WHAT PRAYER IS

Taken, adapted, and modernized from, “I WILL PRAY WITH THE SPIRIT AND WITH THE
UNDERSTANDING ALSO OR, A DISCOURSE TOUCHING PRAYER”
Written by, John Bunyan
Written from prison in 1662

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FIRST, What [true] prayer is. Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to the Word, for the good of the church, with submission, in faith, to the will of God.

In this description are these seven things.

First, It is a sincere; Second, A sensible; Third, An affectionate, pouring out of the soul to God, through Christ; Fourth, By the strength or assistance of the Spirit; Fifth, For such things as God has promised, or, according to his word; Sixth, For the good of the church; Seventh, With submission in faith to the will of God.

First. For the first of these, it is a SINCERE pouring out of the soul to God. Sincerity is such a grace as runs through all the graces of God in us, and through all the actions of a Christian, and has the sway in them too, or else their actions are not anything regarded of God, and so of and in prayer, of which particularly David speaks, when he mentions prayer. “I cried unto him,” the Lord “with my mouth, and he was extolled with my tongue. If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear” my prayer (Psalms 66:17,18). Part of the exercise of prayer is sincerity, without which God looks not upon it as prayer in a good sense (Psalms 16:1-4). Then “ye shall seek me and find me, when ye shall search for me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12-13). The want of this made the Lord reject their prayers in Hosea 7:14, where he says, “They have not cried unto me with their heart,” that is, in sincerity, “when they howled upon their beds.” But for a pretense, for a show in hypocrisy, to be seen of men, and applauded for the same, they prayed. Sincerity was that which Christ commended in Nathaniel, when he was under the fig tree. “Behold, an Israelite indeed, in whom is no guile.” Probably this good man was pouring out of his soul to God in prayer under the fig tree, and that in a sincere and unfeigned spirit before the Lord. The prayer that has this in it as one of the principal ingredients, is the prayer that God looks at. Thus, “The prayer of the upright is his delight” (Proverbs 15:8).

And why must sincerity be one of the essentials of prayer which is accepted of God, but because sincerity carries the soul in all simplicity to open its heart to God, and to tell him the case plainly, without equivocation; to condemn itself plainly, without dissembling; to cry to God heartily, without complimenting. “I have surely heard Ephraim bemoaning himself thus; Thou has chastised me, and I was chastised, as a bullock unaccustomed to the yoke” (Jeremiah 31:18). Sincerity is the same in a corner alone, as it is before the face of the world. It knows not how to wear two masks, one for an appearance before men, and another for a short snatch in a corner; but it must have God, and be with him in the duty of prayer. It is not lip-labor that it does regard, for it is the heart that God looks at, and that which sincerity looks at, and that which prayer comes from, if it be that prayer which is accompanied with sincerity.

Second. It is a sincere and SENSIBLE pouring out of the heart or soul. It is not, as many take it to be, even a few babbling, prating, complimentary expressions, but a sensible feeling there is in the heart. Prayer has in it a sensibleness of diverse things; sometimes sense of sin, sometimes of mercy received, sometimes of the readiness of God to give mercy, etc.

1     A sense of the want of mercy, by reason of the danger of sin. The soul, I say, feels, and from feeling sighs, groans, and breaks at the heart. For right prayer bubbles out of the heart when it is overpressed with grief and bitterness, as blood is forced out of the flesh by reason of some heavy burden that lies upon it (I Samuel 1:10; Psalms 69:3). David roars, cries, weeps, faints at heart, fails at the eyes, loses his moisture, etc., (Psalms 38:8-10). Hezekiah mourns like a dove (Isaiah 38:14). Ephraim bemoans himself (Jeremiah 31:18). Peter weeps bitterly (Matthew 26:75). Christ has strong crying and tears (Hebrews 5:7). And all this from a sense of the justice of God, the guilt of sin, the pains of hell and destruction. “The sorrows of death compassed me, and the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.” Then cried I unto the Lord (Psalms 116:3,4). And in another place, “My sore ran in the night” (Psalms 77:2). Again, “I am bowed down greatly; I go mourning all the day long” (Psalms 38:6). In all these instances, and in hundreds more that might be named, you may see that prayer carries in it a sensible feeling disposition, and that first from a sense of sin.

2    Sometimes there is a sweet sense of mercy received; encouraging, comforting, strengthening, enlivening, enlightening mercy, etc. Thus David pours out his soul, to bless, and praise, and admire the great God for his lovingkindness to such poor vile wretches. “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits. Who forgives all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases; who redeems your life from destruction; who crowns you with loving-kindness and tender mercies; who satisfies your mouth with good things, so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s” (Psalms 103:1-5). And thus is the prayer of saints sometimes turned into praise and thanksgiving, and yet are prayers still. This is a mystery; God’s people pray with their praises, as it is written, “Be careful for nothing, but in everything by prayer, and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your request be made known unto God” (Philippians 4:6). A sensible thanksgiving, for mercies received, is a mighty prayer in the sight of God; it prevails with him unspeakably.

3    In prayer there is sometimes in the soul a sense of mercy to be received. This again sets the soul all on a flame. “Thou, O lord of hosts,” says David, “has revealed to your servant, saying I will build you a house; therefore has your servant found in his heart to pray – unto you” (II Samuel 7:27). This provoked Jacob, David, Daniel, with others—even a sense of mercies to be received—which caused them, not by fits and starts, nor yet in a foolish frothy way, to babble over a few words written in a paper; but mightily, fervently, and continually, to groan out their conditions before the Lord, as being sensible, sensible, I say, of their wants, their misery, and the willingness of God to show mercy (Genesis 32:10,11; Daniel 9:3,4).  A good sense of sin, and the wrath of God, with some encouragement from God to come unto him, is a better Common-prayer-book than that which is taken out of the Papistical mass-book, being the scraps and fragments of the devices of some popes, some friars, and I know not what.

Third. Prayer is a sincere, sensible, and an AFFECTIONATE pouring out of the soul to God. O! the heat, strength, life, vigor, and affection, that is in right prayer! “As the hart pants after the water-brooks, so pants my soul after you, O God” (Psalms 42:1). “I have longed after your precepts” (Psalms 119:40). “I have longed for your salvation” (verse 174). “My soul longs, yes, even faints, for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh cries out for the living God” (Psalms 84:2). “My soul breaks for the longing that it has unto your judgments at all times” (Psalms 119:20). Mark ye here, “My soul longs,” it longs, it longs, etc. O what affection is here discovered in prayer! The like you have in Daniel. “O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive; O Lord, hearken and do; defer not, for your own sake, O my God” (Daniel 9:19). Every syllable carries a mighty vehemence in it. This is called the fervent, or the working prayer, by James. And so again, “And being in an agony, he prayed more earnestly” (Luke 22:44). Or had his affections more and more drawn out after God for his helping hand. O! How wide are the most of men with their prayers from this prayer, that is, PRAYER in God’s account!

Alas! The greatest part of men make no conscience at all of the duty; and as for them that do, it is to be feared that many of them are very great strangers to a sincere, sensible, and affectionate pouring out their hearts or souls to God; but even content themselves with a little lip-labor and bodily exercise, mumbling over a few imaginary prayers. When the affections are indeed engaged in prayer, then, then the whole man is engaged, and that in such sort, that the soul will spend itself to nothing, as it were, rather than it will go without that good desired, even communion and solace with Christ. And hence it is that the saints have spent their strengths, and lost their lives, rather than go without the blessing (Psalms 69:3; 38:9,10; Genesis 32:24,26).

All this is too, too evident by the ignorance, profaneness, and spirit of envy, that reign in the hearts of those men that are so hot for the forms, and not the power of praying. Scarce one of forty among them know what it is to be born again, to have communion with the Father through the Son; to feel the power of grace sanctifying their hearts: but for all their prayers, they still live cursed, drunken, whorish, and abominable lives, full of malice, envy, deceit, persecuting of the dear children of God. O what a dreadful after-clap is coming upon them! –which all their hypocritical assembling themselves together, with all their prayers, shall never be able to help them against, or shelter them from.

Again, It is a pouring out of the heart or soul. There is in prayer an unbosoming of a man’s self, an opening of the heart to God, an affectionate pouring out of the soul in requests, sighs, and groans. “All my desire is before you,” says David, “and my groaning is not hid from you” (Psalms 38:9). And again, “My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God? When I remember these things, I pour out my soul in me” (Psalms 42:2,4). Mark, “I pour out my soul.” It is an expression signifying, that in prayer there goes the very life and whole strength to God. As in another place, “Trust in him at all times; ye people, – pour out your heart before him” (Psalms 62:8). This is the prayer to which the promise is made, for the delivering of a poor creature out of captivity and thralldom. “If from thence you shalt seek the Lord your God, you shalt find him, if you seek him with all your heart and with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 4:29).

Again, It is a pouring out of the heart or soul TO GOD. This shows also the excellency of the spirit of prayer. It is the great God to which it retires. “When shall I come and appear before God?” And it argues, that the soul that thus prays indeed, sees an emptiness in all things under heaven; that in God alone there is rest and satisfaction for the soul. “Now she that is a widow indeed, and desolate, trusts in God” (I Timothy 5:5). So says David, “In you, O Lord, do I put my trust; let me never be put to confusion. Deliver me in your righteousness, and cause me to escape; incline your ear to me, and save me. Be you my strong habitation, whereunto I may continually resort: – for you are my rock and my fortress; deliver me, O my God, – out of the hand of the unrighteous and cruel man. For you are my hope, O Lord God, you are my trust from my youth” (Psalms 71:1-5). Many in a wording way speak of God; but right prayer makes God his hope, stay, and all. Right prayer sees nothing substantial, and worth the looking after, but God. And that, as I said before, it does in a sincere, sensible, and affectionate way.

Again, It is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, THROUGH CHRIST. This through Christ must needs be added, or else it is to be questioned, whether it be prayer, though in appearance it be never so eminent or eloquent. Christ is the way through whom the soul has admittance to God, and without whom it is impossible that so much as one desire should come into the ears of the Lord of Sabaoth (John 14:6). “If ye shall ask anything in my name”; “whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13,14). This was Daniel’s way in praying for the people of God; he did it in the name of Christ. “Now therefore, O our God, hear the prayer of your servant, and his supplications, and cause your face to shine upon your sanctuary that is desolate, for the Lord’s sake” (Daniel 9:17). And so David, “For your name’s sake,” that is, for your Christ’s sake, “pardon mine iniquity, for it is great” (Psalms 25:11). But now, it is not every one that makes mention of Christ’s name in prayer, that does indeed, and in truth, effectually pray to God in the name of Christ, or through him. This coming to God through Christ is the hardest part that is found in prayer. A man may more easily be sensible of his works, yes, and sincerely too desire mercy, and yet not be able to come to God by Christ. That man that comes to God by Christ, he must first have the knowledge of him; “for he that cometh to God, must believe that he is” (Hebrews 11:6). And so he that comes to God through Christ, must be enabled to know Christ. Lord, says Moses, “show me now your way, that I may know you” (Exodus 33:13).

This Christ, none but the Father can reveal (Matthew 11:27). And to come through Christ, is for the soul to be enabled of God to shroud itself under the shadow of the Lord Jesus, as a man covers himself under a something for safeguard (Matthew 16:16). Hence it is that David so often terms Christ his shield, buckler, tower, fortress, rock of defense, etc., (Psalms 18:2; 27:1; 28:1). Not only because by him he overcame his enemies, but because through him he found favor with God the Father. And so he says to Abraham, “Fear not, I am your shield,” etc., (Genesis 15:1). The man then that comes to God through Christ, must have faith, by which he puts on Christ, and in him appears before God. Now he that has faith is born of God, born again, and so becomes one of the sons of God; by virtue of which he is joined to Christ, and made a member of him (John 3:5,7; 1:12). And therefore, secondly he, as a member of Christ, comes to God; I say, as a member of him, so that God looks on that man as a part of Christ, part of his body, flesh, and bones, united to him by election, conversion, illumination, the Spirit being conveyed into the heart of that poor man by God (Ephesians 5:30). So that now he comes to God in Christ’s merits, in his blood, righteousness, victory, intercession, and so stands before him, being “accepted in his Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6). And because this poor creature is thus a member of the Lord Jesus, and under this consideration has admittance to come to God; therefore, by virtue of this union also, is the Holy Spirit conveyed into him, whereby he is able to pour out himself, that is his soul, before God, with his audience. And this leads me to the next, or fourth particular.

Fourth. Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate, pouring out of the heart or soul to God through Christ, by the strength or ASSISTANCE OF THE SPIRIT. For these things do so depend one upon another, that it is impossible that it should be prayer, without there be a joint concurrence of them; for though it be never so famous, yet without these things, it is only such prayer as is rejected of God. For without a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart to God, it is but lip-labor; and if it be not through Christ, it falls far short of ever sounding well in the ears of God. So also, if it be not in the strength and assistance of the Spirit, it is but like the sons of Aaron, offering with strange fire (Lev 10:1,2). But I shall speak more to this under the second head; and therefore in the meantime, that which is not petitioned through the teaching and assistance of the Spirit, it is not possible that it should be “according to the will of God (Rom 8:26,27).

Fifth. Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart, or soul, to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Spirit, FOR SUCH THINGS AS GOD HATH PROMISED, etc., (Matthew 6:6-8). Prayer it is, when it is within the compass of God’s Word; and it is blasphemy, or at best vain babbling, when the petition is beside the book. David therefore still in his prayer kept his eye on the Word of God. “My soul,” says he, “cleaves to the dust; make me alive me according to your word.” And again, “My soul melts for heaviness, strengthen you me according unto your word” (Psalms 119:25-28; see also 41, 42, 58, 65, 74, 81, 82, 107, 147, 154, 169, 170). And, “remember your word unto your servant, upon which you have caused me to hope” (verse 49). And indeed the Holy Ghost does not immediately make me alive and stir up the heart of the Christian without, but by, with, and through the Word, by bringing that to the heart, and by opening of that, whereby the man is provoked to go to the Lord, and to tell him how it is with him, and also to argue, and supplicate, according to the Word; thus it was with Daniel, that mighty prophet of the Lord. He understanding by books that the captivity of the children of Israel was hard at an end; then, according unto that word, he makes his prayer to God. “I Daniel,” says he, “understood by books,” namely, the writings of Jeremiah, “the number of the years where the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, – that he would accomplish seventy years in the desolations of Jerusalem. And I set my face to the Lord God, to seek by prayer and supplications, with fasting, and sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:2, 3). So that I say, as the Spirit is the helper and the governor of the soul, when it prays according to the will of God; so it guided by and according to, the Word of God and his promise. Hence it is that our Lord Jesus Christ himself did make a stop, although his life lay at stake for it. I could now pray to my Father, and he should give me more than twelve legions of angels; but how then must the scripture be fulfilled that thus it must be? (Matthew 26:53,54). As who should say, were there but a word for it in the scripture, I should soon be out of the hands of mine enemies, I should be helped by angels; but the scripture will not warrant this kind of praying, for that says otherwise. It is a praying then according to the Word and promise. The Spirit by the Word must direct, as well in the manner, as in the matter of prayer. “I will pray with the Spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also” (I Corinthians 14:15). But there is no understanding without the Word. For if they reject the word of the Lord, “what wisdom is in them?” (Jeremiah 8:9).

Sixth. FOR THE GOOD OF THE CHURCH. This clause reaches in whatsoever tends either to the honor of God, Christ’s advancement, or his people’s benefit. For God, and Christ, and his people are so linked together that if the good of the one be prayed for, to this purpose, the church, the glory of God, and advancement of Christ, must needs be included. For as Christ is in the Father, so the saints are in Christ; and he that touches the saints, touches the apple of God’s eye; and therefore pray for the peace of Jerusalem, and you pray for all that is required of you. For Jerusalem will never be in perfect peace until she be in heaven; and there is nothing that Christ does more desire than to have her there. That also is the place that God through Christ has given to her. He then that prays for the peace and good of Zion, or the church, does ask that in prayer which Christ has purchased with his blood; and also that which the Father has given to him as the price thereof. Now he that prays for this, must pray for abundance of grace for the church, for help against all its temptations; that God would let nothing be too hard for it; and that all things might work together for its good, that God would keep them blameless and harmless, the sons of God, to his glory, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation. And this is the substance of Christ’s own prayer in John 17. And all Paul’s prayers did run that way, as one of his prayers does eminently show. “And this I pray, that your love may abound yet more and more in knowledge, and in all judgment; that ye may approve things that are excellent; that ye may be sincere, and without offence, till the day of Christ. Being filled with the fruits of righteousness, which are by Jesus Christ unto the glory and praise of God” (Philippians 1:9-11). But a short prayer, you see, and yet full of good desires for the church, from the beginning to the end; that it may stand and go on, and that in the most excellent frame of spirit, even without blame, sincere, and without offence, until the day of Christ, let its temptations or persecutions be what they will (Ephesians 1:16-21; 3:14-19; Col 1:9-13).

Seventh. And because, as I said, prayer does SUBMIT TO THE WILL OF GOD, and say, ‘Thy will be done,’ as Christ has taught us (Matthew 6:10); therefore, the people of the Lord in humility are to lay themselves and their prayers, and all that they have, at the foot of their God, to be disposed of by him as he in his heavenly wisdom sees best. Yet not doubting but God will answer the desire of his people that way that shall be most for their advantage and his glory. When the saints therefore do pray with submission to the will of God, it does not argue that they are to doubt or question God’s love and kindness to them. But because they at all times are not so wise, but that sometimes Satan may get that advantage of them, as to tempt them to pray for that which, if they had it, would neither prove to God’s glory nor his people’s good. “Yet this is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us; and if we know that he hears us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him,” that is, we asking in the Spirit of grace and supplication (I John 5:14,15). For, as I said before, that petition that is not put up in and through the Spirit, it is not to be answered, because it is beside the will of God. For the Spirit only knows that, and so consequently knows how to pray according to that will of God. “For what man knows the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? even so the things of God know no man but the Spirit of God” (I Corinthians 2:11).

But more of this hereafter.