John Knox: A Man of Prayer

John Knox was a man of prayer.

John Knox was not a self-confident man. He deeply sensed his own weakness and unfitness to his task. He once said, “I have rather need of all than that any hath need of me.”

Often, we do not sense our own need like Knox did. Particularly in our independent, “you-can-do-it” culture, we are taught to think highly of ourselves and to assume that ‘we can do all things through my own belief in myself’.

Knowing that we are weak and needy is one thing. It is a necessary thing, but if we only have a sense of our weakness, we will be left paralysed and useless.

We also need to know where to go to find strength. Knox knew where to find the strength and power that he sensed he lacked – in His God. This is why he could pray this regarding the church in Scotland:

“Seeing that we are now left as a flock without a pastor, in civil policy, and as a ship without a rudder in the midst of the storm, let Thy providence watch, Lord, and defend us in these dangerous days, that the wicked of the world may see that as well without the help of man, as with it, Thou art able to rule, maintain and defend the little flock that dependeth upon Thee.”

as quoted in The Mighty Weakness of John Knox, p38

Having learned from Calvin for several years in Geneva, he probably knew the truths that Calvin taught regarding prayer in his Institutes:

“Whatever we need and whatever we lack is … in our Lord Jesus Christ … it remains for us to seek in Him, and in prayers to ask of Him, what we have learned to be in Him.”

This relationship between weakness and prayer was heightened for Knox when it came to trouble and fear.

“Trouble and fear are the very spurs to prayer; for when man, compassed about with vehement calamities, and vexed with continual solicitude (having, by help of man, no hope of deliverance …), does call to God for comfort and support from the deep pit of tribulation, such a prayer ascends into God’s presence, and returns not in vain.”

Treatise on Prayer, John Knox

Pray Without Ceasing

For Knox, prayer was not an occasional activity. It was to be constant. In his definition of prayer, Knox calls prayer “an earnest and familiar talking with God, to whom we declare our miseries, whose support and help we implore and desire in our adversities, and whom we laud and praise for our benefits received” (Treatise on Prayer, John Knox). We can be tempted to think of prayer as something we need to spend a set time doing each day – and that may be true – but Knox took the command in scripture to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) seriously.

We can see something of Knox’ prayer life in his descendants. Knox’ youngest daughter married a man named John Welch whose home was reportedly filled with constant audible prayer. Welch was such a prayer that he would often get up in the middle of the night and pray. After being sent to prison for preaching that Christ, not the king, is the head of the church, Welch’s knees lost all feeling because of how much time he spent in prayer on the prison floor.

Encouragements to Pray

At times we may feel like we can’t approach God because of our sin or our unworthiness. To this Knox points out that “our most prudent Physician has provided two plasters to give us encouragement to pray… that is, a precept and a promise.” (Treatise on Prayer, John Knox)

God commands us to pray and so, Knox argues, “not to pray is a sin most odious…  Above all our iniquities, we work manifest contempt and despising of him, when, by negligence, we delay to call for his gracious support” (Treatise on Prayer, John Knox)

Knox continues: “To his commandment, he adds his most undoubted promise in many places: “Ask and ye shall receive; seek and ye shall find” (Matt. 7:7).” (Treatise on Prayer, John Knox)

Prayers Answered

John Knox was known by those close to him as “an eminent wrestler with God in prayer” (as quoted in The Mighty Weakness of John Knox, p35) and Knox certainly expected God to answer his prayers.

Using scriptural examples and personal testimony, Knox argues that God does hear the earnest prayers of His people and will answer them. Pointing to David’s prayers when he faced the trial of persecution, Knox notes that “in the midst of these anguishes the goodness of God sustained him, [so] that the present tribulation was tolerable, and the infallible promises of God so assured him of deliverance, that [his] fear was partly mitigated and gone.” (Treatise on Prayer, John Knox)

For Knox, God’s answer to prayer will not always be immediate deliverance. God’s answer may include sustaining the Christian through suffering and assurance of future deliverance. However, Knox did not stop there. He prayed as one who knew that God does act on the prayers of His people.

This is evident from his life. Mary Stuart, the Roman Catholic Queen of Scotland is reported to have said, “I fear the prayers of John Knox more than all the assembled armies of Europe.” When Knox first fled Scotland to Europe, when all seemed hopeless for Scotland, he prayed “Lord, give me Scotland ere I die.” By the end of his life, after many more years of labour and prayers and by the power of God’s grace, Knox was given Scotland.

May we all learn to pray like John Knox.

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