Advancement in prayer is fueled by instruction in prayer. When John Wesley declared that prayer was the chief means of grace, it follows that he would provide instruction regarding prayer. A review of his works, especially the sermons and letters, reveals this to be true. Over the course of five decades of ministry he approached the subject of prayer from almost every conceivable angle-sometimes responding to particular questions and needs of his correspondents, at other times providing extended teaching on the theology and practice of prayer (e.g., Sermon on the Mount, Discourse VI).
In Wesley’s instruction on prayer, we discover a staggering array of particular teachings which must somehow be limited and organized for an article of this nature. I offer the following statements which Wesley himself might have made regarding prayer-statements which reveal the kind of instruction he gave to the people called Methodist.
First, understand what true prayer is. One of Wesley’s favorite metaphors for prayer was “breath.” God breathes into us the divine word and will; we respond in prayer by breathing out our responses in both word and deed (see his sermon, The Great Privilege of Those That Are Born of God, III:2). In his Explanatory Notes upon the New Testament, he further defined authentic prayer by commenting on Paul’s phrase in Eph 6:18, “praying always”-at all times, and on every occasion, in the midst of all employments, inwardly praying without ceasing. While Wesley was conscientious in practicing stated times for prayer, he did not limit his understanding or practice of it to such times. True prayer was more a life to be lived than a time to be kept.
Second, learn to pray by praying. As early as 1728, Wesley began to collect prayers the way some people collect stamps. His collection became the “manual” for his own prayer life, and he offered excerpts from this collection to others when they came to him for help with their praying. The requests reached such a number, and Wesley observed the success which came when people prayed their way into deeper prayer, that in 1733 he published A Collection of Forms of Prayer for Every Day in the Week. The collection provided a weekly cycle of prayers for morning and evening, with additional questions for self-examination to help apply the principles voiced in the prayers themselves.
Examining Wesley’s personal diary, we find that he used this collection with his students at Lincoln College, encouraging them to pray the prayers and report back to him the results. He was convinced that by praying some of the best examples of classic prayers, a person would discover the chief topics for prayer and develop a passion to prayer in union with the saints. Taking this approach also enabled him to recommend similar resources (devotional manuals, prayer books, and The Book of Common Prayer) after they had spent time in his collection.
Third, combine the best of objectivity with the truest subjectivity. Wesley’s instruction in the use of classic prayers was not intended to produce a “parroting” of others or the mere rote recitation of printed prayers. Rather, it was his intention to set up a concert of prayer in which the prayers of the ages blended with the prayers of the individual. A look at the 1733 Collection reveals how he did this. Interspersed in the printed prayers are actual lines-spaces between phrases and ideas. These were signals for the person to move out of the text and express the same idea in a more personalized way. Wesley believed that the best praying was done by keeping a dynamic interplay between the objective and the subjective.
He was criticized for taking this approach by those who felt that extemporaneous prayer was a defection from true prayer. In The Principles of a Methodist Father Explained (1746) he challenged the view that the liturgy of the church should be used without departure or variation. He acknowledged that in both public and private he did not use the exact terms of the liturgy always and only, but also used extemporaneous prayer, which he felt did not slight or hold in contempt the liturgy itself or the rules of the Church of England regarding prayer.
Fourth, grow in prayer through prayer. In a way this was his deepest instruction regarding prayer, for it is the very thing we are tempted to abandon, especially when prayer itself is “dry” and meaningless. He wrote to Mary Pendarves in 1731 about her confessed “inattention to prayer.” He counseled, “Are you inattentive in prayer? pray oftener. Do you address God twice a day already? then do so three times” (Letters, Telford ed., 1:102). This was not an attempt to measure the efficacy of prayer by its quantity, but rather guidance given in the belief that the best way to revive one’s prayer life is by prayer itself-not merely reading or thinking about it. Wesley own example, for more than sixty years, confirms that he practiced what he preached.
These four instructions by no means exhaust the breadth and depth of Wesley’s instructions regarding prayer. But they do catch the spirit and tap the substance of his counsel. I have chosen them because they point to the kind of prayer teaching that generates prayer life. And that, in the final analysis, was what his instruction was all about.