I will pray with the Spirit

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

holy-spirt-lg

Now to pray with the Spirit…

…for that is the praying man, and none else, who is to be accepted of God —it is for a man, as aforesaid, sincerely and sensibly, with affection, to come to God through Christ, etc.; which sincere, sensible, and affectionate coming must be by the working of God’s Spirit.

There is no man nor church in the world that can come to God in prayer, but by the assistance of the Holy Spirit.

“For through Christ we all have access by one Spirit unto the Father” (Ephesians 2:18). Therefore, Paul says, “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit itself makes intercession for us with groaning which cannot be uttered. And he that searches the hearts, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26,27). And because there is in this scripture so full a discovery of the spirit of prayer, and of man’s inability to pray without it; therefore, I shall in a few words comment upon it.

“For we.” Consider first the person speaking, even Paul, and, in his person, all the apostles. We apostles, we extraordinary officers, the wise master-builders, that have some of us been caught up into paradise (Romans 15:16; I Corinthians 3:10; II Corinthians 12:4). “We know not what we should pray for.” Surely there is no man but will confess, that Paul and his companions were as able to have done any work for God, as any pope or proud prelate in the church of Rome, and could as well have made a Common Prayer Book as those who at first composed this; as being not a whit behind them either in grace or gifts.

“For we know not what we should pray for.” We know not the matter of the things for which we should pray, neither the object to whom we pray, nor the medium by or through whom we pray; none of these things know we, but by the help and assistance of the Spirit. Should we pray for communion with God through Christ? should we pray for faith, for justification by grace, and a truly sanctified heart? none of these things know we. “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 here, alas! The apostles speak of inward and spiritual things, which the world knows not (Isaiah 29:11).

Again, as they know not the matter, etc., of prayer, without the help of the Spirit; so neither know they the manner thereof without the same; and therefore he adds, “We know not what we should pray for as we ought”; but the Spirit helps our infirmities, with sighs and groans which cannot be uttered. Mark here, they could not so well and so fully come off in the manner of performing this duty, as these in our days think they can. The apostles, when they were at the best, yea, when the Holy Spirit assisted them, yet then they were fain to come off with sighs and groans, falling short of expressing their mind, but with sighs and groans which cannot be uttered.

But here now, the wise men of our days are so well skilled as that they have both the manner and matter of their prayers at their finger-tips; setting such a prayer for such a day, and that twenty years before it comes. One for Christmas, another for Easter, and six days after that. They have also bounded how many syllables must be said in every one of them at their public exercises. For each saint’s day, also, they have them ready for the generations yet unborn to say. They can tell you, also, when you shall kneel, when you shall stand, when you should abide in your seats, when you should go up into the chancel, and what you should do when you come there. All which the apostles came short of, as not being able to compose so profound a manner; and that for this reason included in this scripture, because the fear of God tied them to pray as they ought.

“For we know not what we should pray for as we ought.” Mark this, “as we ought.” For the not thinking of this word, or at least the not understanding it in the spirit and truth of it, has occasioned these men to devise, as Jeroboam did, another way of worship, both for matter and manner, then is revealed in the Word of God (I Kings 12:26-33). But, says Paul, we must pray as we ought; and this WE cannot do by all the are, skill, and cunning device of men or angels. “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit”; no, further, it must be “the Spirit ITSELF” that helps our infirmities; not the Spirit and man’s lusts; what man of his own brain may imagine and devise, is one thing, and what they are commanded, and ought to do, is another. Many ask and have not, because they ask amiss; and so are never the nearer the enjoying of those things they petition for (James 4:3). It is not to pray at random that will put off God, or cause him to answer. While prayer is making, God is searching the heart, to see from what root and spirit it does arise (I John 5:14). “And he that searches the heart knows,” that is, approves only, the meaning “of the Spirit, because he makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.” For in that which is according to his will only, he hears us, and in nothing else. And it is the Spirit only that can teach us so to ask; it only being able to search out all things, even the deep things of God. Without which Spirit, though we had a thousand Common Prayer Books, yet we know not what we should pray for as we ought, being accompanied with those infirmities that make us absolutely incapable of such a work. Which infirmities, although it is a hard thing to name them all, yet some of them are these that follow.

First.

Without the Spirit man is so infirm that he cannot, with all other means whatsoever, be enabled to think one right saving thought of God, of Christ, or of his blessed things; and therefore he says of the wicked, “God is not in all his thoughts,” (Psalms 10:4); unless it be that they imagine him altogether such a one as themselves (Psalms 50:21). For “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil,” and that “continually” (Gen 6:5; 8:21). They then not being able to conceive aright of God to whom they pray, of Christ through whom they pray, nor of the things for which they pray, as is before showed, how shall they be able to address themselves to God, without the Spirit help this infirmity? Peradventure you will say, By the help of the Common Prayer Book; but that cannot do it, unless it can open the eyes, and reveal to the soul all these things before touched. Which that it cannot, it is evident; because that is the work of the Spirit only. The Spirit itself is the revealer of these things to poor souls, and that which does give us to understand them; wherefore Christ tells his disciples, when he promised to send the Spirit, the Comforter, “He shall take of mine and show unto you”; as if he had said, I know you are naturally dark and ignorant as to the understanding any of my things; though ye try this course and the other, yet your ignorance will still remain, the veil is spread over your heart, and there is none can take away the same, nor give you spiritual understanding but the Spirit. The Common Prayer Book will not do it, neither can any man expect that it should be instrumental that way, it being none of God’s ordinances; but a thing since the Scriptures were written, patched together one piece at one time, and another at another; a mere human invention and institution, which God is so far from owning of, that he expressly forbids it, with any other such like, and that by manifold sayings in his most holy and blessed Word. (See Mark 7:7, 8, and Colossians 2:16-23; Deuteronomy 12:30-32; Proverbs 30:6; Deuteronomy 4:2; Revelation 22:18). For right prayer must, as well in the outward part of it, in the outward expression, as in the inward intention, come from what the soul does apprehend in the light of the Spirit; otherwise it is condemned as vain and an abomination, because the heart and tongue do not go along jointly in the same, neither indeed can they, unless the Spirit help our infirmities (Mark 7; Proverbs 28:9; Isaiah 29:13). And this David knew full well, which did make him cry, “Lord, open you my lips, and my mouth shall show forth your praise” (Psalms 51:15). I suppose there is none can imagine but that David could speak and express himself as well as others, no, as any in our generation, as is clearly manifested by his word and his works. Nevertheless, when this good man, this prophet, comes into God’s worship, then the Lord must help, or he can do nothing. “Lord, open you my lips, and” then “my mouth shall show forth your praise.” He could not speak one right word, except the Spirit itself gave utterance. “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit itself helps our infirmities.” But,

Second.

It must be a praying with the Spirit, that is, the effectual praying; because without that, as men are senseless, so hypocritical, cold, and unseemly in their prayers; and so they, with their prayers, are both rendered abominable to God (Matthew 23:14; Mark 12:40; Luke 18:11, 12; Isaiah 58:2, 3). It is not the excellency of the voice, nor the seeming affection, and earnestness of him that prays, that is anything regarded of God without it. For man, as man, is so full of all manner of wickedness, that as he cannot keep a word, or thought, so much less a piece of prayer clean, and acceptable to God through Christ; and for this cause the Pharisees, with their prayers, were rejected. No question but they were excellently able to express themselves in words, and also for length of time, too, they were very notable; but they had not the Spirit of Jesus Christ to help them, and therefore they did what they did with their infirmities or weaknesses only, and so fell short of a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of their souls to God, through the strength of the Spirit. That is the prayer that goes to heaven, that is sent thither in the strength of the Spirit. For,

Third.

Nothing but the Spirit can show a man clearly his misery by nature, and so put a man into a posture of prayer. Talk is but talk, as we use to say, and so it is but mouth-worship, if there be not a sense of misery, and that effectually too. O the cursed hypocrisy that is in most hearts, and that accompanies many thousands of praying men that would be so looked upon in this day, and all for want of a sense of their misery! But now the Spirit, that will sweetly show the soul its misery, where it is, and what is like to become of it, also the intolerableness of that condition. For it is the Spirit that does effectually convince of sin and misery, without the Lord Jesus, and so puts the soul into a sweet, sensible, affectionate way of praying to God according to his word (John 16:7-9).

Fourth.

If men did see their sins, yet without the help of the Spirit they would not pray. For they would run away from God, with Cain and Judas, and utterly despair of mercy, were it not for the Spirit. When a man is indeed sensible of his sin, and God’s curse, then it is a hard thing to persuade him to pray; for, says his heart, “There is no hope,” it is in vain to seek God (Jer 2:25; 18:12). I am so vile, so wretched, and so cursed a creature, that I shall never be regarded! Now here comes the Spirit, and stays the soul, helps it to hold up its face to God, by letting into the heart some small sense of mercy to encourage it to go to God, and hence it is called “the Comforter” (John 14:26).

Fifth.

It must be in or with the Spirit; for without that no man can know how he should come to God the right way. Men may easily say they come to God in his Son: but it is the hardest thing of a thousand to come to God aright and in his own way, without the Spirit. It is “the Spirit” that “searches all things, yea, the deep things of God” (I Corinthians 2:10). It is the Spirit that must show us the way of coming to God, and also what there is in God that makes him desirable: “I pray you,” says Moses, “show me now your way, that I may know you” (Exodus 33:13). And, He shall take of mine, and “show it unto you” (John 16:14).

Sixth.

Because without the Spirit, though a man did see his misery, and also the way to come to God; yet he would never be able to claim a share in either God, Christ, or mercy, with God’s approbation. O how great a task is it, for a poor soul that becomes sensible of sin and the wrath of God, to say in faith, but this one word, “Father!” I tell you, however hypocrites think, yet the Christian that is so indeed finds all the difficulty in this very thing, it cannot say God is its Father. O! says he, I dare not call him Father; and hence it is that the Spirit must be sent into the hearts of God’s people for this very thing, to cry Father: it being too great a work for any man to do knowingly and believingly without it (Galatians 4:6). When I say knowingly, I mean, knowing what it is to be a child of God, and to be born again. And when I say believingly, I mean, for the soul to believe, and that from good experience, that the work of grace is wrought in him. This is the right calling of God Father; and not as many do, to say in a babbling way, the Lord’s prayer (so-called) by heart, as it lies in the words of the book. No, here is the life of prayer, when in or with the Spirit, a man being made sensible of sin, and how to come to the Lord for mercy; he comes, I say, in the strength of the Spirit, and cries Father.

That one word spoken in faith, is better than a thousand prayers, as men call them, written and read, in a formal, cold, lukewarm way.

O how far short are those people of being sensible of this, who count it enough to teach themselves and children to say the Lord’s prayer, the creed, with other sayings; when, as God knows, they are senseless of themselves, their misery, or what it is to be brought to God through Christ! Ah, poor soul! Study your misery, and cry to God to show you your confused blindness and ignorance, before you be so rife in calling God your Father, or teaching your children either so to say.

And know, that to say God is your Father, in a way of prayer or conference, without any experiment of the work of grace on your souls, it is to say you are Jews and are not, and so to lie.

You say, Our Father; God says, “You blaspheme!” You say you are Jew, that is, true Christians; God says, “You lie!” “Behold I will make them of the synagogue of Satan, which say they are Jews, and are not, but do lie” (Revelation 3:9). “And I know the blasphemy of them that say they are Jews, and are not, but are the synagogue of Satan” (Revelation 2:9). And so much the greater the sin is, by how much the more the sinner boasts it with a pretended sanctity, as the Jews did to Christ, in the 8th of John, which made Christ, even in plain terms, to tell them their doom, for all their hypocritical pretenses (John 8:41-45). And yet forsooth every cursed whoremaster, thief, and drunkard, swearer, and perjured person; they that have not only been such in times past, but are even so still: these I say, by some must be counted the only honest men, and all because with their blasphemous throats, and hypocritical hearts, they will come to church, and say, “Our Father!” No further, these men, though every time they say to God, Our Father, do most abominably blaspheme, yet they must be compelled thus to do. And because others that are of more sober principles, scruple the truth of such vain traditions; therefore they must be looked upon to be the only enemies of God and the nation: when as it is their own cursed superstition that does set the great God against them, and cause him to count them for his enemies (Isaiah 53:10). And yet just like to Bonner, that blood-red persecutor, they commend, I say, these wretches, although never so vile, if they close in with their traditions, to be good churchmen, the honest subjects; while God’s people are, as it has always been, looked upon to be a turbulent, seditious, and factious people (Ezra 4:12-16).

Therefore, give me leave a little to reason with you, you poor, blind, ignorant sot.

(1.) It may be your great prayer is to say, “Our Father which are in heaven,” etc. Do you know the meaning of the very first words of this prayer? Can you indeed, with the rest of the saints, cry, Our Father? Are you truly born again? Have you received the spirit of adoption? Do you see yourself in Christ, and can you come to God as a member of him? Or are you ignorant of these things, and yet dare you say, Our Father? Is not the devil your father? (John 8:44). And do you not do the deeds of the flesh? And yet dare you say to God, Our Father? No, are you not a desperate persecutor of the children of God? Have you not cursed them in your heart many a time? And yet do you out of your blasphemous throat suffer these words to come, even “our Father?” He is their Father whom you hate and persecute. But as the devil presented himself amongst the sons of God, (Job 1), when they were to present themselves before the Father, even our Father, so is it now; because the saints were commanded to say, Our Father, therefore all the blind ignorant rabble in the world, they must also use the same words, Our Father.

(2.) And do you indeed say, “Hallowed be your name” with your heart? Do you study, by all honest and lawful ways, to advance the name, holiness, and majesty of God? Does your heart and conversation agree with this passage? Do you strive to imitate Christ in all the works of righteousness, which God does command of you, and prompt you forward to?

It is so, if you be one that can truly with God’s allowance cry, “Our Father.” Or is God not the least of your thoughts all the day? And do you not clearly make it appear, that you are a cursed hypocrite, by condemning that with your daily practice, which you pretend in your praying with your dissembling tongue?

(3.) Wouldst you have the kingdom of God come indeed, and also his will to be done in earth as it is in heaven? No, notwithstanding, you according to the form, say, “Your kingdom come,” yet would it not make you ready to run mad, to hear the trumpet sound, to see the dead arise, and yourself just now to go and appear before God, to account for all the deeds you have done in the body? No, are not the very thoughts of it altogether displeasing to you? And if God’s will should be done on earth as it is in heaven, must it not be your ruin? There is never a rebel in heaven against God, and if he should so deal on earth, must it not whirl you down to hell? And so of the rest of the petitions. Ah! How sadly would even those men look, and with what terror would they walk up and down the world, if they did but know the lying and blaspheming that proceeds out of their mouth, even in their most pretended sanctity? The Lord awaken you, and teach you, poor souls, in all humility, to take heed that you be not rash and unadvised with your heart, and much more with your mouth! When you appear before God, as the wise man says, “Be not rash with your mouth, and let not your heart be hasty to utter anything, (Eccl 5:2); especially to call God Father, without some blessed experience when you come before God. But I pass this.

Seventh.

It must be a praying with the Spirit if it be accepted, because there is nothing but the Spirit that can lift up the soul or heart to God in prayer: “The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the Lord” (Proverbs 16:1). That is, in every work for God, and especially in prayer, if the heart run with the tongue, it must be prepared by the Spirit of God. Indeed, the tongue is very apt, of itself, to run without either fear or wisdom: but when it is the answer of the heart, and that such a heart as is prepared by the Spirit of God, then it speaks so as God commands and does desire.

They are mighty words of David, where he says, that he lifts his heart and his soul to God (Psalms 25:1). It is a great work for any man without the strength of the Spirit, and therefore I conceive that this is one of the great reasons why the Spirit of God is called a Spirit of supplications, (Zechariah 12:10), because it is that which helps the heart when it supplicates indeed to do it; and therefore says Paul, “Praying with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit” (Ephesians 6:18). And so in my text, “I will pray with the Spirit.” Prayer, without the heart being in it, is like a sound without life; and a heart, without it be lifted up of the Spirit, will never pray to God.

Eighth.

As the heart must be lifted up by the Spirit, if it pray aright, so also it must be held up by the Spirit when it is up, if the heart continue to pray aright. I do not know what, or how it is with others’ hearts, whether they be lifted up by the Spirit of God, and so continued, or no: but this I am sure of,

First, That it is impossible that all the prayer-books that men have made in the world, should lift up, or prepare the heart; that is the work of the great God himself. And, in the second place, I am sure that they are as far from keeping it up, when it is up. And indeed here is the life of prayer, to have the heart kept with God in the duty. It was a great matter for Moses to keep his hands lifted up to God in prayer; but how much more then to keep the heart in it! (Exodus 17:12). The want of this is that which God complains of; that they draw nigh to him with their mouth, and honor him with their lips, but their hearts were far from him (Isaiah 29:13; Ezekiel 33), but chiefly that they walk after the commandments and traditions of men, as the scope of Matthew 15:8, 9 does testify. And verily, may I but speak my own experience, and from that tell you the difficulty of praying to God as I ought, it is enough to make your poor, blind, carnal men to entertain strange thoughts of me. For, as for my heart, when I go to pray, I find it so loth to go to God, and when it is with him, so loth to stay with him, that many times I am forced in my prayers, first to beg of God that he would take mine heart, and set it on himself in Christ, and when it is there, that he would keep it there. No, many times I know not what to pray for, I am so blind, nor how to pray, I am so ignorant; only, blessed be grace, the Spirit helps our infirmities (Psalms 86:11).

O! the starting-holes that the heart has in the time of prayer; none knows how many byways the heart has, and back-lanes, to slip away from the presence of God. How much pride also, if enabled with expressions. How much hypocrisy, if before others. And how little conscience is there made of prayer between God and the soul in secret, unless the Spirit of supplication be there to help? When the Spirit gets into the heart, then there is prayer indeed, and not till then.

Ninth.

The soul that does rightly pray, it must be in and with the help and strength of the Spirit; because it is impossible that a man should express himself in prayer without it. When I say, it is impossible for a man to express himself in prayer without it, I mean, that it is impossible that the heart, in a sincere and sensible affectionate way, should pour out itself before God, with those groans and sighs that come from a truly praying heart, without the assistance of the Spirit. It is not the mouth that is the main thing to be looked at in prayer, but whether the heart is so full of affection and earnestness in prayer with God, that it is impossible to express their sense and desire; for then a man desires indeed, when his desires are so strong, many, and mighty, that all the words, tears, and groans that can come from the heart, cannot utter them: “The Spirit – helps our infirmities, – and makes intercession for us with [sighs and] groanings which cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26).

That is but poor prayer which is only discovered in so many words. A man that truly prays one prayer, shall after that never be able to express with his mouth or pen the unutterable desires, sense, affection, and longing that went to God in that prayer.

The best prayers have often more groans than words: and those words that it has are but a lean and shallow representation of the heart, life, and spirit of that prayer.

You do not find any words of prayer, that we read of, come out of the mouth of Moses, when he was going out of Egypt, and was followed by Pharaoh, and yet he made heaven ring again with his cry (Exodus 14:15). But it was inexpressible and unsearchable groans and cryings of his soul in and with the Spirit. God is the God of spirits, and his eyes look further than at the outside of any duty whatsoever (Numbers 16:22). I doubt this is but little thought on by the most of them that would be looked upon as a praying people (I Samuel 16:7).

The nearer a man comes in any work that God commands him to the doing of it according to his will, so much the more hard and difficult it is; and the reason is, because man, as man, is not able to do it. But prayer, as aforesaid, is not only a duty, but one of the most eminent duties, and therefore so much the more difficult: Therefore, Paul knew what he said, when he said, “I will pray with the Spirit.” He knew well it was not what others writ or said that could make him a praying person; nothing less than the Spirit could do it.

Tenth.

It must be with the Spirit, or else as there will be a failing in the act itself, so there will be a failing, yea, a fainting, in the prosecution of the work. Prayer is an ordinance of God, that must continue with a soul so long as it is on this side glory. But, as I said before, it is not possible for a man to get up his heart to God in prayer; so it is as difficult to keep it there, without the assistance of the Spirit. And if so, then for a man to continue from time to time in prayer with God, it must of necessity be with the Spirit.

Christ tells us, that men ought always to pray, and not to faint (Luke 18:1). And again tells us, that this is one definition of a hypocrite, that either he will not continue in prayer, or else if he do it, it will not be in the power, that is, in the spirit of prayer, but in the form, for a pretense only (Job 27:10; Matthew 23:14). It is the easiest thing of a hundred to fall from the power to the form, but it is the hardest thing of many to keep in the life, spirit, and power of any one duty, especially prayer; that is such a work, that a man without the help of the Spirit cannot so much as pray once, much less continue, without it, in a sweet praying frame, and in praying, so to pray as to have his prayers ascend into the ears of the Lord God of Sabaoth.

Jacob did not only begin, but held it: “I will not let you go, unless you bless me” (Gen 32). So did the rest of the godly (Hosea 12:4). But this could not be without the spirit of prayer. It is through the Spirit that we have access to the Father (Ephesians 2:18).

The same is a remarkable place in Jude, when he stirred up the saints by the judgment of God upon the wicked to stand fast, and continue to hold out in the faith of the gospel, as one excellent means thereto, without which he knew they would never be able to do it. Says he, “Building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20). As if he had said, Brethren, as eternal life is laid up for the persons that hold out only, so you cannot hold out unless you continue praying in the Spirit.

The great cheat that the devil and antichrist delude the world withal, it is to make them continue in the form of any duty, the form of preaching, of hearing, or praying, etc. These are they that have “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof; from such turn away” (II Timothy 3:5).