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[Here we continue a series on Prayer. This is a continuation of our second study in this series, which is self-described as, “A declaration what true prayer is, how we should pray, and for what we should pray. Set forth by John Knox, Preacher of God’s Holy Word.”]—Ed.
The True Nature of Prayer, pt. 2
by John Knox (1505-1572)
Hypocrisy is not allowed with God – In Prayer, it is to be observed, that what we ask of God, we must earnestly desire the same, acknowledging our ownselves to be void thereof; and that God alone may grant the petition of our hearts, when His good will and pleasure is. For nothing is more odious before God than hypocrisy and dissimulation; that is, when men do ask of God things whereof they have no need, or that they believe to obtain by others than God alone. For instance, if a man ask of God remission of his sins, thinking nevertheless to obtain the same by his own works, or by other men’s merits, he does mock God and deceive himself. And in such cases do a great number offend, principally the mighty and rich of the earth, who, for a common custom will pray this part of the Lord’s prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” that is, a moderate and reasonable sustentation. And yet their own hearts will testify that they need not so to pray, seeing they abound in all worldly solace and felicity. I mean not that rich men should not pray this part of prayer, but I would they understood what they ought to pray in it, (whereof I intend after to speak), and that they ask nothing whereof they felt not themselves marvelous indignant and needful. For unless we call in truth, we shall not be granted; and except we speak with our whole heart, we shall not find Him.
The fourth rule necessary to be following in Prayer is, A sure hope to obtain what we ask. For nothing more offends God than when we ask, while doubting whether He will grant our petitions; for in so doing we doubt if God be true, if He be mighty and good. Those who don’t (says James) obtain nothing from God (see James 1:6); and therefore Jesus Christ commands that we firmly believe to obtain whatsoever we ask for all things are possible to him who believes. And therefore, in our prayers always is to be desperation. I mean not that any man in extremity of trouble can be without a present dolor, and without a greater fear of trouble to follow.
Troubles are the spurs to stir us to pray – Trouble and fear are very spurs to prayer. For when a man compasses about with vehement calamities, and vexed with continual solitude, having by help of man, no hope of deliverance, with a sore oppressed and punishing heart, fearing also greater punishment to follow, from the deep pit of tribulation does he call to God for comfort and support. Such prayer ascends into God’s presence and returns not in vain.
God delivers His own from trouble and enemies – As David, in the vehement persecution of Saul, hunted and chased from every hold, fearing that one day or other he should fall into the hands of his persecutors, after he had complained that no place of rest was left to him, vehemently prayed, saying “O Lord, who is my God, in whom I only trust, save me from them that persecute me, and deliver me from my enemies. Let not this man” (meaning Saul) “devour my life, as a lion does to his prey for of none seek I comfort but of you alone” (Ps. 7:1, 2);
In the midst of this anguish the goodness of God sustains him, that the present tribulation was tolerable, and the infallible promises of God so assured him of deliverance, that fear was partly mitigated and gone, as plainly apparent to such as diligently marks the process of his prayers. For after long menacing and threatening made to him of his enemy, he concluded with these words, “The dolor which he intended for me shall fall upon his own plate; and the violence wherewith he would have oppressed me shall cast down on his own head. But I will magnify the Lord according to his justice, and shall praise the name of the Most Highest” (Ps. 7:16,17). This is not written for David only, but for all such shall suffer tribulation to the end of the world. For I, the writer hereof, (let this be said to the laud and praise of God alone), in anguish of mind and vehement tribulation and affliction, called to the Lord when not only the ungodly, but even my faithful Brother, yea, and my own self, that is all natural understanding, judges my cause to be irremediable. And yet in my greatest calamity, and when my pains were most cruel, would His eternal wisdom that my hands should write far contrary to the judgement of carnal reason, which His mercy has proved true. Blessed be His holy name! And therefore dare I be bold, in the truth of God’s Word, to promise that notwithstanding the vehemence of trouble, the long continuance thereof, the desperation of all men, the fearfulness, danger, dolor, and anguish of our own hearts, yet if we call constantly to God, that beyond expectation of all men, He shall deliver.
Where Constant Prayer is, there the petition is granted – Let no man think himself unworthy to call and pray to God because he has grievously offended his Majesty in times past; but let him bring to God a sorrowful and repenting heart, saying with David, “Heal my soul, O Lord, for I have offended against Thee” (Ps. 41:4). Before I was afflicted, I transgressed, but now let me observe your commandments. To mitigate or ease the sorrows of our wounded conscience, two plasters hath our most prudent Physician provided to give us encouragement to pray (notwithstanding the knowledge of offences committed), that is, a precept and a promise. The precept or commandment to pray is universal, frequently inculcate and repeated in God’s scriptures: “Ask, and it shall be given to you” (Matt. 7:7); “Call upon me in the day of trouble” (Ps. 50:15); “Watch and pray that you fall not into temptation” (Matt. 26:41); “I command that you pray without ceasing” (I Thess. 5:17); “Give thanks in all things” (I Thess. 5:18). Those who condemn or despise these commandments do equally sin with him that does it still. And God requires equal obedience of and to all His commandments. Yet more boldly will I say, he who, when necessity constrains, desires not support and help of God, does provoke His wrath no less than such as make false gods, or openly deny God.
He that prays not, when in trouble, denies God – For like as it is to know no physician or medicine, or in knowing them refuse to use their service the same. So not to call upon God in your tribulation, is like as if you did not know God, or else utterly deny Him.
Not to pray is a sin most odious – O! Why cease we then to call instantly to His mercy, having His commandment so to do? Above all our iniquities, we work manifest contempt and despising of Him, when, by negligence, we delay to call for His gracious support. Who does call upon God obeys His will, and finds therein no small consolation, knowing nothing is more acceptable to His majesty than humble obedience.
To this commandment, He adds His most undoubted promise in many places, “Ask, and you shall receive; seek and you shall find” (Matt. 7:7). And by the Prophet Jeremiah, God says, “You shall call upon me, and I shall hear you” (Jer. 29:12) and “You shall seek and shall find me” (Jer. 29:13). And by Isaiah, He says, “May the father forget his natural son, or the mother the child of her womb? And although they do, it shall I not forget such as call upon me” (Isa. 49:15). And hereto correspond and agree the words of Jesus Christ saying, “If you being wicked can give good gifts to you children, much more my heavenly Father shall give the Holy Ghost to them that ask Him” (Matt. 7:11). And that we should not think God to absent, or not to hear us, accuses Moses, saying, “There is no nation that have their God’s so adherent, or near unto them as our God, which is present in all our prayers” (Deut. 4:7). Also the Psalmist, “Near is the Lord unto all that call upon Him in truth” (Ps. 145:18). And Christ says, “Wheresoever two or three gather together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:20).
Readiness of God to hear sinners - That we shall not think God will not hear us, Isaiah says, “Before you cry I shall hear, and while they speak I shall answer” (Isa. 65:24), and also, “If at evening come sorrow or calamity, before the morning spring I shall reduce and bring gladness” (Isa. 17:14). And these most comfortable words, does the Lord speak not to carnal Israel only, but to all men sorely oppressed, abiding in God’s deliverance: “For a moment and a little, some have I turned my face from thee, but in everlasting mercy shall I comfort thee” (Isa. 54:8).
The hope to obtain our petitions should depend upon the promises of God – O! Hard are the hearts whom so manifold, most sweet and sure promises do not mollify. These promises should give us hope to obtain our petitions. The indignity or unworthiness of ourselves is not to be regarded; for albeit to the chosen which are departed in holiness and purity of life, we be far inferior, yet in that part we are equal, in that we have the same commandment to pray, and the same promises to be hard. For His Gracious Majesty does not grant the petition for any dignity of the person that prays, but for His promises sake only; and therefore says David, “You have promised unto your servant, O Lord, that you will build a house for him, wherefore thy servant has found in his heart to pray in thy sight, now even so O Lord, you are God, and your words are true. Though he’s spoken these things unto thy servant , begin therefore to do according to thy promise; multiply O Lord, the household of thy servant” (II Sam. 7:27-29). Behold, David altogether depended upon God’s promise. As also did Jacob, who after he had confessed himself unworthy of all the benefits reserved, yet did he ask greater benefits in time to come, and he did that because God had promised. In the like manner, let us be encouraged to ask whatsoever the goodness of God hath freely promised. What we should ask principally, we shall hereafter declare.
(This study will continue in the next issue, D.V.)