Prayer is an important element in all religious service. Not only is it vital to the individual Christian life, its importance in social religion is scarcely less important. “Ask, and it shall be given you;
seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” was the positive declaration of our Lord to His disciples. Matt. 6.7.
There are special blessings promised to united prayer, as well as to personal prayer. “If two of you shall agree on earth, as touching anything that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.” Matt. 18.19. Secret prayer, and personal communion alone with God, is essential to the soul’s spiritual life, and is encouraged by the promise of special blessing. “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Matt. 6.6.
Prayer adjusts itself in form to the various occasions which demand its exercise, but in spirit it is essentially everywhere the same. The pastor’s prayer before his congregation would speak for them as well as for himself and would be different from his prayer in his own study, at the family altar, in the sick-room, with a penitent sinner, or with a dying saint. An intelligent faith will adjust its form to the peculiar circumstances in which it is called forth. The prayer before the sermon would naturally be somewhat different from that at its close. If the petitioner have the true spirit of supplication, the petition will take on suitable language for its expression. The form will need to give no anxiety.
1. The motive of prayer Â— Prayer includes worship in its strictest sense. He who prays is supposed to shut out the world, and become insensible to aught else, while he communes with God. It includes adoration, confession, thanksgiving and petition. In its narrower sense prayer is supplication (precari Â— to beseech, to supplicate);
making request for needed blessings on behalf of the worshipper, and
other objects of divine clemency. The intercession of Christ must evermore be recognized as the only prevailing influence with, and cause of blessing from, the Father. “Whatsoever ye shall ask the Father in my name, he will give it you.” John 16.23. While the office of the Holy Spirit must be relied on as the only means of communication with the Throne of Grace by the merits of Christ, “For we know not what we should pray for as we ought; but the Spirit himself maketh intercession for us, with groanings which cannot be uttered.” Â— Rom. 8.26.
2. Preparation for Prayer Â— There needs to be a preparation for prayer, in order to lead profitably the devotions of others in addresses to the mercy seat. Not a preparation of words, but of the heart; not a forethought of phrases for that particular occasion, but a spirit in harmony with the divine fulness and a felt necessity for the blessings sought. He who would have the preparation, when in the pulpit, must obtain it before he goes there. “He that cometh to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them who diligently seek him.” Heb. 11.6. “But let him ask in faith, nothing wavering.” James 1.6. “Praying in the Holy Ghost.” Jude 20.
To make prayers and to pray, are very different things. Anyone can make a prayer, who can command the use of language; but to pray, the soul must commune with God. There is constant danger that prayers offered in the pulpit will become stereotyped and monotonous, so constantly are they repeated, and under circumstances so almost exactly similar. The best preventive is a fervent spirit and a deep sense of the need of divine assistance.
3. Style of Prayer Â— While prayer is not to be measured and meted out by mechanical rules, nor subjected to the rigid canons of logic or rhetoric, yet the petitioner is not Â— ordinarily, at least Â— beyond a self-conscious sense of certain proprieties, which even prayer, as a public or social exercise, should not transgress. Nor need it dampen the spirit, or interrupt the flow of devotion, to regard those proprieties. Prayer should be simple, direct, and brief. It should be so simple in style that all in the assembly can intelligently unite in it. It should be direct as to what is prayed for, and not wander over all possible subjects, seeking nothing in particular, and expecting nothing in particular. It often seems as if prayer was offered in public worship, not because there was a felt need of it, but because it is the prevailing custom to pray in that particular part of the service.
Prayers should be brief: of course, in some cases more so than in others. There is no excuse for the painful length of what is called “the long prayer” preceding the sermon in the case of many ministers. In fact, the “long prayer” is a calamity, to both the minister and the people. It is often difficult to perform it, and painful to endure it. Very largely it is not prayer at all, but a religious address, rather discursive in style and promiscuous in matter.
Prayers should be distinctly uttered, so that all can understand and unite in them; nor should there be anything, in manner or
expression, so peculiar as to divert the thoughts of hearers from the devotion. Especially should not the petitioner “use vain repetitions as the heathen do; for they think they shall be heard for their much speaking.” Matt. 6.7. Besides which, the whole style and manner of address should be penitential, reverential, and dignified withal, savoring of meekness and humility, as is becoming in sinful, helpless creatures when approaching a holy God. All flippant familiarity with the sacred names, which seems an affectation of unusual piety, should be avoided, as most offensive to sensible minds.
4. Faults in Prayer. Â— It may seem a most ungracious thing to criticize so sacred an exercise as prayer ought to be, and point out defects which not unfrequently mar its excellencies. The one prevailing defect, no doubt, is want of faith, spirituality, and the influences of the Holy Spirit. But these attach to all Christian exercises. There are, however, certain defects in the drift of prayer Â— more particularly prayers in the social meetings Â— into which the pious sometimes unconsciously fall, which deserve attention and correction.
Preaching Prayers, in which Scripture is explained, doctrine expounded, and instruction offered to the audience.
Exhorting Prayers, where warnings, rebukes, and exhortations seem addressed to classes or individuals, and possibly personal sins are pointed out.
Historical Prayers, in which facts and incidents are related, from which inferences and arguments are adduced. Not to be commended, though David, Solomon, and Ezra indulged in them on very special occasions.
Oratorical Prayers, which seem framed with special regard to the language, as if intended for critical ears.
Complimentary Prayers, where the excellencies of persons present or absent are effectively dwelt on, as if individuals were flattered, rather than the Deity worshipped. Clergymen in praying for each other, on public occasions, often use flattering speech.
Fault-finding Prayers, which make prominent the real or fancied faults of the Church or of individuals, existing difficulties deplored, advice given, remedies suggested, or rebukes administered.
All such things should be avoided.
Extracted from “The New Directory for Baptist Churches” by Edward T. Hiscox. First published in 1894 and recently reprinted by Kregel Publications, now available from the Tabernacle Bookshop, Elephant and Castle, London SE1 6SD.