Everyday Prayer with the Puritans

Everyday Prayer with the Puritans. Donald K. McKim. P&R Publishing, 2021. 136 pp. Hardcover. $15.99.

“We sometimes use the phrase ‘the breath of life,’” writes Donald K. McKim. “This usually refers to ongoing life marked by and expressed in the act of breathing. Without the breath of life, only death is possible. So too in the life of faith. Our faith ‘breathes’ through prayer.”[1] His book, Everyday Prayer with the Puritans, offers Christians expert assistance in breathing better.

McKim instructs that, “The goal… is to present Puritans’ understandings of prayer and show how these can nourish our Christian faith today.”[2] Each page presents a themed day with a featured Scripture opening a lesson that applies select Puritan writings to prayer, followed by his own closing reflection or prayer point. He quotes William Gurnall: “Prayer is the very breath of faith; stop a man’s breath, and where is he then? … But for faith to live, and this breath of prayer to be quite cut off, is impossible.” McKim adds:

“In … Scripture, we see prayer as the expression of faith, just as breath is the expression of life … When our prayer life wanes and our ‘breath’ becomes sporadic, our spiritual lives are in danger. Physically, we cannot live without breathing. Spiritually, we cannot live in relationship with God without praying … Prior to your prayer and at points throughout, breathe in and out, remembering that prayer is the breath of life.”[3]

The book provides useful ideas and phrases for one’s daily prayer life, much like Matthew Henry’s Method for Prayer, while also peppering in longer written prayers by Puritans on myriad subjects before each new section, reminiscent of those collected in The Valley of Vision. Yet McKim’s work is more like a daily devotional in format, similar to Spurgeon’s, Morning and Evening; and this makes it especially accessible.

The Motive for Spiritual Breathing

McKim points out that “The first act of Paul after he was converted was to pray! Richard Baxter referred to this incident and wrote the following: ‘Prayer is the breath of the new creature.’” McKim comments and asks, “our breath should be devoted to prayer! Do you regard prayer as essential to your life as is breathing?”[4] In addition, he asks: “What would your life be like if gratitude for prayer was your main motivating factor for living?”[5]

And prayer not only is to express gratitude to God, but also grief.  McKim notes that “God hears the voice of our tears.”[6] He also counsels, “What is the work of God in the midst of our afflictions? Said [Vincent] Alsop, ‘Prayer under affliction, witnesses that we believe our God to be good and gracious in it: that he can support us under it, can do us much good by it, and deliver us from it.’”[7] As Arthur Hildersham wrote about Psalm 34:15, “No tender mother is so wakeful, and apt to hear her infant when it cries; as the Lord is to hear his children whensoever they cry unto him …”[8] On Psalm 94:18, “Edward Reynolds wrote that we are eased when we realize ‘prayer lightens affliction where it does not remove it.’ … Our prayers help us through afflictions.”[9] Even when words escape us while our hearts beat for hope. John Bunyan wrote, “When thou prayest, rather let thy heart be without words, than thy words without a heart.” McKim agrees, “God knows your heart. God will hear your prayer, however it is expressed.”[10] William Gurnall, “wrote that in prayer, we have ‘the bosom of a gracious God’ to empty our ‘sorrowful heart into’ … Prayers offered in faith keep our heads ‘above the waves.’”[11]

For the day entitled, “Our Confused Prayers” based on Psalm 38:9-12, McKim encourages: “There are things deep within us, unformed in our minds, which are longings or sighs perhaps ‘too deep for words’ (Rom. 8:26). In the jumble of all these, God hears. Richard Sibbes wrote, 'My groanings are not hid from thee [Ps. 38.9]; God can pick sense out of a confused prayer.'”[12] Including during difficult, perplexing providences.

John Flavel instructs how, “Prayer honors Providence, and Providence honors Prayer.” For “you have had the very Petitions you asked of him. Providences have borne the very signatures of your Prayers upon them.”[13] Similarly, Thomas Taylor wrote that “God hath decreed as well how to do things, as what he will do: and therefore God’s decree takes not away prayer, but establishes it;” McKim, agrees: “ … our prayers are important because they are used by God to carry out the divine purposes. Prayer is part of the process of God’s fulfilling God’s will.”[14] What’s more, Anthony Burgess wrote, whoever “lives without prayer lives as if there were no God as if all things came by a natural necessity or uncertain chance, and not from a wise God.”[15] This is especially helpful when waiting on God’s timing.

On Psalm 40:11-17, McKim counsels, “Our trust is that God will answer our prayers in God’s time, which will be the best time. We know this, but we often have to remind ourselves of this.”[16] Thomas Watson reasons, “A friend may receive our letter, though he doth not presently send us an answer of it. … God may delay prayer, and yet not deny.”[17]  Further, citing Malachi 3:16-18, Paul Baynes wrote that “God … bottles up our tears, files up our prayers, putting them on record before him.”[18] On Psalm 56:8, McKim writes, “Our prayers are not launched into empty space. They are heard and stand before God, who will answer in God’s time.”[19]

Yet there is a place for beseeching immediate answer. On Psalm 50:12-15, “The psalmist recorded a key text about God and prayer when God said, ‘Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me’ (Ps. 50:15) … David Dickson said, ‘What more absolute promise can be made to a believing supplicant?’ … God’s promises are reliable. God says, ‘Call on me!’”[20]

Further, “prayers are an expression of faith.”[21] It is how we reach out and receive. John Downame wrote, “ … God hath appointed prayer as the hand of the soul, to be thrust into his rich Treasury of all grace and goodness for a continual supply …”[22] McKim advises, “God invites our prayers so that we can unburden ourselves of thinking we can do it all or solve all problems … John Owen wrote that ‘if we would talk less, and pray more about them, things would be better than they are in the world; at least we should be better enabled to bear them and undergo our portion in them with the more satisfaction.’”[23]

The opposite also is true; on Psalm 55:22, McKim writes, “worry is like a rocking chair—you go back and forth and never get anywhere! … The antidote for worry is prayer,”[24] and “Without prayer, our lives lose their way … Prayer sweetens the mercy!”[25] Indeed, as Thomas Watson explains, “Prayer does to the heart, as Christ did to the sea … Prayer makes a gracious calm in the soul …”[26]

Especially motivating, McKim also shares that,

“One feature of the Christian experience of prayer is what the Puritan theologian Thomas Goodwin called ‘overplus.’ By this he means that God may grant ‘above what we did ask.’ … Hannah had requested one man child, but God gave her three sons more and two daughters … This led Goodwin to say that ‘when prayers are answered, usually mercies come thick, they come tumbling in; the thing we prayed for comes not alone.’”[27]

The Method and Means of Spiritual Breathing

As it is the Holy Spirit that breathes resurrection life into us, we must also seek His resuscitation in praying every breath we take. Citing Luke 11:5-13, McKim teaches, “ … when our prayer life is weak, we need to pray for God’s Spirit to be with us and help … Make it a point to pray for God’s Spirit before you pray and as you pray. Trust the Spirit to lead and guide your prayers and to be active in your life of discipleship.”[28]

We would well use Edward Dering’s vulnerable, “A Prayer for When We Are Dull in Prayer”:

“ … although it appear not, yet thou art always present with me … stir up O Lord my dull and sluggish nature, to call upon thee continually … I feel myself (O Lord) oftentimes very unwilling to pray, for that I do not fully perceive my prayers to be heard …”[29]

In the words of Thomas Taylor, "Prayer gets the Spirit, whose office it is to bring things to our memory."[30]

It is particularly important to remember that we truly pray through the intercession of our Lord Christ alone. Anthony Burgess wrote of John 17, “this prayer of Christ sanctifies all our prayers.”[31] For, “Beneath all these dimensions of prayer is the most important element: that we pray in faith.”[32]

On Psalm 65:1-4, McKim directs how prayer is not only our life’s breath but life-changing:

“Prayer is not twisting God’s arm to award us what we request... We pray so ‘we our selves might be fitted and prepared to receive from him, what he is always ready and willing to confer upon us. … the chief effect of prayer being to affect our selves.’ Our prayers change us … When we pray, we should all realize that we may never be the same again!”[33]

And we should seek more the Giver than His gifts, for “his favor and fellowship with him must be longed for.”[34] McKim challenges, “ … we need constant contact with our Lord … William Perkins wrote, ‘Pray continually … secret and inward [utterances] of the heart …’ We should always have our God in our minds.”[35]

And our prayers may be as simple as the deer panting for water (Psalm 42:1). "It is not the loudness, or the length, or the neat expressions which take with God," wrote Thomas Hall, "But it is the faith and sincerity of him that prays; poor broken prayers coming from a broken heart are of a great worth in the sight of God." McKim here adds that Psalm 6:3 "is an abrupt broken speech, but God can pick sense out of our non-sense … Pray short, heartfelt prayers, not trying to impress God… .”[36]

That said, “There are parts to our prayers … In the prayers of the Puritans, the first main part is usually the confession of sins … Attention to our condition and relationship with God is a major—and primary—dimension of our prayers … After we confess our sins, [John] Udall urges, we will be ‘more humbled, and prepared the better to prayer.’”[37] More specifically, citing Ephesians 6:18-20, “The two main parts of prayer are thanksgiving and petition.”[38] Likewise, as evidenced in 1 Thessalonians 3:9-10: “Prayer and thanks. These two words described Paul’s life.”[39]

Pointing to Psalm 54:1-2, McKim advises, “Both in prayer and with God, one’s voice can be important. Uttering our prayers aloud shows our earnestness in expressing what is within our hearts … Prayers spoken can keep a focus … Our words outwardly express our dependence on God. Our expressed prayers show we expect God’s good answers to our prayers.”[40]

And reviewing a “prayer journal” can be a great source of prayerful thanksgiving. Guided by Psalm 116:1-2, McKim asks,

“ … do we … take time and seek the wisdom to recognize God’s answers to our prayers? … Some things we pray about, perhaps in fear or dread, never happen. Those are God’s answers to our prayers, if only we will recognize them as such. Or we may forget our prayers about something, only to realize—much later—that our prayers were answered … Thomas Goodwin wrote, ‘If you observe not his answers, how shall you bless God and return thanks to him for hearing your prayers?’ … The Puritans kept written records of the answers to their prayers.”[41]

“Watching for God’s answers to our prayers is a ‘necessary ingredient’ said Nathaniel Vincent … Because, … ‘the more watchful you are in prayer, the more experimentally will you understand the loving kindness of the Lord; you shall find that he deals bountifully’ [Ps. 116:7].[42] … May we always respond to the Spirit’s work in our lives by praying! [Ezek. 37:14]”[43]

Prayer is a conversation with our Creator: “ … prayer is speaking to God and listening to God. There is a dialogue in prayer … John Downame said that the first service ‘we are to offer unto God consists in prayer and meditation, which are the two wings of our souls, whereby they soar aloft into heaven, and there enjoy the presence of God.”[44]

And our conversation with God should be consistent within ourselves: “Baxter notes that our affections should be ones our ‘conscience has no quarrel against.’ … Always, we are to pray ‘lead me in the way everlasting.’ [Psalm 139:24]”[45] Similarly, John Owen wrote, “He who prays as he ought, will endeavor to live as he prays … To pray earnestly and live carelessly, is to proclaim a man is not Spiritually minded in his prayer.” McKim adds, “What we pray for should express what we live for.”[46] Citing Isa. 30:12, Thomas Gouge also advised sincerity: “Prayer being the means sanctified by God for the obtaining of every good thing, be earnest with God in prayer, that he would direct thee in the right way and course; that he would cause thee to hear a voice behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk in it.’”[47] Thus, noting James 1:5-8, “We are to ask God for this wisdom.”[48] “Or, as William Ames put it, ‘we pray to him in order to obtain by our prayer what we believe he wishes to grant.’ We should pray for what we believe and understand to be the will of God, what God wishes to give.”[49]

Thus, “ … every prayer should be focused on the two elements of God’s ‘kingdom’ and ‘glory’ … Orient your prayers around the work of God’s kingdom and all things that bring God glory. Ask God to enable you to be part of God’s reign and a witness to God’s glory.”[50] “To pray this petition [“Thy will be done”, Matthew 6:10], Ezekiel Hopkins wrote, ‘we need to pray, that God would incline our hearts to his Commandments, and then strengthen us to obey them: that as our will to good is the effect of his grace, so the effect of our wills may be the performances of his will.’”[51] On Matthew 6:12, “William Lyford … wrote, ‘We must practice what we pray for: our actions must not cross our prayers.” McKim adds, “We cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer as an automatic exercise—pray it and forget it.” [52] “Ask God to make holy all you do.”[53]

To Whom should we directly pray? Citing John 14:13-17, “We may usually ‘default’ to God the Father, but we know the whole Trinity is involved in our prayers.”[54]

As well, our prayer content should be focused not only on God and ourselves, but, “ … we also need an ‘outward focus’ to our prayers … for the world, the church, and for others [2 These 1:5-12]”[55]

Lastly, like anything else, practice makes perfect: “We learn by doing … By praying, we learn to pray. Richard Sibbes put it this way: ‘As every grace increases by exercise of itself, so doth the grace of prayer; by prayer we learn to pray.’”[56]

Practical Spiritual Breathing Practices

Having looked to the instructions on prayer by the Puritans, following are a few things I have especially marked for regular personal use and here highlight:

Lewis Bayly, “A Prayer for the Evening”: address God as He “Who art about my bed … I beseech thee, sanctify unto me this night’s rest and sleep … so this dull and wearied body of mine, being refreshed with moderate sleep and rest, I may be the better enabled to walk before thee, doing all such good work as thou has appointed, when it shall please thee by thy divine power to waken me the next morning.”[57]

Lewis Bayly, in his “A Brief Prayer for the Morning”: “ … sanctify my heart with Thy Holy Spirit, that I may henceforth lead a more godly and religious life. And here, O Lord, I praise Thy holy name, for Thou has refreshed me this night with moderate sleep and rest.”[58]

Arthur Dent’s daily expression of the Puritans’ heart: “Let me love thee more and more, and the world less and less. So draw my mind upward, that I may despise all transitory things.”[59]

And Henry Scougal’s experience of the above: “O the happiness of those souls that have broken the fetters of self-love …”[60]

This book is such a blessing for guiding Bible study as much as for praying in a manageable way that I have already revisited it as my daily devotional with plans for future use in family worship. I encourage others to do the same, for, “The clearest thing we can do to show our faith is to pray to God. Prayer is the rhythm of our Christian lives. It is our breath, our heartbeat.”[61]

Grant Van Leuven has been feeding the flock at the Puritan Reformed Presbyterian Church in San Diego, CA, since 2010. He also serves the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals as community engagement coordinator as well as assistant editor for MeetthePuritans.org. He and his wife, Fernanda, have six covenant children: Rachel, Olivia, Abraham, Isaac, Gabriel, and Gideon. He earned his M.Div. at the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA.

Related Links

Matthew Henry's Method for Prayer, a free online publication from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals

"Watson’s Wisdom on Prayer" by Donald McKim

"The Simplicity and Profundity of Prayer" by Mark Johnston

"The Valley of Vision," edited by Arthur Bennett

Everyday Prayer with the Puritans by Donald K. McKim


[1] Donald K. McKim, Everyday Prayer with the Puritans (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R Publishing, 2021) , 44.

[2] Ibid, 17.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid, 86.

[5] Ibid, 70.

[6] Ibid, 30.

[7] Ibid, 35.

[8] Ibid, 36.

[9] Ibid, 50.

[10] Ibid, 66.

[11] Ibid, 21.

[12] Ibid, 38.

[13] Ibid, 23.

[14] Ibid, 54.

[15] Ibid, 74.

[16] Ibid, 39.

[17] Ibid, 47.

[18] Ibid, 65.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid, 40.

[21] Ibid, 93.

[22] Ibid, 89.

[23] Ibid, 99.

[24] Ibid, 101.

[25] Ibid, 106.

[26] Ibid, 77.

[27] Ibid, 24. For a sermon by the author inspired by this excerpt, visit https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=112521195949290

[28] Ibid, 81.

[29] Ibid, 55.

[30] Ibid, 85.

[31] Ibid, 92.

[32] Ibid, 30.

[33] Ibid, 45. Quoting Ezekiel Hopkins.

[34] Ibid, 78. Quoting Nathaniel Vincent.

[35] Ibid, 105.

[36] Ibid, 29.

[37] Ibid, 32.

[38] Ibid, 100.

[39] Ibid, 103.

[40] Ibid, 43. One is reminded of Martin Luther praying aloud alone all night before answering his accusers at the Diet of Worms, and how someone overhearing him expressed it was as if another person was present in the room. Or, how Eli observed Hannah’s lips.

[41] Ibid, 51.

[42] Ibid, 52.

[43] Ibid, 61.

[44] Ibid, 53.

[45] Ibid, 56.

[46] Ibid, 75.

[47] Ibid, 57.

[48] Ibid, 113.

[49] Ibid, 118.

[50] Ibid, 68.

[51] Ibid, 71.

[52] Ibid, 72.

[53] Ibid, 46.

[54] Ibid, 84. For more instruction on how the “proper formula is that we are praying to the Father” in directing our prayers generally, see this podcast: https://www.placefortruth.org/blog/pcrt-and-praying-to-the-triune-god-podcast

[55] Ibid, 107. So the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 100 instructs us that the preface to the Lord's Prayer teaches us, “that we should pray with and for others.”

[56] Ibid, 79.

[57] Ibid, 27.

[58] Ibid, 20.

[59] Ibid, 69.

[60] Ibid, 104.

[61] Ibid, 100.