Part one can be read here.
The principal means by which Jonathan Edwards expressed the “true and gracious longings after holiness” of which he spoke in Religious Affections was through the practice of the spiritual disciplines he found in Scripture. Edwards’s God, he believed, was self-revealed in the Bible, and that “the Scriptures are the word and work of a divine mind.” Thus the Bible was the centerpiece of his devotional piety.
But Edwards did not merely read Scripture, rather he meditated on and prayerfully studied it by the hour. This is plainly evidenced by the abundant fruit of these practices represented in the works cited previously. Throughout his life, the Bible was the supreme means by which Edwards sought to know and experience God and to pursue conformity to the person and work of Jesus Christ.
Edwards’s devotional meditation on Scripture was inevitably intermingled with prayer, especially in the late afternoon when it was his habit to “walk for divine contemplation and prayer.” But Edwards also prayed alone in his study, as well as with his children and with Sarah, as noted in the previous post. He did the same with church members who came seeking his counsel or with young ministers living as interns in his home. Samuel Hopkins, an early biographer of Edwards who was one of those pastoral interns, indicates that sometimes Edwards devoted entire days to prayer.
Next to a hunger for the Bible, Edwards believed that the most important indicator of a person’s relationship to God or, conversely, the absence thereof, was prayer. This is revealed in his sermon, “Hypocrites Deficient in the Duty of Prayer.” In Edwards’s personal piety, prayer was planned, but it was also informal; it was scheduled, yet it was also spontaneous—all on a daily basis. In terms of method, Edwards spoke of prayer mostly as propositional communication, that is, addressing God with rational thought.
Beyond the essential elements of meditation on Scripture and prayer, Edwards’s piety was frequently characterized by worshipful song. Especially when walking alone late in the day he found that “it always seemed natural . . . to sing or chant forth my meditations.”
Much of Edwards’ devotional life was somehow connected with writing. Whether in his “Diary,” “Miscellanies,” “Notes on Scripture,” or “Blank Bible,” Edwards frequently recorded insights that occurred to him as he meditated on Scripture, creation, or God’s providence. Today such practices would sometimes be designated a type of “journaling.”
Another aspect of Edwards’s devotional piety was fasting, that is, abstaining from one or more meals for spiritual purposes. Hopkins observed that Edwards frequently fasted, and Edwards himself wrote, “fasting is a part of Christian worship.” Occasionally he declared “fast days” for the Northampton congregation.
All the aforementioned disciplines practiced by Edwards—reading and meditating on Scripture, praying, worshipful singing, spiritual diary and devotional writing, and fasting—occurred in the context of his discipline of God-focused solitude. It may be that Edwards’s pastoral ministry suffered due to his preference for solitude, nevertheless he steadfastly maintained, “It is the nature of true grace, that however it loves Christian society in its place, yet it in a peculiar manner delights in retirement, and secret converse with God.”
Though little has been written of it, Edwards’ devotional piety extended to his immediate family. As previously mentioned, he read Scripture with his wife and children each morning and prayed with them more than once daily. By this means he practiced in his home what he preached from his pulpit: “A Christian family is as it were a little church.”
Edwards was persuaded that God had most clearly revealed himself—his nature, attributes, and will—in Scripture, and that to know God in an increasingly intimate way necessitated a biblically-saturated piety. He never appeared to question the methods of spirituality located in the biblical text, nor did he seem to find them unsatisfying or ineffective in his pursuit of God. To be sure, he did not limit his encounters with God’s presence to the pages of the Bible, for Edwards constantly looked to see and savor the revelation of God in creation as per Romans 1:20. And yet, as often and as deeply as he rejoiced in the glory of God in creation, Edwards never allowed this to take precedence in his piety over the specific revelation of God found in Scripture.
Edwards’s piety was a manifestation of his view that this life should be lived in preparation for eternity. He believed passionately in the existence of heaven and hell as taught in the Bible, that true and everlasting joy was found only in the presence of God in heaven, and that life on earth should be spent in the pursuit of and preparation for happiness in the coming world. For Edwards, the primary means of experiencing God in this life, and the wisest way to use his time, and the best method of preparing for eternity was to devote as much time as possible to biblical piety.
Original artwork by Caffy Whitney
For more about Jonathan Edwards and his spirituality:
A God-Entranced Vision of All Things—The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. Don’s contribution to this book is the chapter on “Pursuing a Passion for God Through Spiritual Disciplines: Learning from Jonathan Edwards.”
Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and It’s Influence on His Pastoral Ministry. This is a popularization of Don’s Ph.D. dissertation. It is so expensive because it was published by an academic press and with a small print run.
 Namely his “Diary,” “Miscellanies,” and “Notes on Scripture.” We can also conjecture about Edwards’s own devotional habits from the commendation he gives to the missionary’s piety in The Life of David Brainerd, the counsel provided in his letter to Deborah Hatheway, the content of various sermons, the notes in his “Blank Bible,” and especially from the testimony in his Personal Narrative—the single best autobiographical resource on Edwards’s piety.
Broadly defined, “piety” refers to the aggregate of a person’s distinctly Christian beliefs and actions. Here Jonathan Edwards’s piety is considered in the more narrow sense of devotional piety, that is, those private practices intended to focus the heart and mind of the individual believer upon God and to develop authentic Christian beliefs, motives, and actions.
Although Edwards’s general Christian piety was exemplary, his personal devotional piety was exceptional, both in breadth and depth. It was grounded in Scripture, influenced by the patterns of his father Timothy and grandfather Solomon Stoddard—both of whom were pastors—and consistent with that of the ministers in Puritan England and New England through whom Edwards traced his theological lineage.
Even as a child Edwards sometimes manifested unusual inclinations toward devotional habits. Although he’d not yet experienced the converting influence of the “Divine and Supernatural Light” he would famously preach about in 1733, as a boy there was a period of months when he would “pray five times a day in secret,” often in a booth built for the purpose in a swamp.
After his conversion (1721) at age 17 his devotional duties became delights. He reported that now he “went to prayer, to pray to God that I might enjoy Him; and prayed in a manner quite different from what I used to do; with a new sort of affection.” He also began to experience “the greatest delight in the holy Scriptures, of any book whatsoever.” In the Bible he “seemed often to see so much light, exhibited by every sentence, and such a refreshing ravishing food communicated.”
Within months Edwards “solemnly vowed to take God for my whole portion and felicity; looking on nothing else as any part of my happiness, nor acting as if it were.” He built his life around disciplines that helped him pursue the enjoyment of God and cultivate happiness in him.
At 18, for example, he began the lifelong practice where he “very frequently used to retire into a solitary place, . . . for contemplation on divine things, and secret converse with God; and had many sweet hours there.” About the same time (no later than 1722) Edwards began his “Diary,” the volume containing his “Resolutions.”
In terms of daily routine, Edwards’s piety began each morning between four or five when by candlelight he would read the Bible and pray. Marsden says that afterward Edwards would lead his family in prayer and that “each meal was accompanied by household devotions.” At the close of each day, Sarah and Jonathan would pray together in his study.
Most every day of Edwards’s life was spent at home, and most of that time he worked in his study. A legendary line from Samuel Hopkins, who as a first-hand observer wrote of Edwards, “He commonly spent thirteen hours every day in his study.”
While the specific details and processes of Edwards’s devotional methods remain hidden behind his study door, we can draw the general contours of his personal spirituality from resources produced there such as his “Diary,” “Miscellanies,” and “Notes on Scripture.” We can also conjecture about Edwards’s own devotional habits from the commendation he gives to the missionary’s piety in The Life of David Brainerd, the counsel provided in his letter to Deborah Hatheway, the content of various sermons, the notes in his “Blank Bible,” and especially from the testimony in his Personal Narrative—the single best autobiographical resource on Edwards’s piety.
To read Edwards’s own account of his private spirituality, read his Personal Narrative. Believed to be a response to an inquiry about his testimony of his walk with God by his son-in-law, Aaron Burr, Sr. (president of Princeton University and father of Aaron Burr, Jr., who is best known for killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel) it is by far my personal favorite among Edwards’s writings. It’s less than thirteen pages of volume 16 in the Yale edition of the Works of Jonathan Edwards, a collection of seventy-three volumes found in their entirety and fully searchable at edwards.yale.edu.
Part two is found in the next post.
Original artwork by Caffy Whitney
For more about Jonathan Edwards and his spirituality:
A God-Entranced Vision of All Things—The Legacy of Jonathan Edwards, edited by John Piper and Justin Taylor. My contribution to this book is the chapter on “Pursuing a Passion for God Through Spiritual Disciplines: Learning from Jonathan Edwards.”
Finding God in Solitude: The Personal Piety of Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and It’s Influence on His Pastoral Ministry. This is a popularization of my Ph.D. dissertation. It is so expensive because it was published by an academic press and with a small print run.
As I sit writing these words with my old Swan fountain pen on an oak roll-top desk, my left forearm rests on a book about Writer’s Houses. On end in a cubbyhole to my right is another book of photographs called The Writer’s Desk. As a writer, I enjoy looking at pictures of the private places where famous authors practiced their craft.
We expect a writer to dedicate a room in his home for writing, or a musician to set aside space in her residence just for music, or an artist to use one of the rooms where he lives as a studio. Many people do all or part of their daily work from offices at home. Why, then, shouldn’t a Christian have a place in the house devoted exclusively to the work of prayer?
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of how hypocrites love to pray so that people can see or hear them and be impressed. “But when you pray,” He instructed His followers, “go into your room and shut your door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:6).
In the King James Version of the Bible, the word translated here as room is rendered closet, giving rise to a now old-fashioned term, “prayer closet.” While the Lord’s primary emphasis in this verse is on the importance of sincere, humble, private prayer, why not have a place—a prayer closet—in your home set aside just for meeting with God?
The idea of a well-used prayer closet is central to the 2015 movie, War Room. In it each of the two leading characters dedicates a bedroom closet as a “war room,” a place where they engage in spiritual warfare.
While it’s true that many will not have the space to set aside an area exclusively for prayer, what does it say about the priorities of Christians who have a whole room for physical exercise, but no place only for spiritual exercises? What does it say when we allocate a large space just for children to play, but none for Christians to pray? What does it say when we design the most spacious area in the home for our entertainment, filling it with a large television, music system, and computer whereby we hear from the world, but make no plans for a place where we meet with God?
It’s not that we can’t use the same desk both for work and prayer, or that we can’t read the Bible in the same chair where we watch TV. But why shouldn’t the home of a Christian demonstrate by design—whether a small room, nook, or repurposed closet—that prayer to God is important?
An earlier version of this post appeared in my Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), pages 87-88.
“Empty phrases” are ruinous in any area of spirituality, but especially in prayer. Jesus warned, “But when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).
Such “empty phrases” can result from insincerity or repetition. That is, we might pray meaningless, vacuous words because either our hearts or minds are far away.
One of the reasons Jesus prohibited the mindless repetition of prayers is because that’s exactly the way we’re prone to pray. Although I don’t recite intentionally memorized prayers, my own tendency is to pray basically the same old things about the same old things. And it doesn’t take long before such prayers fragment the attention span and freeze the heart of prayer.
The problem is not our praying about the same old things, for Jesus taught us (in Luke 11:5-13 and 18:1-8) to pray with persistence for good things. Our problem is in always praying about them with the same ritualistic, heartless expressions.
In my experience, the almost unfailing solution to this problem is to pray through a passage of Scripture—particularly one of the psalms—instead of making up my prayer as I go. Praying in this way is simply taking the words of Scripture and using them as my own words or as prompters for what I say to God.
For example, if I prayed through Psalm 27, I would begin by reading verse 1, “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” Then I would pray something like,
Thank you, Lord, that you are my light. Thank you for giving me the light to see my need for Jesus and your forgiveness. Please light my way so that I will know which way to go in the big decision that is before me today. And thank you especially that you are my salvation. You saved me; I didn’t save myself. And now I ask you to save my children also, as well those at work with whom I’ve shared the gospel.
When I have nothing else to say, instead of my mind wandering, I have a place to go—the rest of verse 1. “Whom shall I fear?” Then I might pray along these lines: “I thank you that I do not have to fear anyone because You are my Father. But I confess that I have been fearful about ______.”
I would continue in this way, praying about whatever is prompted verse by verse, until either I complete the psalm or run out of time.
Praying through a passage of Scripture was the uncomplicated method that transformed the daily experience of one of the most famous men of prayer in history. George Müller said,
Formerly when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer . . . What was the result? . . . Often, after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then began really to pray.
I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental [that is, experiential] fellowship with God, I speak to my Father . . . about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word.
Both Jesus (in Matthew 27:46) and His followers in the book of Acts (4:24-26) prayed words from the Psalms (from Psalm 22:1, and Psalm 146:6 and Psalm 2:1-2 respectively). Why not you?
Although you’ll pray about “the same old things,” you’ll do so in brand new ways. You’ll also find yourself praying about things you never thought to pray—things that are on the heart of God.
You’ll concentrate better, and begin to experience prayer as a real conversation with a real Person. For the Bible really is God speaking to you, and now all you have to do is simply respond to what He says.
 Roger Steer, comp., Spiritual Secrets of George Müller (Wheaton, IL.: Harold Shaw, 1985), pp. 61-62.
To learn about Don’s book, Praying the Bible, or to order, click here.
When I was a child my Christian parents assigned to me the mealtime responsibility of thanking the Lord for our food and to ask His blessing upon it. They never required me to vary the few words I prayed, so before long the thrice-daily habit devolved into mechanical repetition.
One time I went through the ritual so mindlessly that instead of starting by saying, “Dear Heavenly Father,” I crossed wires with my phone answering routine and began my prayer with, “Hello?”
The traditional Christian practice of thanking God for food dates to biblical times. Jesus “gave thanks” to the Father for the loaves and fishes before He miraculously multiplied the food to feed thousands (Matthew 15:36). It was after “He had given thanks” that He distributed the bread at the last supper with His disciples (1 Corinthians 11:24). The book of Acts (27:35) records that the apostle Paul “took bread and gave thanks to God,” and in 1 Timothy 4:3-5 he taught us to do likewise.
No one wants to bore or be bored when giving thanks to God in prayer. But when we thank Him for the same thing (our food) every few hours more than a thousand times a year, year after year, it’s easy to find ourselves praying on autopilot (a practice Jesus condemns as “vain repetitions” in Matthew 6:7). Singing the table blessing can refresh the routine.
Where to begin? In one brief search I found several Internet pages devoted to this subject. (For example, here and here.) Each posted lyrics and suggested familiar tunes. With very little effort you could bring one to the table with you on occasion.
But you may prefer to create your own, perhaps adapting one or more verses of Scripture. A child taking music lessons might enjoy composing a short tune for musical thanks that’s unique to your family. Or during a mealtime or two you could develop a table blessing as a family project.
Like any other method, a table blessing that’s sung can also become a mindless routine if it’s repeated without variety. Used wisely, however, singing your thanks to the Lord at mealtime can adorn the commonplace with a touch of simple beauty.
Related post: “No, I Won’t Bless the Food.”
Taken from Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), pages 180-81.
In my travels, at the start of a meal with Christian brothers and sisters, I’m often asked, “Will you bless the food?”
My hosts sit there in stunned silence for a moment. Then, with everyone staring at me with awkward, “What do we do now?” looks, I’ll add, “But I’ll be happy to ask the Lord to bless the food.”
Maybe it reflects the limits of my own experience, but it’s been my observation that nowadays fewer followers of Jesus pause like this at the beginning of a meal to give thanks for what they are about to eat.
This seems to be true for individuals and for families, at home and in public.
Why the decline? As with all Christian practices and disciplines, unless each successive generation is taught the reason for something, it soon devolves into mere a routine, then an empty tradition, and then disuse.
Biblical origins of mealtime prayers
Have you ever been taught the biblical reasons for the Christian tradition of praying before a meal?
• Before miraculously multiplying the loaves and fishes and providing a meal for His followers, Jesus asked the Father’s blessing upon the food:
“And taking the five loaves and the two fish he looked up to heaven and said a blessing and broke the loaves and gave them to the disciples to set before the people” (Mark 6:41).
• As He instituted the Lord’s Supper, Jesus gave thanks before distributing the cup to His disciples and also before giving them the bread:
“And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me’” (Luke 22:17-19).
• After His resurrection, Jesus blessed the bread at the beginning of the meal at the home of the couple from Emmaus:
“When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them” (Luke 24:30).
• The Apostle Paul, publicly and in the presence of many presumed unbelievers, thanked God for his food before eating.
“He took bread, and giving thanks to God in the presence of all he broke it and began to eat” (Acts 27:35).
• Paul taught that believers should receive their food with thanksgiving when he spoke of:
“. . . foods that God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth” (1 Tim. 4:3).
For such reasons Christians have historically paused before (and sometimes after) meals to acknowledge in prayer (or a song, like the Doxology) that our God, in His goodness and providence, is the ultimate source of the food before us.
Can a mealtime prayer become a meaningless ritual? Of course it can, especially since it’s something we experience two or three times per day, seven days per week. In addition to its frequency, the table blessing—or any other prayer—is even more likely to diminish in meaning if we carelessly mouth the same words each time.
No Christian practice or spiritual discipline remains significant to the soul if one experiences it mindlessly and mechanically. Even activities as precious as personal daily prayer, singing praises to God with His people, or taking the Lord’s Supper can become hollow if we engage in them thoughtlessly. All prayer, including the brief prayer of thanks before a meal, requires the engagement of both mind and heart.
A mealtime prayer also acknowledges that “every good and perfect gift is from above” (James 1:17). In a culture of plenty, it’s easy to forget that our food is in answer to Jesus’s command to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11).
Besides the benefits it has for ourselves, openly testifying in prayer that the meal before us is God’s provision also speaks to our children of our devotion to Christ and teaches them that what we eat is ultimately from the Lord, not the grocery store or our paycheck.
All of life should be lived with an awareness of the presence and blessing of God. Even in something as mundane and repetitive as eating, Scripture exhorts us, “So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31). Taking a moment to pray before a meal can help us to do that mindfully.
This post is available as a bulletin insert here.
Lepanto is a tiny town of some two thousand people in Poinsett County in northeast Arkansas. In the 1930s it was even smaller. But during the Great Depression, four Lepanto boys grew up together and changed the world.
One of them, James R. Hendrix, was a sharecropper’s son who left school after the third grade to work in the fields and help feed the family. He was drafted by the Army in 1944 and by Christmas of that year found himself in Belgium. Because of his actions at the Battle of the Bulge, Hendrix was awarded an honor granted to fewer than four thousand citizens in our nation’s history–the Medal of Honor. After the war he reenlisted and became a paratrooper, serving his country in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. Master Sergeant Hendrix retired from the Army in 1965 and died in 2002.
Three other boys—all living on the same, short Lepanto street—would grow to fight on battlefields of a spiritual nature.
Lucien Coleman earned a PhD and became a seminary professor who served at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky from 1966 to 1983 and was professor of Religious Education at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas from 1983-1993. Dr. Coleman lives in Texas and is probably best-known for his widely-used book, How to Teach the Bible.
Avery Willis is surely the most-recognizable name of anyone native to Lepanto. He served as a missionary to Indonesia for fourteen years. While there he wrote the MasterLife discipleship series, which was translated into fifty languages and used in more than one hundred countries, making it one of the most influential ministry tools in Southern Baptist history. Willis moved from Indonesia to serve fifteen years in the adult discipleship department of the Sunday School Board (now Lifeway Christian Resources) of the SBC. He returned to missionary life in 1993 when he became vice-president of the International Mission Board of the SBC. “Mr. MasterLife” died in 2010.
Yesterday I was saddened by the news of the eldest of this Lepanto quartet. T.W. Hunt was taken up to Jesus on December 12, 2014.
I first met T.W. after I enrolled at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in the fall of 1976. He was a music professor and I was a student in the School of Theology. Except for one required worship class in my final year, I would never have needed to enter the music building. So it’s likely that I would have never even met T.W. if not for his reputation for prayer. Early in my course of study at Southwestern I was seeking counsel about my spiritual life, but didn’t know where to turn. My pastor was a student only a year older than I, and I hadn’t been able to get to know any of my professors very well. But I kept hearing of the reputation for prayer and holiness of Dr. Hunt “even though” (as if it were unexpected because) he was a music (and not a theology) professor. So I made an appointment to see him.
We hit it off immediately. First, we discovered we were both from northeast Arkansas. When I played junior high and high school football, our first game each season was with Lepanto, which was just twenty-five miles from my hometown of Osceola. T.W. had even taught school for one year in Osceola, and knew many of the same people I knew there. Second, when he talked about prayer and the things of God, my heart burned within me. I wanted to spend time with this man, including time in prayer. And I did. Not as much I would have liked, but whenever I did I knew I wanted the relationship to continue after I finished seminary.
I had many wonderful professors at Southwestern. I believe I had the best, most biblically-sound theological education in a Southern Baptist context I could have received at the time. I can’t imagine what my ministry would have been like without those three terrific years in Fort Worth. A handful of my teachers affected me profoundly. I loved them then and I love them now. But there were two whose influence exceeds all others: Tom Nettles and T.W. Hunt. With both Tom and T.W., their impact extended far beyond the classroom and long after I received my diploma, for both became lifelong mentors, friends, and examples. I hope I don’t live long enough to write about the death of the much-younger of those two men, but today I want to offer my gratitude for the life and ministry of T.W. Hunt.
Dr. Hunt had advanced degrees in musicology and piano, and began his teaching ministry at Southwestern in 1963. But he soon became known on campus as much for his piety as for his particular academic discipline. In early 1970, a team from Asbury College in Kentucky spoke in Southwestern’s chapel about what they’d experienced in a movement of the Spirit on their campus. After chapel, students came to T.W. with a burden to pray together. He invited them to his home for a prayer meeting that night. “We knelt at 7:00,” he later told me, “and when we looked up it was daylight outside.” No one had spoken of an all-night prayer meeting; it just happened. They all went home to shower and get ready for a new day of school and work. That night they gathered again in the home of T.W. and Laverne Hunt for prayer. “We knelt in prayer at 7:00, and when we looked up it was daylight again.”
Because of such stories and many other reasons, when I think of T.W., I think immediately of his prayer life. But many who did not know him personally may think first of a conference he presented, or material he later developed from it into a lengthy study guide which ultimately became a book on The Mind of Christ. Sometime during my first year at Southwestern, Caffy and I went to the recital hall in the music building and heard T.W. present this material in a Friday night/Saturday morning event. My most vivid memory of the event is of T.W., as he was speaking of the cross of Christ, losing his composure and weeping at the treatment Jesus endured at the hands of sinners. Four years later, when I became pastor in the Chicago area, one of the first events I scheduled was a “Mind of Christ” conference with T.W.
I would bring T.W. to our church two more times, once to speak on prayer and once on worship. I wrote about one of those occasions on the opening page of my book Ten Questions to Diagnose Your Spiritual Health:
“Lord, I want to know You more,” sang Mike, just before the sermon. One of my seminary professors from years back, who was guest preacher at our church that Sunday morning, sat next to me on the front pew and listened transfixed. As Mike continued to sing, I could hear my older friend sigh occasionally. When the song was over, T.W. sat motionless for so long I thought he had forgotten that he was now supposed to preach. As I turned to remind him I saw his shoulders lift and fall with the slow draw and release of his breath. Finally, he opened his eyes and stepped thoughtfully to the pulpit. He looked down for what seemed to be a full minute before he could speak. And then, “Lord, I do want to know you more.” Departing from his prepared words for awhile, he spoke of his thirst for God, his longings to know Christ more intimately, to obey Him more completely. Here was a man who had followed Christ for more than fifty years still captivated by the sweetness of the quest. In his second half-century as a disciple of Jesus, the grace of growth still flourished in him.
That story is vintage T.W. Hunt.
I’ll include one more anecdote about T.W. from another of my books as it illustrates so much about his life that I’ve not yet mentioned, as well as an important principle of prayer I learned from him. In his discipleship course PrayerLife, T.W. recounts how he learned the difference between mutual prayer and united prayer, and the greater power in the latter:
“My wife and I established our family altar before we were married. Now, in our mid-fifties, Laverne and I were rejoicing that we had seen a lifetime of mutual prayer answered. Our son-in-law [Steve Monroe] was as godly as we had prayed for him to be. Our daughter [Melana] was totally committed to the Lordship of Christ. They were godly, praying Christians. Our grandchildren were already demonstrating the fruit of much prayer. We felt that our family devotions lacked nothing, and we were each growing in the Lord. There was much thanksgiving in our home. Then Laverne was stricken with cancer. Two things began happening immediately. The first was an instinctive turning to God in deeper dimensions. Grief is often a father to new insights. . . . The second thing that happened to us was that we drew closer together. . . .”
At this point Dr. Hunt begins outlining dramatic answers to prayer that they began to see, some that related to Laverne’s condition, and some that did not. And although it had not occurred at the writing of his book, from my relationship with him I know that such answers continued for them, even to the eventual, unexpected removal of all signs of cancer from Laverne for a period now approaching ten years. So his conclusion is even more powerful now than when he wrote it:
“One night as we were marveling over what seemed to be happening in our prayers together, we were able to articulate a new principle for united prayer: The closer the bond, the more powerful the prayer; the higher the unity, the greater the authority in prayer.”
So much to notice there. Those who knew T.W. know how much he loved Laverne and how much they endured together. In separate periods of her life she battled three different cancers, being pronounced cancer-free from the first two before the last one took her life in 2009. Second, notice the establishment of family worship together in Lepanto even before they were married. Third, this mentions the Hunt’s daughter Melana, who coauthored a book with T.W., and her husband Steve, both of whom loved and were loved by T.W. and Laverne.
Another significant part of T.W.’s life that I must leave untouched is the way he merged musicology and missions, adapting indigenous music styles to carry the gospel of Jesus Christ. To this end, T.W. often utilized his seminary sabbaticals and mission trips to teach in missionary contexts overseas. He had a gift for languages, and could speak eight, especially German and Spanish.
In short, T.W. Hunt was a father in the ministry to me, and one of the godliest, most humble, and most Christ-centered men I’ve ever known. No one loved and trusted the Bible more. T.W. wasn’t a systematic theologian or a verse-by-verse expositor. His calling and training were different. Nevertheless, he saturated himself in the Scriptures and believed them to be the inerrant Word of God, desiring to live a life conformed as much as possible to its teaching. He read through the entire Bible dozens of times and once devoted an entire year to reading nothing but the Bible.
But my enduring impression of T.W. will be of his prayer life. I sometimes ask people, “Who’s the most prayerful person you’ve ever known.” It’s surprising how often fellow Christians will thoughtfully pause, then tell me no one comes to mind. I have a quick answer for that question. Last month I completed the manuscript for a little book on Praying the Bible (Crossway, July 2015). The dedication begins with, “For T.W. Hunt, the most prayerful man I’ve ever known.”
It saddens me to lose a man (until Heaven reunites us) who prayed for me daily, he said, for decades. I know that I was only one of many others of “his boys” whose names T.W. quickly recited before the Father each day, but just knowing he did that was an encouragement to me.
I’ll really miss asking, “T.W., what’s the Lord been teaching you?” I remember one occasion that typified them all. One June evening after a session of the Southern Baptist Convention I jumped on a shuttle bus back to my hotel and was delighted to see T.W. and Laverne on the same bus. He was almost seventy and had been weakened by cardiac surgery not long before. But his eyes flashed as he talked for half-an-hour about what he was learning about prayer. Even as his body decayed, his longings for God and his love for Jesus radiated from him, and made my heart burn as it did in his office some thirty-five years before.
But now, as Caffy said when she saw the photo I chose for this blog, “He’s with his Jesus.”
Those who want to read more about T.W. Hunt might enjoy this August 3, 2004, Baptist Press story: “‘The Mind of Christ’ not T.W. Hunt’s only pursuit.”
Here’s the Baptist Press announcement about Dr. Hunt’s death: Prayer advocate T.W. Hunt dies at age 85
“And Father, we, um, just want to thank You for Your blessings. And, uh, we just, Lord, want to, uh, just thank You, Lord, for just, really just being so good to us, Father. And Father, we just ask that You just forgive us of our sins, Father. And, um, just bless us now, Father, and just lead, guide, and direct us, Lord. And we just ask all this in Jesus’ name, Father, amen.”
Although there are several problems with praying such soul-deadening prayers, I want to point out two. Both have to do with using words purposelessly.
First, recall that in the Third Commandment, God tells us, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). The original Hebrew here means that we should not use the Lord’s name emptily or without purpose. When we use God’s name like filler for our prayers, or when we address Him again and again without any real purpose in doing so, we take His name in vain.
Second, repeatedly using the name of the Lord or “um,” “uh,” “just,” and the like, typically reflects thoughtless prayer. The person launches out into prayer, but drifts aimlessly from one random thought to another. He’s “just praying,” and not praying about much of anything in particular.
This pattern tends toward heartless prayer as well. The words sound hollow. They convey no sense of urgency or importance about the prayer. And if our prayers do not even move us, how do we expect them to move God? None of the prayers in the Bible sound so pointless or flat. Instead we read of men like Elijah who “prayed fervently” (James 5:17).
Removing needless and meaningless verbal filler makes our prayers clearer, stronger, and more like a purposeful conversation with God.
This material originally appeared in Donald S. Whitney, Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), 86.
Have you ever prayed for bad things to happen to someone? No? Well, about one in ten Americans who pray ask that very thing.
That’s according to a recent survey reported by Baptist Press. On August 7, 2014, Lifeway Research conducted an online survey sponsored by popular author and Texas pastor Max Lucado, asking 1,137 Americans about the frequency and content of their prayers.
Some of the results are amusing, such as the fact that 13% pray for their favorite team to win a game. That raises the interesting question of the dynamics in the spiritual realm when, say, here in Louisville some are praying for the U of L to beat Kentucky while Wildcat fans are praying just the opposite.
Some of the results are surprising. For example, 25% say that all their prayers are answered. Seriously? The best interpretation of this is that these respondents mean that each prayer is answered in the “yes, no, or wait” sense, and not that they always get what they ask for. But from the rest of the data I wouldn’t have expected this many participants to provide an answer that reflects that level of theological sophistication.
Some of the statistics, though, are downright disturbing, such as those who pray for “success in something [they] knew wouldn’t please God” and nearly twice that number who pray for “bad things to happen” to certain people.
The most useful information gleaned from this survey is what it reveals about people’s beliefs when they pray, not anything it implies about the validity of prayer. As with every such survey or “scientific study” of prayer that I’ve read, this one also does not address the most important biblical conditions for answered prayer.
To begin with, Jesus said that no one comes to the Father except through Him (John 14:6), and Hebrews 10:19 emphasizes that we “have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus.” Proverbs 28:9 makes clear that standing with God is not achieved by prayer, for “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.” In other words, the Bible teaches that those who turn their ears from hearing God’s Word–especially when it speaks of the good news of Jesus Christ as the way to God–will find that God turns His ear from hearing their prayers.
So just because someone says they pray doesn’t mean that God listens. God hears everything, of course, but He does not hear with a view to answering unless a person comes “in Jesus’ name” (John 14:13-14; 15:16-17; 16:23-24), that is, in Jesus’ righteousness and standing with God, not their own.
Ed Stetzer, executive director of LifeWay Research, acknowledged this when he said that many of those who responded to the survey may not have a prayer life “rooted in a relationship with God.” Dr. Stetzer is a friend and I’m certain he would never say that those without a relationship with God through Jesus Christ can expect to have their prayers answered in the same way as those who do enjoy that relationship.
Then what about those in this study and in our own circle of relationships who aren’t Christians but who are convinced that God has answered their prayers? I know people who claim dramatic answers to prayer, but who feel no sense of need for a savior from sin and who have no hunger for the Word of God. Nothing will convince them that the “miracle” they experienced was unrelated to their prayer.
In fact, if the “miracle” was indeed an answer to prayer, it is more likely that the prayer God answered in that situation was offered by someone else, someone who came to the Father through Jesus (John 14:6) about the matter. Or it may be that the “answered prayer” was simply what God in His providence was going to do anyway and the unbeliever’s prayer had nothing to do with it. The extremely rare cases in Scripture where God answers the prayers of unbelievers are answers, like that given to Cornelius in Acts 10, which served the plan of God in saving people.
At the very least we can say that we have no biblical basis to assure anyone outside of Christ that God will answer any of their prayers except those related to His offer of forgiveness through Christ.
A second problem with surveys and studies about prayer is that those who do have standing with God through Christ sometimes “ask and do not receive” because they “ask wrongly” (James 4:3). So not all prayers are of the same quality, even by those whom God welcomes for Jesus’ sake. Therefore it’s a mistake to evaluate all prayers–even those offered by God’s own people–as though they are equally acceptable.
In the end, surveys like this one which do not take into account a person’s relationship with God (or lack of one) and the biblical validity of their prayers may be interesting, but prove nothing about the efficacy of prayer.
And the reality is that no survey or study can prove that prayer “works” (or doesn’t), for the movements of the spiritual realm defy quantification. I read one study which emphasized that all participants claimed to be born again, that is, they asserted that they had a relationship with God through Christ. But Jesus said that many who claim to know Him actually do not (Matthew 7:21-23). So the best that research could affirm is that all participants were professing Christians, and on that basis alone (though there were others) the findings of the entire enterprise were invalidated.
Science simply cannot develop an MRI capable of determining the state of a heart before God or the acceptability of a prayer to God.
One way to simplify your prayer life is simply to ask. Perhaps more often than we realize, we want God to do something for us or to give something to us, and yet we haven’t actually asked Him for it. “You do not have,” says James 4:3 “because you do not ask.” The failure to ask is not the only reason we do not have, for the Bible has many other things to say about what we should ask for and why we should ask. In fact, in the very next verse we read, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”
Even so, Jesus made some remarkable promises about simply asking of God in prayer. In the Sermon on the Mount He assured, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
While any passage on prayer needs to be placed in the context of the entire Bible’s teaching on the subject, it’s easy to add so many biblical qualifiers to this broad promise that we end up doubting it more than believing it. But rather than discourage us from asking, Jesus emphasizes three times what “will” result from asking, seeking, and knocking at the door of Heaven. Then to further embolden us, He promises that “everyone” who asks receives” [emphasis added].
Of course, we may not receive exactly what we ask for. (And I thank God for this when I remember some of the things I’ve requested.) But we will receive something good. For Jesus continued, “Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him?” (verses 9-11).
Because God is good, He will give “good things” to all who ask Him. We do not know what they are or when He will give them, for the “good thing” given in answer to many prayers will be seen only in Heaven. But Jesus says, “ask.” Simply ask, and you will receive something good.
This material originally appeared in Donald S. Whitney, Simplify Your Spiritual Life (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2003), 76-77.