John Bunyan on Prayer (3)
Amy Mantravadi joins us this week to discuss John Bunyan's A Discourse Touching Prayer. Read her third post below:
While John Bunyan spent much time dissecting the Apostle Paul’s statement that “I will pray with the spirit”, he by no means ignored the second part of that phrase: “I will pray with the understanding also”. (1 Corinthians 14:15 KJV) Bunyan taught that the only way to receive this understanding was 1) by the work of the Spirit and 2) through God’s Word.
“Prayer it is, when it is within the compass of God’s Word; and it is blasphemy, or at best vain babbling, when the petition is beside the book,” he wrote, emphasizing the need for our heartfelt words to be backed up by biblical truth. Understanding is necessary for prayer, and Bunyan taught that “there is no understanding without the Word”. It is this combination of the Spirit of God and the Word of God that allows us to understand our sinful state and seek divine mercy through prayer.
“He that hath his understanding well exercised, to discern between good and evil, and in it placed a sense either of the misery of man, or the mercy of God; that soul hath no need of the writings of other men to teach him by forms of prayer. For as he that feels the pain needs not to be taught to cry O! even so he that hath his understanding opened by the Spirit needs not so to be taught of other men’s prayers as that he cannot pray without them.”
The understanding that Bunyan envisioned was not a kind of dry knowledge, but an active comprehension of the things of God. He taught that once a person gained it, their prayer life would be transformed, even as they continued to grow in their understanding.
“And understanding of the willingness that is in the heart of God to save sinners, there is nothing will press the soul more to seek after God, and to cry for pardon, than it. If a man should see a pearl worth an hundred pounds lie in a ditch, yet if he understood not the value of it, he would lightly pass it by: but if he once get the knowledge of it, he would venture up to the neck for it. So it is with souls concerning the things of God: if a man once get an understanding of the worth of them, then his heart, nay, the very strength of his soul, runs after them, and he will never leave crying till he have them.”
Finally, Bunyan taught that this understanding gained through the Spirit gives us great confidence to pray to our God, for we realize what great mercy is available at the throne of grace.
“Alas, how many poor souls are there in the world, that truly fear the Lord, who, because they are not well informed in their understanding, are oft ready to give up all for lost, upon almost every trick and temptation of Satan! The Lord pity them, and help them to ‘pray with the Spirit, and with the understanding also.’ Much of mine own experience could I here discover; when I have been in my fits of agony of spirit, I have been strongly persuaded to leave off, and to seek the Lord no longer, but being made to understand what great sinners the Lord hath had mercy upon, and how large his promises were still to sinners; and that it was not the whole, but the sick, not the righteous, but the sinner, not the full, but the empty, that he extended his grace and mercy unto. This made me, through the assistance of his Holy Spirit, to cleave to him, to hang upon him, and yet to cry, though for the present he made no answer; and the Lord help all his poor, tempted, and afflicted people to do the like, and to continue, though it be long, according to the saying of the prophet (Hab 2:3). And to help them (to that end) to pray, not by the inventions of men, and their stinted forms, but ‘with the Spirit, and with the understanding also.’”
Bunyan’s writings on prayer are useful for anyone who seeks to gain a better understanding of how to pray with both spirit and understanding. They also provide a great deal of insight into the way Puritans thought about this essential part of the Christian life.