The Secret Key to Heaven. The Vital Importance of Private Prayer
We can scarcely have too many books on prayer, though sadly it is often easier to read books about prayer than to get down and pray. We all need stirring up to pray and this book helps to do that. As the title with its subtitle indicates, it is primarily about private or personal prayer, but although this is its focus there is much that is applicable to prayer in general. Brooks is noted for his pithy, memorable sentences and I found one phrase particularly striking. Writing towards the end of the book of Satan’s opposition to secret prayer, and giving reasons for this, he says, ‘partly because secret prayer is so musical and delightful to God’. Whoever would have thought of using the word ‘musical’? This Puritan certainly must have loved music to write in that way, and what a picture it conjures up. Secret prayer is like a lovely song or tune that entrances the ear of God; what an incentive to pray!
The book is divided into six parts, of very unequal length. Part one, five pages – ‘The Doctrine of the Text Stated and Proved’ – is based on our Lord’s words in Matthew 6:6. The second part, seventy pages, gives ‘Twenty Arguments for Private Prayer’. The fourth argument is ‘Secret prayer lets us unburden ourselves before God’. ‘In secret, a Christian may descend into such particulars, as in public or before others, he will not, he may not, he ought not, to mention’. The tenth argument is headed ‘Secret prayers and secret sins’ but extends beyond that: ‘And as they have their secret needs, so they have their secret fears”¦ snares”¦ trials”¦ troubles”¦ doubts”¦ jealousies etc. “¦ these things call aloud upon every Christian to be frequent and constant in secret prayer.’ The fourteenth argument is that ‘God is omnipresent’. ‘We cannot sigh out a prayer in secret, but he sees us, we cannot lift up our eyes to him at midnight, but he observes us’. Argument sixteen is particularly relevant, ‘The times call for private prayer’. ‘Oh, weep in secret for their sins who openly glory in their sins, which should be their greatest shame. Oh, blush in secret for them that are past all blushing for their sins; for who knows but that the whole land may fare better for the sakes of a few who are mourners in secret?’
Seven pages are devoted to Part Three ‘The Use and Application of the Doctrine’ followed by Part Four, ‘Six Objections Stated and Answered’, consisting of nearly one hundred pages. The third objection deals with those who feel inadequate and lacking in ability to pray in private when compared with others. This is answered sensitively and thoroughly. ‘There may be the Spirit of adoption in sighs and groans, as well as in vocal prayer”¦ One sigh and groan from a broken heart, is better pleasing to God, than all human eloquence.’ Luther is quoted as saying, ‘Lord, you command me to pray. I cannot pray as I would, yet I will obey; for though my prayer be not acceptable, yet your own commandment is acceptable to you’. The sixth objection deals with the ‘multitude of infirmities, weaknesses, and vanities [that] face us, and rise up against us’. ‘Well, Christians! remember this once for all, if your indisposition to closet prayer really arises from bodily illnesses, then you may be confident that the Lord will pity you much, and bear with you much, and kindly accept of a little.’
The fifth part, ‘Eleven Instructions concerning Private Prayer’ is sixty pages long. The second instruction says, ‘Take the fittest seasons and opportunities that you possibly can for closet prayers.’ The fourth is, ‘Take heed of resting on closet duties, take heed of trusting in closet duties.’ ‘It is my duty to perform closet duties, but it is my sin to rely upon them”¦ It was the saying of a precious saint, that “he was more afraid of his duties than of his sins; for the one made him often proud, but the other made him always humble.”‘ The fifth instruction is to work hard to put your heart into all your prayers: ‘God looks not at the elegancy of your prayers, to see how neat they are; nor yet at the geometry of your prayers, to see how long they are; nor yet at the arithmetic of your prayers, to see how many they are; nor yet at the music of your prayers, nor yet at the sweetness of your voice, nor yet at the logic of your prayers, but at the sincerity of your prayers, how hearty they are.’ The sixth instruction is to be fervent and warm in prayer: ‘Fervency feathers the wings of prayer, and makes them fly the swifter to heaven’. The eighth instruction is to thirst and long after communion with God in prayer: ‘Oh, let closet prayer be a golden bridge, a ferry-boat, a chariot to convey your souls over to God, and to bring you into a more intimate communion with God’. But he also adds this: ‘Well, friends, remember this once for all, viz., that a Christian may have as real communion with God in a heart-humbling way, as he can have in a heart-comforting way’. The final part (forty-six pages) consists of ‘Means, Rules, and Directions for Faithful Private Prayer’.
This is a book of nearly three hundred pages, and it is not altogether an easy read, especially for those who are not acquainted with Puritan literature. Directions for servants have to be transposed into a modern setting, and allowance has to be made for some of the language. I found frequent reference to praying ‘in a corner’ or ‘in a hole’ rather strange; ‘closet duties’ is not a felicitous phrase and it is a pity readers are always addressed as ‘Sirs’. At times Brooks seems to over-value private prayer to the detriment of public prayer, but then he corrects himself: ‘The wisdom of a Christian most eminently sparkles and shines, in giving every duty its proper time and place’. But who can doubt the importance of the subject? – and you do not have to try to read the book all at once, little by little is often better in any case. Most important of all it constantly encourages, warns and directs us to heartfelt, personal prayer to God.
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