Next to this, our prayers must be appropriate. I do not say go into every minute detail of the circumstances of the congregation. As I have said before, there is no need to make the public prayer a gazette of the week’s events, or a register of the births, deaths, and marriages of your people, but the general movements that have taken place in the congregation should be noted by the minister’s careful heart.
He should bring the joys and sorrows of his people alike before the throne of grace, and ask that the divine benediction may rest upon his flock in all their movements, their exercises, engagements, and holy enterprises, and that the forgiveness of God may be extended to their shortcomings and innumerable sins.
Then, by way of negative canon, I should say, do not let your prayer be long. I think it was John Macdonald who used to say. ‘If you are in the spirit of prayer, do not be long, because other people will not be able to keep pace with you in such unusual spirituality; and if you are not in the spirit of prayer, do not be long, because you will then be sure to weary the listeners.’
Livingstone says of Robert Bruce, of Edinburgh, the famous contemporary of Andrew Melville, ‘No man in his time spoke with such evidence and power of the Spirit. No man had so many seals of Conversion; yea, many of his hearers thought no man, since the apostles, spake with such power … He was very short in prayer when others were present, but every sentence was like a strong bolt shot up to heaven. I have heard him say that he wearied when others were long in prayer; but, being alone, he spent much time in wrestling and prayer.’
A man may, on special occasions, if he be unusually moved and carried out of himself, pray for twenty minutes in the long morning prayer, but this should not often happen. My friend, Dr. Charles Brown, of Edinburgh, lays it down, as a result of his deliberate judgment, that ten minutes is the limit to which public prayer ought to be prolonged. Our Puritanic forefathers used to pray for three-quarters of an hour, or more, but then you must recollect that they did not know that they would ever have the opportunity of praying again before an assembly, and therefore, took their fill of it; and besides, people were not inclined in those days to quarrel with the length of prayers or of sermons so much as they do nowadays.
You cannot pray too long in private. We do not limit you to ten minutes there, or ten hours, or ten weeks if you like. The more you are on your knees alone the better. We are now speaking of those public prayers which come before or after the sermon, and for these ten minutes is a better limit than fifteen. Only one in a thousand would complain of you for being too short, while scores will murmur at your being wearisome in length. ‘He prayed me into a good frame of mind,’ George Whitefield once said of a certain preacher, ‘and if he had stopped there, it would have been very well; but he prayed me out of it again by keeping on. ‘The abundant longsuffering of God has been exemplified in his sparing some preachers, who have been great sinners in this direction; they have done much injury to the piety of God’s people by their longwinded orations, and yet God, in his mercy, has permitted them still to officiate in the sanctuary.
Alas! for those who have to listen to pastors who pray in public for five-and-twenty minutes, and then ask God to forgive their ‘shortcomings’! Do not be too long, for several reasons First, because you weary yourselves and the people; and secondly, because being too long in prayer puts your people out of heart for hearing the sermon. All those dry, dull, prolix talkifications in prayer, do but blunt the attention, and the ear gets, as it were, choked up. Nobody would think of blocking up Ear-gate with mud or stones when he meant to storm the gate. No, let the portal be cleared that the battering-ram of the gospel may tell upon it when the time comes to use it.
Long prayers either consist of repetitions, or else of unnecessary explanations which God does not require; or else they degenerate into downright preachings, so that there is no difference between the praying and the preaching, except that in the one the minister has his eyes shut, and in the other he keeps them open. It is not necessary in prayer to rehearse the Westminster Assembly’s Catechism. It is not necessary in prayer to relate the experience of all the people who are present, or even your own. It is not necessary in prayer to string a selection of texts of Scripture together, and quote David, and Daniel, and Job, and Paul, and Peter, and every other body, under the title of thy servant of old’. It is necessary in prayer to draw near unto God, but it is not required of you to prolong your speech till everyone is longing to hear the word ‘Amen!
One little hint I cannot withhold — never appear to be closing, and then start off again for another five minutes. When friends make up their minds that you are about to conclude, they cannot with a jerk proceed again in a devout spirit. I have known men tantalize us with the hope that they were drawing to a close, and then take a fresh lease two or three times; this is most unwise and unpleasant.
The Pastor in Prayer: Being a Choice Selection of C.H. Spurgeon’s Sunday Morning Prayers.
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