Watts on Prayer #2 – The Gift of Prayer

Yesterday I shared my burden for giving more attention to the way we pray, both publicly and privately. This is an area I very much want to grow in. For that reason I picked up Isaac Watts’ A Guide to Prayer. I’ve been so encouraged by it, I wanted to give you a synopsis of the chapters to motivate you in your own pursuit of a rich prayer life.

Today, I’m looking at Chapter 2, The Gift of Prayer. Watts defines the gift of prayer as:

“An ability to suit our thoughts to all the various parts and designs of this duty, and a readiness to express those thoughts before God in the fittest manner to profit our own souls as well as the souls of others that join with us.” (p. 34-35)

Basically, he’s saying that prayer is a skill that we can develop and become more fruitful in. While it’s true that God can hear the stumbling words of a new believer, there’s no reason to think that we need to remain immature or ignorant in our prayers.

In this chapter Watts first addresses whether prayers should be written or spontaneous. He comes down strongly on the side of heart-felt spontaneous praying, without ruling out the use of written prayers. I find his approach fresh, biblical, and very helpful. He starts by giving some occasions when pre-conceived prayers are useful: for young Christians, for those who lack confidence in public, and for believers who are physically or mentally weak. Then he gives six reasons why confining ourselves exclusively to written forms can be unwise. It can hinder the expression of our hearts and affections to God, lead us into the danger of hypocrisy, and can keep us from knowing the state of our hearts. Formal prayers are also general in nature, and can’t help us express specific needs, concerns, or affections to God. He writes:

“The gift of prayer is much better than any form, just as a general skill in the work of preaching is to be preferred to any pre-composed sermons.” (p. 41)

He then encourages us to prepare for prayer, rather than depend entirely on spontaneous stirrings. See if you can relate to these words:

“If we utterly neglect preparation, we shall be ready to fall into many difficulties. Sometimes we shall be constrained to make long and indecent stops in prayer, not knowing what to say next….And sometimes when the mind is not regularly equipped, we run into a confused, incoherent and impertinent rhapsody of words, by which both God may be dishonored, and the edification of ourselves and others spoiled.” (p. 46)

He then goes on to discuss the content, method, expression, voice, and gestures of prayer.  His thoughts are specific without becoming laborious or legalistic. While covering topics including the length of prayers, the choice of words, and the flow of thought, he reminds us:

“Sometimes, even in the beginning of a prayer, when we are insisting on one of the first parts of it, we receive a divine hint from the spirit of God that carries away our thoughts and our whole souls with warm devotion into another part that is of a very different kind and perhaps usually comes in near the conclusion. And when the Spirit of God thus leads us, and our souls are in a very devout frame, we are not to quench the Spirit of God in order to tie ourselves to any set rules of prescribed method.” (p. 67-68)

And one of my favorite quotes:

“Though the limiting ourselves to a constant set form of words is justly disapproved, serious, pious and well-composed patterns of prayer may yet be greatly used in order to form our expressions and furnish us with proper praying language. And I wish the assistances that might be borrowed from these were not as superstitiously abandoned by some persons as they are idolized by others.” (p. 71)

In other words, use means that will enable a thoughtful, heart-felt, biblical response to God, without despising or idolizing the means themselves. Great counsel for any aspect of our relationship with God.

Watts also includes some helpful thoughts on family prayer, grace before meals (don’t mumble and don’t go through your prayer list), and posture in prayer (don’t overemphasize nor minimize its importance).

He ends the chapter with this simple observation :

“For the most part, if all other circumstances are equal, it will be found a general truth that he that prays most prays best.” (p. 108)

So true.

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