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[ As we continue our series on prayer, here we continue a study in which
Richard Baxter answers questions about prayer.]
Some Questions About Prayer Answered, pt. 3
by Richard Baxter (1615-1691)
Question 19. May we pray absolutely for outward mercies, or only conditionally?
Answer. You must distinguish, 1. Between a condition spoken of the subject, when we are uncertain whether it be a mercy or not, and an extrinsic condition of the grant. 2. Between a condition of prayer, and a condition of expectation. 3. Between submission to God’s will, and a conditional desire or prayer. And so I answer, (1.) It is necessary when we are uncertain whether the thing itself be good or not, that we pray with a subjective conditionality: Grant this if it be good; or, If it be not good I do not pray for it. (2.) But when we know the thing to be a mercy and good, we may pray for it absolutely. (3.) But we may not believe that we shall receive all with an absolute expectation, which we absolutely pray for. For prayer being the expression of desire, that which may be absolutely desired, though not absolutely promised, may be absolutely prayed for (as our increase or strength of grace, or the conversion of our relations, etc.). (4.) But yet all such must be asked with a submission to the will of God: but that makes it not properly a conditional form of praying; for when the nature of prayer is as it were to move the will of God, it is not so proper to say, ‘Lord, do this if it be Thy will already’; or, ‘Lord, be pleased to do this if it be Thy pleasure’; as if to say, ‘Lord, grant this mercy; but if Thou deny it, it is my duty to submit.’ So Christ mentioned both the subjective conditionality and the submission of His will. “If it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as Thou wilt” (Matt. 26:39). As if He had said, ‘Nature requires me with a simple nolition to be unwilling of the suffering, and it is consistent with the desired ends of my mediatorship to be desirous to avoid it; but seeing that cannot be, my comparing will commands this simple with of self-preservation to submit to Thy most perfect will. But if any call this submission a condition, the matter is not great.
Question 20. May we pray for all that we may lawfully desire?
Answer. No: for prayer is not only an expression of desire, but also a means to attain the thing desired. And some things may be lawfully desired (at least with a simple velleity), which may not be sought, because they must not be hoped for, where God hath said that He will not grant them. For it is vain to seek that which you have no hope to find: as to desire to see the conversion of the whole world, or to pass to heaven as Enoch without dying, which are lawful (by a simple velleity); but all things compared, it is not lawful peremptorily to desire it, without submission. It is the expression of a comparate, determinate desire, which is properly called prayer, being the use of means for the obtaining of that desire; and whatsoever I may so desire, I may pray for; for if there be no hope of it, I may not so desire it. But the desire by way of simple velleity may not be put into a proper prayer, when there is no hope. I must have a simple desire (with submission) to attain a sinless perfection here, even this hour; but because there is no hope, I may not let it proceed to a determinate peremptory desire upon a comparing judgment, nor into a proper prayer. And yet these velleities may be expressed in prayer, though they have not the full nature of a prayer. Objection. But was not Christ’s a prayer? (see Matt. 26:39). Answer. Either Christ as man was certain that the cup must not pass from Him, or uncertain. If you could prove Him uncertain, then it is a proper prayer (with submission to His Father’s will); but if He was certain that it was not to pass from Him, then it was analogically only a prayer, it being but a representing of His velleity to His Father, and not of His determinate will, nor was any means to attain that end: and indeed such it was, as if He had said, ‘Father, if it had stood with the ends of my office and Thy will, I would have asked this of Thee; but because it does not, I submit.’ And this much we may do.
Question 21. How then can we pray for the salvation of all the world? Must it be for all men collectively? Or only for some, excluding no numerical denominate person?
Answer. Just as Christ prayed here in this text, we must express our simple velleity of it to God, as a thing that in itself is most desirable (as the passing of the cup was unto Christ): but we cannot express a determinate volition, by a full prayer, such as has any tendency as a means to attain that end; because we are certain that God’s will is against it, or that it will not be.
Question 22. May we pray for the conversion of all the nations of the world to Christianity, with a hopeful prayer?
Answer. Yes: For we are not certain that every nation shall not be so converted, though it be improbable.
Question 23. May we pray in hope with a proper prayer (as a means to obtain it) that a whole kingdom may be all truly converted and saved?
Answer. Yes: for God has no way told us that it shall not be; though it be a thing improbable, it is not impossible; and therefore being greatly desirable may be prayed for. Though Christ has told us that His flock is little, and few find the way of life, yet that may stand with the salvation of a kingdom.
Question 24. May we pray for the destruction of the enemies of Christ, or of the gospel, or of the king?
Answer. Not with respect to that which is called God’s antecedent will, for so we ought first to pray for their conversion (and restraint till them): but with respect to that called His consequent will we may; that is, we must first pray that they may be restrained and converted, and secondly, that if not, they may be destroyed.
Question 25. What is to be thought of that which some call a particular faith in prayer? If I can firmly believe that a lawful prayer shall be granted in kind, may I not be sure by a divine faith that it shall be so?
Answer. Belief hath relation to a testimony or revelation. Prayer may be warranted as lawful, if the thing be desirable, and there be any possibility of obtaining it, though there be no certainty, or flat promise; but faith or expectation must be warranted by the promise. If God has promised you the thing prayed for, you may believe that you shall receive it: otherwise your particular faith is a fancy, or a believing of yourselves, and not a believing God that never promised you the thing. Objection. “And all things whatsoever you ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” (Matt. 21:22). Answer. There are two sorts of faith: the one a belief that is ordinary, having respect to ordinary promises and mercies: the text can be understood of this in no other sense than this: All things which I have promised you, you shall receive, if you ask them believingly. But this is nothing to that which is not promised. The other faith was extraordinary, in order to the working of miracles: and this faith was a potent inward confidence, which was not in the power of the person when he pleased, but was given like an inspiration by the Spirit of God, when a miracle was to be wrought; and this seems to be it that is spoken of in the text. And this was built on this extraordinary promise, which was made not to all men in all ages, but to those times when the gospel was to be sealed and delivered by miracles; and especially to the apostles. So that in these times, there is neither such a promise of our working miracles as they had to believe, nor yet a power to exercise that sort of extraordinary faith. Therefore a strong conceit (though it come in a fervent prayer) that any thing shall come to pass, which we cannot prove by any promise or prophecy, is not to be called any act of divine faith at all, nor to be trusted to.
Question 26. But must we not believe that every lawful prayer is accepted and heard of God?
Answer. Yes: but not that it should be granted in the very thing, unless so promised: but you may believe that your prayer is not lost, and that it shall be a means of that which tends to your good (see Rom. 8:28; Isa. 45:19).
Question 27. With what faith must I pray for the souls or bodies of other men; for their conversion or their lives?
Answer. A godly man may pray for wicked relations or others, with more hope than they can pray for themselves, while they remain ungodly: but yet not with any certainty of prevailing for the thing he asks; for it is not peremptorily promised him. Otherwise Samuel had prevailed for Saul, and Isaac for Esau, and David for Absalom, and the good people for all the wicked; and then no godly parents would have their children lost; no, nor any in the world would perish, for godly persons pray for them all. But those prayers are not lost to him that puts them up.
Question 28. With what faith may we pray for the continuance of the church and gospel to any nation?
Answer. The former answer sees to this; our hope may be according to the degrees of probability: but we cannot believe it as a certainty by divine faith, because it is not promised by God.
Question 29. How may we know when our prayers are heard of God, and when not?
Answer. Two ways: sometimes by experience, when the thing itself is actually given us; and always by the promise, when we ask for that which God commands us to ask, or promises to grant; for we are sure God’s promises are all fulfilled. If we ask for the objects of sense (as food or raiment, or health, etc.) sense will tell us whether our prayers be granted in the same kind that we asked for; but if the questions be of the objects of faith, it is faith that must tell you that your prayers are granted; but yet faith and reason make use of evidences or signs. As if I pray for pardon of sin, and salvation, the promise assures me, that this prayer is granted, if I be a penitent, believing, regenerate person, otherwise not; therefore faith only assures me that such prayers are granted, supposing that I discern the evidence of my regeneration, repentance, and faith in Christ. So if the question be whether my prayer for others, or for temporal mercies, be answered in some other kind, and conduce to my good some other way, faith only must tell you this from the promise, by the help of evidences. There are millions of prayers that will all be found answered at death and judgment, which we knew not to be answered any way but by believing it.
Question 30. What should a Christian of weak parts do, that is dry and barren of matter, and can scarce tell what to say in prayer, but is ready to rise off his knees almost as soon as he hath begun?
Answer. 1. He must not be a stranger to himself, but study well his heart and life: and then he will find such a multitude of inward corruptions to lament, and such a multitude of wants to be supplied, and weaknesses to be strengthened, and disorders to be rectified, and actual sins to be forgiven, that may find him work enough for confessions, complaints, and petitions many days together, if expression be but as ready as matter. 2. Let him study God, and get the knowledge of His nature, attributes, and works: and then he will find matter enough to aggravate his sin, and to furnish him with the holy praise of God from day to day. As he that is acquainted with all that is in any book, can copiously discourse of it, when he that knows not what is in it, has little to say of it; so he that knows God and His works (and himself, and his sins and wants) is acquainted with the best prayer book, and has always a full heap of matter before him, whenever he comes to speak to God. 3. Let him study the mystery of man’s redemption, and the person, and office, and covenant, and grace of Christ; and he need not want matter for prayer or praise. A very child, if he sees but a peddler’s pack opened, where there are abundance of things which he desires, will learn without book to say, ‘O father, buy me this, and give me that’ etc, so will the soul that sees the treasures and riches of Christ. 4. Let him know the extent of the law of God, and the meaning of the Ten Commandments: if he know but what sins are forbidden in each commandment, and what duties are required, he may find matter enough for confession and petition. So it will also to have a particular understanding of the creed and the Lord’s prayer, which will furnish you with much matter. 5. Study well the temptations which you carry about you in your flesh, and meet with in the world, and are suggested by the tempter; and think of the many duties you have to do, and the many dangers and sufferings to undergo, and you will never be unfurnished for matter for your prayers. 6. Observe the daily passages of providence, to yourselves and others; mark how things go with your souls every day, and hearken how it goes with your neighbors, and sure you will find matter enough for prayer. 7. Think of the heavenly joys that you are going to, and the streets of the New Jerusalem will be large enough for faith to walk in. 8. For words, be acquainted with the phrase of Scripture, and you will find provisions for all occasions. 9. Keep up the heart in a reverent, serious, lively frame, and it will be a continual spring to furnish you with matter; when a dead and barren heart has a dry and sleepy tongue. 10. Join as often as you can with those that are full and copious in prayer; for example and use will be very great helps. 11. Quench not the Spirit of God that must assist you. 12. In case of necessity, use those books or forms which are more full than you can be yourselves till you come to ability to do better without them.