child while alive — the fewer tears he shed for it when dead.
Prayer and prosperity. Prayer is not a winter garment: it is then to be worn indeed — but not to be left off in the summer of prosperity. If you would find some at prayer, you must stay until it thunders and lightenings; and not go to them except it be in a storm. Pray in prosperity, that you may speed when you pray in adversity. Own God now — that He may acknowledge you then. Shall that friend be welcome to us — who never gives us a visit but when he comes to borrow?
Pray in prosperity — that you may not be ensnared by it. Prosperity is no friend to the memory, therefore we are cautioned so much to beware when we are full, lest we forget God. You shall find, in Scripture, that the saints have had their saddest falls — on the most even ground. Noah, who had seen the whole world drowned in water, no sooner was safe on shore — but himself is drowned in wine! David's heart was fixed when in the wilderness; but his wanton eye rolled and wandered — when he walked upon the terrace of his palace.
Morning and evening prayer. Prayer must be the key of the morning — and lock of the night. We do not show ourselves Christians, if we do not open our eyes with prayer when we rise, and shut them again with the same key we lie down at night. Pray as often as you please besides.
If you will have fire for your evening sacrifice, labor to keep what is already on your altar from going out. What you fill the vessel with — you must expect to draw thence. If water is put in — we cannot, without a miracle, think to draw out wine. What! are you all day filling your heart with earth (God being not in all your thoughts) — and do you look to draw Heaven from thence at night? He who is heavenly in his earthly employments — will be the less worldly in his heavenly employments. It was a sweet speech of a dying saint, that he was going to change his place — but not his company.
Broken prayer. Sometimes you hear one pray with a moving expression, while you can hardly get out a few broken words in duty, and you are ready to accuse yourself and to admire him; as if the brightness of the key made it open the door better. "Elijah was a man subject to like passions as we are, and he prayed" (James 5:17). A weak hand with a sincere heart — is able to turn the key in prayer!
Ejaculatory prayer. Ejaculatory prayer (a short utterance that expresses a strong feeling) to God, is the short dagger you are to use for your defense against temptation — when you have no time to draw the long sword of solemn prayer. Thus you may pray in any place, company, or employment.
Public prayer. When you pray before others, observe on what you bestow your chief care and zeal, whether on the externals or internals of prayer: that which is exposed to the eye and ear of men — or that for the eye and ear of God; the devout posture of your body — or the inward devotion of your soul; the pomp of your words — or the power of your faith; the agitation of your bodily spirits in the vehemency of your voice — or the fervency of your spirit in heart-breaking affections.
These inward workings, are the very soul of prayer. The sincere soul dares not be crude in his outward posture; he is careful of his words, that they may be grave and pertinent, neither would he pray them asleep who join with him, by a cold manner of delivering his prayer. But still, it is the inward disposition of his heart which he principally looks to, knowing well, that it is possible to be warm in prayer, thereby benefitting others — and at the same time have his own heart cold and idle. Therefore he does not count that he prays well, except he finds his own affections drawn out. The hypocrite, if he comes off the duty with the applause of others in the external performance, is well pleased.
Formal prayer. Take heed of formal praying, this is as baneful to grace as not praying. A plaster, though proper, and of sovereign virtue — yet if it be laid on cold, may do more hurt than good.
Do you think that God will welcome that prayer to Heaven — which has not your heart to bear it company? And how can your heart go with it, when you have sent it another way? Will God hear you — when you mock Him? And if this be not to mock Him — then what is? Like children that give a knock at a door, and then run away to their play again; thus you raise your voice to God, and then are gone in your roving thought to hold converse with the world, or worse. Is not this trifling with God?
Satan disturbs you in praying, that he may make you weary of praying. Indeed he is not likely to miss his mark, if you let these vermin go on to breed in your heart. For these will rob you of the sweetness of prayer; and when the marrow is once out, you will easily be persuaded to throw the bone away. He is in danger to forsake his meat, who has lost his relish for it. Prayer is a tedious work for him who has no pleasure in it: and weariness in it stands next door to weariness of it.
The best way to keep vessels from leaking, is to let them stand full. A vain heart out of prayer, will be little better in prayer. Walk in the company of sinful thoughts all the day — and you will hardly shut the door upon them, when you go into your prayer closet. You have taught them to be bold; they will now plead acquaintance with you, and crowd in after you, like little children, who if you play with them, will cry after you when you would be rid of their company.
Beware that your prayers do not degenerate into a lifeless formality. What we do commonly — we are prone to do slightly. He is a rare Christian that keeps his course in prayer, and yet grows not to pray of mere course. He who watches his heart all day, is most likely to find it in tune for prayer at night; whereas loose walking breeds lazy praying.
Never was any formal prayer of the Holy Spirit's making; when He comes, it is a time of life.
Lengthy prayer. Pray often, rather than very long. It is difficult to remain long in prayer, and not slacken in our affections. Especially observe this in social prayers; for when we pray in company, we must consider those who travel with us: as Jacob said: "I will lead on softly, as the children are able to endure."
Hindrances to prayer. There is an antipathy between sinning and praying. The child that has misspent the day in play abroad, steals to bed at night, for fear of a chiding from his father. Sin and prayer are such contraries, that it is impossible at one stride to step from one to another.
Another method Satan has to make the Christian put off prayer, is some worldly business that is to be dispatched. Take heed of overcharging yourself with worldly business, which is done when you grasp more thereof than will consist with your Christian calling. God allows you to give to the world that which is the world's — but He will not allow you to pay the world, that which is due to Him.
We could not easily lack time to pray, if our hearts would but persuade our heads to devise and study how our other affairs might be disposed of, without harm to our devotions. That cloth which a bungler thinks too little for a garment, a good workman can make one of it, and leave some for another use also. O, there is a great deal of art in cutting out time, with little loss. Some look upon every minute of time spent in the closet — as lost in the shop. Does the gardener mow the less, for sharpening his scythe? Does giving thanks to God before a meal, spoil the dinner? No: nor does prayer hinder the Christian either in his employments or enjoyments — but expedites the one, and sanctifies the other. "Acknowledge God in all your ways, and lean not to your own understanding."
Godliness has the "promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come" (1 Timothy 4:8). This earth below, to a saint, is a land of promise, though not the land that is chiefly promised. God has not promised him Heaven, and left him to the wide world to shift for his outward subsistence; He has not bid them live by faith, for their souls, and live by their wits, for their bodies. No; He who has promised to give him both "grace and glory," has also said, "No good thing will He withhold from those who walk uprightly" (Psalm 84:11). Their bill of fare here, is provided as well as their inheritance hereafter.
Neglect of prayer. When Saul had given over inquiring after God — we hear him knocking at the devil's door, and asking counsel of a witch. Take heed of living near the tempter! If Satan might have his wish, surely it would be this — that the creature might live prayerless.
Satan cannot but deny but great wonders have been wrought by prayer. As the spirit of prayer goes up — so his kingdom goes down. Satan's stratagems against prayer are three: First, If he can, he will keep you from prayer. If that is not feasible, secondly, he will strive to interrupt you in prayer. And, thirdly, if that plot takes not, he will labor to hinder the success of your prayer.
"You cast off fear, and restrain prayer before God" (Job 15:4). Eliphaz' doctrine was true, though his application was false. Sins of commission — are the usual punishments that God inflicts on people for sins of omission. He who leaves a duty, may fear to be left to commit a crime. He who turns his ear from the truth — takes the ready course to be given over to believe fables (2 Timothy 4:4). He who casts off prayer, it is a wonder if you find him not, before long, cast into some foul sin!
Answers to prayer. God has engaged to answer the prayers of His people, and fulfill the desires of those who fear Him (Psalm 145:19). But it proves a long voyage sometimes, before the praying saint has the return of his prayers. There comes often a long and sharp winter — between the sowing time of prayer, and the reaping. He hears us, indeed, as soon as we pray — but we often do not hear of Him as soon. Prayers are not long on their journey to Heaven — but long coming thence in a full answer. Never was faithful prayer lost at sea. No merchant trades with such certainty, as the praying saint. Some prayers, indeed, have a longer voyage than others — but then they come with the richer lading at last!
Sometimes we have speedy return of prayers — "In the day that I cried — you answered me." While the church were at God's door praying for Peter's deliverance — Peter is knocking at theirs, to tell them their prayer is heard.
From The Christian in Complete Armour by William Gurnall