When it comes to prayer, there are few people I would rather learn from than Joel Beeke. He has spent most of his life as a student of the Puritans and has often written about their commitment to prayer and their practice of it. In a new little booklet titled Piety: The Heartbeat of Reformed Theology, he offers a series of extremely helpful tips for prayer. Here is what he says:
Prayer and work belong together. They are like two oars that, when used together, keep a rowboat moving forward. If you use only one oar—praying without working or working without praying—you will row in circles.
Piety and prayer are closely related because prayer is the primary means of maintaining communion with God. Here are five important guidelines the Puritans offer about praying:
- Give priority to prayer. Prayer is the first and most important thing you are called to do. “You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed,” John Bunyan writes. “Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan.”
- Give yourself—not just your time—to prayer. Remember that prayer is not an appendix to your life and your work, it is your life—your real, spiritual life—and your work. Prayer is the thermometer of the soul.
- Give room to prayer. The Puritans did this in three ways. First, they had real prayer closets—rooms or small spaces where they habitually met with God. When one of Thomas Shepard’s parishoners showed him a floor plan of the new house he hoped to build, Shephard noticed that there was no prayer room and lamented that homes without prayer rooms would be the downfall of the church and society. Second, block out stated times for prayer in your daily life. The Puritans did this every morning and evening. Third, between those stated times of prayer, commit yourself to pray in response to the least impulse to do so. That will help you develop the “habit” of praying so that you will pray your way through the day without ceasing. Remember that conversing with God through Christ is our most effective way of bringing glory to God and of having a ready antidote to ward off all kinds of spiritual diseases.
- Give the Word to prayer. The way to pray, said the Puritans, is to bring God his own Word. That can be done in two ways. First, pray with Scripture. God is tender of his own handwriting. Take his promises, turn them inside out, and send them back up to God by prayer, pleading with him to do as he has said. Second, pray through Scripture. Pray over each thought in a specific Scripture verse.
- Give theocentricity to prayer. Pour out your heart to your heavenly Father. Plead on the basis of Christ’s intercessions. Plead to God with the groanings of the Holy Spirit (Rom 8:26). Recognize that true prayer is a gift of the Father, who gives it through the Son and works it within you by the Spirit who, in turn, enables it to ascend back to the Son, who sanctifies it and presents it acceptable to the Father. Prayer is thus a theocentric chain, if you will—moving from the Father through the Son by the Spirit back to the Son and the Father.
Genuine piety calls for well-planned, hard, and sweat-inducing prayer and work, the Puritans said. Careful planning as to how you are going to live for the Lord is necessary if you want to achieve much of abiding value for him. Yet the Puritans were not self-reliant. They understood that daily living for a Christian must go something like this:
- Look ahead and see what you have to do.
- Go to the Lord in prayer and say, “Lord, I do not have what it takes to do this; I need divine help.”
- Rely on the Lord to answer the prayer you have offered, then proceed expectantly to the task that lies before you.
- After completing the task, return to the Lord to thank him for the help he gave.
- Ask his forgiveness for all your failures and sins in the process, and ask for grace to fulfill your task more faithfully next time.
The Puritan method of daily piety includes earnest prayer and hard work without self-reliance; all the exertion of energy is done by faith. By grace, exercising piety is both faithful effort and fruitful effort.
I was actually just starting to feel a little sorry for myself. I was on the sidelines at my daughter’s soccer game while a group of parents stood behind me laughing and chatting. As the game went on they talked and talked about all the great things they’ve done, the homes they’ve bought, the vacations they’ve enjoyed, the lessons their kids have taken. One even talked about his bright yellow Corvette that was parked conspicuously nearby.
Their lives sounded pretty good. They sounded better than mine, if I was comparing. I thought about what it must cost to take that annual trip to the Caribbean. I thought about what it must cost to get that new kitchen. I thought about the difference between a second car that is a sensible, family-friendly sedan and a second car that is built purely for thrills. And for a moment I wanted it. I wanted it all.
But my pathetic little pity party lasted only a moment before it struck me: The cost of all of that stuff is the cost of generosity. At least, it is for most of the people I know. Those donations to the church, those checks to the missionaries, those gifts to the ministries, those bills slipped discreetly to the person in need—tally them up and they could equal some extra vacations. Put them together and you could probably upgrade your kitchen this year instead of five years from now, or you could go up a model or two on the second vehicle. The Christians I know choose to downgrade their lifestyle in order to upgrade their giving.
And this, I think, is the enduring power and comfort of what Randy Alcorn calls the treasure principle: You can’t take it with you—but you can send it on ahead. The money isn’t gone. The money isn’t misused. It’s simply been redirected into a different kind of investment. “If we give instead of keep, if we invest in the eternal instead of in the temporal, we store up treasures in heaven that will never stop paying dividends. Whatever we store up on earth will be left behind when we leave. Whatever treasures we store up in heaven will be waiting for us when we arrive.” We find when we commit to this kind of generosity that there is greater joy both now and then.
You can’t keep up with the Joneses when you’re committed to radical generosity, and I think that’s exactly how God intends it.
Imagine if you could go back. Imagine if you could race back through time and see all of your Google searches plotted out with the date and location of each one. In that unusual way, you would have compiled a short biography of your life. You would have compiled a short narrative of your marriage and parenting.
You would see the time your child was going through those temper tantrums and you searched for ideas on how to make it stop. You would see the time you and your spouse were struggling with satisfaction and you went looking for some tips to spice things up. You would see the time you decided to start paying your children an allowance and you headed to the blogs to see what others do. There would be all these searches, and countless thousands more; assembled together they would form a fascinating portrait of your life. Google may know you better than you know yourself. Google remembers things about you that you’ve long since forgotten.
Google has become such a part of our lives that we tend to forget its newness and its historical uniqueness. Just a generation ago parents and spouses had to find answers in an entirely different way. And I wonder what we’ve lost along the way.
God has got his own version of Google and, until recently, it was the one Christians relied on. God’s version of Google is called the local church. When we have questions about life and marriage and parenting and so much else, there is rarely a better place to go than the local church. When we want to see marriage and parenting modeled for us, there is no more natural place to turn. “I want kids like your kids, so let me spend time with you. I want a marriage like your marriage, so let me observe and ask you questions.”
The beauty of the local church is that it allows us to receive truth filtered through people we actually know. We know the people giving us counsel and are able to gauge their skill and credibility. We get to see real marriages and real parenting, and we learn who is worthy of imitation. And then we simply observe and ask questions. Why do you do things that way? How do you deal with this situation? Where do you go when struggling? What are some of your most formative books?
There is something so deeply and helpfully humbling about having to approach another person rather than simply typing a few sentences into the search engine. But there is something so rewarding about telling the other person, about meeting together, about receiving counsel, about being prayed for. The relationship is so much deeper, the reward so much greater.
On the other hand, there can be something concerningly proud about going online first. You head straight to Google and go looking for answers to your questions and problems. You collect information that sounds so correct and so fresh. (It’s from the Internet, after all, and from a pretty site plastered with well-composed photos of a happy family) What you learn from a peer on the Web may seem like the new thing, whereas it is easy to write off what you learn from that grandmother in the church as hopelessly outdated. But here’s what you forget: It is not just the answers you are looking for, but the wisdom, the relationship, and the prayer.
Now look, the Internet is awesome. Google is awesome. There are many reasons to use them every day. But only one of these things is God’s ordained means for our sanctification and only one of these things will last forever. Go ahead and Google, but don’t neglect the beauty and wisdom of the people who worship right beside you each Sunday.
It is so easy and so natural to go online to look for answers, that we may just pass over the most obvious means of help. It is here, in the local church, that we have people who are deeply invested in us and specifically called and gifted to assist us. Church first, Google later.
The other day, the old Puritan John Flavel took me out back and slapped me around for a while (metaphorically, of course). I have been reading his classic work The Mystery of Providence and he dedicates the second chapter to an explanation of why we need to worship God for his kind providence in our childhood. He wants his readers to acknowledge the privileges that were theirs simply because of the time and place in which they were born.
Along the way he includes a brief but powerful section in which he exhorts parents in the duties they have in raising their children. He wants you, the parent, to seriously consider the responsibility that God has entrusted to you for each one of your children. And, at least for me, each of them felt like a gut-punch. He offers these 8 considerations, asking that you would ponder each one and allow them to motivate you to call your children to respond to the gospel.
- Consider the intimacy of the relationship between you and your children, and, therefore, how much their happiness or misery is your concern. Our children mean so much us. You gain joy by them, you place high value on them, you express hopes and longings for them, you sympathize with them in their troubles, and you grieve from the depths of your soul if they precede you into death. Why would you long to have children, and assign such value to them, and find so much joy in them, if, in the meantime, you give little thought to their eternal souls?
- Consider that God has charged you to tend not only to their bodies, but also to their souls. You can know this by the clear commands God has given parents (see Deuteronomy 6:6-7; Ephesians 6:4), and also by the commands he has given children since these commands imply the duty of the parents (e.g. Ephesians 6:1).
- Consider what could possibly comfort you at the time of your children’s death if, through your neglect, they die in a Christless condition. The most heartbreaking cry is that of the parent who has to honestly admit, “My child is in hell and I did nothing to prevent it! My child is in hell and I helped him go there!”
- Consider this question: If you neglect to instruct your children in the way of holiness, will the devil neglect to instruct them in the way of wickedness? No, of course not. If you will not teach them to pray, he will teach them to curse, swear, and lie. Where the ground is uncultivated, weeds will inevitably spring up.
- Consider that if the years of your children’s youth are neglected, there is little probability of any good fruit afterwards. You have to make the best use of their most formative years. Flavel uses this brilliant little illustration: “How few are converted in old age! A twig is brought to any form, but grown trees will not bow.”
- Consider that you are the instrumental cause of all your children’s spiritual misery, both by generation and imitation, by birth and by example. They are in a state of spiritual death because of the plague of sin which they contracted from you. As David says, “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). This further increases your responsibility to see them healed from that plague.
- Consider that there is no one in the world more likely than you to be instruments of their eternal good. You have advantages that no others have, such as the insights you gain into their hearts. Because you are with them every day, and because you have so much knowledge of their weaknesses, you have unique opportunities to instill the knowledge of Christ into them. If you are neglectful, who shall help them? No one else can or will take your place in their lives.
- Consider the great day of judgment and be moved with pity for your children. Remember that text, “I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God” (Revelation 20:12). What a sad thing it would be to see your dear children at Christ’s left hand. Friends, do your utmost to prevent this misery! “Knowing the terrors of the Lord, we persuade men” (2 Corinthians 5:11).
Now, the purpose of these 8 considerations is not to make parents despair, but to help them see their responsibility. Flavel acknowledges, of course, that God is the only one who can bring a child to salvation and that God’s purposes are his own. And yet the Scriptures make it plain that the parents are to raise their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord. Every parent would do well to ponder these 8 items.
We will continue our reading next week with chapter 3: “God’s Providence in Our Salvation.” Read it by next Thursday and check in to see what I (and others) have to say about it.
The purpose of this project is to read classics together. So do feel free to leave a comment if you have something you would like to say. Alternatively, you may leave a link to your blog or Facebook or anywhere else you have reflected on what you have read.
If you would like to read along with us, we have only just begun, so there is lots of time to get caught up. Simply get a copy of the book and start reading…