Isaac Watts: A Guide to Prayer
The progress of the church in the fulfilment of its evangelistic mission whether at home or overseas cannot be disconnected from its prayer life. Both William Carey and C.H. Spurgeon recognised the great significance in the success of their efforts of the prayer life of the churches and their individual members.
To pray well, whether in private or in public, is no easy thing. Christians often feel themselves in need of help in this matter, and among the books written to assist us to pray more effectively is Isaac Watts' A Guide to Prayer, or to give it its full title, A free and rational account of the gift, grace and spirit of prayer with plain directions how every Christian may attain them. From this book we shall seek to draw some useful teaching.
The Essential Nature of Prayer
Isaac Watts has a very simple definition of prayer, yet one that shows something of its great potential. Prayer is 'the address of a creature on earth to God in heaven, about everything that concerns his God, his neighbour or himself, in this world or the world to come'. The two main persons in prayer are the creature and his Creator. The subject matter is everything in time and eternity. This view of prayer is expansive. Here is the God to whom we can speak about things great and small.
The Potential of Prayer
Perhaps we gain so little from prayer because we expect so little from it. It can be one of those duties that is expected of a Christian. For Isaac Watts, however, it is a privilege full of great potential for spiritual enjoyment. Prayer is 'that language wherein a creature holds correspondence with his Creator: and wherein the soul of a saint often gets near to God, is entertained with great delight, and, as it were, dwells with his heavenly Father for a short season before he comes to heaven'.
How far removed that is from so much of our praying, is it not? What do we know of nearness to God, great delight and foretaste of heaven in prayer? Do we see prayer as 'a glorious privilege that our Maker bath indulged to us'?
If Watts can guide us towards that sort of praying then he will have done us a service indeed!
The Nature of Prayer
Isaac Watts divides prayer into nine parts. He does not insist that every time we pray all these elements have to be found, but he does suggest that to have a mental image of the structure and aspects of prayer assists us in praying.
Prayer begins with invocation or calling upon God. God is addressed by one of his names or titles, our desire to worship him is expressed and his assistance is sought, for we recognise that to pray aright we need his help.
Invocation is followed by adoration. God is praised for what he is in his Being: self-sufficient, Trinitarian, above our understanding and infinitely superior to us. He is praised for all the different aspects of his character, for being precisely the sort of God the Bible reveals him to be. He is to be praised for his great acts of creation, providence and salvation and for all the different relationships that he has to us as Creator, Saviour, Friend, etc.
Watts saw adoration as especially important for warming our hearts in prayer. God in his essential Being may seem remote, but the nearer we draw to him as we consider his great works of salvation in Christ the nearer we will feel to him. Adoration prepares us for other parts of worship.
Adoration is followed by confession. True confession acknowledges our frailty and creatureliness, our utter dependence on God. It then confesses our fallenness in Adam and the personal sins by which our lives have been polluted. It recognises the justice of God in being angry with us for our sins and our desert of punishment. Confession increases our humility, abasement and shame before God.
The confession of sin drives us on to petition. Our sense of sin and need ought to lead us to cry to God for mercy and for deliverance from all evil. However, there is more to petition than a cry for forgiveness. There is also to be a request for growth in grace and greater sanctification. Not only our personal needs but the needs of others are to fill our prayers. The prosperity of the church worldwide, the extension of God's kingdom, the conversion of the nations, the outpouring of the Spirit, the deliverance of the persecuted and special prayers for our own nation and family are all part of petition.
Special pleading with God is to be added to petition. This is humble but intense petition using arguments with God to emphasis our requests. We ought to plead with God on the basis of the greatness of our needs, the nature of his attributes, the special relationship that he has towards his church. We are to plead with God to act for the sake of his own great Name, for his reputation and cause is at stake, and to take on our lips the name of Christ, for 'the most powerful and prevailing argument is the name and mediation of our Lord Jesus Christ'. Such pleading with God in prayer is surely rarely heard among us. We lack the fervency and the persistence, and so often the half-heartedness of our praying reflects the coldness of our hearts.
Pleading with God is to be followed by self-dedication to God. Watts believed that a part of our prayers ought to be the renewed profession of our faith in Christ and a recounting of his mercies towards us as a preparation for renewed self-dedication. In our prayers we ought to promise to continue to serve God and to do what pleases him. Such rededication should be accompanied by a renunciation of all that is displeasing to him.
Thanksgiving is the next element in prayer. As we recall God's goodness to us we should remember those blessings given in answer to prayer and those blessings bestowed without our asking. All God's mercies ought to stir us to thanksgiving but especially those which were unsought yet freely given. If thanklessness in man to men is a discourtesy, how much more serious is thanklessness in man to God?
In addition to thanksgiving is blessing. Isaac Watts saw blessing as a type of thanksgiving peculiar to man, and especially appropriate to God's people. Blessing is praising God for his own sake out of a genuine inward joy, satisfaction and pleasure. It is an unselfish part of thanksgiving.
Blessing God is followed by the Amen. Far from being a redundant formality or a liturgical ending to prayer, the amen is the affirmation that all that has been said, requested and promised in prayer is sincerely meant and that the prayer is expected to be answered.
These nine elements are summarised by Isaac Watts in verse as an aid to their memorisation:
Call upon God, adore and confess,
Petition, plead and then declare
You are the Lord's; give thanks and bless
And let 'Amen' confirm the prayer.
Increasing Our Proficiency in Prayer
Watts describes the ability to pray well as the 'gift of prayer' and seeks to give some directions to aid us in our praying. He believed that well structured prayers were easier to pray and to be heard by others, although he did not want our praying to become formal and placed in a straitjacket of theoretical correctness.
To pray well the child of God needs content in his prayers. Such content will arise from his own particular experience of God's mercies and the needs of the situation pressing upon him. However, he needs also to stimulate his mind to pray by the reading of Scripture, Christian books, conversation with other Christians on helpful matters, and through private meditation.
He also needs some structure. In addition to that structure given by an understanding of the different aspects of prayer, it is useful to have some general principles to guide our sequence of thoughts. We should work from the general to the particular. We should group together things of the same kind. We should follow the biblical method of praying about doctrinal matters that involve our judgment before consequences of the doctrine that involve our affections. In other words, Watts exhorts us to try to have some logical order in our praying so that we do not ramble uncontrolled, back and forward between subjects, as if we were mindlessly babbling.
In addition, prayer should be expressed in suitable language. The mind that is stored with Scripture and the tongue that is used to being engaged in profitable speech will be best equipped to express itself in prayer. The more our minds contemplate and appreciate the mercy of God towards us the more our mouths will speak out of full hearts. True ability in prayer cannot be separated from our general state of godliness.
To pray in suitable language also involves attempting to express what is in our minds in the most fitting way. Especially in public prayer there ought to be an avoidance of language which is either archaic and redundant, or new and racy. Theological and philosophical language, constant repetitions, long, involved sentences and long, tedious prayers ought to be shunned. An attempt at some diversity in expression is helpful.
Prayer should be offered in a suitable voice. A suitable prayer voice is exactly the same voice that we would use to speak on any serious subject. Public prayer requires a voice that is distinct, even at the end of sentences, loud enough to be heard without being painful, neither monotonous nor theatrical, neither too fast nor too slow. Our voice and our gestures, if any, should suit our subject matter.
Largely, although not totally, ability in prayer has to do with the outward act of praying: how we speak and what we say. Behind this ability to pray has to be the spiritual state of the soul which prays. Watts entitles this the 'Grace of Prayer'.
Spirituality in Prayer
The grace of prayer is 'all those holy dispositions of soul which are to be exercised in that part of divine worship ... the soul and spirit that gives life, and vigour and efficacy that renders it acceptable to God and of real advantage to ourselves.'
We have the dispositions of soul, the spiritual ability to pray with effect, when our prayers are motivated by faith. Commenting on the definition of faith given in Hebrews 11:6, Watts lists as the first grace needed, 'Faith or belief of the being of God, and his perfect knowledge, and his gracious notice of all that we speak in prayer.' The person who prays has really to believe in the living God and his willingness and readiness to hear our prayers.
True prayer will also come from a person who is serious-minded rather than trivial and flippant in his approach to God. To come into the presence of God is a grave and solemn thing. Low views of the majesty of God lead to reduced estimations of the significance of prayer.
Heavenly-mindedness is a key to true prayer. 'For prayer is a retirement from earth, and a retreat from our fellow creatures to attend on God, and hold correspondence with him that dwells in heaven. The mind that is preoccupied with this world, its riches, fame and interests will find prayer a hard work.'
Sincere attention to the matter in hand when we pray, to the type of prayer we are offering and the things we are saying, is of great importance. It is so easy for the words of the mouth to be detached from the thoughts of the mind.
Few Christians would question that the kind of spiritual frame which fits us for prayer is desirable, but how is it to be attained and maintained? Watts suggests that we should think much about prayer: its nature, its importance and the greatness of its privilege. In addition, we should be sure of our friendship with God and particularly focus our attention on Christ. 'Live much upon and with Jesus the Mediator: by whose interest alone you can come near to God.' We should also seek to maintain the frame of mind that is always prayerful and that takes those opportunities given to it to pray.
All the very best intentions and desires will fall short of realisation without the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Watts reminds us that, 'All the rules and directions that have hitherto been laid down in order to teach us to pray will be ineffectual if we have no divine aids.'
The Spirit of Prayer
There are many Scriptures which declare the special role of the Holy Spirit in prayer. Historically, some professing Christians have made too little of the need of the Spirit in prayer, as though it was a merely natural activity, whereas others have made too much, as though the Spirit alone prayed and human involvement was minimal.
Watts reminds us that the Holy Spirit is the author of our natural abilities. He also blesses us when we pray and attempt to pray. However, in addition he inclines our hearts to pray and assists us to persevere in prayer. He can suggest to us those things for which we ought to pray, and prompt us as to how to pray. He helps us to express ourselves and stimulates those graces which are needed for prayer.
He warns against misinterpreting the work of the Holy Spirit in prayer. Not all desire to pray proceeds from the Holy Spirit. People may be incited to pray by other reasons than his influence. The Spirit's help in prayer is not always a felt help. I do not have 'to feel the Spirit moving in my heart' before I pray! The presence of the Spirit is not necessarily discernible to others. A man 'praying in the Spirit' is not necessarily going to be the most eloquent in prayer. Yet while taking these warnings to heart it has to be recognised that the need for the aid of the Holy Spirit in prayer is paramount.
How are We to Obtain and Keep the Spirit of Prayer?
The pre-requisite for all Spirit-aided praying is conversion. 'The Spirit of grace and of supplication dwells in believers only.' However, the indwelling of the Spirit does not automatically bring his assistance in prayer.
Watts exhorts us to play our part fully in following the directions he has given to gain greater proficiency and spirituality in our praying. In addition, however, he exhorts us to pray earnestly for the Spirit of prayer. We gain facility in prayer and help from the Spirit in prayer by praying.
In the process of prayer we need to be sincere and fervent. When we feel some ability in praying we are not to leave off but to improve it and develop it. We are not to be content with freedom in prayer and feel we have attained. The more we feel we can pray the more we ought to pray.
However, Watts warns that the more God assists us to pray the greater danger we are in. Pride in our prayerfulness is a great sin. God's help is not to lead to our self-congratulation. We can grieve the Spirit and cause his help to be withdrawn by this sin or any other sin.
When we believe that the Spirit has absented himself from our assistance in prayer, what are we to do? We are to be aware of our great loss and to mourn over it. We are to confess those sins that have caused him to withdraw. We are to seek his help again. 'Go and fall down humbly before God and tell him with a grievous complaint that you can say nothing to him; that you can do nothing but groan and cry before him; go and tell him, that, without his Spirit, you cannot speak one expression ... Plead with him earnestly for his Spirit.'
Why Should We Want to Pray?
Among a number of reasons given to persuade us to pray, Watts includes these:
'There is such a thing as correspondence with heaven; and prayer is a great part of it while we dwell on earth. Who would not be ambitious to correspond with heaven?' Do we have no desire to talk with God? What does that suggest about the state of our souls?
'Prayer is a sacred and appointed means to obtain all the blessings that we want, whether they relate to this life or the life to come.' Needy people ought to be prayerful people. How can we live or die without praying to God?
Prayer is 'the divine delight and exceeding great advantage ... to our own souls'. In almost every other realm of life we are quick to do what is to our own advantage. Only a person who is careless about his own spiritual good can neglect prayer.
Some use of prayer is necessary if we would have our profession of being Christians taken seriously. 'Shall we profess to be followers of Christ and not know how to speak to the Father!'
The blessing of God on our own souls, families, churches and nations cannot be expected while prayer lies so neglected and is performed so halfheartedly. If the need of this age is the blessing of God, then prayer is the means of obtaining it. Let us then be persuaded by Isaac Watts to pray, and look to God for his response of blessing.