Three Principles to Encourage Private Prayer (with help from Thomas Brooks)

Posted by: Christopher Ellis Osterbrock

How many books and articles have been written on the topic of prayer? With an abundance of time and teaching spent on the topic, a particular sentiment begins to echo  in the hearts of Christians: “I should be better at this.” One verse in particular channels this sentiment into proper action: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2). Here, we see three principles greet us: steadfastness in prayer, watchfulness over prayer, and thankfulness for prayer. Surely a glance at these principles, and a nod from Puritan Thomas Brooks (1608–1678), will edify our private prayer.

Steadfastness in Prayer

During the plague outbreak of 1665, Brooks wrote on private prayer: The Privy Key of Heaven. He gives arguments to bolster prayer practice, while relating why Christians don’t pray as they ought. Negligence is summed up simply enough: laziness—Christians do not take seriously the unsearchable riches gained from time in private prayer. Brooks writes, “There is not a greater hindrance to closet prayer than sloth and idleness. Certainly such as had rather go sleeping to hell, than sweating to heaven, will never care much for closet-prayer.”[1] Two areas deserve our attention: slothfulness in this spiritual discipline and right doctrine of prayer.

Steadfast against Sloth

Growth in prayer is not like a magic spell. Spiritual health is progressive; it’s meant to take a lifetime or it wouldn’t be worth the fight. Results are not immediate, as we are led to believe by shelves of mystic encounters and beatific visions. Healthy, invigorating closet prayer grows by habit and regular Bible reading. Note the importance of Paul’s language, steadfastness. Our sloth isn’t going away anytime soon; therefore, we must engage against it. Yet the mercies of the Spirit aren’t going away either. Brooks writes, “The word dwells most richly in their hearts who are most pouring out their hearts before God in their closets.”[2] When we recognize our inadequacy in prayer, then we are prepared to engage anew: “I can be better at this, by God’s grace.”

Steadfast for Doctrine

Brooks argues that the secret to healthy prayer practice is to “have one eye upon a divine precept and another upon a gracious promise.”[3] If the Bible is not our guide in how to pray, then we are not praying as Christians. Be steadfast in praying God’s words back to him. The healthiest way to be steadfast in prayer is by utilizing Scripture, not worldly inventions. As we grow in our saving knowledge of the triune God, we will likewise grow in our intimacy during prayer. Knowing the right things of God provides us with more to share and less confusion as to “what do I say next?” Be steadfast; biblical doctrine is the greatest asset to spiritual growth and intimacy. Break free from idleness, break open your Bible.

Watchfulness over Prayer

Private prayer is the healthiest way to pick a fight with the world. Why does Satan, the prince of this world, hate private prayer? Brooks gives four main reasons: first, it spoils all of his snares; second, it delights and gives glory to God; third, prayer is the means to our greatest intimacy with Christ; and fourth, prayer is the greatest means of attacking our pride.[4] We must strive in making greater enemies with the enemy of our Lord. 

Watch over Your Method

Are you mindful of how you pray? Peter urges we prepare our minds for action, which includes the spiritual discipline of prayer (1 Peter 1:13). By taking God’s Word and synthesizing it in our spiritual practice, we break from the chains of this world. See what happens when you approach the spiritual battle through biblical methods of prayer: 

There is no service wherein Christians have such a near, familiar, and friendly intercourse with God as in this of private prayer; neither is there any service wherein God doth more delight to make known his truth and faithfulness, his grace and goodness, his mercy and bounty, his beauty and glory to poor souls, than this of private prayer.[5]

Our private prayers become anemic when we veer from biblical methods. Let’s watch for adding worldly conventions to our prayer, and draw nearer to biblical models of prayer. 

Watch out for Mercy

Prayer is a gift of mercy. Our preservation does not depend on the health of our prayer life, but prayer is a gifted means to experience our preservation, to continue and strive after the object of our faith. Consider the intimacy experienced even as you struggle with what to say. The Holy Spirit is with us in our groaning, interpreting our inexpressible thoughts (Romans 8:26–27). Do not neglect prayer because your experience isn’t as mystical as you desire. Maybe it is far more “mystical” than you can imagine! Seek to comprehend the merciful wonder of prayer. 

Thankfulness for Prayer

We are not only thankful in our prayers, but thankful for the ability to pray. We can pray because Jesus Christ has loved us and given us his name (John 17:26), that we may experience the assurance of our union with him. God desires to have your time and your intimacy. Be thankful that we can pray at all!

Thankfulness that We Can Pray

Prayer is the privilege of those indwelled by the Holy Spirit. If you are his, then Jesus specifically prayed for you, that you would be able to pray above and beyond your abilities and imaginings. Brooks shares, “Christ gives you a commission to put his name upon all of your requests; and whatsoever prayer come up with this name upon it, he will procure it an answer.”[6] Be thankful that you can pray in his name; not only is he with you, but his Spirit invigorates whatever time you spend in prayer—whether or not you feel it!

There is plenty of writing on prayer—this glance at Colossians 4:2 is little different—but we’re quick to forget the importance of the closet. If you are struggling in your private prayer life, take time to pray over these principles; it may strengthen your practice. Too often we must be reminded of the sweetness of time spent with the “privy key of heaven.” So I urge you, in Jesus’ name, grow more steadfast in private prayer, more watchful of the temptations that lead you from private prayer, and ever more thankful of the gracious gift of communion with your Saviour.

[1] Thomas Brooks, The Privy Key of Heaven, in The Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1980), 2:279.

[2] Brooks, Privy Key of Heaven, 176.

[3] Brooks, Privy Key of Heaven, 277.

[4] Brooks, Privy Key of Heaven, 295.

[5] Brooks, Privy Key of Heaven, 176.

[6] Brooks, Privy Key of Heaven, 274.

Check out Thomas Brooks, Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices, edited and introduced by Christopher.

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