Taking a Glance at an Ancient Topic
Richard T. Zuelch
The Bible is a book saturated in prayer. According to one writer's estimate, there are 800 prayers in Scripture (including the Psalms), 650 of which have definite answers recorded for them. The many godly people who are mentioned in the pages of Holy Writ instinctively looked to God to supply their daily needs, calm their fears, execute justice, and provide salvation from sin. This looking to God comes only by the grace of God the Father, through the Lord Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
As believers, we too should live lives that are steeped in prayer. However, we sometimes take prayer for granted. This is something our Lord, during his earthly life, never did. We often forget what a precious gift God has given to us, his adopted children, by promising to listen to our prayers. Faith should lead us to the throne of grace. As Calvin wrote, "Faith is not true unless it asserts and brings to mind that sweetest name of Fathernay, unless it opens our mouth freely to cry, 'Abba, Father' (Galatians 4:6; Romans 8:15)" (Institutes 3.13.5).
In tackling this subject, there are important principles which the Bible teaches us. It will be profitable for us to recall some of them.
1. We must remember that God commands believers to pray (Matt. 6:5-9; 1 Thess. 5:17-18; Heb. 13:18; James 5:13, 16).
Just as God has spoken to us in his infallible Word, so he commands us to speak to him in prayer. The Scriptures and prayer are our links with God. In the Sermon on the Mount, our Lord assumed that prayer would be part of the life of the believer: "And when you pray ..." (Matt. 6:5). The apostle Paul tells us that God wants us to pray constantly (1 Thess. 5:17-18).
It is impossible that a child could live with his earthly parents, but never speak to them. In the same way, it is impossible that a genuine believer could ignore his heavenly parent by never acknowledging him or speaking to him. Our Lord often stayed awake all night in prayer to his Father. If he found prayer to be a vital necessity in his life, how much more should we lean on the breast of our heavenly Father in prayer? God invites us to commune with him, in order that he may bless us.
2. We must remember that we offer prayer to a holy God (Lev. 11:45; 19:2; 20:7; 1 Pet. 1:16).
Scripture constantly reminds us that God is, above all else, holy. He is unspeakably holy in all his attributes and in all his actions. From the beginning of creation to the future consummation of all things, everything that God is and does displays the purity of his absolute holiness. "Glory in his holy name; let the hearts of those who seek the Lord rejoice" (Ps. 105:3).
Consequently, the prayers we offer to him are not to be uttered lightly. The time when one is prostrated before the throne of grace is not an occasion for levity. We are to enter God's presence knowing that, while he is our heavenly Father, who loves his children dearly, he is also the almighty Lord of the universe, who expects to be treated with the utmost respect and dignity. This is the biblical balance we must keep.
However, this does not mean that we should approach him in craven, cowering fear, for "perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18). We must remember that prayer is a rich privilege given to us by the grace of the Savior, who suffered death for us. We must not abuse it or make light of it. The holy God expects us to approach him with an attitude of serious joy.
3. We must remember that praying is essentially a Trinitarian event. The Christian prays in the enabling power of God the Holy Spirit, appropriating the atoning work of God the Son, which alone gives him access to the throne of God the Father (John 14:6-7, 11, 16-17).
The approach to God the Father can be made only through God the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. In John 14, Jesus emphasizes his essential oneness with his Father. We also learn that the Holy Spirit is given to believers by the Father at the Son's request (vss. 16-17). Although there is nothing unbiblical about praying to any particular person of the Trinity, prayer is usually directed to the Father. Since he is the author of the plan of salvation, we are to approach his throne with reverence and holy awe (Isa. 6). Because of the vicarious atonement rendered by his Son, he is ever willing to hear the earnest prayers of believers as they approach him in sweet communion.
We may draw near to the Father through the merits of his Son, and only through him (John 14:6). Charles Spurgeon, in a sermon on Luke 11:9-10, said, "There was never a true prayer offered unknown to him. Prayers acceptable to the Most High come up to him by the way of the wounds of Christ."
As part of his task of applying God's great salvation to the elect, the Holy Spirit energizes the prayers we offer. In his omniscience, he is perfectly familiar with both the depths of our spirits and the holy will of our Father (Rom. 8:26-27). When words fail us, he knows immediately how to pray for us. He knows how to shape prayer so that it will be acceptable to the Father of lights. We may rest in the knowledge that the sincere prayer of the believing heart will not go unheard by the God who bids us to speak to him.
The Bible's Trinitarian emphasis in prayer contrasts with Roman Catholic teaching, which emphasizes a supposed ministry of intercession by Mary and the saints. This unchristian teaching is swept away by Scripture, which consistently tells us that there is only one mediator between God and sinful peopleJesus Christ, the Righteous One.
4. We must remember to worship God in prayer. Worship has priority over bringing our petitions to him (Ex. 15:1-3; Ps. 146:1-2; Rom. 16:25-27).
Too many Christians, either through ignorance of the true nature of prayer or through selfishness, assume that the main purpose of prayer is to get things from God. Indeed, the late evangelist John R. Rice (1895-1980) wrote an influential book on prayer in which he contended that prayer is only asking things from God.
However, petitioning Godwhich is, of course, scripturalis never to be the main focus of our prayers. Worship is a great privilege. We will spend eternity engaged in God's worship. It is necessary, therefore, for us to devote much of our attention in prayer, both individually and corporately, to worshiping and praising God. To promote petition at the expense of worship does not reflect the biblical balance.
No other activity engaged in by Christians can bring such immediate spiritual blessing to our souls as worship. No other exercise has such an effect upon the believer's understanding of God. It is sanctifying to stand in God's presence and glorify his name. Nothing edifies the Christian's mind and heart like kneeling down before God and acknowledging his sovereign presence. When the worship of God is done in a reverent and spiritual manner, the believer will commune with God in a wonderful way.
5. We must remember that the Holy Spirit helps us to pray, and interprets our prayers in terms of God's will for us. It is necessary for the Spirit to do this because we often do not know what we should really be praying for and, even when we do know, we pray with mixed motives (Rom. 8:26-27; 1 Cor. 2:10-13).
A guiding text here is Deuteronomy 29:29: "The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law." If we do not understand "the secret things," which are known only to almighty God, how much less do we understand God himself? One of the Spirit's ministries is to assist believers with, and in, their prayers.
Many, if not most, of our prayers are self-centered. Our sin constantly asserts itself, even when we do our best to concentrate on God during prayer. Either Satan attacks us during prayer by putting distracting thoughts into our minds, or our minds wander off into irrelevancies, or, despite our most conscientious efforts, we become frustrated by the fact that we just cannot express in human language our true feelings, fears, and anxieties. The Spirit overcomes our struggles to make our supplications and other expressions accurately known before the divine mind.
6. We must remember that God has promised to supply all our needs, not necessarily all our desires (Ps. 54:2, 4; 55:22; Matt. 6:33; Phil. 4:19).
God graciously supports his needy children as they seek him in prayer. However, this happens as we seek God's priorities, not our own. For this reason, we must disagree with the "positive confession" movement, which insists that God is obligated to give Christians virtually anything for which they ask. This movement repudiates the sovereignty of God and makes sinful people the focus of prayer.
While God has promised to meet our creaturely needs, he is ultimately much more interested in our spiritual growth. We need to learn God's ways and how to follow them. We need to prepare for eternity. We need to experience God's forgiveness (John 13:10) and that close fellowship with him which obedience to his Word affords. Many believers have testified that they have reason to thank God that he has not answered many of their selfish prayers. They have, in retrospect, seen the wisdom of God's ways and have learned how to pray more biblically, so as to glorify his name.
7. We must remember that God will answer our prayers. However, he remains free to answer them in his own way, in his own time (Matt. 6:6, 8; 21:22; 2 Cor. 12:7-10).
God always answers prayer in ways that bring him glory and edify his children. But it is just here that we meet much of the mystery of prayer. How God answers and when he answers are, oftentimes, surprising to us. God is absolutely free to answer our prayers with a "yes," a "no," a "wait a while," or even a "yesbut I'll answer you in a way you do not expect."
When making our requests to our Father, we should not suppose that we can defy his sovereignty by dictating the terms by which he must answer. God will always glorify himself in his responses to our prayers, even (or especially!) when he responds in ways that are completely unexpected.
God glorified himself in the patriarch Joseph. Yet, in reviewing the twists and turns of Joseph's life, we are astonished by the waysthe surprisingly creative waysin which God used him to get this glory. By the same token, we can look back over the course of our lives and see, with spiritual discernment, how God has glorified himself in us.
8. Finally, we must remember that all prayer is ultimately an act of faith, because we do not really understand how prayer works (1) in conjunction with the relationship between God's sovereignty and human responsibility, (2) in conjunction with the prayers of other believers worldwide, and (3) in conjunction with God's ultimate purposes for the universe.
We know that God decrees the means as well as the ends, but how, exactly, does that work out in our everyday lives? We know that God answers prayer, but how, exactly, does he combine the many millions of often conflicting prayers offered by his children every minute to execute his sovereign will? How, exactly, does God pursue his ultimate purposes for the universe in the face of his constantly sinning creatures?
The Bible is silent regarding many of these questions. And there is a good reason for this silence: as in so many other areas of Bible doctrine, God insists that his children live by faith. Our trouble is that we don't want to trust; we want to know. However, the Christian's "default setting," so to speak, is faith.
In our natural curiosity, we tend to ask questions to which the answers remain hidden in the mind of God. We need to learn to trust God more, not less. We trust him in the "big" things, like salvation and life's major crises. But sometimes we fail to trust him in the "little" things, such as our day-to-day walk with him. This side of heaven, we will not find answers to all of our questions about God's work in us and for us. Therefore, we need to learn to rest in his loving arms as he guides us through the lives that he has planned for us.
It is my conviction that we, as Reformed Christians, need to ask the Lord to give us greater insight into the true nature of prayer. We need, both theologically and practically, a higher view of prayer. The Bible has much rich teaching on this subject, and we need to recommit ourselves, before God, to achieving greater mastery of what he teaches us on the great subject of prayer.
We have taken a small look at a large subject. We have not even begun to penetrate to the heart of the Bible's doctrine of prayer. But if we are reminded that prayer is for God's glory and our good, and that it is a necessary element in the nurturing of our faith, we can count our journey successful. May God continue to strengthen and encourage us as we continue to perfect our prayer lives, with God's help.
Mr. Zuelch is a licentiate in the Presbytery of Southern California. Reprinted from New Horizons, May 1999.