What it is to Pray with the understanding

by John Bunyan, modernized; scripture quotations from HCSB

1. What it is to pray.
2. What it is to pray with the Spirit.
3. What it is to pray with the Spirit and with the understanding.
4.  Use and application

And now to the next thing: what it is to pray with the Spirit and with the understanding also.

Paul puts a clear distinction between praying with the Spirit, and praying with the Spirit and understanding: therefore when he says, “he will pray with the Spirit,” he adds, “and I will pray with the understanding ALSO.”

This distinction was occasioned through the Corinthians not observing that it was their duty to do what they did to the edification of themselves and others too: instead, they did it for their own praise, or so I judge; for many of them having extraordinary gifts, such as speaking in diverse tongues and so on, were more concerned with those mighty gifts than they were with edifying their brothers.  This is why Paul wrote this chapter to them, to let them understand that, although extraordinary gifts were excellent, to do what they did to the edification of the church was more excellent. So Paul writes, “if I pray in another language, my spirit prays, but my understanding,” and also the understanding of others, “is unfruitful” (I Cor 14:3, 4, 12, 19, 24, 25. Read the scope of the whole chapter). Therefore,  he says, “I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with my understanding.”

It is expedient then that the understanding should be occupied in prayer, as well as the heart and mouth: “I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with my understanding.” The things which are done with understanding are done more effectually, sensibly, and heartily, as I will show, than the things which are done without it.  Which is what made Paul pray for the Colossians, that God would fill them “with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding,” (Col 1:9).  And also for the Ephesians, that God would give unto them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him” (Eph 1:17). And for the Philippians, that God would make them abound “in knowledge and every kind of discernment” (Phil 1:9). An appropriate understanding is useful in everything we attempt, whether civil or spiritual; and therefore it must be desired by all those who would be a praying people.  In my speaking to this, I shall show you what it is to pray with understanding.

“Understanding” refers both to speaking in our native language, and also to understanding experimentally. It is the latter that is addressed here: for the making of right prayers, there must be a good or spiritual understanding in all them who pray to God.

1. Understanding the want of the things which we are to pray for.

First, to pray with understanding, is to pray as being instructed by the Spirit in the understanding of the want of those things which the soul is to pray for. Although a man is never so much in need of pardon of sin and deliverance from wrath to come, yet if he doesn’t understand this, he will either not desire them at all, or else be so cold and lukewarm in his desires after them, that God will even loathe his frame of spirit in asking for such things. That it how it was with the church of the Laodiceans; they lacked knowledge or spiritual understanding—they didn’t know they were poor, wretched, blind, and naked. This is why they, and all their services, were so loathsome to Christ that he threatens to spew them out of his mouth (Rev 3:16, 17). Men without understanding may say the same words in prayer as others do, but if there is an understanding in the one, and no understanding in the other, there is—oh, there is a mighty difference in speaking the very same words! One is speaking from a spiritual understanding of those things that he desires in his words, and the other has only words, and that is all.

2. Understanding sees in God a readiness to give what we need.

Second. Spiritual understanding sees in the heart of God a readiness and willingness to give those things to the soul that it needs. David by this could guess at the very thoughts of God towards him (Psa 40:5). And also the woman of Canaan: despite the rough bearing of Christ, she did by faith and a right understanding discern tenderness and willingness in his heart to save, which caused her to be adamant and earnest, even restless, until she did laid hold of the mercy she needed (Matt 15:22-28).

And after understanding the willingness that is in the heart of God to save sinners, there is nothing that will press the soul more to seek after God, and to cry for pardon! If a man should see a pearl worth an hundred pounds lie in a ditch, but he didn’t understood not the value of it, he would lightly pass it by—but once he got knowledge about it, he would risk his very neck for it. So it is with souls regarding the things of God: if a man once gets an understanding of the worth of them, then his heart, even more, the very strength of his soul, runs after them, and he will never leave crying till he have them. The two blind men in the gospel, because they certainly knew that Jesus, who was going by, was both able and willing to heal their infirmities: therefore they cried, and the more they were rebuked, the more they cried (Matt 20:29- 31).

3. Understanding is how we discover how the soul comes to God.

Third. As the understanding is spiritually enlightened, this is how the way, as we have said, is discovered, by which the soul should come unto God—which gives great encouragement unto it.  It is different with a poor soul, as with one who has a work to do, and if it isn’t done, the danger is great.  If it is done, so is the advantage. But the poor soul knows not how to begin, nor how to proceed; and so, through discouragement, lets all alone, and runs the hazard.

4. Understanding knows what great promises we have.

Fourth. The enlightened understanding sees largeness enough in the promises to encourage it to pray; which still adds to it strength to strength.  As when men promise various things to all that will come for them, it is great encouragement to those that know what promises are made, to come and ask for them.

5. Understanding gives us appropriate arguments to use in prayer.

Fifth. Once the understanding is enlightened, the way is open for the soul to come to God with suitable arguments—sometimes in a way of expostulation, as Jacob (Gen 32:9), and sometimes in way of supplication.  Yet not in a merely verbal way, but even from the heart there is forced by the Spirit, through the understanding, the effectual arguments which move the heart of God. When Ephraim gets a right understanding of his own unseemly behavior towards the Lord, then he begins to moan of himself (Jer 31:18-20). And in his moaning, he uses such arguments with the Lord that it affects his heart, draws out forgiveness, and makes Ephraim pleasant in his eyes through Jesus Christ our Lord:

I have heard Ephraim moaning, “You disciplined me, and I have been disciplined like an untrained calf. Restore me, and I will return, for you, LORD, are my God.  After I returned, I repented; After I was instructed, I struck my thigh in grief. I was ashamed and humiliated because I bore the disgrace of my youth.”

These are Ephraim’s complaints and bemoanings of himself; at which the Lord breaks forth into these heart-melting expressions, saying, “Isn’t Ephraim a precious son to Me, a delightful child? Whenever I speak against him, I certainly still think about him. Therefore, My inner being yearns for him; I will truly have compassion on him.” Thus, you see, that as it is required to pray with the Spirit, it is also required to pray with the understanding also.

And to illustrate what hath been spoken by a comparison: consider that there should come two beggars at your door. One is a poor, lame, wounded, and almost starved creature, the other is a healthful lusty person.  These two use the same words in their begging; the one says he is almost starved, so does the other: but yet the man that is indeed the poor, lame, or maimed person, he speaks with more sense, passion, and understanding of the misery that is mentioned in their begging than the other can do; and it is clear more by his affectionate speaking, his despairing of himself. His pain and poverty make him speak more in a spirit of lamentation than the other, and he will be pitied sooner than the other, by all those that have the least dram of natural affection or pity.

So it is with God: there are some who go out of custom and formality to pray; and there are others who go in the bitterness of their spirits. One who prays out of bare notion and naked knowledge; the other has his words ripped from him by the anguish of his soul. Surely that is the man that God will look at, “even to him that is poor,” “one who is humble, submissive in spirit, and trembles at My word” (Isa 66:2).

6. Understanding teaches the matter and manner of prayer.

Sixth. An understanding well enlightened is of admirable use also, both as to the matter and manner of prayer. He that has his understanding well exercised, able to discern between good and evil, and in it placed a conviction either of the misery of man, or the mercy of God—that soul has 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 out, even so he that has his understanding opened by the Spirit doesn’t need to be taught of other men’s prayers, as  if he cannot pray without them. The present sense, passion, and pressure that lies upon his spirit provokes him to groan out his request unto the Lord. When David had the pains of hell catching hold on him, and the sorrows of hell circling around him, he needs not a bishop in a robe to teach him to say, “Yahweh, save me!” (Psa 116:3, 4). And no need to look into a book, to teach him in a form to pour out his heart before God. It is the nature of the heart of sick men, in their pain and sickness, to vent itself for ease, by loud groans and complainings to all nearby. Thus it was with David, in Psalm 38:1-12. And thus, blessed be the Lord, it is with them that are endued with the grace of God.

7. Understanding teaches the duty of prayer.

Seventh. It is necessary that there be an enlightened understanding in order that the soul is kept in a continuation of the duty of prayer. The people of God are not ignorant how many wiles, tricks, and temptations the devil possesses to make a poor soul, who is truly willing to have the Lord Jesus Christ, upon Christ’s terms too—to tempt that soul to be tired of seeking the face of God, and to think that God is not willing to have mercy on such a one as him. “Yes,” Satan says, “you may pray indeed, but you will not prevail.  You see your heart is hard, cold, dull, and dread; you do not pray with the Spirit, you do not pray in earnest, your thoughts are running away after other things, while you pretend to pray to God.  Away, hypocrite, give up; it is pointless to even continue trying!”  Here, now—if the soul isn’t well informed in its understanding, it will presently cry out, “The LORD has abandoned me; The Lord has forgotten me!” (Isa 49:14). But the soul that is rightly informed and enlightened says, well, I will seek the Lord, and wait; I will not leave off, though the Lord keep silence, and speak not one word of comfort (Isa 40:27). He loved Jacob dearly, and yet he made him wrestle before he had the blessing (Gen 32:25-27). Seeming delays in God are no tokens of his displeasure; he may hide his face from his dearest saints (Isa 8:17). He loves to keep his people praying, and to find them ever knocking at the gate of heaven; it may be, says the soul, the Lord tries me, or he loves to hear me groan out my condition before him.

The woman of Canaan would not take Christ’s apparent denials for real ones; she knew the Lord was gracious, and the Lord will avenge his people, though he bear long with them (Luke 18:1- 6). The Lord has waited longer on me than I have waited upon him; and thus it was with David, “I waited patiently,” says he; that is, it was long before the Lord answered me, though at the last “he turned to me and heard my cry” (Psa 40:1). And the most excellent remedy for this is an understanding well-informed and enlightened. How unfortunate, how many poor souls are there in the world, who truly fear the Lord, yet, because they are not well informed in their understanding, are often ready to give up all for lost, almost every time they encounter a trick and temptation of Satan! The Lord pity them, and help them to “pray with the Spirit, and with the understanding also!”

Much of my own experience I could add; when I have been in my fits of agony of spirit, I have been strongly persuaded to quit, and to seek the Lord no longer; but, being made to understand what great sinners the Lord has 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 to! This made me, through the assistance of his Holy Spirit, to cleave to him, to hang upon him, and yet to cry, although for the present he made no answer. The Lord help all his poor, tempted, and afflicted people to do the same, and to continue, even 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.”

Queries answered

And now to answer a query or two, and so to pass on to the next thing.

Q1. But what would you have us poor creatures to do that cannot tell how to pray? The Lord knows I know not either how to pray, or what to pray for.
A. Poor heart! You cannot, you complain, pray. Can you see your misery? Has God showed you that you are by nature under the curse of his law? If so, make no mistake, I know you do groan, most bitterly. I am persuaded you can scarcely be found doing anything in your calling, except prayer breaks from your heart.  Haven’t your groans gone up to heaven from every corner of your house? (Romans 8:26).  I know it is so, and so also your own sorrowful heart witnesses your tears, your forgetfullness of your calling, and everything else.  Isn’t your heart so full of desires of the things of another world, that many times you even forget the things of this world?  I beg you to read this scripture, Job 23:12:

I have not departed from the commands of His lips; I have treasured the words of His mouth more than my daily food.

Q2. Yea, but when I go into secret, and intend to pour out my soul before God, I can scarce say anything at all.
A. Ah! Sweet soul! It is not your words that God so much regards, as if he will not notice you unless you come before Him with some eloquent oration. His eye is on the brokenness of your heart; and that it is that makes the inmost being of the Lord to run over. “You will not despise a broken and humbled heart” (Psa 51:17).

The stopping of your words may arise from too much trouble in your heart. David was so troubled sometimes, that he could not even speak (Psa 77:3, 4). But this may comfort all such sorrowful hearts as yours, that though you cannot through the anguish of your spirit speak much, yet the Holy Spirit stirs up in your heart groans and sighs, so much the more passionate—when the mouth is hindered, yet the spirit is not. Moses made heaven ring again with his prayers, although (that we read of) not one word came out of his mouth (Exo 14:15). Neverthless…

If you would more fully express yourself before the Lord, study, 1) your filthy estate; 2) God’s promises; 3) the heart of Christ. This you may know and discern by 1) His condescension and bloodshed. 2) By the mercy He extended to great sinners before, and plead your own vileness, by way of moaning; Christ’s blood by way of expostulation; and in your prayers, let the mercy that he has extended to other great sinners, together with his rich promises of grace, be much upon your heart.

Yet let me counsel you, be careful that you do not content yourself with words, that you do not think that God looks only at them!  However, whether your words are few or many, let your heart go with them, and then you shall seek Him, and find Him, when you seek Him with your whole heart (Jer 29:13).

Objection. But though you have seemed to speak against any other way of praying but by the Spirit, yet here you yourself can give direction how to pray.
A. We ought to prompt one another forward to prayer, though we ought not to make for each other forms of prayer. To exhort to pray with Christian direction is one thing, and to make stinted forms for the tying up the Spirit of God to them is another thing. Paul gives them no form to pray, yet he directs them to pray (Eph 6:18; Rom 15:30-32). Therefore, no one can conclude that because we are permitted to give instructions and directions to pray, that therefore it is lawful to make for each other forms of prayer.

Object. But if we do not use forms of prayer, how shall we teach our children to pray?
A. I believe that men go the wrong way to teach their children to pray, by trying so soon to teach them a set form of words, as is the common use of poor creatures to do.

For to me it seems to be a better way for people often to tell their children what cursed creatures they are, and how they are under the wrath of God by reason of original and actual sin; also to tell them the nature of God’s wrath, and the duration of the misery; which if they conscientiously do, their children would learn to pray sooner than they do. The way that men learn to pray is by conviction for sin; and this is the way to make our sweet babes do so too. But the alternative—to busily teach children forms of prayer, before they know any thing else—is the way to make them cursed hypocrites, and to puff them up with pride. Therefore, teach your children to know their wretched state and condition.  Tell them of hell-fire and their sins, of damnation, and salvation: the way to escape the one, and to enjoy the other, if you know it yourselves, and this will make tears run down your sweet babes’ eyes, and hearty groans flow from their hearts; and then also you may tell them to whom they should pray, and through whom they should pray; you may tell them also of God’s promises, and his former grace extended to sinners, according to the word.

Ah! Poor sweet babes, may the Lord open their eyes, and make them holy Christians. David says, “Come, children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of the LORD. ” (Psa 34:11). He doesn’t say, I will muzzle you up in a form of prayer; but “I will teach you the fear of the Lord”; which is to see their sad states by nature, and to be instructed in the truth of the gospel, which, through the Spirit, begets prayer in every one that in truth learns it. And the more you teach them this, the more will their hearts run out to God in prayer. God never accounted Paul a praying man—until he was a convinced and converted man; no more will it be with any else (Acts 9:11).

Object. But we find that the disciples desired that Christ would teach them to pray, as John also taught his disciples; and that thereupon he taught them that form called the LORD’S PRAYER.
A. To be taught by Christ, is that which not only they, but we also desire; and seeing he is not here in his person to teach us, the Lord teaches us by his Word and Spirit; for the Spirit it is what he said he would send to supply in his room when he went away, as it is (John 14:16; 16:7).

As to that called a form, I cannot think that Christ intended it as a stinted form of prayer: 1) He himself recited it down in different ways, as you can see if you compare Matthew 6 and Luke 11. If he had intended it as a set form, it must not have been written down as such, for a set form is so many words and no more. 2) We do not find that the apostles ever observed it as such, nor did they admonish others so to do. Search all their epistles, yet surely they, both for knowledge to discern and faithfulness to practice, were as eminent as any man ever since in the world who might impose it.

But, in a word, Christ by those words, “Our Father…,” does give his people what rules they should observe in their prayers to God. 1) That they should pray in faith, 2) to God in the heavens, 3) for such things as are according to his will, and so on. “Pray like this,” or after this manner.

Object. But Christ bids pray for the Spirit; this implieth that men without the Spirit may notwithstanding pray and be heard. (See Luke 11:9-13).
A. The speech of Christ there is directed to his own (verse 1). Christ’s telling of them that God would give his Holy Spirit to them that ask him, should be understood of giving more of the Holy Spirit; for he is speaking to the disciples, who had a measure of the Spirit already; for he says, “when you pray, say, Our Father,” (verse 2) I say to you (verse 8). And I say to you, (verse 9) “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him?” (verse 13). Christians ought to pray for the Spirit, that is, for more of it, though God has endued them with it already.

Quest. Then would you have none pray but those that know they are the disciples of Christ?
A. Yes.

Let every soul that would be saved pour out itself to God, though it cannot through temptation conclude itself a child of God.

I know if the grace of God be in you, it will be as natural to you to groan out your condition, as it is for a sucking child to cry for the breast. Prayer is one of the first things that reveals a man to be a Christian (Acts 9:12). But yet if it is right, it is such prayer as this: 1) to desire God in Christ, for himself, for his holiness, love, wisdom, and glory. For right prayer, as it runs only to God through Christ, so it centers in him, and in him alone. “Who do I have in heaven but You? And I desire nothing on earth,” long for, or seek after, “but you” (Psa 73:25). 2) That the soul might enjoy continually communion with him, both here and hereafter. “But I will see Your face in righteousness; when I awake, I will be satisfied with Your presence,” (Psa 17:15). “We groan in this body,”etc. (II Cor 5:2). 3) Right prayer is accompanied with a continual working toward the thing which is prayed for. “I wait for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning” (Psa 130:6). “I will arise now and go about the city, through the streets and the plazas. I will seek the one I love.” (Song 3:2). Notice, I beg you: there are two things that provoke to prayer. The one is a detestation of sin, and the things of this life; the other is a longing desire after communion with God, in a holy and undefiled state and inheritance. Compare but this one thing with most of the prayers that are made by men, and you shall find them but mock prayers, and the breathings of an abominable spirit; for even the most of men either do pray at all, or else only endeavour to mock God and the world by praying; for do but compare their prayer and the course of their lives, and you may easily see that the thing which is included in their prayer is the thing least looked after by their lives. Oh, sad hypocrites!

Thus have I briefly showed you, FIRST, What prayer is; SECOND, What it is to pray with the Spirit; THIRD, What it is to pray with the Spirit, and with the understanding also.

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