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[ As we continue our series on prayer, here we begin a study in which Richard Baxter answers questions about prayer.]
Some Questions About Prayer Answered, pt. 1
by Richard Baxter (1615-1691)
The rest of the general directions about prayer, I think will be best contrived into the resolving of these following doubts:
Question 1. Is the Lordís prayer a directory only, or a form of words to be used by us in prayer?
Answer. 1. It is principally the rule to guide our inward desires, and outward expressions of them; both for the matter, what we must desire, and for the order which we must desire first and most.† 2. But this rule is given in a form of words, most apt to express the said matter and order.† 3. And this form may fitly be used in due season by all, and more necessarily by some.† 4. But it was never intended to be the only words which we must use, no more than the creed is the only words that we must use to express the doctrine of faith, or the Decalogue the only words to express our duty by.
Question 2. What need is there of any other words of prayer, if the Lordís prayer be perfect?
Answer.† Because it is only a perfect summary, containing but the general heads:† and it is needful to be more particular in our desires; for universals exist in particulars; and he that only nameth the general, and then another and another general, doth remember but few of the particulars.† He that shall say, ďI have sinned, and broken all thy commandments,Ē doth generally confess every sin; but it is not true repentance, if it be not particular, for this, and that, and the other sin; at least as to the greater which may be remembered.† He that shall say, ďI believe all the word of God, or I believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,Ē may know little what is in the word of God, or what these generals signify, and therefore our faith must be more particular.† So must desires after grace be particular also:† otherwise it were enough to ask for mercy in the general.† If you say, that God knows what those general words signify, though we do not, I answer, this is a silly argument for rote prayers. God knows our desires without any expressions or prayers at all, and He knows our wants without our desires.† However, it does not follow that prayers or desires are unnecessary.† The exercise of our own repentance and desire does make us persons fit to receive forgiveness, and the grace desired, while the impenitent, and those that desire it not, are unfit.† And it is no true repentance, when you say, ďI am sorry that I have sinned,Ē but you know not, or remember not, wherein you have sinned, nor what your sin is.† And so it is no true desire that reaches not to the particular, necessary graces, which we must desire.
Question 3. Is it lawful to pray in a set form of words?
Answer.† Nothing but very great ignorance can make you really doubt of it.† Hath God anywhere forbid it?† You will say, that it is enough that He hath not commanded it.† I answer, that in general He hath commanded it to all whose edification it tends to, when He commandeth you that all be done to edification; but He hath given no particular command, nor prohibition.† No more has He commanded you to pray in English, French, or Latin; nor to sing psalms in this tune or that, nor after this or that version or translation; nor to preach in this method particularly or that; nor always to preach upon a text; nor to use written notes; nor to compose a form of words, and learn them, and preach them after they are composed, with a hundred such like, which are undoubtedly lawful; yea, and needful to some, though not to others.† If you make up all your prayer of Scripture sentences, this is to pray in a form of prescribed words, and yet as lawful and fit as any of your own.† The psalms are most of them forms of prayer or praise, which the Spirit of God indited for the use of the church, and of particular persons. It would be easy to fill many pages with larger reasonings, and answers to all the fallacious objections that are brought against this; but I will not so far weary the reader and myself.
Question 4. But are those forms lawful which are prescribed by others, and not by God?
Answer.† Yea; or else it would be unlawful for a child or scholar to use a form prescribed by his parents or master.† And to think that a thing lawful doth presently become unlawful, because a parent, master, pastor, or prince does prescribe it or command it, is a conceit that I will not wrong my reader so far as to suppose him guilty of.† Indeed, if a usurper, that hath no authority over us in such matters, do prescribe it, we are not bound to formal obedience, that is, to do it therefore because he commands it; but yet I may be bound to it on some other accounts; and though his command does not bind me, yet it makes not the thing itself unlawful.
Question 5.† But is it lawful to pray extempore without a premeditated form of words?
Answer.† No Christian of competent understanding doubteth of it.† We must premeditate on our wants, and sins, and the graces and mercies we desire, and the God we speak to; and we must be able to express these things without any loathsome and unfit expressions.† But whether the words are fore-contrived or not, is a thing that God hath no more bound you to by any law, than whether the speaker or hearers shall use sermon-notes, or whether your Bibles shall be written or in print.
Question 6. If both ways be lawful, which is better?
Answer.† If you are to join with others in the church, that is better to you which the pastor then useth:† for it is his office and not yours to word the prayers which he puts up to God.† And if he chooses a form (whether it be as most agreeable to his parts, or to his people, or for concord with other churches, or for obedience to governors, or to avoid some greater inconvenience) you must join with him, or not join there at all.† But if it be in private, where you are the speaker yourself, you must take that way that is most to your own edification (and to others, if you have auditors joining with you).† One man is so unused to prayer, (being ignorantly bred), or of such unready memory or expression, that he cannot remember the tenth part so much of his particular wants, without the help of a form, as with it; nor can he express it so affectingly for himself or others; nay, perhaps not in tolerable words.† And a form to such a man may be a duty; as to a dim-sighted man to read by spectacles, or to an unready preacher to use prepared words and notes.† And another man may have need of no such helps; nay, when he is habituated in the understanding and feeling of his sins and wants, and hath a tongue that is used to express his mind even in these matters, with readiness and facility, it will greatly hinder the fervor of such a manís affections, to tie himself to premeditated words:† to say the contrary, is to speak against the common sense and experience of such speakers and their hearers.† And let them that yet deride this as uncertain and inconsiderate praying, but mark themselves, whether they cannot if they be hungry beg for bread, or ask help of their physician, or lawyer, or landlord, or any other, as well without a learned or studied form as with it?† Turning the thoughts too solicitously from the matter to the words, doth not only mortify the prayers of many, and turn them into a dead form, but also makes them more dry and barren even as to the words themselves.† The heavy charge, and bitter, scornful words which have been too common in this age, against praying without a set form by some, and against praying with a book or form by others, is so dishonorable a symptom or diagnostic of the churchís sickness, as must needs be matter of shame and sorrow to the sounder, understanding part.† For it cannot be denied, but it proves menís understandings and charity to be both exceedingly low.
Question 7.† Must we always pray according to the method of the Lordís prayer, and is it a sin to do otherwise?
Answer.† 1. The Lordís prayer is first a rule for your desires; and if your desires follow not that method, it is a sin.† If you do not begin in your desires with God, as your ultimate end, and if you first desire not His glory, and then the flourishing of His kingdom, and then the obeying of His laws, and herein the public welfare of the world, before and above your particular benefit, it is a sin.† And it is a sin if you desire not your daily bread, (or necessary support of nature), as a lower mercy in order to your higher spiritual mercies; and if you desire not pardon of sin, as a means to your future sanctity, duty, and felicity; and if you desire not these, as a means to the glory of God, and take not His praises as the highest part of your prayers.† But for the expressing of these desires, particular occasions may warrant you oft times to begin in another order:† as when you pray for the sick, or pray for directions, or a blessing before a sermon or some particular work, you may begin and end with the subject that is before you, as the prayers of holy men in all ages have done.† 2. You must distinguish also, as between desires and expressions, so between a universal and a particular prayer.† The one contains all the parts of prayer, and the other is but about some one subject or part, or but some few; this last being but one or few, particular petitions cannot possibly be uttered in the method of a universal prayer which hath all the parts.† There is no one petition in the Lordís prayer, but may be made a prayer itself; and then it cannot have the other petitions as parts.† 3. And you must distinguish between the even and ordinary case of a Christian, and His extraordinary case, when some special reason, affection, or accident calls him to look most to some one particular.† In his even and ordinary case, every universal prayer should be expressed in the method of the Lordís prayer; but in cases of special reason and inducement, it may be otherwise.