Watts on Prayer #4 – The Spirit of Prayer

Over the past few weeks I’ve been sharing summaries of chapters from the book A Guide to Prayer by Isaac Watts. I’ve been using it in my own prayer times, and want to share the benefits. I know I could be addressing many other topics, and will eventually get to them. But if my sense is right, I think that prayer, both public and private, is an area of our relationship with God that we would all love to grow in.

In his chapter on The Spirit of Prayer Watts reminds us that all the rules and directions he’s laid out for praying will be ineffective without the aid of God’s Spirit. After providing extensive Scriptural support for the Spirit helping us in prayer (Zeph. 12:10; Luke 11:13; Rom. 8:26; Gal. 4:6; Eph. 6:18; Jude 20-21), he describes how the Spirit assists us. Some of the ways include increasing our natural capacities, blessing our diligent attempts to grow, inclining our hearts to pray, supplying us with content, influencing our methods, and helping us in expressiveness and our affections. He offers this encouragement:

“If the great God has required every man to pray, and will hear and reward the humble and sincere worshipper, why may we not suppose he is so compassionate as to help us in this work which he requires?” (p. 145)

How often do I pray that God’s Spirit would enable me to pray more effectively? Not enough.

Watts then lists cautions as we pursue the assistance of the Spirit. In his typically pastoral, balanced, and biblical way he encourages us not to believe that any and every impulse we receive is the Spirit of God speaking. This counsel alone could improve some of our prayers immeasurably. He reminds us that the influences of the Spirit won’t always be easily distinguishable from the stirrings of our own spirit, but we should avoid saying that the Spirit never exerts extraordinary influences when we pray. He also shares that beautiful praying may not be an evidence of the Spirit’s work, while those whose prayers are cumbersome or disjointed may have hearts alive to the Spirit of God.

Finally, he gives directions on obtaining and keeping the Spirit of prayer.

•    Seek earnestly after converting grace and faith in Jesus Christ (a key point…)
•    Be much in the practice of prayer (we don’t improve in anything without doing it)
•    Don’t confine yourself entirely to any set forms of prayer (although they’re useful at times)
•    Don’t ever indulge in mere formality (fight mindless externalism like the bird flu)
•    Be thankful for every aid to prayer and use it well (benefit from the tools God has given us)
•    Beware of pride and self-sufficiency when your emotions are heightened (God is responsible for effective praying, not us)
•    Don’t grieve the Holy Spirit in your life (impressive prayers, when spoken from unrepentant lives, are actually unimpressive to God)

Watts closes with instructions to those who feel that the Spirit has withdrawn from their prayers. Rather than simply wait around until we feel “moved” again, he gives strong counsel to pursue God’s activity in our lives:

“Reflect whether you have not sinfully neglected your prayer closet often; or often left it almost as soon as you came to it from a prevailing carnality of mind and sinful weariness of duty; or often shuffled off the work like a tiresome task because you fancied the world called you.” (p. 164)

“Do not dare to indulge a neglect of prayer upon pretence that the Spirit is departed, for without stirring up your soul to seek him, you cannot expect him to revisit you.” (p. 165)

Some people would be concerned about seeking any kind of evidence of the Spirit’s working in our prayers. They fear it might lead to excessive emotionalism, or running after experiences. Watts again gives us wise counsel:

“Though he is a sovereign and free agent, and his communications are of pure mercy so that we can claim no merit, the spirit of God has condescended so far as to give promises of his own presence to those who seek it in the way prescribed.” (p. 163)

Let’s remember that praying, like everything else, isn’t something we can do on our own. God’s Spirit is ready and willing to help us every step of the way.

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