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[Here we continue a series on Prayer. This study 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. 4
by John Knox (1505-1572)
Above all precedents is to be observed, that what we ask of God ought to be profitable to ourselves and to others, and hurtful or dangerous to no man. Secondly, we must consider whether out petitions extend to Spiritual or Corporal things. Spiritual things, such as are deliverance from impiety, remission of sins, the gift of the Holy Ghost, and of Life Everlasting, should we desire absolutely, without any condition, by Jesus Christ, in whom alone all these are promised. And in asking hereof, we should not pray this: O Father! Forgive our sins if Thou will, for His will He has expressed, saying, “As I live, I desire not the death of a sinner, but rather that he convert, and live” (Ezek. 33:11). The one who prays this way makes God a liar, and so far as in him lies, would spoil God of His Godhead, for He cannot be God except by eternal and infallible verity. And John says, “This is the testimony which God has testified of His Son, that whosoever believes in the Son has eternal life” (I John 5:13); and the verity whereof, we should steadfastly cleave; although worldly dolor apprehend us. As David, exiled from his kingdom, and deprived of all his glory, secluded not from God, but steadfastly believed reconciliation by the promise made, notwithstanding that all creatures in earth had refused, abjected, and rebelled against him: “Happy is the man whom You shall inspire, O Lord.”
In asking Corporal things, first let us inquire if we be at peace with God in our conscience by Jesus Christ, firmly believing our sins to be remitted in His blood. Secondly, let us inquire of our own hearts, if we know temporal riches or substance come not to man by accident, fortune, or chance, neither yet be the industry and diligence of man’s labor; but to be the liberal gift of God only, whereof we ought to laud and praise His goodness, wisdom, and providence alone.
What should be Prayed For. – And if this we do truly acknowledge and confess, let us boldly ask of Him whatsoever is necessary for us, such as sustenance of this body; health thereof; defense from misery; deliverance from trouble; tranquility and peace to our common will; prosperous success in our vocations, labours, and affairs, whatsoever they be, which God will. We ask all of Him to certify us that all things stand in His regiment and disposition. And also by asking and reserving these corporal commodities, we have taste of His sweetness, and be inflamed with His love, that thereby our faith of reconciliation and remission of our sins may be exercised and take increase.
Why God Differs or prolongs to grant our petitions. – But in asking for temporal things, we must observe, first, that if God differs or prolongs to grant our petitions, even so long that He seems apparently to reject us, yet let us not cease to call, prescribing Him neither time, neither manner of deliverance; as it is written, “If He prolong time, abide patiently upon Him,” and also, “Let not the faithful be too hasty, for God sometimes differs, and will not hastily grant to the probation of our continuance,” as the words of Jesus Christ testify; and also, that we may reserve with greater gladness that which, with ardent desire, we long have looked for: as Anna, Sara, and Elizabeth, after great ignominy of their barrenness and sterility, received fruit of their bosoms with joy. Secondly, because we know the Church at all times to be under the Cross, in asking temporal commodities, and especially deliverance from trouble, let us offer unto God obedience, if it shall please His goodness we longer be exercised that we may patiently abide it; as David, desiring to be restored to his kingdom (in the time he was exiled by his own son) offered to God obedience, saying, “If I have found favor in the presence of the Lord, He shall bring me home again; but if He shall say, ‘Thou please me not longer to be authority,’ I am obedient: let Him do what seems good unto Him.”
Better it is to obey God than man. – And the Three Children to Nebuchadnezzar did say, “We know that our God whom we worship may deliver us; but if it shall not please Him so to do, let it be known to thee, O King, that your gods we will not worship” (Dan. 3:17). Here gave they a true confession of their perfect faith, knowing nothing to be impossible to the Omnipotence of God. They also chose to stand in His mercy, for otherwise the nature of man could not willingly give thyself to so horrible a torment. But they offer to God most humble obedience, to be delivered at His good pleasure and will, as we should do in all afflictions.
Certainly, we desire and abide for deliverance, yet we should not repine against the goodwill of God, but incessantly ask that we may abide with patience. How hard this battle is, no man knows but he which in himself has suffered trial.
The Petition of the Spirit. – It is to be noted, that God sometimes does grant the petition of the Spirit, while He yet differs the desire of the flesh. As who doubts but God did mitigate the heaviness of Joseph, although He sent not hasty deliverance in his long imprisonment; and that as he gave him favor in the sight of his jailer, so inwardly also gave him consolation in Spirit. And moreover God sometimes grants the petition of the spirit, where utterly He repels the desire of the flesh; for the petition always of the Spirit is that we may attain to the true felicity whereto we must needs enter by tribulation, and the final death, which both the nature of man does ever abhor, and therefore the flesh, under the cross, and at the sight of death, calls and thirsts for hasty deliverance. But God, who alone knows what is expedient for us, sometimes prolongs the deliverance of His chosen, and sometimes permits them to drink before the maturity of age, the bitter cup of corporal death, that thereby they may receive medicine and cure from all infirmity. For who doubts that John the Baptist desired to have seen more the days of Jesus Christ, and to have been longer with Him in conversation? Or that Stephen would not have labored more days in preaching the Gospel of Christ, whom, nevertheless, he suffered hastily to taste of this general sentence? And, albeit we see therefore no apparent help to ourselves, nor yet to others afflicted, let us not cease to call, thinking our prayers to be vain. For whatever comes of our bodies, God shall give unspeakable comfort to the spirit, and shall turn all to our commodities beyond our own expectation.
Impediment comes of the weaknesses of the flesh. – The reason that I am so long and tedious in this matter is, that I know how hard the battle is between the Spirit and the flesh under the heavy cross of affliction, where no worldly defense but present death does appear. I know the grudging and murmuring complaints of the flesh; I know the anger, wrath, and indignation which it inspires against God, calling all His promises in doubt, and being ready every hour utterly to fall from God. Against these impediments to prayer rests only faith, provoking us to call earnestly and pray for the assistance of God’s Spirit; wherein if we continue, our most desperate calamities shall be turned to gladness, and to a prosperous end. To Thee, O Lord, alone be praised, for with experience I write this and speak.