Take Hold of Heaven: Lessons from the Puritans on Prayer – Joel Beeke

ABSTRACT: Prayer is one of the most crucial parts of the Christian life, yet often one of the most neglected. Even when we do pray, we may struggle to pray prayerfully, with fervency and faith. The Puritans provide a model for a praying life that regularly takes hold of the self in motivation, cultivation, constancy, and discipline, and that takes hold of God in dependence and faith. This earnest, engaged prayer is the kind the church needs in the present (and every) age.

For our ongoing series of feature articles for pastors and Christian leaders, we asked Joel Beeke (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary), chancellor and professor of homiletics and systematic theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, to offer lessons from the Puritans on prayer.

The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.

—James 5:16–18

In the epistle of James, we read that the prophet Elijah “prayed fervently.”1 Literally, the text indicates that Elijah “prayed in his prayer.”2 In other words, Elijah’s prayers were more than a formal exercise; rather, he poured himself into his prayers.

Christian prayer is holy communication from the believing soul to God. Thomas Manton (1620–1677) defined prayer as “the converse of a loving soul with God.”3 Similarly, Anthony Burgess (1600–1663) said that prayer is “the lifting up of the mind, and of the whole soul to God.”4 John Bunyan (1628–1688) offers another rich definition: “Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to his Word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God.”5

Prayer should be the Christian’s great delight. As Matthew Henry (1662–1714) observed, prayer is the believer’s companion, counselor, comforter, supply, support, shelter, strength, and salvation.6 The true believer enjoys praying despite the attacks he faces from the world, the flesh, and the devil. As Henry wrote, “This life of communion with God, and constant attendance upon him, is a heaven upon earth.”7 Thomas Brooks (1608–1680) exclaimed, “Ah! How often, Christians, hath God kissed you at the beginning of prayer, and spoke peace to you in the midst of prayer, and filled you with joy and assurance, upon the close of prayer!”8

After studying the prayer lives of the Puritans, I am convinced that the greatest shortcoming in today’s church is the lack of such prayerful prayer. We fail to use heaven’s greatest weapon as we should. In our churches, homes, and personal lives, our prayer is often more prayerless than prayerful.

The giants of church history (such as the Puritans) often dwarf us in true prayer. Prayer was their priority. The Puritans were prayerful men who knew how to take hold of God in prayer and were possessed by the Spirit of grace and supplication (Isaiah 64:7). They taught that the solution to prayerless praying is prayerful praying, which happens in two ways: by taking hold of ourselves and by taking hold of God.

Taking Hold of Yourself

As with every other attainment in the Christian life, prayerful praying is not achieved automatically. The apostle Paul urged Timothy, “Train yourself for godliness. . . . Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called” (1 Timothy 4:7; 6:12). I thus plead with you to seek a more fervent and faithful prayer life, with effort, urgency, and dependence on Christ and the Holy Spirit, practicing the discipline of self-control, which is not a natural ability but a fruit of the Spirit purchased by Jesus Christ at the cross (Galatians 5:22–24).

We look to Christ as the vine who alone can produce good fruit in us, and then get a grip on ourselves and engage diligently in disciplined prayer. Let me suggest four principles for taking hold of yourself in prayer: motivation, cultivation, constancy, and discipline.

Remember the Motivation

Many infirmities choke our motivation to pray. Archbishop James Ussher (1581–1656) lists some of them: “Roving imaginations, inordinate affections, dullness of spirit, weakness of faith, coldness in feeling, faintness in asking, weariness in waiting, too much passion in our own matters, and too little compassion in other men’s miseries.”9 We can take hold of ourselves, then, by remembering motivations for prayer regarding its value.

First, remember the purpose of prayer — the glory of God in the happiness of man. As Matthew Henry writes, in prayer “we must have in our eye God’s glory, and our own true happiness.”10 James Ussher explains the motivations for true prayer: “to use all other good means carefully; to seek God’s glory principally; to desire the best things most earnestly; to ask nothing but what God’s Word warranteth us; to wait patiently till he hear and help us.”11

Second, remember the privilege of prayer. William Bridge (ca. 1600–1671) observed, “A praying man can never be very miserable, whatever his condition be, for he has the ear of God. . . . It is a mercy to pray, even though I never receive the mercy prayed for.”12 Anthony Burgess also dwelt on the great privilege of prayer: “By praying holily we are made more holy; it’s like exercise to the body, which makes it more strong and active; it’s the rich ship that brings in glorious returns from God: heavenly prayer leaveth an heavenly frame, it keepeth a soul in longings after God.”13

Third, remember the power of prayer. “The angel fetched Peter out of prison, but it was prayer [that] fetched the angel,” wrote Thomas Watson (ca. 1620–1686).14 John Bunyan exhorted, “Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge for Satan.”15 Remember that “when God intends great mercy for his people the first thing he does is to set them a praying,” observed Henry.16 As Ussher writes,

Because prayer is the voice of God’s Spirit in us, a jewel of grace bequeathed by Christ unto us, it is the hand of faith, the key of God’s treasury, the soul’s solicitor, the heart’s armorbearer, and the mind’s interpreter. It procureth all blessings, preventeth curses, sanctifieth all creatures, that they may do us good, seasoneth all crosses, that they can do us no hurt. Lastly, it keeps the heart in humility, the life in sobriety, strengtheneth all graces, overcometh all temptations, subdueth corruptions, purgeth our affections, makes our duties acceptable to God, our lives profitable unto men, and both life and death comfortable unto our selves.17

Finally, remember the priority of prayer. John Bunyan stressed the priority of prayer by asserting that we can do more than pray after we have prayed, but we cannot do more than pray until we have prayed.18 Prioritizing means ranking the value of something higher than other things. Is it possible that your prayer life suffers because something else ranks too high with you? Does your social life crowd out prayer? Is the use of electronic media hindering your prayers? Media may do so by absorbing too much precious time while your prayer life languishes; it may also fill your mind with worldly thoughts so that your prayers become shallow, cold, self-centered, materialistic, or unmotivated, and thus infrequent. Prioritizing prayer requires putting other activities in a lower place to make room for communion with God.

In the strength of Christ, strive to avoid prayerless praying, whether in private devotions or public prayers. Even if your prayers seem lifeless, do not stop praying. Dullness may be beyond your immediate ability to overcome, but refusing to pray at all is the fruit of presumption, self-sufficiency, and slothfulness.

Cultivate Your Heart

The Puritans taught that we must prepare our hearts to seek the Lord. Above all, prayerful praying requires the cultivation of a sincere heart. To pray with your mouth what is not truly in your heart is hypocrisy — unless you are confessing the coldness of your heart and crying out for heart-warming grace. Thomas Brooks touched on the importance of Spirit-worked sincerity and transparency in prayer: “God looks not at the elegancy of your prayers, to see how neat they are; nor yet at the geometry of your prayers to see how long they are; . . . but at the sincerity of your prayers, how hearty they are. . . . Prayer is only lovely and weighty, as the heart is in it. . . . God hears no more than the heart speaks.”19

If we want God to accept our prayers, then our prayers must be driven by attitudes formed in us by the Spirit of Christ. The more he forms us, the more our prayers will take hold of God and please him. These attitudes include a heart of faith toward God (Mark 11:24), repentance from sin (Psalm 66:18), fervent and holy desire (James 5:16), humility before God (Luke 18:13), boldness in Christ (Hebrews 4:16), love and forgiveness for other people (Mark 11:25), and overflowing gratitude for God’s goodness (Philippians 4:6).

Second, prayerful praying involves the cultivation of a childlike heart where we pray to “our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). Thomas Manton (1620–1677) said, “A word from a child moves the father more than an orator can move all his hearers.”20 God is pleased by simple trust, love, and reverence. To come as a child to the Father is to honor him in the highest degree and to engage his deepest compassion.

Finally, prayerful praying requires the cultivation of a word-saturated heart. One reason our prayer lives droop is because we have neglected the Holy Scriptures. Prayer is a two-way conversation; we must listen to God, not just speak to him. We do so by filling our minds with the Bible, for the Bible is God’s voice in written form. Our Lord Jesus declared in John 15:7, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” Every Scripture passage is fuel for burning prayers. As Thomas Manton wrote, “One good way to get comfort is to plead the promise of God in prayer. . . . Show him his handwriting; God is tender of his word.”21

Some years ago, an elderly friend brought me a spiritual letter from my father, who passed from the pulpit to glory in 1993. My father wrote the letter in the 1950s, shortly after his conversion. “I thought you might like to have this,” the friend said. “Like to?” I said, “I would love to have this.” I sat down and read it immediately with great pleasure; it was so personal because it was my father’s handwriting. How do you think your Father in heaven feels when you show him his own handwriting in prayer?

Matthew Henry once said in reference to Scripture reading, “Hear [God] speaking to you, and have an eye to that in every thing you say to him; as when you write an answer to a letter of business, you lay it before you.”22

Remain Constant

“Pray without ceasing,” wrote Paul to the Thessalonian church (1 Thessalonians 5:17). God desires his children to cultivate a spirit, habit, and lifestyle of prayerfulness; this command refers more to praying with your hat on and eyes open than to petitioning in private. Thomas Brooks described such constant prayer: “A man must always pray habitually, though not actually; he must have his heart in a praying disposition in all estates and conditions, in prosperity and adversity, in health and sickness, in strength and weakness, in wealth and wants, in life and death.”23

Whatever our calling or trade, prayer is our work throughout the day (Romans 12:12; Colossians 4:2). We fulfill this mandate in several ways. First, we maintain an attitude of prayer throughout the day. As Matthew Henry exhorted, we should seek to begin, spend, and close the day with God.24 Or as another man once said, when we finish talking to God, we don’t “hang up” on him but rather keep the line open. We live moment by moment in the presence of God and should be conscious of it.

Second, if we are to pray without ceasing, we can establish set times of prayer in our daily schedules. The Puritans taught us that we should begin and end each day with prayer, marinate family worship in prayer, and use mealtimes to give thanks and lift up our needs.

Third, we strive to be alert and ready to pray at a moment’s notice. Maintain a state of spiritual alertness (Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2), like the soldier in the squad who carries the radio and is always ready to call in support. Whenever you feel the least impulse to pray or see a need to pray, do so. Even if you are in the midst of a difficult job that demands concentration, obey the impulse to pray (in a manner that is safe and wise). The impulse may be a groaning of the Spirit, and we must not regard the Spirit’s promptings as intrusions. Train yourself to pray inwardly while the outward man is busy with daily tasks.

Embrace Discipline

Prayerful prayer also involves discipline, requiring time, perseverance, and organization. First, disciplined prayer involves a significant investment of time. Theodosia Alleine, the wife of Joseph Alleine, wrote about her husband’s time commitment to prayer:

All the time of his health, he did rise constantly at or before four of the clock, and on the Sabbath sooner, if he did wake. He would be much troubled if he heard smiths, or shoemakers, or such tradesmen, at work at their trades, before he was in his duties with God; saying to me often, “Oh, how this noise shames me! Doth not my Master deserve more than theirs?” From four till eight he spent in prayer, holy contemplations, and singing of psalms, which he much delighted in, and did daily practice alone, as well as in his family.25

Disciplined prayer also requires perseverance. It is easy to pray when you are like a sailboat gliding forward in a favoring wind. But also pray when you are like an icebreaker smashing your way through an arctic sea one foot at a time. George Swinnock (1627–1673) said, “Wrestle with God . . . bending and straining every joint of the new man in the soul, that they may all help to prevail with God.”26

Finally, disciplined prayer requires organization. Paul modeled regular intercession for many different churches and Christians, including some that he had never met (Colossians 1:9; 2:1). It would have been impossible for Paul to do so without some system for intercession. In his epistles, he commands Christians to offer “supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:18) and for all men (1 Timothy 2:1). Without a method of prayer, we will hardly pray for anyone on a regular basis.

Organize your petitions by some system or list. Any system is better than none. Remember that you can adapt it over time. It may not seem very spiritual to use a prayer list, but it is eminently practical. Be reasonable and do not overburden yourself, but discipline yourself to pray much for your own church and other churches, for missions, and for many specific people. Praying may be your most valuable ministry.27

Taking Hold of God

Deep within us, we know that it is impossible to overcome prayerlessness by our own strength. The sacredness, gift, and power of prayer are far above human means. God’s grace is necessary for prayerful praying. Yet grace does not make us passively wait for God to grant it. Grace moves us to seek the Lord. As David sings in Psalm 25:1, “To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (see also Psalms 86:4; 143:8). Direct your mind and affections toward our covenant God in Christ, and draw near to his throne of grace (Colossians 3:1–2).

Just as Jacob wrestled with the angel of the Lord and would not let him go until he blessed him (Genesis 32:26), so we must take hold of God until he blesses us. The prophet Isaiah lamented the prayerlessness of his own generation, saying, “There is no one who calls upon your name, who rouses himself to take hold of you” (Isaiah 64:7). Will you stir yourself up to take hold of God today? Doing so will require dependence and faith.

Depend on God

Taking hold of God requires dependence on the Holy Spirit. We depend completely on the Holy Spirit, for we can do nothing without Christ working through his Spirit (John 15:5). As Anthony Burgess observed, “The heart is but as so much dull earth, till the Spirit of God inflame thee; thy prayer is a body without a soul, if there be words but not God’s Spirit in the heart.”28 David Clarkson (1622–1686) also explained the work of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s prayer life: the Spirit “helps the weakness and infirmity of spiritual habits and principles, and draws them out into vigorous exercise. He helps the soul to approach with confidence, and yet with reverence; with filial fear, and yet with an emboldened faith; with zeal and importunity, and yet with humble submission; with lively hope, and yet with self-denial.”29

Second, taking hold of God requires dependence on the mediation of Christ. How can sinners take hold of God except in Jesus Christ? In the book of Hebrews, we read that it is only by Christ’s blood and intercession as our High Priest that we can boldly “enter the holy places” — that is, the place where God dwells on high (Hebrews 10:19–22). Thus, all our prayers must be offered by faith in Christ. Through him we have access to the Father, for Christ alone is the mediator between God and men (Ephesians 2:18; 1 Timothy 2:5). Furthermore, the adoption we have received in union with Christ is the foundation of our prayers.30

George Downame (1563–1634) wrote that we must ask “how it cometh to pass that man being stained and polluted with sin, and by reason thereof an enemy of God, should have any access to God, or be admitted to any speech with him, who is most just and terrible, a consuming fire, and hating all iniquity with perfect hatred.” He then answers his own question, saying, “Therefore of necessity a mediator was to come between God and man, who reconciling us unto God, and covering our imperfections, might make both our persons and our prayers acceptable under God.”31

Pray with Faith

Some fruits of living faith are reverence, fervency, confidence, Trinitarian piety, and the action of laying hold on divine promises.

First, the fruit of living faith is reverence. Only the Holy Spirit can work in us true reverence in prayer. As Thomas Boston (1676–1732) wrote, the Holy Spirit works in us “a holy reverence of God, to whom we pray, which is necessary in acceptable prayer. By this view he strikes us with a holy dread and awe of the majesty of God.”32

Second, the fruit of living faith is fervency. William Gurnall (1616–1679) exhorted, “Furnish thyself with arguments from the promises to enforce thy prayers and make them prevalent with God. The promises are the ground of faith, and faith when strengthened will make thee fervent, and such fervency ever speeds and returns with victory out of the field of prayer. . . . The mightier any is in the word, the more mighty he will be in prayer.”33

Third, the fruit of living faith is confidence. Joseph Hall (1574–1656) wrote, “Good prayers never come weeping home. I am sure I shall receive either what I ask or what I should ask.”34 The Holy Spirit is the ground of this confidence: “This is it that makes prayer an ease to a troubled heart, the Spirit exciting in us holy confidence in God as a Father.”35

Fourth, the fruit of living faith is Trinitarian piety. John Owen (1616–1683) advised Christians to commune with each person in the triune God in our prayers.36 He did so based on Paul’s benediction recorded in 2 Corinthians 13:14: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” In your prayer life, pursue a deeper and more experiential knowledge of the riches of grace in Christ’s person and work, the glory of the electing and adopting love of the Father, and the comfort of fellowship with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

In this way, you will pray not just for God’s benefits but for God himself, which will serve as a blessing both for you and for your church. Your sense of God-intimacy and God-dependency, experientially known in private, will spill over into your public life, so that you will also, by the Spirit’s grace, encourage other people to depend on God and seek intimate communion with him.

Fifth, the fruit of living faith is laying hold of divine promises. John Trapp (1601–1669) wrote, “Promises must be prayed over. God loves to be burdened with, and to be importuned in, his own words; to be sued upon his own bond. Prayer is a putting God’s promises into suit. And it is no arrogancy nor presumption, to burden God, as it were, with his promise. . . . Such prayers will be nigh the Lord day and night (1 Kings 8:59), he can as little deny them, as deny himself.”37 Similarly, Gurnall observed, “Prayer is nothing but the promise reversed, or God’s word formed into an argument, and retorted by faith upon God again.”38

Joys That Yet Await You

Prayer can be difficult and demanding work. Sometimes we get on our knees, then rise, only to realize we haven’t truly prayed in our prayer. So, we fall back on our knees again, praying to pray. At other times, prayer is amazing, glorious, delightful work. I suppose that there is scarcely a believer on earth who cannot identify with these extremes. Prayerful prayer will sometimes lead you to profound sadness as you see your wretched sinfulness, but it will also lead you to profound joy when you “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge” and are “filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:19).

The Puritans provide a rather ideal standard for true prayer. We certainly have much to learn from them. Learning to truly pray in our prayers is not just a matter of deciding to work harder or to find a new method in prayer. It involves trials, warfare, and the enabling Spirit of God. It is a process of growth inseparable from our sanctification, and thus unending until we reach glory.

Ask God to make you a praying Elijah who knows what it means to battle unbelief and despair, even as you strive to grow in prayer and grateful communion with God. Isn’t it interesting that James presents Elijah in James 5:17 as a person “with a nature like ours”? He “prayed in his praying,” but he could also despair in his despairing (1 Kings 19:4). When you hit low spots in your spiritual life, remember the tenderness of God toward Elijah. Sometimes the answer to depression, as it was for the prophet, is not more effort, but a good meal and a night’s sleep so that you can resume the battle tomorrow.

Press on by faith in Jesus Christ, dear believer. If you have fallen, get back up. If you stand, beware lest you fall (1 Corinthians 10:12). No matter where you are in your spiritual journey, the greatest danger is to stop and become complacent. Press on toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3:14). Since the essence of prayer is communion with God, there are riches you have not yet discovered, depths you have not reached, and joys that yet await you.

Portions of this essay are adapted from Joel R. Beeke, How Can I Cultivate Private Prayer? (Cultivating Biblical Godliness) (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2016) and Joel R. Beeke, “Prayerful Praying Today,” in Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer, ed. Joel R. Beeke and Brian G. Najapfour (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 223–40. Used with permission. 

See the marginal note in the King James Version. 

Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton (London: James Nisbet, 1870), 17:496. 

Anthony Burgess, CXLV Expository Sermons Upon the Whole 17th Chapter of the Gospel According to John: Or, Christ’s Prayer Before His Passion Explicated, and Both Practically and Polemically Improved (London: Abraham Miller, 1656), 5. 

John Bunyan, Prayer (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1989), 13. 

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Unpublished Sermons on the Covenant of Grace, ed. Allan Harman (Fearn, Ross-shire, UK: Christian Focus, 2002), 199–200. 

Matthew Henry, The Complete Works of the Rev. Matthew Henry (Edinburgh, London, and Glasgow: A Fullarton, 1857), 1:228. 

Thomas Brooks, The Works of Thomas Brooks, ed. Alexander B. Grosart (1861–1867; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2001), 2:369. 

James Ussher, A Body of Divinity: Or, the Sum and Substance of Christian Religion (London: Nathaniel Ranew and Jonathan Robinson, 1677), 335. 

Henry, Complete Works, 1:205. 

Ussher, Body of Divinity, 335. Parenthetical Scripture references omitted. 

William Bridge, A Lifting Up for the Downcast (1648; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), 55. 

Burgess, Expository Sermons, 6. 

Thomas Watson, A Divine Cordial (Wilmington, DE: Sovereign Grace, 1972), 18. 

John Bunyan, The Works of John Bunyan, ed. George Offor (1854; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1991), 1:65. 

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1991), 4:1152. 

Ussher, Body of Divinity, 335. Archaic spelling and capitalization updated; in-text Scripture references omitted. 

I.D.E. Thomas, comp., The Golden Treasury of Puritan Quotations (Chicago: Moody, 1975), 210. 

Brooks, Works, 2:256–57. 

Manton, Complete Works, 1:28. 

Manton, Complete Works, 6:242. 

Henry, Complete Works, 1:204. 

Thomas Brooks, Heaven on Earth (1654; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2022), 48. 

Henry, Complete Works, 1:198–247. 

Richard Baxter, Theodosia Alleine, et al., The Life and Letters of Joseph Alleine (n.d.; repr., Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2003), 106. Italics original; spelling updated. 

George Swinnock, Heaven and Hell Epitomised, in The Works of George Swinnock (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1868), 3:303. 

For Matthew Henry’s method for personal prayer, see Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012), 885; Henry, Complete Works, 2:4–12. 

Burgess, Expository Sermons, 5. 

David Clarkson, The Practical Works of David Clarkson (Edinburgh: James Nichol, 1864), 1:209–10. 

See Joel R. Beeke, “Thomas Boston on Praying to Our Father,” in Taking Hold of God: Reformed and Puritan Perspectives on Prayer, ed. Joel R. Beeke and Brian G. Najapfour (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2011), 161–73. 

George Downame, A Godly and Learned Treatise of Prayer (Cambridge: Roger Daniel, 1640), 68–69. Archaic spelling modernized. 

Thomas Boston, The Complete Works of the Late Rev. Thomas Boston, Ettrick (Stoke-on-Trent, UK: Tentmaker, 2002), 11:62. In-text Scripture reference omitted. 

William Gurnall, The Christian in Complete Armour (1662–1665; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2002), 2:420–21. 

Cited in John Blanchard, comp., The Complete Gathered Gold (Darlington, UK: Evangelical Press, 2006), 455. 

Boston, Complete Works, 11:62. 

John Owen, “Of Communion with God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” in The Works of John Owen (1850–1853; repr., Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1965–1968), 2:1–274. See also John Owen, Communion with the Triune God, ed. Kelly M. Kapic and Justin Taylor (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007). 

John Trapp, A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments, ed. W. Hugh Martin (London: Richard D. Dickinson, 1867), 1:120–21. 

Gurnall, Christian in Complete Armour, 2:88. 

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