It is a truth that the spirit of prayer is given to all children of God in some measure. The Directory for Family Worship therefore calls on us to be fervent and frequent in study and secret prayer, for the enabling of the heart to conceive and for the tongue to confess prayer for the good of our families.
In this article we consider the advice of Matthew Henry on five matters for family prayer, taken from his sermon A Church in the House.
Five things especially you should have upon your heart in your family prayer, and should endeavour to bring something of each, more or less, into every prayer with your families.
1. Give Honour to God
You ought to make family acknowledgments of your dependance upon God and his providence. Our great business in all acts of religious worship, is to give unto the Lord the glory due unto his name; and this we must do in our family worship. Give honour to God as the founder of families by his ordinance, because "it was not good for man to be alone;" as the founder of your families by his providence, for he it is "who buildeth the house and setteth the solitary in families." Give honour to him as the owner and ruler of families; acknowledge that you and yours are his, under his government, and at his disposal, "as the sheep of his pasture." Especially adore him as the "God of all the families of Israel," in covenant relation to them, and having a particular concern for them above others, Jer. 31:1. Give honour to the great Redeemer as the head of all the churches, even those in your houses; call him the Master of the family, and the great upholder and benefactor of it; for he it is in whom all the families of the earth are blessed, Gen. 12:3. All family blessings are owing to Christ, and come to us through his hand by his blood. Own your dependance upon God, and your obligations to Christ for all good things pertaining both to life and godliness; and make conscience of paying homage to your chief Lord, and never set up a title to any of your enjoyments in competition with his.
2. Confession of Sins
You ought to make family confessions of your sins against God; those sins you have contracted the guilt of in your family capacity. We read in Scripture of the "iniquity of the house", as of Eli's, 1 Sam. 3:13, 14. Iniquity visited upon the children; sins that bring wrath upon families, and a curse that enters into the house to consume it, with the timber thereof, and the stones thereof, Zech. 5:4. How sad is the condition of those families who sin together and never pray together! who, by concurring in frauds, quarrels, and excesses, by strengthening one another's hands in impiety and profaneness, fill the measure of family guilt, and never agree together to do any thing to obtain mercy from God.
And even religious families, that are not polluted with gross and scandalous sins, yet have need to join every day in solemn acts and expressions of repentance before God for their sins of daily infirmity. Their vain words and unprofitable conversation among themselves; their manifold defects in relative duties, provoking one another's lusts and passions, instead of provoking one another to love and to good works: these ought to be confessed and bewailed by the family together, that God may be glorified, and what has been amiss may be amended for the future. It was not only in a time of great and extraordinary repentance that families mourned apart, (Zech. 12:11,) but on the stated returns of the day of expiation the priest was particularly to make atonement for his household, Lev. 16:17. In many things we all offend God and one another; and a penitent confession of it in prayer together will be the most effectual way of reconciling ourselves both to God and to one another. The best families, and those in which piety and love prevail most, yet in many things come short, and do enough every day to bring them upon their knees at night.
You ought to offer up family thanksgivings for the blessings which you, with your families, receive from God. Many are the mercies which you enjoy the sweetness and benefit of in common; of which, if wanting to one, all the family would be sensible. Has not God made a hedge of protection about you and your house, and all that you have ? Job, 1:10. Has he not created a defence upon every "dwelling-place " of Mount Zion, as well as upon her assemblies? Isa. 4:5. The dreadful alarms of a storm, and the desolations made, as by a fire, once in an age, should make us sensible of our obligations to divine Providence for our preservation from tempests and fire every day and every night. ''It is of the Lord's mercies that we are not consumed," and buried in the ruins of our houses. When the whole family comes together safe in the morning from their respective retirements, and when they return safe at night from their respective employments, there having been no disaster, no "adversary," no evil occurrence, - it is so reasonable and as I may say so natural for them to join together in solemn thanksgivings to their great Protector, that I wonder how any who believe in a God and Providence can omit it. Have you not health in your family, sickness kept or taken from the midst of you? Does not God bring plentifully into your hands and increase your substance? Have you not your table spread, and your cup running over and manna rained about your tents ? and does not the whole family share in the comfort of all this? Shall not then the voice of thanksgiving be in those tabernacles where the voice of rejoicing is? Ps. 118:15. Is the vine by the house-side fruitful and flourishing, and are the olive plants round the table green and growing? Are family-relations comfortable and agreeable, not broken nor embittered, and shall not God be acknowledged herein, who makes every creature to be what it is to us? Shall not the God of your mercies, your family mercies, be the God of your praises, your family praises, and that daily?
The benefit and honor of your being Christian families, your having in God's house, and within his walls, a place and a name better than that of sons and daughters, and the salvation this brings to your house, furnishes you with abundant matter for joint thanksgivings. "You hath he known above all the families of the earth," and therefore he expects in a special manner to be owned by you. Of all houses, the house of Israel, the house of Aaron and, the house of Levi have most reason to bless the Lord, and to say, "His mercy endureth for ever."
4. Family Petitions
You ought to present your family petitions for the mercy and grace which your families need. Daily bread is received by families together, and we are taught not only to pray for it every day, but to pray together for it, saying, Our Father give it us. There are affairs and employments in which the family is jointly concerned, and therefore should jointly ask of God wisdom for the management of them, and prosperity therein. There are family-cares to be cast upon God by prayer, family comforts to be sought, and family crosses which they should together beg him to sanctify and remove. Hereby your children will be more effectually possessed with a belief of, and regard to the divine Providence, than by all the instructions you can give them; which will look best in their eye when thus reduced to practice by your daily acknowledging God in all your ways.
You desire that God will give wisdom and grace to your children, you "travail in birth again till you see Christ formed in them," you pray for them; it is well, but it is not enough; you must pray with them; let them hear you pray to God for a blessing upon the good instructions and counsels you give them; it may perhaps lead them to pray for themselves, and increase their esteem both of you and of the good lessons you teach them.
There are some temptations which families, as such, lie open to. Busy families are in temptation to worldliness and neglect of religious duties; mixed families are in temptation to discord and mutual jealousies; decaying families are in temptation to distrust, discontent, and indirect courses to help themselves: they should therefore not only watch, but pray together that they be not overcome by the temptations they are exposed to.
There are family blessings which God has promised, and for which he will be sought unto, such as those on the house of Obededom for the ark's sake; or the mercy which the apostle Paul begs for the house of Onesiphorus, 2 Tim. 1:16. These joint blessings must be sought by joint prayers. There is a special blessing which God commands upon families that dwell together in unity, Ps. 133:1, 3, which they must seek for by prayer, and come together to seek for it, in token of that unity which qualifies for it. Where God commands the blessing we must beg the blessing. God by promise blesses David's house, and therefore David, by prayer, blesses it too. 2 Sam. 6:20.
You ought also to make family intercessions for others. There are families you stand related to, or which, by neighbourhood, friendship or acquaintance, you become interested in, and concerned for; and these you should recommend in your prayers to the grace of God, and your family that are joined to you in the relation should join you in those prayers. Evil tidings perhaps are received from relations at a distance, which are the grief of the family; God must then be sought unto by the family for succor and deliverance. Some of the branches of the family are, perhaps, in distant countries and in dangerous circumstances, and you are solicitous about them; it will be a comfort to yourselves, as well as of advantage to them, to make mention of them daily in your family prayers. The benefit of prayer will reach far, because He who hears prayer can extend his hand of power and mercy to the utmost corners of the earth, and to them that are afar off upon the sea.
In the public peace likewise we and our families have peace; and therefore if we forget thee, O Jerusalem, we are unworthy ever to stand in thy courts or dwell within thy walls. Our families should be witnesses for us that we pray daily for our land and the prosperity of all its interests; that praying every where we make supplication for our rulers and all in authority, 1 Tim. 2:3, 8. That we bear upon our hearts the concerns of God's church abroad, especially the suffering parts of it. Thus keeping up a spiritual communion with all the families that in every place call on the name of the Lord Jesus.
In a word, let us go by this rule in our family devotions; whatever is the matter of our care, let it be the matter of our prayer; and let us allow no care which we cannot in faith spread before God: and whatever is the matter of our rejoicing, let it be the matter of our thanksgiving; and let us withhold our hearts from all those joys which do not dispose us for the duty of praise.