The Keys to Piety and Prayer
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.