When Isaac Watts speaks, I listen. He is the reason this blogs exists (see the About page) and could paraphrase psalms like no one else (i.e. O God Our Help In Ages Past, Jesus Shall Reign Wher’er the Sun). He gives his teaching on prayer in his book, A Guide to Prayer. Below I will quote his six rules for prayer and then offer a short summary at the end.
1. Strive to know God and yourself in light of the Scripture
Rule 1: Strive for a large acquaintance with all things that belong to religion, for there is nothing that relates to religion but may properly make some part of the content of our prayer. This is therefore the most general advice and the most universal rule that can be given in this case. Let us daily seek after a more extensive and a more affecting knowledge of God and of ourselves. A great acquaintance with God in his nature, in his persons, in his perfection, in his works and in his Word will supply us with abundant furniture for invocation, adoration, praise, thanksgiving and blessing; and will suggest to us many arguments in pleading with God for mercy. An intimate acquaintance with ourselves and a lively sense of our own frames of spirit, our needs, our sorrows and our joys will also supply us with proper thoughts for confession, for petition and for giving thanks.We should acquaint ourselves therefore with the Word of God in a great degree, for it is there he reveals himself to us and there he reveals us also to ourselves. Let the word of Christ dwell richly in you in all wisdom, that you may be furnished with petitions and praises.
2. Use methods to guide you
Rule 2: Let the nature of this duty of prayer, as divided into its several parts, be impressed upon our hearts and dwell in our memories. Let us always remember that it contains in it these several parts of worship, namely, invocation, adoration, confession, petition, pleading, profession (or self-resignation), thanksgiving, and blessing. That we may retain them better in our minds, they may be summed up in these four lines: Call upon God, adore, confess, Petition, plead, and then declare You are the Lord’s, give thanks and bless, And let Amen confirm the
Note: I teach my children to use the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication
3. Be specific
Rule 3. If you wish to be furnished with larger supplies of material, do not content yourselves merely with generalities, but go into particulars in your confessions, petitions and thanksgiving. Enter into a particular consideration of the attributes, the glories, the graces and the relations of God. Express your sins, your wants and your sorrows, with a particular sense of the mournful circumstances that attend them.
4. Read, discuss, and meditate first
Rule 4: In order to furnish our minds with content for: prayer, it is very convenient at solemn times of worship to read some part of the Word of God, or some spiritual treatise written by holy men; or to converse with fellow Christians about divine things; or to spend some time in recollection or meditation of things that belong to religion.
5. Read the prayers of the Bible, especially the Psalms
Rule 5: If after all we find our hearts very barren and hardly know how to frame a prayer before God of ourselves, it has often been useful to take a book in our hand which contains some spiritual meditations in a petitionary form, some devout reflections or excellent patterns of prayer: above all, the psalms of David, some of the prophecies of Isaiah, some chapters in the Gospels, or any of the Epistles.
6. Pray about your inability to pray
Rule 6: If you find your heart so very dry and unaffected with the things of religion that you can say nothing at all to God in prayer, that no divine content occurs to your thoughts, go and fall down humbly before God and tell him with a grievous complaint that you can say nothing to him, that you can do nothing but groan and cry before him. Go and tell him that without, his Spirit you cannot speak one expression, that without immediate assistance from his grace you cannot proceed in this worship.Tell him humbly that he must lose a morning or an evening sacrifice if he does not condescend to send down fire from heaven upon the altar.
I wanted to make an acronym for the points but found it difficult. So I give this summary:
- Know God and yourself through study and observation
- Be specific in everything
- Read the Psalms and other biblical prayers
Notice the first point is very broad, the second is more specific, and the third very specific. The final three points are helps for those who might struggle. I was especially helped by Watts’ encouragement for those with ‘dry and unaffected’ hearts to pray their weakness and inability. That leaves me with essentially no excuses. Even when I don’t feel like praying, I should be telling God that I don’t feel like praying and seeking his help.
You can read the ebook for free HERE. For related posts, see my post on Jesus Shall Reign HERE and my post on John Owen and prayer HERE.