Nature of Prayer

We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Who can have compassion on the ignorant, and on them that are out of the way; for that he himself also is compassed with infirmity. For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father.
~ Romans 15:1, Hebrews 4:15, Hebrews 5:2, Romans 8:15, Ephesians 2:18

LORD, thou hast heard the desire of the humble: thou wilt prepare their heart, thou wilt cause thine ear to hear:
~ Psalm 10:17

But Jesus answered and said, Ye know not what ye ask. Are ye able to drink of the cup that I shall drink of, and to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? They say unto him, We are able.
~ Matthew 20:22

For it is not ye that speak, but the Spirit of your Father which speaketh in you.
~ Matthew 10:20

Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints; But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, Keep yourselves in the love of God, looking for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ unto eternal life.
~ Ephesians 6:18, Jude 1:20-21

To the chief Musician on Neginoth, Maschil, A Psalm of David. Give ear to my prayer, O God; and hide not thyself from my supplication. Attend unto me, and hear me: I mourn in my complaint, and make a noise; I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God. A Song or Psalm for the sons of Korah, to the chief Musician upon Mahalath Leannoth, Maschil of Heman the Ezrahite. O LORD God of my salvation, I have cried day and night before thee: Let my prayer come before thee: incline thine ear unto my cry; For my soul is full of troubles: and my life draweth nigh unto the grave.
~ Psalm 55:1-2, Psalm 69:3, Psalm 88:1-3

For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me.
~ 2 Corinthians 12:8

For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.
~ 2 Corinthians 5:2, 2 Corinthians 5:4

The LORD hath heard my supplication; the LORD will receive my prayer.
~ Psalm 6:9

The Nature of Prayer, by John Owen. The following contains Chapter Four of his work, “A Discourse of the Work of the Holy Spirit in Prayer as the Spirit of Grace and Supplications, and the Duty of Believers Therein; With a Brief Inquiry into the Nature and Use of Mental Prayer and Forms”. London, 1682.

Chapter IV. The nature of prayer — Rom. viii. 26 opened and vindicated.

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.
— Romans 8:26

Prayer at present I take to be a gift ability, or spiritual faculty of exercising faith, love, reverence, fear, delight, and other graces, in a way of vocal requests, supplications, and praises unto God: “In every thing … let your requests be made known unto God,” Phil. iv. 6.

This gift and ability I affirm to be bestowed, and this work by virtue thereof to be wrought in us, by the Holy Ghost, in the accomplishment of the promise insisted on, so crying “Abba, Father,” in them that do believe. And this is that which we are to give an account of; wherein we shall assert nothing but what the Scripture plainly goeth before us in, and what the experience of believers, duly exercised in duties of obedience, doth confirm. And in the issue of our endeavour we shall leave it unto the judgment of God and his church, whether they are “ecstatical, enthusiastical, unaccountable raptures” that we plead for, or a real gracious effect and work of the Holy Spirit of God.

The first thing we ascribe unto the Spirit herein is, that he supplieth and furnisheth the mind with a due comprehension of the matter of prayer, or what ought, both in general and as unto all our particular occasions, to be prayed for. Without this I suppose it will be granted that no man can pray as he ought; for how can any man pray that knows not what to pray for? Where there is not a comprehension hereof, the very nature and being of prayer is destroyed. And herein the testimony of the apostle is express: Rom. viii. 26, “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered.”

It is that expression only which at present I urge, “We know not what we should pray for as we ought.” This is generally supposed to be otherwise, — namely, that men know well enough what they ought to pray for; only they are wicked and careless, and will not pray for what they know they ought so to do. I shall make no excuse or apology for the wickedness and carelessness of men; which, without doubt, are abominable. But yet I must abide by the truth asserted by the apostle, which I shall farther evidence immediately, — namely, that without the especial aid and assistance of the Holy Spirit no man knoweth what to pray for as he ought.

But yet there is another relief in this matter, and so no need of any work of the Holy Ghost therein. And we shall be accounted impudent if we ascribe any thing unto him whereof there is the least colourable pretence that it may be otherwise effected or provided for. So great an unwillingness is there to allow him either place, work, or office in the Christian religion or the practice of it! Wherefore, it is pretended that although men do not of themselves know what to pray for, yet this defect may be supplied in a prescript form of words, prepared on purpose to teach and confine men unto what they are to pray for.

We may, therefore, dismiss the Holy Spirit and his assistance as unto this concernment of prayer; for the due matter of it may be so set down and fixed on ink and paper that the meanest capacity cannot miss of his duty therein! This, therefore, is that which is to be tried in our ensuing discourse, — namely, that whereas it is plainly affirmed that “we know not” of ourselves “what we should pray for as we ought” (which I judge to be universally true as unto all persons, as well those who prescribe prayers as those unto whom they are prescribed), and that the Holy Spirit helps and relieveth us herein, whether we may or ought to relinquish and neglect his assistance, and so to rely only on such supplies as are invented or used unto that end for which he is promised; that is, plainly, whether the word of God be to be trusted unto in this matter or not.

It is true, that whatever we ought to pray for is declared in the Scripture, yea, and summarily comprised in the Lord’s Prayer; but it is one thing to have what we ought to pray for in the book, another thing to have it in our minds and hearts, — without which it will never be unto us the due matter of prayer. It is out of the “abundance of the heart” that the mouth must speak in this matter, Matt. xii. 34. There is, therefore, in us a threefold defect with respect unto the matter of prayer, which is supplied by the Holy Spirit, and can be so no other way nor by any other means; and therein is he unto us a Spirit of supplication according to the promise.

For, — 1. We know not our own wants; 2. We know not the plies of them that are expressed in the promises of God; and, 3. We know not the end whereunto what we pray for is to be directed, which I add unto the former. Without the knowledge and understanding of all these, no man can pray as he ought; and we can no way know them but by the aid and assistance of the Spirit of grace. And if these things be manifest, it will be evident how in this first instance we are enabled to pray by the Holy Ghost.

First, Our wants, as they are to be the matter of prayer, may be referred unto three heads, and none of them of ourselves do we know aright, so as to make them the due subject of our supplications, and of some of them we know nothing at all:—

1. This first consists in our outward straits, pressures, and difficulties, which we desire to be delivered from, with all other temporal things wherein we are concerned. In those things it should seem wondrously clear that of ourselves we know what to pray for. But the truth is, whatever our sense may be of them and our natural desires about them, yet how and when, under what conditions and limitations, with what frame of heart and spirit, [with] what submission unto the pleasure of God, they are to be made the matter of our prayers, we know not. Therefore doth God call the prayers of most about them “howling,” and not a crying unto him with the heart, Hos. vii. 14. There is, indeed, a voice of nature crying in its distress unto the God of nature, but that is not the duty of evangelical prayer which we inquire after; and men ofttimes most miss it when they think themselves most ready and prepared. To know our temporal wants so as to make them the matter of prayer according to the mind of God requires more wisdom than of ourselves we are furnished withal; for “who knoweth what is good for man in this life, all the days of his vain life which he spendeth as a shadow?” Eccles. vi. 12; and ofttimes believers are never more at a loss than how to pray aright about temporal things. No man is in pain or distress, or under any wants, whose continuance would be destructive to his being, but he may, yea, he ought to make deliverance from them the matter of his prayer. So in that case he knows in some measure, or in general, what he ought to pray for, without any peculiar spiritual illumination. But yet the circumstances of those things, and wherein their respect unto the glory of God and the supreme end or chiefest good of the persons concerned doth stand (with regard whereunto they can alone be made the matter of prayer acceptable unto God in Christ), are that which of themselves they cannot understand, but have need of an interest in that promise made to the church, that “they shall be all taught of God;” and this is so much more in such things as belong only unto the conveniences of this life, whereof no man of himself knows what is good for him or useful unto him.

2. We have internal wants that are discerned in the light of a natural conscience: such is the guilt of sin, whereof that accuseth, — sins against natural light and the plain outward letter of the law. These things we know somewhat of without any especial aid of the Holy Spirit, Rom. ii. 14, 15, and desires of deliverance are inseparable from them. But we may observe here two things:— (1.) That the knowledge which we have hereof of ourselves is so dark and confused as that we are no ways able thereby to manage our wants in prayer aright unto God. A natural conscience, awakened and excited by afflictions or other providential visitations, will discover itself in unfeigned and severe reflections of guilt upon the soul; but until the Spirit doth convince of sin, all things are in such disorder and confusion in the mind that no man knows how to make his address unto God about it in a due manner. And there is more required, to treat aright with God about the guilt of sin, than a mere sense of it. So far as men can proceed under that sole conduct and guidance, the heathens went in dealing with their supposed gods, without a due respect unto the propitiation made by the blood of Christ. Yea, prayer about the guilt of sin, discerned in the light of a natural conscience, is but an “abomination.” Besides, (2.) We all know how small a portion of the concernment of believers doth lie in those things which fall under the light and determination of a natural conscience; for, —

3. The things about which believers do and ought to treat principally and deal with God, in their supplications, are the inward spiritual frames and dispositions of their souls, with the actings of grace and sun in them. Hereon David was not satisfied with the confession of his original and all known actual sins, Ps. li. 1–5; nor yet with an acknowledgment that” none knoweth his own wanderings,” whence he desireth cleansing from “unknown sins,” Ps. xix. 12; but, moreover, he begs of God to undertake the inward search of his heart, to find out what was amiss or [not] right in him, Ps. cxxxix. 23, 24, as knowing that God principally required “truth in the inward parts,” Ps. li. 6. Such is the carrying on of the work of sanctification in the whole spirit and soul, 1 Thess. v. 23.

The inward sanctification of all our faculties is what we want and pray for. Supplies of grace from God unto this purpose, with a sense of the power, guilt, violence, and deceit of sin, in its inward actings in the mind and affections, with other things innumerable thereunto belonging, make up the principal matter of prayer as formally supplication.

Add hereunto that unto the matter of prayer, taken largely for the whole duty so called, every thing wherein we have intercourse with God in faith and love doth belong. The acknowledgment of the whole mystery of his wisdom, grace, and love in Christ Jesus, with all the fruits, effects, and benefits which thence we do receive; all the workings and actings of our souls towards him, with their faculties and affections; in brief, every thing and every conception of our minds wherein our spiritual access unto the throne of grace doth consist, or which doth belong thereunto, with all occasions and emergencies of spiritual life, are in like manner comprised herein. And that we can have such an acquaintance with these things as to manage them acceptably in our supplications, without the grace of spiritual illumination from the Holy Ghost, few are so ignorant or profane as to assert. Some, I confess, seem to be strangers unto these things, which yet renders them not of the less weight or moment.

But hence it comes to pass that the prayers of believers about them, especially their confessions of what sense they have of the power and guilt of the inward actings of sin, have been by some exceedingly traduced and reproached; for whereas they cannot out of their ignorance understand such things, out of their pride, heightened by sensuality of life, they despise and contemn them.

Secondly, The matter of prayer may be considered with respect unto the promises of God. These are the measure of prayer, and contain the matter of it. What God hath promised, all that he hath promised, and nothing else, are we to pray for; for “secret things belong unto the Lord our God” alone, but the declaration of his will and grace belongs unto us, and is our rule. Wherefore, there is nothing that we really do or may stand in need of but God hath promised the supply of it, in such a way and under such limitations as may make it good and useful unto us; and there is nothing that God hath promised but we stand in need of it, or are some way or other concerned in it as members of the mystical body of Christ. Wherefore, “we know not what we should pray for as we ought,” unless we know or understand the goodness, grace, kindness, and mercy, that is prepared and proposed in the promises of God; for how should we, seeing we are to pray for all that God hath promised, and for nothing but what God hath promised, and as he hath promised it? The inquiry, therefore, that remains is, whether we of ourselves, without the especial assistance of the Holy Spirit, do understand these things or no. The apostle tells us that the “things of God,” spiritual things, “knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God;” and that we must receive the Spirit which is of God to know the things that are freely given to us of God,” 1 Cor. ii. 11, 12; which are the grace, mercy, love, and kindness of the promises, 2 Cor. vii. 1. To say that of ourselves we can perceive, understand, and comprehend these things, without the especial assistance of the Holy Ghost, is to overthrow the whole gospel and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, as hath been elsewhere demonstrated.

But it may be it will be said, “There is more stir than needs made in this matter. God help poor sinners, if all this be required unto their prayers! Certainly men may pray at a cheaper rate, and with much less trouble, or very few will continue long in that duty.” For some can see no necessity of thus understanding the grace and mercy that is in the promises unto prayer, and suppose that men know well enough what to pray for without it.

But those who so speak neither know what it is to pray, nor, it seems, are willing to learn; for we are to pray in faith, Rom. x. 14, and faith respects God’s promises, Heb. iv. 1, Rom. iv. If, therefore, we understand not what God hath promised, we cannot pray at all. It is marvellous what thoughts such persons have of God and themselves, who without a due comprehension of their own wants, and without an understanding of God’s promises, wherein all their supplies are laid up, do “say their prayers,” as they call it, continually. And indeed in the poverty, or rather misery, of devised aids of prayer, this is not the least pernicious effect or consequent, that they keep men off from searching the promises of God, whereby they might know what to pray for. Let the matter of prayer be so prescribed unto men as that they shall never need either to search their own hearts or God’s promises about it, and this whole work is despatched out of the way. But then is the soul prepared aright for this duty, and then only, when it understands its own condition, the supplies of grace provided in the promises, the suitableness of those supplies unto its wants, and the means of its conveyance unto us by Jesus Christ. That all this we have by the Spirit, and not otherwise, shall be immediately declared.

Thirdly, Unto the matter of prayer, I join the end we aim at in the things we pray for, and which we direct them unto. And herein, also, are we in ourselves at a loss; and men may lose all the benefit of their prayers by proposing undue ends unto themselves in the things they pray for. Our Saviour saith, “Ask, and ye shall receive;” but the apostle James affirms of some, chap. iv. 3, “Ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it on your pleasures.” To pray for any thing, and not expressly unto the end whereunto of God it is designed, is to ask amiss, and to no purpose; and yet, whatever confidence we may have of our own wisdom and integrity, if we are left unto ourselves, without the especial guidance of the Spirit of God, our aims will never be suited unto the will of God. The ways and means whereby we may fail, and do so in this kind, when not under the actual conduct of the Spirit of God, — that is, when our own natural and distempered affections do immix themselves in our supplications, — are, innumerable. And there is nothing so excellent in itself, so useful unto us, so acceptable unto God, in the matter of prayer, but it may be vitiated, corrupted, and prayer itself rendered vain, by an application of it unto false or mistaken ends. And what is the work of the Spirit to guide us herein we shall see in its proper place.