Obstacles to prayer

In his book, Praying in the Spirit, John Bunyan identifies five obstacles to prayer:

  1. When men regard iniquity in their hearts, at the time of their prayers before God … (Psalm 66:18; Isaiah 29:13; Ezekiel 33:31) …
  2. When men pray for show, to be heard, and thought somebody in religion … (Matthew 6:7) …
  3. When either men pray for wrong things, or if for right things, yet that the thing prayed for might be spent upon their lusts, and laid out to wrong ends … (James 4:2-4) …
  4. [Prayers] made by men, and presented to God in their own persons only, without their appearing in the Lord Jesus … (John 14:13-15; 15:16; 16:23-26) …
  5. The last thing that hinders prayer is, the form of it without the power … These men are like a painted man, and their prayers like a false voice. They in person appear as hypocrites, and their prayers are an abomination (Proverbs 28:9 … Hosea 7:14). (49-53)

John Bunyan, Prayer, Banner of Truth is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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Praying in the Spirit

John Bunyan wrote a book on praying in the Spirit. He said: ‘There is no man nor church in the world that can come to God in prayer, but by assistance of the Holy Spirit.’ ‘If men did see their sins, yet without the help of the Spirit they would not pray.’ ‘There is nothing but the Spirit that can lift up the soul or heart to God in prayer.’ ‘The soul that rightly prays, it must be in and with the help and strength of the Spirit; because it is impossible that a man should express himself in prayer without it.’ He explains:

O how great a task it is, for a poor soul that becomes sensible of sin and the wrath of God, to say in faith but this one world, “Father!” … O! says he, I dare not call him Father; and hence it is that the Spirit must be sent into the hearts of God’s people for this very thing, to cry Abba, Father: it being too great a work for any man to do knowingly and believingly without it.

Without the Spirit we wouldn’t pray. Do an experiment with me. Every day for a month ask the Queen for something. Wherever you are, speak out loud a request to the Queen. I suspect you won’t keep it up for a month because it’s a futile exercise. Try it now. Say out loud, ‘Hello your Majesty. Could I have an invitation to Buckingham Palace?’ It feels stupid. For one thing, she’s not there with you. What’s the point of asking for something when she can’t hear you? And even if she was in the room with you, her likely response would be, ‘Who are you?’ Or perhaps she would just call security to have you removed. She might respond to one of her children, but you have no claim on her.

Why doesn’t prayer feel like this? The answer is that we have the Holy Spirit. When we pray we feel connected to the Father because that’s what’s happening – the Spirit is connecting us to the Father. When we pray we feel the Father hears us because the Spirit assures us that he is our Father (Romans 8:14-16). If the Spirit wasn’t at work in your heart then you just wouldn’t pray. Every time you tried to pray you would feel like a mad man ranting in the street or a child talking to their imaginary friend.

But we do pray, we can pray, we should pray because the Spirit assures that God is our Father who longs to hear us. The Spirit of God enables us to share the experience of sonship that God the Son experiences. That is a glorious gift of grace. It means confidence, intimacy and joy.

Adapted from Tim Chester, You Can Pray, which is available from Amazon.com and ThinkIVP.

John Bunyan, Prayer, Banner of Truth is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

Forthcoming book – Mission Matters: Love Says Go

I have a new book coming out in May entitled Mission Matters: Love Says Go. It’s a popular-level introduction to world mission. It’s being published by IVP in co-operation with the Keswick Convention.

I’ve just noticed that it’s available for pre-order in the UK here from ThinkIVP.

It looks like it will also be available in US here from amazon.com, but it can’t be pre-ordered yet.

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The patterns of Puritan piety

The following quote is from a sermon by John Eliot and recorded by Cotton Mather. It gives a good feel for the patterns of Puritan piety.


Behold, the ancient and excellent character of a true Christian; ’tis that which Peter calls ‘holiness in all manner of conversation’ [1 Peter 1:15]; you shall not find a Christian out of the way of godly conversation.

For, first, a seventh part of our time is all spent in heaven, when we are duly zealous for, and zealous on the Sabbath of God. Besides, God has written on the head of the Sabbath, REMEMBER, which looks both forwards and backwards, and thus a good part of the week will be spent in sabbatizing.

Well, but for the rest of our time! Why, we shall have that spent in heaven, ere we have done. For, secondly, we have many days for both fasting and thanksgiving in our pilgrimage; and here are so many Sabbaths more. Moreover, thirdly, we have our lectures every week; and pious people won’t miss them, if they can help it.

Furthermore, fourthly, we have our private meetings, wherein we pray and sing, and repeat sermons, and confer together about the things of God; and being now come thus far, we are in heaven almost every day.

But a little farther, fifthly, we perform family-duties every day; we have our morning and evening sacrifices, wherein having read the Scriptures to our families, we call upon the Name of God, and ever now and then carefully catechise those that are under our charge.

Sixthly, we shall also have our daily devotions in our closets; wherein unto supplication before the Lord, we shall add some serious meditation upon his word: a David will be at this work no less than thrice a day. Seventhly, we have likewise many scores of ejaculations in a day; and these we have, like Nehemiah, in whatever place we come into.

Eighthly we have our occasional thoughts and our occasional talks upon spiritual matters; and we have our occasional acts of charity, wherein we do like the inhabitants of heaven every day. Ninthly, in our callings, in our civil callings, we keep up heavenly frames; we buy and sell, and toil; yea, we eat and drink, with some eye both to the command and honour of God in all.

Behold, I have not now left an inch of time to be carnal; it is all engrossed for heaven. And yet, lest here should not be enough, lastly, we have our spiritual warfare. We are always encountering the enemies of our souls, which continually raises our hearts unto our

Behold, I have not now left an inch of time to be carnal; it is all engrossed for heaven. And yet, lest here should not be enough, lastly, we have our spiritual warfare. We are always encountering the enemies of our souls, which continually raises our hearts unto our Helper and Leader in the heavens.

Let no man say, ‘Tis impossible to live at this rate’; for we have known some live thus; and others that have written of such a life have but spun a web out of their own blessed experiences. New-England has examples of this life: though, alas! ’tis to be lamented that the distractions of the world, in too many professors, do becloud the beauty of an heavenly conversation.

In fine, our employment lies in heaven. In the morning, if we ask, ‘Where am I to be to day?’ our souls must answer, ‘In heaven.’ In the evening, if we ask, ‘Where have I been to-day?’ our souls may answer, ‘In heaven.’ If thou art a believer, thou art no stranger to heaven while thou livest; and when thou diest, heaven will be no strange place to thee; no, thou hast been there a thousand times before.


From Charles E. Hambrick-Stowe, The Practice of Piety: Puritan Devotional Principles in Puritan New England, University of North Carolina Press. The Practice of Piety is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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O Lord our Rock, redeeming King

Here’s the second track from the new The Crowded House album for which I wrote the lyrics. They’re based on Psalm 19. I think they’re my best lyrics to date.

Here are the words …

O Lord our Rock, redeeming King,
your truth alone can comfort bring
when we are in distress.
Your perfect law revives the soul
and binds our wounds and makes us whole.
Your promise leads to rest. 

Your precepts make our hearts rejoice
for in your word we hear your voice,
the voice of God above.
Your gospel breaks like break of day
to give us light to light our way,
to walk in paths of love.

Your statutes make your people wise,
illuminating darkened eyes
for your commands are true.
Your word is firm and will endure.
The fear that it evokes is pure
and binds our hearts to you.

Your word is worth far more than gold
for in its pages we behold:
the treasury of Christ.
Its lines upon the tongue are sweet.
They lead us to our Saviour’s feet
and his great sacrifice.

As your decrees are read and taught,
may every word and every thought
be pleasing to you Lord.
Your Spirit’s power to all impart
that Christ may dwell in every heart,
and be our true reward.

May wand’ring hearts be warned from sin.
May troubled souls find peace within.
May Christ be our delight.
Forgive our faults unlock our chains,
and in our lives restore your reign:
our hearts with love ignite.

You can listen to the album and buy it here.

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Jesus the Word

Here’s one of the tracks for which I wrote the lyrics from the new The Crowded House album.

Here are the words …

Jesus the Word speaks in the dark
lighting the spark of all we see
Jesus the Word rules through his promises
Lord over history
Jesus heals with a word and commands the waves
Jesus speaks to the dead and he empties graves

Word of hope from above,
word of light and love,
word of peace ending strife,
bringing joy and life.

Jesus the Word mute at his trial
and when reviled upon the tree
Jesus the Word silenced by violence
drowned out at Calvary
Jesus silent no more as he gathers breath
Jesus steps from the tomb and the grip of death

Jesus the Word message of love
rising above this noisy world
Jesus the Word gathers his people
as his command is heard
Jesus given a name over every name
to the ends of the earth we proclaim his fame

Jesus the Word speaks to our fears
comforts our tears with words of peace
Let all with ears come now and hear his voice
Let all your doubting cease

You can listen to the album and buy it here.

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Music and news from The Crowded House

The Crowded House has released its first album of music written by people with our church. It’s performed with our own musicians along with Michael Bleeker, the worship leader at The Village Church, Dallas. There’s more information including lead sheets here and you can listen online at Bandcamp.

The Crowded House website has also been revamped including a blog which contains a couple of great testimony videos.

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The Bruised Reed

Richard Sibbes (1577-1635) was one of the greatest Puritan preachers. This is how a contemporary described the impact of his preaching: ‘I was distracted in my mind, wounded in conscience, and wept often and bitterly, and prayed earnestly, but yet had no comfort, till I heard that sweet saint … Doctor Sibbes, by whose means and ministry I was brought to peace and joy in my spirit. His sweet soul-melting Gospel-sermons won my heart and refreshed me much, for by him I saw and had much of God and was confident in Christ.’

His most famous work is The Bruised Reed and Smoking Flax (1631), based on Matthew 12:20. It was written. Sibbes says, ‘at the desire and for the good of weaker Christians’ to lead them to a strong sense of assurance.

The bruising and healing of Christ

Sibbes uses the metaphor of bruising to describes the process by which God humbles sinners by giving them a true view of their sin. Both before conversion and after conversion, God must wound before he can heal. But the point of this bruising is always to lead us to Christ. There is comfort in our union with Christ and therefore our experience of the Trinitarian love and life:

What a support to our faith is this, that God the Father, the party offended by our sins, is so well pleased with the work of redemption! And what a comfort is this, that seeing God’s love rests on Christ, as well pleased in him, we may gather that he is as well pleased with us, if we be in Christ! For his love rests in whole Christ, in Christ mystical, as well as Christ natural, because he loves him and us with one love. Let us, therefore, embrace Christ, and in him God’s love, and build our faith safely on such a Saviour. (Works 1:42-43.)

So the second point that Sibbes points out is that Christ will not ‘break the bruised reed’. Sibbes draws images of physicians and surgeons who harm the body for its own good. Sibbes expands on this healing work by expounding Christ’s threefold ministry as prophet, priest and king. ‘Go boldly to God in our flesh; for this end that we might go boldly to him, he is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. Never fear to go to God, since we have such a Mediator with him, that is not only our friend, but our brother and husband.’ (46)

Sibbes expounds the second metaphor in the verse, the smoking flax, to show that Christians need not worry that evidences of grace are small in their lives. Rather every evidence of grace is a cause for reassurance because Christ will not snuff our the smouldering spark.

Sibbes’ main concern is to affirm that Christ will not quench our small beginnings because the spark is of heaven. Though Sibbes says we are not worthy of pertaining such a spark, but Christ is merciful and he gives himself unto us. Sibbes encourages ministers to be tender towards young believers, balancing severity with mercy. ‘Man for a little smoke will quench the light; Christ ever we see cherisheth even the least beginnings. How bare he with the many imperfections of his poor disciples.’ (42-43)

The government of Christ

The final section of The Bruised Reed discusses how Christ re-establishes his government in our souls. Some of Sibbes’ contemporaries believed (with Aristotle and Aquinas) that, while the will is crippled by sin, God’s grace re-enables the will to make virtuous choices. In this way the divine and human will co-operate. The will, informed by the mind, is sovereign over (potentially distracting) affections.

Sibbes, in contrast, believed the affections were sovereign. The will is not disabled, but disaffected. It still ‘works’ in that sense that it still makes choices, but now it always decides against God. But in the gospel the Spirit so discloses God’s love that our wills are moved to embrace Christ. ‘The same Spirit that enlightens the mind, inspires gracious inclinations into the will and affections, and infuses strength into the whole man.’ (82)

If the believer’s ‘affections and duty’ decline, the solution is ‘to warm ourselves at this fire of his love and mercy in giving himself for us.’ But even in this apparent initiative of the believer it is actually the Spirit’s work by which ‘he draws us strongly’ and must ‘subdue our hearts, and sanctify them to love him, without which all motives would be ineffectual.’ (79-80)

There was a strong polemic edge to Sibbes’ writing. He was challenging the tendency toward destructive self-absorption that came from examining one’s own behaviours for signs of grace in order to gain assurance of salvation. Ron Frost comments:

Sibbes clearly understood that duty can only be sustained if it is supported by the motivation of desire. Thus, Sibbes featured God’s winsome love more than his power: the Spirit accomplishes both conversion and sanctification by a single means – through the revelation of God’s attractiveness by an immediate, personal disclosure. This unmediated initiative was seen to by the means by which God draws a response of heartfelt devotion from the elect. (Ron Frost, ‘The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes’)

Faith, according to Sibbes, was not a human act of the will. But the response of the heart to the disclosure of divine love in Christ by the Spirit. We are wooed by Christ. Sibbes believed the law may be used to confront sin. But our central message must be God’s love in Christ. It is this love which causes us to embrace God and his holiness.

Richard Sibbes, The Bruised Reed, is available from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

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