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Too Busy to Pray? 8 Responses from Thomas Brooks

Category Book Excerpts
Date April 8, 2024

The following is taken from Thomas Brooks, The Secret Key to Heaven: The Vital Importance of Private Prayer (Puritan Paperbacks). After detailing the great privilege of private prayer, and why it is of the essence of the true Christian life, he anticipates and answers several common objections to its practice:

First Objection. But many will be ready to object and say, We have much business upon our hands, and we cannot spare time for private prayer; we have so much to do in our shops, and in our warehouses, and in public with others, that we cannot spare time to wait upon the Lord in our closets.

Now to this objection I shall give these eight answers, so that this objection may never have a resurrection more in any of your hearts.

First, what are all those businesses that are upon your hands, to those businesses and weighty affairs that lay upon the hands of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David, Daniel, Elijah, Nehemiah, Peter, Cornelius1See the first argument, pp. 7–13.? And yet you find all these worthies exercising themselves in private prayers. And the king is commanded every day to read some part of God’s word, notwithstanding all his great and weighty employments (Deut. 17:18–20). Now certainly, sirs, your great businesses are little more than zeros compared with theirs. And if there were any on earth that might have pleaded an exemption from private prayer, upon the account of business, of much business, of great business, these might have done it; but they were more honest and more noble than to neglect so choice a duty, upon the account of much business. These brave hearts made all their public employments stoop to private prayer; they would never suffer their public employments to tread private prayer underfoot. But,

Secondly, I answer, No men’s outward affairs did ever more prosper than theirs did, who devoted themselves to private prayer, notwithstanding their many and great worldly employments.

Witness the prosperity and outward flourishing estates of Moses, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Nehemiah, David, Daniel, and Cornelius. These were much with God in their closets, and God blessed their blessings to them (Gen. 22:17). How their cups overflowed! What signal favours did God heap upon them and theirs! No families have been so prospered, protected, and graced, as theirs who have maintained secret communion with God in a corner (1 Chron. 11:9). Private prayer best expedites our temporal affairs. He that prays well in his closet, shall be sure to speed well in his shop, or at his plough, or whatever else he turns his hand to (1 Tim. 4:8). It is true, Abimelech was rich as well as Abraham, and so was Laban rich as well as Jacob, and Saul was a king as well as David, and Julian was an emperor as well as Constantine; but it was only Abraham, Jacob, David, and Constantine, who had their blessings blessed unto them; all the rest had their blessings cursed unto them (Prov. 3:33; Mal. 2:2). They had many good things, but they had not ‘the good will of him that dwelt in the bush’ with what they had; and therefore all their mercies were but bitter-sweets unto them. Though all the sons of Jacob returned laden from Egypt with corn and money in their sacks, yet only Benjamin had the silver cup in the mouth of his sack. So though the men of the world have their corn and their money, etc., yet it is only God’s Benjamins that have the silver cup, the grace cup, the cup of blessing, as the apostle calls it, for their portion (1 Cor. 10:16). O sirs! as ever you would prosper and flourish in the world; as ever you would have your water turned into wine, your temporal mercies into spiritual benefits, be much with God in your closets. But,

Thirdly, I answer, it is ten to one but that the objector every day fools away, or fritters away, or idles away, or sins away, one hour in a day, and why then should he complain of a lack of time2Myrmecides, a famous artist [a sculptor], spent more time in making a bee than an unskilful workman would do to build a house.?

There are none that toil and moil and busy themselves most in their worldly employments but do spend an hour or more in a day to little or no purpose, either in gazing about, or in dallying, or toying, or courting, or in telling of stories, or in busying themselves in other men’s matters, or in idle visits, or in smoking a pipe, etc.35 And why then should not these men redeem an hour’s time in a day for private prayer, out of that time which they usually spend so vainly and idly? Can you, notwithstanding all your great worldly employments, find an hour in the day to catch flies in, as Domitian the emperor did? and to play the fool in? and cannot you find an hour in the day to wait on God in your closets?

There were three special faults of which Cato professed himself to have seriously repented: one was travelling by water when he might have gone by land; another was trusting a secret in a woman’s bosom; but the main one was spending an hour unprofitably. This heathen will one day rise up in judgment against them who, notwithstanding their great employments, spend many hours in a week unprofitably, and yet cry out with the Duke of Alva ‘that they have so much to do on earth, that they have no time to look up to heaven’. It was a base and sordid spirit in King Sardanapalus, who spent much of his time amongst women in spinning and carding, which should have been spent in ruling and governing his kingdom. So it is a base, sordid spirit in any to spend any of their time in toying and trifling, and then to cry out that they have so much business to do in the world, that they have no time for closet prayer, they have no time to serve God, nor to save their own precious and immortal souls. But,

Fourthly, I answer, no man dares plead this objection before the Lord Jesus in the great day of account (Eccles. 11:9; Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 5:10). And why then should any man be so childish and foolish, so ignorant and impudent to plead that before men which is not pleadable before the judgment seat of Christ? O sirs! as you love your souls, and as you would be happy for ever, never put off your own consciences nor others’ with any pleas, arguments, or objections now, that you dare not own and stand by when you shall lie upon a dying bed, and when you shall appear before the whole court of heaven. In the great day of account, when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed, and God shall call men to a reckoning before angels, men, and devils, for the neglect of private prayer, all guilty persons will be found speechless: there will not be a man or woman found, that shall dare to stand up and say, ‘Lord, I would have waited upon you in my closet, but that I had so much business to do in the world that I had no time to enjoy secret communion with you in a corner.’ It is the greatest wisdom in the world, to plead nothing by way of excuse in this our day, that we dare not plead in the great day. But,

Fifthly, I answer, that it is our duty to redeem time from all our secular businesses for private prayer3It is said of blessed Hooper [John Hooper, c.1495–1555], that he was spare of diet, spare of words, and sparest of time.. All sorts of Christians, whether bond or free, rich or poor, high or low, superiors or inferiors, are expressly charged by God to redeem time for prayer, for private prayer, as well as for other holy exercises: Col. 4:2, 3, ‘Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving; withal praying also for us, that God would open unto us a door of utterance, to speak the mystery of Christ, for which I am also in bonds.’

But here some may object and say, We have so much business to do in the world that we have no time for prayer. The apostle answers this objection in verse 5, ‘Walk in wisdom towards them that are without, redeeming the time.’ So Eph. 5:16, ‘Redeeming the time, because the days are evil’; ἐξαγοραζόμενοι τὸν χαιρόν, or buying out, or gaining the time. The words are a metaphor taken from merchants, who prefer the least profit that may be gained before their pleasures or delights, closely following their business whilst the markets are at best. A merchant when he comes to a mart or fair, takes the first season and opportunity of buying his commodities; he takes no risk in putting it off to the evening, or to the next morning, in the hope of getting a better bargain, but he makes the most of the present time, and buys before the market is over.

Others understand the words thus: ‘Purchase at any rate, all occasions and opportunities of doing good, that by doing so you may, in some way, redeem that precious jewel of time which you have formerly lost.’ Like travellers that have loitered by the way, or stayed long at their inn, when they find night coming upon them, they mend their pace, and go as many miles in an hour as they did before in many. Though time let slip is physically irrecoverable, yet in a moral consideration, it is accounted as regained, when men double their care, diligence, and endeavours to redeem it. The best Christian is he who is the greatest monopoliser of time for private prayer; who redeems time from his worldly occasions and his lawful comforts and recreations, to be with God in his closet. David having tasted of the sweetness, goodness, and graciousness of God, cannot keep his bed, but will borrow some time from his sleep, that he might take some turns in paradise, and pour out his soul in prayer and praises when no eye was open to see him, nor no ear open to hear him, but all were asleep round about him, Psa. 63:6; Psa. 119:62, ‘At midnight will I arise to give thanks unto thee.’ Verse 147, ‘I have prevented the dawning of the morning, and cried.’ David was up and at private prayer before daybreak. David was no sluggish Christian, no slothful Christian, no lazy Christian: he used to be in his closet when others were sleeping in their beds. So verse 148, ‘Mine eyes prevent the night-watches, that I might meditate in thy word.’ So Psa. 130:6, ‘My soul waiteth for the Lord, more than they that watch for the morning; I say, more than they that watch for the morning.’ Look, as the weary sentinel in a dark, cold, wet night, waits and peeps, and peeps and waits for the appearance of the morning; so David did wait and peep, and peep and wait for the first and fittest season to pour out his soul before God in a corner. David would never suffer his worldly business to jostle out holy exercises; he would often borrow time from the world for private prayer, but he would never borrow time from private prayer to bestow it upon the world.

John Bradford, the martyr, counted that hour lost in which he did not do some good, either with his pen, tongue, or purse.

Ignatius, when he heard a clock strike, used to say, ‘Now I have one more hour to answer for.’

So the primitive Christians would redeem some time from their sleep, that they might be with God in their closets, as Clemens observes. And I have read of the emperor Theodosius that after the variety of worldly employments relating to his civil affairs in the day time were over, he was wont to consecrate the greatest part of the night to the studying of the Scriptures and private prayer; to which purpose he had a lamp so cleverly made, that it supplied itself with oil, that so he might not be interrupted in his private retirements.

That time ought to be redeemed is a lesson that has been taught by the very heathens themselves. It was the saying of Pittacus, one of the seven wise men, ‘Know time, lose not a minute.’ And so Theophrastus used to say, ‘Time is of precious cost.’ And so Seneca: ‘Time is the only thing’, says he, ‘that we can innocently be covetous of; and yet there is nothing of which many are more lavishly and profusely prodigal.’ And Chrestus, a sophist of Byzantium in the time of Hadrian the emperor, was much given to wine; yet, he always counted time so precious, that when he had misspent his time all the day, he would redeem it at night.

When Titus Vespasian, who revenged Christ’s blood on Jerusalem, returned victor to Rome, remembering one night as he sat at supper with his friends, that he had done no good that day, he uttered this memorable and praiseworthy apophthegm, Amici, diem perdidi, ‘My friends, I have lost a day.’

Chilo, one of the seven sages, being asked what was the hardest thing in the world to be done, answered, ‘To use and employ a man’s time well.’ Cato held that an account must be given, not only of our labour, but also of our leisure. And Aelian gives this testimony of the Lacedaemonians, ‘that they were hugely covetous of their time, spending it all about necessary things, and suffering no citizen either to be idle or play.’ And, another says, ‘We trifle with that which is most precious, and throw away that which is our greatest interest to redeem.’

Certainly, these heathens will rise in judgment, not only against Domitian the Roman emperor, who spent much of his time in killing flies; nor only against Archimedes, who spent his time in drawing lines on the ground when Syracuse was taken; nor against Artaxerxes, who spent his time in making handles for knives; nor only against Sulaiman the great Turk, who spent his time in making notches of horn for bows; nor only against Eropas, a Macedonian king, who spent his time in making lanterns; nor only against Hyrcanus the king of Parthia who spent his time in catching moles; but also against many professors who, instead of redeeming precious time, do trifle and fool away much of their precious time at the glass, the comb, the lute, the viol, the pipe, or vain sports, and foolish pastimes, or by idle jestings, immoderate sleeping, and superfluous feasting, etc.

O sirs! Good hours, and blessed opportunities for closet prayer are merchandise of the highest value and price; and therefore, whosoever has a mind to be rich in grace, and to be high in glory, should buy up that merchandise, they should continually redeem precious time.

O sirs! we should redeem time for private prayer out of our eating time, our drinking time, our sleeping time, our buying time, our selling time, our sinning time, our sporting time, rather than neglect our closet communion with God, etc. But,

Sixthly, I answer, Closet prayer is either a duty or it is no duty. Now that it is a duty, I have so strongly proved, I suppose, that no man nor devil can fairly or honestly deny it to be a duty. And therefore, why do men cry out of their great business? Alas! duty must be done whatever business is left undone; duty must be done, or the man who neglects it will be undone for ever. It is a vain thing to complain of business, when a required duty is to be performed; and, indeed, if the bare objecting of business, of much business, were enough to excuse men from duty, I am afraid that there are but few duties of the gospel, but men would try to evade under a pretence of business, of much business. He who pretends business to evade private prayer, will be as ready to pretend business to evade family prayer; and he that pretends business to evade family prayer, will be as ready to pretend business to evade public prayer.

Well, sirs! remember what became of those that excused themselves out of heaven, by their carnal apologies, and secular businesses: Luke 14:16–24. ‘I have bought a piece of ground, and I must needs go and see it; I pray thee, have me excused,’ says one. ‘I have bought’, says another, ‘five yoke of oxen, and I go to prove them; I pray thee, have me excused.’ And, ‘I have married a wife’, says another, ‘and therefore I cannot come.’ The true reason why they would not come to the supper that the King of kings had invited them to was, not because they had bought farms and oxen, but because their farms and oxen had bought them. The things of the world and their carnal relations had taken up so much room in their hearts and affections, that they had no stomach for heaven’s delicacies; and therefore it is observable what Christ adds at the end of the parable, ‘He that hateth not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also’, much more his farm and oxen, ‘he cannot be my disciple,’ verse 26. By these words, it is evident, that it was not simply the farm nor the oxen, nor the wife, but a foolish, inordinate, carnal love and esteem of these things, above better and greater blessings, that made them refuse the gracious invitation of Christ. They refused the grace and mercy of God offered in the gospel, under a pretence of worldly business; and God peremptorily concludes, that not one of them should taste of his supper.

And indeed what can be more just and righteous, than that they should never so much as taste of spiritual and eternal blessings, who prefer their earthly business before heaven’s dainties, prefer a country commodious for the feeding of their cattle, before an interest in the land of promise. Private prayer is a work of absolute necessity, both to the bringing of the heart into a good frame, and to the keeping of the heart in a good frame. It is of absolute necessity, both for the discovery of sin, and for the preventing of sin, and for the purging away of sin. It is of absolute necessity, both for the discovery of grace, and for a full exercise of grace, and for an eminent increase of grace. It is of absolute necessity to arm us, both against inward and outward temptations, afflictions, and sufferings. It is of absolute necessity to fit us for all other duties and services. For a man to glorify God, to save his own soul, and to further his own everlasting happiness, is a work of the greatest necessity. Now private prayer is such a work; and therefore why should any man plead business, great business, when a work of such absolute necessity is before him? If a man’s child or wife were dangerously sick, or wounded, or near to death, he would never plead, ‘I have business, I have a great deal of business to do, and therefore I cannot stay with my child, my wife; and I have no time to go or send for the physician’, etc. Oh no! but he would rather argue thus: ‘It is absolutely necessary that I should look after the preservation of the life of my child, my wife, and this I will attend whatever becomes of my business.’ O sirs! your souls are of greater concern to you than the lives of all the wives and children in the world; and therefore these must be attended to, these must be saved, whatever business is neglected. But,

Seventhly, I answer, That God did never appoint or design any man’s ordinary, particular calling to throw private prayer out of doors4Paradise was man’s workhouse as well as his storehouse, Gen. 2:15. Man should not have lived idly though he had not fallen from his innocency..

That it is a great sin for any professing Christian to neglect his particular calling under any religious pretence is evident enough by these Scriptures – Exod. 20:9, ‘Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work’; 1 Cor. 7:20, ‘Let every man abide in the same calling wherein he was called’; 2 Thess. 3:10–12, ‘For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread’; 1 Thess. 4:11, 12, ‘And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; that ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing’; Eph. 4:28, ‘But rather let him labour, working with his own hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth’; 1 Tim. 5:8, ‘But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.’ Yes, our Lord Jesus Christ was a plain, downright carpenter, and was worked hard in that particular calling till he entered upon the public ministry, as all the old writers do agree (Mark 6:3; Matt. 13:55, 56). And we read also that all the patriarchs had their particular callings. Abel was a keeper of sheep (Gen. 4:2); Noah was a husbandman (Gen. 5:29); the sons of Jacob were shepherds and keepers of cattle (Gen. 46:34), etc.; and all the apostles, before they were called to the work of the ministry, had their particular callings. By the law of Mohammed, the great Turk himself is bound to exercise some manual trade or occupation.

Solon made a law5Plutarch, Life of Solon., that the son should not be bound to relieve his father when old, unless he had set himself in his youth to some occupation. And at Athens, every man gave a yearly account to the magistrate by what trade or course of life he maintained himself, which, if he could not do, he was banished. And it is by all writers condemned as a very great vanity in Dionysius that he must be the best poet, and Caligula, that he must be the best orator; and in Nero, that he must be the best fiddler; and so became the three worst princes, by minding more other men’s business than their own particular calling.

But for a man to evade or neglect private prayer under pretence of his particular calling, is agreeable to no Scripture, but is contrary to very many Scriptures, as is evident by the many arguments formerly cited. Certainly no man’s calling is a calling away from God or godliness. It never entered into the heart of God that our particular callings should ever drive out of doors our general calling of Christianity. Look, as our general calling must not eat up our particular calling, so our particular calling must not eat up our general calling. Certainly our particular calling must give place to our general calling. Did not the woman of Samaria leave her water-pot, and run into the city, and say, ‘Come, see a man that told me all things that ever I did: is not this the Christ’ (John 4:28, 29)? Did not the shepherds leave their flocks in the field, and go to Bethlehem, and declare the good tidings of great joy that they had heard of the angel, viz. ‘That there was born that day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which was Christ the Lord’ (Luke 2:8–21)? And did not Christ commend Mary for that holy neglect of her particular calling, when she sat at his feet, and heard his word (Luke 10:38ff.)? And what do all these instances show, but that our particular callings must give the right hand to the general calling of Christianity? Certainly the works of our general calling are far more great and glorious, more eminent and excellent, more high and noble, than the works of our particular callings are; and therefore it is much more tolerable for our general calling to borrow time of our particular calling than it is for our particular calling to borrow time of our general calling. Certainly those men are very ignorant or very profane, that either think themselves so closely tied up to follow their particular callings six days in the week, as that they must not intermeddle with any religious services, or that think their particular callings to be a gulf or a grave designed by God to swallow up private prayer in. God, who is the Lord of time, has reserved some part of our time to himself every day. Though the Jews were commanded to labour six days of the week, yet they were commanded also to offer up morning and evening sacrifice daily (Deut. 6:6–8; Exod. 29:38, 39; Num. 28:3).

The Jews divided the day into three parts:
The first, to prayer;
The second, for the reading of the law;
And the third, for the works of their lawful callings.

As bad as the Jews were, yet they every day set a part of the day apart for religious exercises. Certainly they are worse than Jews that spend all their time about their particular callings, and shut closet prayer quite out of doors. Certainly that man’s soul is in a very ill case, who is so entangled with the encumbrances of the world, that he can spare no time for private prayer. If God be the Lord of your mercies, the Lord of your time, and the Lord of your soul, how can you, with any equity or honour, put off his service under a pretence of much business? That man is lost, that man is cursed, who can find time for anything, but none to meet with God in his closet. That man is doubtless upon the brink of ruin, whose worldly business eats up all thoughts of God, of Christ, of heaven, of eternity, of his soul, and of his soul concerns. But,

Eighthly, and lastly, I answer, the more worldly business lies upon your hand, the more need you have to keep close to your closet.

Much business lays a man open to many sins, and to many snares, and to many temptations. Now, the more sins, snares, and temptations a man’s business lays him open to, the more need that man has to be much in private prayer, that his soul may be kept pure from sin, and that his foot may not be taken in the devil’s trap, and that he may stand fast in the hour of temptation. Private prayer is so far from being a hindrance to a man’s business, that it is the way of ways to bring down a blessing from heaven upon a man’s business (Psa. 1:2, 3; 127:1, 2; 128:1, 2); as the first-fruits that God’s people gave to him brought down a blessing from heaven upon all the rest (Deut. 26:10, 11). Whet is no let6That is, it is no hindrance to labour to sharpen the scythe.; prayer and provender never hinders a journey.

Private prayer can be likened to Jacob, who brought down a blessing from heaven upon all that Laban had (Gen. 30:27, 30). Private prayer gives a man a sanctified use, both of all his earthly comforts, and of all his earthly business; and this David and Daniel found by experience; and therefore it was not their great public employments that could take them off from their private duties. Time spent in heavenly employments, is no time lost from worldly business (Deut. 28:1–8).

Private prayer makes all we take in hand successful.  Closet prayer has made many rich, but it never made any man poor or beggarly in this world. No man on earth knows what may be the emergencies, or the occurrences of a day: Prov. 27:1, ‘Boast not thyself of tomorrow, for thou knowest not what a day may bring forth.’ Every day is, as it were, a heavily-pregnant day; every day is as it were with child of something, but what it will bring forth, whether a cross or a comfort, no man can tell; as when a woman is with child, no man can tell what kind of birth it will be.

No man knows what mercies a day may bring forth, no man knows what miseries a day may bring forth; no man knows what good a day may bring forth, no man knows what evil a day may bring forth; no man knows what afflictions a day may bring forth, no man knows what temptations a day may bring forth; no man knows what liberty a day may bring forth, no man knows what bonds a day may bring forth; no man knows what good success a day may bring forth, no man knows what bad success a day may bring forth; and therefore, a man had need be every day in his closet with God, that he may be prepared and fitted to entertain and improve all the occurrences, successes, and emergencies that may attend him in the course of his life. And let thus much suffice for answer to this first objection.


Buy Thomas Brooks, The Secret Key to Heaven: The Vital Importance of Private Prayer.

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