Wednesday, February 28, 2007

John Bunyan on Prayer

I just started reading a book by John Bunyan entitled “Prayer,” and true to the Puritan form, this book has floored me with its biblical truth. In all my (limited) reading, I have yet to find writers who capture the truth of the human condition and the beauty of the Gospel like the Puritans. Here are two excerpts that awakened my soul to the treasure of Christ.

“If you would fully express yourself before the Lord, study, first, your fallen estate; secondly, God’s promises; thirdly, the heart of Christ, which you may know or discern by his condescension and bloodshedding, also by mercy he has formerly extended to great sinners. Plead your own vileness, by way of bemoaning, 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 to take heed that you content not yourself with words, and that you do not think that God looks only at words. However, whether your works be 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 (Jeremiah 29:13)” (pg.44).

And here is John Bunyan’s advice to parents in the rearing of their children. I don’t think that this would be very popular today.

“For to me it seems to be a better way for people betimes 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 of the nature of God’s wrath, and the duration of the misery; which if they conscientiously do, they would sooner teach their children to pray than they do. Men learn to pray by conviction for sin, and this is the way to make our children do so too. But the other way, namely, to be busy in teaching children forms of prayer, before they know anything else, it is the way to make them cursed hypocrites, and to puff them up with pride. Teach therefore your children to know their wretched state and condition; tell them of hellfire and their sins, of damnation, and salvation; the way to escape one, and to enjoy the other, and this will bring tears to their eyes, and make 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” (p. 45).

I praise God for the gift of books, and His grace in preserving these great writings from saints of old. They are a conviction to my vile soul, and I pray that God would grant me the grace to be a woman of prayer in even a fraction of the capacity that Bunyan exhorts his readers to. Soli Deo Gloria!


Steven said...

I have a few thoughts on this, dealing specifically with my experience as a child care practitioner. Is this good advice for parents? That depends on many factors. First, will the fact of depravity be counterbalanced with God's intention of reconciliation? It is not good to tell only half the story, no matter who you are telling it to.
Secondly, do the parents have good mechanisms in place through which to guide their children's behavior? If not, I would avoid this altogether. Social psychologists like to speak of a thing called attribution, which, in lay terms, means people act in a way that is consistent with how they are expected to act, if that expectation is made known. For instance, in one test, telling children they are tidy produced a cleaner classroom than telling children to be tidy. The behavioral ramifications of telling children that they are wicked sinners needs to be considered.
(On that point, I very much doubt that behavior issues were at all on Bunyan's mind. There were more aggressive methods by which to temper a child's behavior. He was clearly more concerned with the soul than with the body.)

cdt said...


Thank you for your comments, and engagement on this issue. First, in regards to your comments, I have a question. Doesn't the Bible clearly tell us how wretched we really are? (Romans 3:9-18). These words from Paul are startling and harsh words to us as readers. I would ask you to consider the words of Scripture when you say that we should avoid telling people how sinful they are.

Secondly, is telling a child that they are tidy with the hope that they will be tidy actually lying to the child? If a child is not actually tidy, it will never teach them what true tidiness is.

Thirdly, I think that if we examine the culture around us, we will see the devestating effects of children growing up in homes where they were never told that they were wicked. Psalm 1:5 tells us that "the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor the sinners in the congregation of the righteous." Do we really want to be contributing to our children's (future children's) judgment by not telling them the truth about who they are?

In light of all this, I don't want to diminish the power of the Cross to defeat sin in all of our lives. In no way am I advocating telling children, or adults for that matter, that they are depraved without telling them about the great Savior who delivers us from our pig sty. They go together. We must be continously teaching sin and Savior, sin and a Savior.

Bunyan was very concerned with the soul, but he also clearly understood the condition of the soul, which is why he could write such beautiful allegories about the Christian life.

Does that make sense?

Thank you for your input!

Steven said...

Your points make perfect sense, but I think mine were not understood. This is no doubt because of poor phrasing on my part: if you can decipher the language of Bunyan, I doubt there'd be a problem with Macks if he expressed himself clearly.
Let me redirect. I did not say to not tell them about their sinful nature. I said one should give the whole story, not just part of it. But I do wonder about the timing. What age group are we considering? You would not tell a six-year old about the mechanics of sexual reproduction, since they are not mature enough to handle it (cf. 1 Cor 3:2, Heb 5:14).
The point about attribution is not to say, tell the kids that they are good and they will be good. I don't advocate that and I do not practice it at work. I do believe, however, that elaborating on how evil a child is -- without any counterbalance to go along with it -- will yield mainly negative behavior. This is why I mention "behavioral ramifications."
I'm not sure that I agree that most of our cultural problems stem from children not being told they are wicked. Many more arise because 1) kids come to believe that nothing is wicked, or 2) the line of acceptable behavior gets pushed closer and closer to the point of no return.
I could go on, but there's a lot of rocky terrain here. I'll let you weigh in rather than pushing ahead. How's that?

cdt said...


You are correct, and I don't think that your comments are confusing, I just probably misread your statement.

There are many ways in which the culture has affected our children, though I don't think that I will get into them right now, nor do I presume to know all of them.

I, like you, do not advocate for merely telling children how evil they are without anything to counter it (like complimenting them when they do well at something). I simply was putting Bunyan's quote out there to show how far we have come from actually seeing our own sinfulness for what it really is, not to endorse harsh, cruel criticism, but I think you know that.

Thank you for your comments!