Prayer is the heartbeat of our faith. John Calvin called it “conversation with God,” even “intimate conversation with God.” In prayer we speak back to him. We pray in faith, believing he hears and answers.
Yet our prayer lives are always under construction, and we continually need to reflect on the meaning and practice of prayer. In a highly distracted age, we need perspectives on prayer that remind us what it is and why it’s so essential. The Puritans are immensely helpful in this regard. They talk a lot about prayer—its theological underpinnings and practical importance in a life of piety—and there is much we can glean from them.
Here are just five (of many) helpful perspectives on prayer from Puritan writers.
1. Pray with Humility
As we address God and begin to pray, we are aware of who he is and who we are. We address our holy God as sinful people. We have broken his laws and fallen short of his glory (Rom. 3:23). John Udall urged: “It is necessary for God’s people to begin their prayers to God with a free confession of their sins (Ps. 32:5). . . . By the confession of our sins, we are the more humbled and prepared the better to prayer.” In humility we seek God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ so we can live as God desires. Every day we need to confess our sins in prayer.
2. Pray Under Affliction
Sin afflicts us, as do other troubles, sufferings, and difficulties in life. In the midst of them all, we pray. Citing James 5:13, Vincent Alsop said, “Prayer under affliction witnesses that we believe our God to be good and gracious in it: that he can support us under it, can do us much good by it, and deliver us from it.” Prayer in afflictions reflects our belief that God is good and gracious. He will not fail us. He supports us and gets us through troubles, in unexpected ways. Our prayers express these beliefs. We pray in faith, believing that “many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the LORD rescues them from them all” (Ps. 34:19). In the midst of afflictions, pray.
3. Pray to God’s Praise
In all conditions of life, we pray. We pray because we know God is with us and is the source of all blessings. We give thanks and acknowledge everything to his praise! As Matthew Henry wrote, “Every bit we eat and every drop we drink is mercy; every step we take, and every breath we draw, mercy. [These are] what we have reason to acknowledge with thankfulness to God’s praise.” King David offered praise: “Yours is the kingdom, O LORD, and you are exalted as head above all. . . . And now, our God, we give thanks to you and praise your glorious name” (1 Chron. 29:11, 13). Our great purpose in life is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessings. In prayer, we bring all things to him, praising and thanking him for mercy.
4. Pray with Patience
I once heard a sermon titled “Why Doesn’t God Hurry?” We wonder. We pray and pray, and no answer seems to arrive. Our faith may flicker. But, as Arthur Hildersham pointed out, “We may be sure that as the Lord doth hear, and regard every prayer we do make, so he will certainly give us a gracious answer in due time.” In due time means in God’s time. God hears and answers, but in the timing he chooses. And his timing is better than ours. Despite our anxieties in waiting, we can trust God to answer when he wills. This is our comfort since his will is to be gracious to us. As the psalmist said, “The LORD is gracious and merciful” (Ps. 111:4; 145:8).
5. Pray with Expectation
We pray because we believe God listens. He isn’t distant and disinterested; he’s close and attentive. Paul Baynes wrote, “Let us be sure of this that he bottles up our tears, files up our prayers, putting them on record before him.” Imagine, God “bottles up our tears” (Ps. 56:8)! Our prayers do not fly into empty space. They are heard and stand before our gracious God, who remembers them. Our prayers are precious to him, standing like “tears in a bottle.” He keeps a “book of remembrance”—filled with our prayers. We can be sure God hears and will answer.
Our great purpose in life is to acknowledge God as the source of all blessings.
These five perspectives show up all over Puritan writings, but they are just skimming the surface of the beautiful insights and wisdom to be found on this topic. To explore Puritan perspectives—in addition to reading the cited passages—I recommended these Puritan classics: John Bunyan, Prayer; Thomas Goodwin, The Return of Prayers; Matthew Henry, A Method for Prayer; and Robert Hill, The Pathway to Prayer and Piety.
Prayer is as crucial for Christians today as it was for believers 400, 800, and 1,200 years ago. Let’s learn from our forebears in faith how to honor this most central of all Christian practices.