By John Angell James, 1846


My dear friends,
Very little need be said to prove to you that the duty and privilege of prayer appertain to a believer in Christ, and occupy a high place among the obligations and delights of the child of God. The whole Bible teaches us the importance, necessity, and blessedness of this devout exercise of the soul. The Old Testament, as well as the New, proves that the spirit of true godliness is a spirit of prayer; and the Psalms of David will ever remain a manual of devotion for the believer, in which he will ever find some of the fittest words to pour out the breathings of his heart to God. What I design in this address, then, is not so much to state the obligations to prayer—as to enforce the cultivation of the SPIRIT of prayer.

In almost all occupations, acts, and habits, in which man can be engaged, and which recur at regularly returning periods—there are both spirit and form. In other words, the visible action, and the animating spirit embodied in that action; hence we speak of the spirit of patriotism, of commerce, of enterprise, of religion, of prayer—by which we mean a something beside the action and of which the action is but the expression. The idea is taken from the compound nature of man, where, beside the outward and visible form, there is the inward and invisible soul, by which the former lives, moves, and acts. Now as there may be the form of man without the spirit of man so there may be the form of any particular virtue or exercise, without the living animating spirit. The apostle speaks of some who have the "form of godliness, but deny the power [that is, the spirit] thereof" 2 Tim. 3:5. And what is said of godliness as a whole, may be said of that particular part of it which I am now considering.

I shall therefore state what I mean by "the spirit of prayer" and then enjoin its cultivation.

To the possession of this spirit, it is necessary we should have a large measure of those elements of which all true prayer is composed. There must be a deep, abiding, and impressive sense of need—for prayer is the language of 'felt necessity'. Our sense of our guilt, depravity, ignorance, weakness, folly, danger—must be lively, penetrating, and humbling. Without this sense of need, praying is only words and heartless forms—mere hypocritical pretense—a mimicry of devotion. While on the other hand, the more we have of 'felt necessity', the more we have of the spirit of prayer. Is this then our view of our state? Do we carry about with us continually an affecting consciousness of our numerous and pressing needs? Have we a sense of destitution, always humbling—and often afflictive and oppressive? Do we "groan, being burdened," under a sense of our guilt and weakness? The feeling of fullness and sufficiency, whether of strength or anything else, is the very opposite of the spirit of prayer. The church of Laodicea, which said "they were rich and increased with goods, and had need of nothing," could have had none of the element of prayer. Poverty of spirit is essential to this.

But connected with this, and arising out of it, there must be a conscious dependence upon Goda habit of regarding him, and looking to him as the source of supply—a feeling similar to what the Psalmist experienced when he said, "All my springs are in You." "My soul waits only upon God, for my expectation is from him." "I will lift up my eyes unto the hills, whence comes my help. My help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth." "With you is the fountain of life." A prevailing habit of dependence upon God, a consciousness that he is our only and all sufficient resource, is the very spirit of prayer.

To this must be added the exercise of faith and confidence in God through Christ. "He who comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is the rewarder of all those who diligently seek him." Without faith there can be no acceptable worship. "But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord." James 1:6, 7. We must believe in God's character as a God of love, delighting to dispense happiness to his creatures; as a God of wisdom and power, able and willing to do exceeding abundantly above all we can ask or think. We must believe that prayer is his own appointed method of approaching him, and that which is agreeable to him, welcome to him, and well-pleasing in his eyes. We must believe that we can never please him better than when we go with enlarged desires after spiritual blessings to his throne; nor do him greater honor than when we expect large communications of his grace. We must believe in Christ as the only way to the Father, and believe that by this way, and this alone—he is always accessible.

Such a faith is a necessary and an important element in the spirit of prayer. The stronger and more prevailing faith is, the more fervent and delightful will be our supplications at the throne of the heavenly majesty. By such views of God and Christ, we shall be irresistibly drawn to the footstool of divine mercy. Our lukewarmness will kindle into holy warmth under such persuasions of the inexhaustible bounty of God, and we shall feel the sweet attractions of his love—dissipating our fears, removing our reluctance, and engaging our confidence.

The spirit of adoption as a fruit of this faith, is also an element of the spirit of prayer. We are to come with boldness to the throne of grace. That is, we are to come in the spirit of a child, conscious that he is ever welcome to his Father in heaven. This is beautifully described by the apostle where he says, "You have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but you have received the spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father." Rom. 8:15. None can pray acceptably to God or comfortably to themselves, but in this spirit. Prayer is not the language of fear and dread—but of love and confidence. It is not a groaning extorted by the pressure of mere misery, like the howling of wild beasts, to which indeed the Lord likens the petitions of wicked men in their sorrows, where he says, "They have not cried unto me with their hearts, when they howled upon their beds"—but it is the breathing forth of our needs, with an affectionate confidence in him who alone can supply them. The more clearly we realize the character of God as our reconciled Father in Christ, and our relation to him as his children, the more we possess of the element of the spirit of prayer.

An habitual and trustful anticipation of all from God, which he has promised in his word, and authorized us to ask for, and encouraged us to expect—is another thing essential to this spirit. If God had given us no promises of blessings, no warrant to ask for them, no reason to expect them—prayer, if presented at all, could be offered at best but in painful uncertainty, in gloomy despondency, or in feeble and fluctuating hope. There might possibility be prayer, but there could not be the spirit of it, which certainly implies a cheerful expectation of being heard, answered, and blessed.

Such, then, are the elements of the spirit I am now enjoining, a deep sense of need; dependence upon God; a lively faith in God as the hearer and answerer of prayer, and in Christ as the medium; a spirit of adoption; a trustful expectation of such blessings from God, as are needful for our real welfare. In the absence of these things, however we may abound in the exercises and the forms of devotion—there can be no true prayer. These constitute the very soul of all piety toward God, and without which the best composed formularies and the most evangelical sentiments, are but as the statue or the corpse—without the animating mind. These are necessary to all acceptable petitions to God—and the more they are cultivated, the more we shall feel disposed and enabled to pray—these cherished in the heart will make every place an oratory, and produce not merely an occasional, but an abiding communion with God.

But another thing intended by the spirit of prayer, is a scriptural, intelligent, and deep conviction of the necessity, utility, and value of prayer—a state of mind the very opposite of that expressed by some of old, who said, "What profit should we have if we pray unto him." Job 21:15. The design and utility of prayer are altogether set aside or attempted to be set aside by worldly and wicked men, and that by various modes of false reasoning—and even lukewarm Christians are occasionally entangled in the sophisms and fallacies of such infidel objections. But a man in whom lives the spirit of prayer, is little troubled with such cavils and difficulties. He not only bows to the authority of God who has enjoined the exercise, but he sees too clearly the evidences of its utility, and has tasted too sweetly its rich advantages to stand in any doubt about the matter. He has proved the direct tendency of prayer—to improve his character, to lighten his cares, to alleviate his sorrows, to subdue his corruptions, and to obtain the blessings which he needed. And, therefore, by the results of his experience, as well as by the testimony of Scripture, and the consent of the church of God, he has learned to think highly of prayer.

It is in him a rooted conviction that it is not a vain thing thus to serve the Lord. He has learned to consider prayer the very soul of godliness, and the life of religion; and forms his estimate of the degree of piety collectively or individually possessed by others, by the degree of prayer to which they have attained. With him a man of piety means a man of prayer; and an eminent Christian is one, in whom is an eminent measure of the gift and grace of prayer.

The spirit of prayer means, a love to the exercise, and an habitual delight in it. It is that state of mind, at least resembles it, which in secular matters we call having a taste for anything; which in addition to the performance of the thing, implies a delight in the performing of it; which, though it may refer to a matter of duty, converts the doing of it into a privilege, and takes off the idea of compulsion, and hardship, and penance. Prayer is the delight of him in whom dwells the spirit of prayer. The closet is his beloved retreat, to which he is drawn by an attraction, like that which allures us to the society of a beloved and valued friend in his own home when he is alone. He does not go there to perform a penance, quiet his conscience, and get rid of a task which must be done, and the sooner it is done the better. No. He loves to go and disburden his mind, and express his needs, and breathe out his desires to God. He loves God, and his prayers are his communings with God.

It is to no other than God, supremely good and glorious, and to his God by covenant engagement, that his soul elevates herself in prayer—elevates not only her intellect, but her conscience, her affections, her sympathies—her whole immortal and ethereal self; not to speculate, but to adore—to commune—to breathe out his love, and desires, and longings, into the very bosom and heart of the High and Holy One.

It is to God through Christ, and by the Spirit's help that he speaks, and opens his lips in ingenuous confession, grateful thanksgiving, adoring praise, and strong supplication; and there also, while prostrate before the flowing fountain of life, he expands his heart to receive the vital streams of light and love, as they gush from their crystal and perennial source. Now this is joy, and peace, and sacred delight. True it is, that it is not always so. There are seasons when, through the chilling influence of the world, the power of unbelief, and the urgency of care, or the pressure of anxiety, he too much neglects his duty and slights his privilege; but still, just in proportion as the spirit of prayer is possessed by anyone, is there a love of prayer—and this love is the spirit of it.

Where this state of mind exists in a high degree, there is, in addition to the habit of prayer at stated seasons, a prevailing disposition to blend the exercise of prayer with all the occurrences of life, and to permeate and season the whole of our character and conduct with its blessed and sanctifying influence. The man in whom it dwells, gives himself to prayer; surrenders up his mind, and heart, and conscience, and life, to its guiding and controlling power. In one sense he literally "prays always," and "continues constant in prayer." The morning, and evening, and midday visit to the throne of grace do not satisfy him; nor even "the seven times a day" calling upon God. His heart, like a round ball which needs but the gentlest impulse to set it in motion, requires only the slightest incident to give it a direction toward God in the act of prayer. Is he going into any new situation of trial and of danger—he runs by prayer to God as his shield and shield. Does he foresee the coming storm of affliction—he places himself by prayer in the refuge provided. Has some premonition of approaching prosperity been granted him—he anticipates its ensnaring influence by fervent supplication. He thus watches unto prayer, looking around him, and before him, for the circumstances which render it necessary and important.

And in addition to this also, he lives in the practice and the confirmed habit of ejaculatory prayer. He seems never to trust himself far from the throne of grace; and walking with God, realizes his presence everywhere. In his house, as he silently surveys his mercies or his trials—he often sends up a short petition for a sanctified use of both; and, when seated amid his children, secretly aspirates the desire, "Oh that Ishmael may live before you." As he walks along the streets and hears the blasphemies of the profane, and sees the wickedness of the wicked, he darts a petition to heaven for the pouring out of the spirit of God upon the people. While he moves through the crowd, with no visible or audible sign of devotion, he is walking with God and conversing with heaven. In his transactions with men, he still maintains this communion with God. Is he provoked, until he begins to feel his spirit growing hot within him—he suddenly controls his rising anger by the power of prayer. Is he injured—he prays, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." Does a sudden temptation assail his integrity or chastity, or mercy—he sighs forth a supplication for grace to resist it.

See him in his attendance upon the means of grace—it is not enough that he prayed for his minister and for himself in his closet before he left the house, but on the way to the sanctuary his thoughts go up in prayer to heaven, for the blessing which his soul needs. He prays while hearing the sermon, and instead of dissipating by frivolous conversation the impressions it has made on his mind, he seals them upon his heart by silent prayer on his way home. In company, he is sometimes in a world of his own, and unheard and unseen, is wrestling with God for some individual present, who needs his intercession, or in reference to some circumstance which the conversation has brought before him. In his silent and solitary walks amid the scenes of nature, he communes with nature's God. When the dispensations of Providence are mentioned in his hearing, whether they refer to the nation at large, or to individuals, or families, he finds a subject of prayer suggested, which gives him an errand to God. The moral and spiritual state of the world is mentioned in his hearing, and instead of putting off the subject until the missionary prayer meeting comes round, he ejaculates with a sigh the petition, "Let your way be known upon earth, your saving health among all nations."

In this way the spirit of prayer diffuses itself throughout the whole character and conduct of him in whom it flourishes. It can no more be confined to times, and places, and particular occasions, than the spirit of patriotism, or of philosophy, or of commerce, can be shut up to periodical exercises and expressions in some special places. No—when the spirit of any occupation or pursuit be in a man, it will be like a part of himself, and will follow him everywhere, and into everything. And this applies as truly to prayer as to anything else.

You mistake, then, if your only idea of prayer be that of an exercise to be performed night and morning, whether in pre-composed forms, or in extemporaneous expressions, of a given length, a certain vehemence, or a due solemnity, and which being done, is all that is required. Prayer is something more than this, it is the sense of need and of dependence upon God constantly cherished in the soul; habitually leading to expressions of desire, according to his own method of giving utterance to his necessities. Stated times there must and will be for this exercise in the ordinary circumstances of life, and these should be regularly, solemnly, and spiritually observed—but these constitute a very small part of the life of prayer. With too many they are only forms, observed out of mere custom, or to keep the conscience quiet, but carried on in total separation from the living spirit.

The spirit of prayer supposes not only sincerity, and constancy, and an all-pervading exercise—but also importunity and fervor. It is not merely correct language, and evangelical sentiments, and solemn tones, and reverential postures—but strong desires, ardent aspirations, and importunate entreaties. "It is the effectual fervent prayer of the righteous man which avails much." James 5:16. What specimens of this have we in the Psalms of David. Those inspired models of prayer are not mere words, but desires issuing from the inmost recesses of the soul, the groanings of the heart, the struggles of an agonizing spirit, and varied in appropriate and impassioned language. And what believer has not passed through seasons in which no words of his own seemed sufficiently expressive of his intense feelings; and he has, therefore, had recourse to these cries of the man after God's own heart, as the best outlets of the deep sorrows and ardent wishes of his own laboring soul.

By importunity, I do not mean loud and clamorous language, much less crude and unhallowed familiarity, or demand and dictation to God—but the beseeching spirit, and imploring heart; which in many cases is the groaning which cannot be uttered, and the faith that takes hold of God's strength. How often, after we have listened to some more than ordinary importunate supplication presented at the meetings for social devotion, have we felt and said, "That was the very spirit of prayer." Yes, we have had, perhaps, such seasons in our own closet. It was not the flow of words merely, for, perhaps, we could find none sufficiently expressive and emphatic to convey the mighty needs and wishes that were burning in the heart for utterance. No—it was the struggles and wrestling of the laboring bosom after some object of its intense desire, and in reference to which it felt almost prompted and authorized to say, "I will not let you go except you bless me."

Such, my dear friends, is what I mean by the spirit of prayer. Some of you know it by a blessed experience, far better than I can describe it; but others, I am afraid, know too little about it, and are ready, perhaps, to consider and to call it mere enthusiasm, or the raptures of a mystic piety. You know better, at least most of you, and happy shall I be, if my description of it shall stir you up to cultivate this devotional frame of mind. There is far too little of it in the present day. This fine heavenly disposition is but too apt to dissipate amid the bustle and ardor of our stirring age. Blessed be God, it is a stirring age, nor would I paralyze an energy, nor suppress an effort that is employed for the world's conversion. I would not call home the laborer from the great field of Christian zeal, to shut him up in the closet or the cloister of personal devotion.

But I would entreat him to make the closet his dwelling-place, to which he shall nightly retire to cultivate the spirit of prayer, and from which, with a vigorous and healthy piety, he shall go forth in the morning to his holy industry. I want the church to be fitted for her great calling and commission in the conversion of the world, by an appropriate frame and disposition. This kind goes not forth but by fasting and prayer. Eminent piety is essential to eminent usefulness. It is only in the spirit of faith and prayer, that the church can hope to convert the world. And what is the duty and the business of the church as a whole, is the duty and the business of every one of its members.

Let every Christian enter into this vital subject, for such it is. Your spiritual health must be estimated by the measure in which you possess this love and practice of prayer. This is soul prosperity, followed out, as it will be, where it really exists, by all the various details of Christian holiness. The spirit of prayer is the great antagonist of sin. "If I regard iniquity in my heart," said the Psalmist, "the Lord will not hear me." Psalm 66:18. Nothing opposes such a resistance and counteraction to the corruptions of our nature as this frame of mind. The fire of devotion will be in us, if it exists at all, as a purifying fire.

And then what a source of comfort would this indwelling spirit of devotion prove to us. It would give us an abiding sense of the nearness of God, and keep us ever walking on the verge of heaven. We could thus converse with God wherever we go. As soon as we breathe out our desires to him, we would find him with us. As soon as we think, so soon are we with God. In the twinkling of an eye we find him. We look unto him and are lightened. Thus with a cast of the mind's eye, the soul is filled, and finds itself replenished with a divine and vital light, that diffuses the sweetest and most pleasant influences through the whole soul. How would it soften the cares, lighten the sorrows, and facilitate the duties of life—if this habitual reference to God pervaded all. How would it smooth our rugged course across this desert earth, thus to draw down upon it the light and the help of Heaven.

Dear friends, know your privilege, and cultivate the spirit of prayer. If the spirit of prayer is low—all is low in the soul. While, if the spirit of prayer is vigorous—all is vigorous.

"Prayer makes the darkened cloud withdraw;
Prayer climbs the ladder Jacob saw;
Gives exercise to faith and love;
Brings every blessing from above.

"Restraining prayer we cease to fight;
Prayer makes the Christian's armor bright;
And Satan trembles when he sees
The weakest saint upon his knees."

In the cultivation of the spirit of prayer, it is of great consequence that we recollect our dependence for this—as well as for the right performance of every other branch of Christian duty—is on the aid of the Holy Spirit. The Divine Spirit is our prompter and helper in prayer, as well as the efficient agent in all the other parts of true holiness. "And the Holy Spirit helps us in our distress. For we don't even know what we should pray for, nor how we should pray. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God's own will." Romans 8:26-27. "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit." Ephes. 6:18. "But you, beloved, building up yourselves on your holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit." Jude 20. In all these passages very explicit reference is made to the work of the Spirit in prayer. Not, however, that we are to neglect prayer, any more than we are to neglect any other part of our duty, until we feel a conscious impulse of the Spirit moving us to it; but we are to go continually to the exercise, in a state of desire after and dependence upon this Divine helper of our infirmities.

We are not to wait for the Spirit, but to work and pray in the Spirit. It is the Spirit who gives us a just and impressive view of our needs; who produces, in fact, all the elements of prayer; who stirs up the slumbering graces of the soul; who gives clear encouraging views of God as the hearer and answerer of prayer; who assists the believer to understand the word of God, and to take encouraging views of the atonement and intercession of Christ. Consider, then, your need of the Spirit; pray for the Spirit; expect the Spirit; lean upon the Spirit. The spirit of prayer in man is the production of the Spirit of God.

You need a double intercessor in prayer, so great is this act and exercise; an intercessor for you in heaven, which is Christ; and an intercessor in you upon earth, which is the Holy Spirit; and you have, or may have, both.

Whatever you do in the way of active duty; whatever you give in the way of liberality; whatever you endure in the way of suffering; do not be satisfied with your state, do not conclude that "it is well" with you as a Christian, without much of that prayerful frame of mind, which it is the object of this address to explain and recommend. It will be a rich reward and consolation to me, if I shall see evidence that this effort of your pastor, has been blessed to increase in you the spirit of prayer.