So begins Charles Spurgeon’s very convicting chapter titled “The Preacher’s Private Prayer” in his famous book Lectures to My Students. In this chapter, Spurgeon answers the question “how should a preacher pray in his own private prayer time?” His answer is simple: we should pray as ministers. Here’s what that means (four observations):
First, It means that a preacher must be always praying, that is “he is not always in the act of prayer, but he is always in the spirit of it.”
To be in the spirit of prayer means, in part, to always be in the habit of praying. The best way to understand this concept of “the spirit of prayer” is to liken it to the modern-day smartphone/social media phenomenon. For most people who have smartphones, there is in the back of their minds this constant hum – a whirring of the subconscious that continually says “I need to check my phone for new notifications. I need to see if anybody liked my post. I need to see if so-and-so accepted my friend request.
If we could take that social media awareness – that background mental hum – and swap it out with a desire to pray instead of a desire to check notifications, we would understand this idea of the spirit of prayer. We may not always be engaged in the activity prayer, but we are always thinking about it and knowing that our heavenly Father is ready to hear us pray. Spurgeon said of this, “If you as ministers are not very prayerful, you are much to be pitied.”
Second, Praying as a minister means we look at private prayer as the best tool for sermon preparation.
Spurgeon notes that “your prayers will be your ableist assistants while your discourses are yet up on the anvil. While other men, like Esau, are hunting for their portion, you, by the aid of prayer, will find savory meat near at home and may say in truth what Jacob said falsely, ‘The Lord brought it to me.’”
Spurgeon taught that prayer itself is a mental exercise that helps us develop sermon ideas and deepens our sermon preparation. The very activity of prayer hones our mental edge and sharpens our focus – something we need in the business of Scripture exposition. He said, “the closet is the best study.”
But beyond those tangible helps of prayer, the spiritual benefits are far surpassing. We need God to go before us in the mulberry trees before we send our troops onto the field of battle.
Third, Praying as a minister means that we understand that prayer is the best exercise for improving sermon delivery. “Nothing can so gloriously fit you to preach as descending fresh from the mount of communion with God to speak with men.”
Spurgeon goes on to say, “The remembrance of his wrestlings at home will comforts the fettered preacher when in the pulpit: God will not desert us unless we have deserted him.”
Fourth, praying as a minister means we also value the benefits of prayer after we have preached. Prayer is not only preparative for preaching, but also restorative for our souls that have been poured out in the pulpit.
Preaching, if it is done right, is emotionally draining. Our preaching is like breaking the alabaster box of our hearts on the pulpit and filling our congregations with the sweet odor of impassioned exposition and gospel proclamation. Only God can restore that alabaster box when we commune with him. And then, the next time we stand before his people, we break it again. This we do over and over, week by week. Only communion with God can restore and revive our spirits.
As preachers, we need to pray after we preach because we are cognizant of our deficiencies and failures – we regret some things we said in sermons and we constantly fight the inner battle of knowing that many times we missed opportunities. James’ sobering warning constantly hums in the background of our minds “we shall receive the greater condemnation” – but prayer shores up our holy resolve to try again and pours oil into sermons wounded by our sinful humanity. We pray over our sermons after we have preached them because we want God to bless our scraps and feed the multitude.
Ministers prayer over their delivered sermons because, as Spurgeon said, “the minister who does not pray over his sermons must surely be a vain and conceited man. He acts as if he thought himself sufficient of himself, and therefore needed not to appeal to God.”
Spurgeon finishes this chapter by leaving us with two thoughts. First, he points us in the direction of notable men of God of yesteryear like Robert Murray M’Cheyne, David Brainerd, Henry Martyn, and Joseph Alleine. I heartily recommend you read about these men and let their biographies challenge you.
Regarding Alleine, Spurgeon relates a story by Alleine’s wife who said that when her husband was in good health, “he did rise constantly at or before four of the clock and would be much troubled if he heard smiths or other craftsmen at their trades before he was in communion with God; saying to me, ‘How this noise shames me. Does not my master deserve more than theirs?’ From four till eight he spent in prayer, holy contemplation, and singing psalms…”
Next, Spurgeon suggests that pastors take long holidays exclusively for seasons of prayer. He said that Isaac Ambrose “always set apart one month in the year for seclusion in a hut in a wood at Garstang.”
We can’t all rise at 4 A.M. (because most cannot manage the requisite earlier bedtime); neither can most of us take one month in 12 for a pray-cation. But we must ask ourselves two questions: “Would I do these things if I could?” and “am I maximizing my personal schedule to make private prayer my daily priority?”
I leave you with this quote from Spurgeon that really sums this chapter up well: “We not only ought to pray more, but we must. The fact is, the secret of all ministerial success lies in prevalence at the mercy-seat.”
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