UNDERSTANDING PRAYER
Part 2 of 2


In the first part of this article, we discussed what prayer is; the necessity of prayer; the elements of prayer; and the requisites for acceptable prayers. In this concluding part of the article, we discuss the relationship between prayer and the Holy Trinity; what kind of answers we may expect for our prayers; how not to pray; and when not to pray.

 

Prayer and the Holy Trinity


The Roman Catholic church teaches that “The prayer of the Church is sustained by the prayer of Mary [the holy Mother of God]” and that “we can pray with and to her” (Catechism of the Catholic Church [Doubleday, 1995], ¶2579). And furthermore, the intercession of “those whom the Church recognises as saints” is “their most exalted service to God’s plan. [Therefore] we can and should ask them to intercede for us and for the whole world” (ibid., ¶2683).


All Protestants will no doubt recoil from such anti-biblical teachings. The Bible clearly teaches that there is but “one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 2:5). However, many of us are often confused as to how our prayers relate to each of the persons in the Godhead. It has, for example, often been asked: “Is it right to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ or the Holy Spirit directly?”


In this section, we attempt to untie some of the knots by examining prayer in relation to the economic Trinity.


Prayer in Relation to God the Father

To whom should our prayers be addressed? Foremost, it must be remembered that prayer is a communion of man with the triune God. There is only one God, and He is triune. When prayer is answered, it is answered by the triune God. When we ask the question as to whom prayer should be addressed, we are, therefore, not asking whom we should pray to, as if there are three Gods. We are asking, rather, which person of the triune God we should address our petitions to.


In this regard, Wilhelmus á Brakel summarises general Reformed consensus very well when he says:

The supplicant, being stirred up to pray and directed in prayer by the Holy Spirit (the Spirit of prayer, who intercedes with groanings that cannot be uttered) approaches the Father through the Son, and thus approaches God Himself as He exists in the first Person without exclusion of the Son and the Holy Spirit. We must refrain from attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible and from making too great a separation between the Persons and the divine essence (The Christian’s Reasonable Service [SDG, 1992], 3.488).


In other words, in prayer, we should address the Father as a representative of the triune Godhead, through the mediatorship of Christ and the assistance of the Holy Spirit. This should be the case, because: Firstly, the Scripture indicates the priority of the Father in the creation of the world (1 Cor 8:6; Heb 1:2); in providence (Mt 10:29); and in the redemption of the Church (Jn 3:16; 5:30; 6:38; etc.). Secondly, our adoption is the basis of our privilege of prayer, and therefore we should pray as His only begotten Son does (Jn 17:1ff).


Does this mean that our prayers should never be directed to the Son or the Holy Spirit? Well, in the Scriptures, though we have no example where prayers were directed to the Holy Spirit, we do have instances where prayers were addressed directly to the Son (Mt 8:25; 14:30; Mk 9:24; but esp. Acts 7:59–60). Therefore, by analogy, it would not be wrong to address the Spirit in prayer. This is especially so since the Persons in the Godhead are “the same in substance, equal in power and glory” (WSC 6). However, there is no doubt that it is proper and to be preferred that we should address the Father, rather than the Son or the Spirit in prayer. Moreover, we agree with Morton H. Smith, that “By self-consciously addressing our prayers to the Triune God through the Father, we are kept from confusion of thought regarding the Trinity” (Systematic Theology, 2.711).


Prayer in Relation to God the Son

The role of God the Son may be best understood according to His threefold office of Prophet, Priest and King (WSC 23–26).


As Prophet, Christ reveals to us the Father. He says, “All things are delivered unto me of my Father: and no man knoweth the Son, but the Father; neither knoweth any man the Father, save the Son, and he to whomsoever the Son will reveal him” (Mt 11:27, cf. Jn 1:18). In relation to prayer, He reveals to us the will of the Father that we may know how to pray and for what we ought to pray.


As Priest, first, He turn away the wrath of God from us that we may “come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16); secondly, He continually intercedes and mediates for us at the right hand of the throne of God (Heb 7:25; 1 Jn 2:1; 1 Tim 2:5). He intercedes for us in that He pleads His own blood on behalf of us for our salvation, and is our advocate before the throne of God when we sin. He mediates for us in that our prayers in His name are first sprinkled with and sanctified by His own sacrifice on our behalf.


As our King, Christ encourages us to cast our burdens upon Him and to rely upon Him fully (Mt 11:28–30). His admonishment of His disciples is surely applicable to us too: “Hitherto have ye asked nothing in my name: ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full” (Jn 16:24).


Prayer in Relation to God the Holy Spirit

The role of the Holy Spirit in prayer may be best understood using three prepositions: inby and for.


First, the Scripture instructs us twice to pray in the Holy Spirit: “Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints” (Eph 6:18); and “But ye, beloved, building up yourselves on your most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost” (Jude 20). What does it mean to pray in the Holy Spirit?


Thomas Manton explains most beautifully:

Prayer is a work too hard for us; we can babble of ourselves, but we cannot pray without the Holy Ghost; we can put words into prayer, but it is the Spirit that [who] puts affections, without which it is but a little cold prattle and spiritual talk. Our necessities may sharpen our prayers, but they cannot enliven our prayers. A carnal man may feel the impulsion of a natural fervency, and so cry unto God as the young ravens cry unto him, and in all creatures there is a desire of relief: the rude mariners in the tempest were very earnest (Jon 1:6). But now gracious affection is quite another thing than this natural fervency. There may be cold and raw wishes after grace, but not serious volitions and spiritual desires; these we must have from the Holy Ghost (The Epistle of Jude [Alabama: R E Publications, n.d.], 337).


But how does the Spirit help us? He helps us: (1) by changing our hearts so that we desire to pray and know what to pray for (cf. Rom 8:26); (2) by strengthening our faith that God will hear our prayers; and (3) by giving us more and more confidence to come unto the Father by helping us more and more to die unto our sins.


Secondly, the prayer or intercession of the Holy Spirit must not be confused with the intercession of Christ. Christ intercedes in heaven at the right hand of the throne of God, whereas the Holy Spirit intercedes in our heart: “Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom 8:26). Since Paul speaks about the Spirit making intercession instead of we making the intercession, he must be referring to the Spirit praying through us rather than we praying in the Spirit. Calvin explains:

Though, in a peculiar sense, Jesus is the believer’s intercessor in heaven, yet the Holy Spirit intercedes in him on earth, teaching him what to ask, and exciting in him groanings expressive of his wants, though they cannot be uttered; that is, they cannot be expressed in words. Yet these wants are uttered in groans, and in this manner most emphatically express what is meant, while they indicate the energy of the operation of the Spirit (Comm. in loc.).


Thirdly, we cannot miss the fact that the Scripture teaches us to pray for the Spirit. The Lord Jesus says: “If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask him?” (Lk 11:13). Surely, the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost must have been in answer to the disciples’ prayer for the Holy Spirit as they were taught by the Lord (cf. Acts 4:31). But what about after Pentecost? Is the Lord’s instruction about praying for the Spirit still applicable? I believe so. The Apostle Paul instructs the Ephesians, and us, to be “filled with the Spirit” (Eph 5:18). Surely Paul means more than just living obediently, as he was using a language which the early Church would have known to involve an effusion of the Holy Spirit. Whatever else Paul may have in mind, it must surely include our asking the Lord to fill us with the Spirit. In any case, as we desire to pray in the Spirit and to have the intercession of the Spirit, we must surely not neglect to pray that the Spirit will fill us.


Answers to Prayer


The common Christian cliché, “God answers prayer,” unlike “Prayer changes things,” is both rationally and theologically correct. God does answer prayer. However, it must be noted that God does not always answer positively or according to our prayers. There are four ways in which God commonly answers our prayers:


Direct

In such an answer, God answers immediately, directly and positively, thus granting the desires of our heart (e.g., Gen 30:22; Num 21:3). Most of us, when we pray, would generally look forward to such an answer. Nevertheless God is sovereign and, while He may more frequently answer in this manner if we have learned to ask according to His will, He reserves the sole prerogative to answer in any manner according to His good pleasure. Let us learn to submit to Him however He answers our prayers. For we know that “all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose” (Rom 8:28).


Delayed

Another common way in which God answers our prayers is the delayed answer. In other words, He answers our prayers positively, but after a delay of some time. Such delays to our prayers have often caused even the greatest of saints much anxiety (e.g., Ps 13:1–2; Hab 1:2). However, we must not lose heart. Let us learn that God’s timing is the best timing. God has His reasons for delays (see Ecc 3:11; Jn 11:6, 4, 15).


Denied

The third way God answers our prayers is to deny our requests. Such was the case with Moses’ prayer that he should be allowed to enter the promised land (Deut 3:23–27). The reasons for denial are many. It may be punitive as in the case of Moses, or it may be simply for our own well-being. As a father will not grant a child’s request to play with fire in the house, so the Lord will not grant us what may be detrimental to our lives, be it spiritual or physical.


Different

Finally, the Lord sometimes answers in a different way from what we ask (e.g., Deut 23:5). This is corollary to denial, but in this case, He grants us an alternative. Our Lord knows best our needs and what is good for us (Mt 6:32). Let us therefore rejoice and give thanks for whatever answer that He gives us to our prayers.


How Not to Pray?


Prayer is such a personal and sensitive matter for most of us that we would hardly think of correcting another person’s prayer. We reason that since prayer is communication with God, it is not really intended for our ears. Furthermore, we reason that God is more concern with our heart than with our words. As a result, many of us form bad habits in our prayers that are hard to correct. Such bad habits are not only distracting to those who are praying with us, but may be dishonouring to God, for after all, our words do reflect our hearts (Mt 12:35). Let us therefore check ourselves to see if we have been guilty of these faults:


Vain Repetitions

The Lord Jesus, in teaching His disciples about prayer, begun negatively by telling them how not to pray. He says, “But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking” (Mt 6:7). This, surprisingly, is a common problem today. There are some who claim to be Christians today who would mechanically repeat stock phrases over and over again as they count some beads. Such ‘prayers’ are abominable to God in that they are directly contrary to the teachings of Christ. But among genuine believers, this problem also occur, though in more subtle forms. For example the use of “Lord” as a punctuation for every sentence in our prayers. This becomes vain repetitions in that the Name of God is repeated for no real purpose at all.


Long for Length’s Sake

Going hand in hand with vain repetitions is “long prayers.” Our Lord says, “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, andfor a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation” (Mt 23:14). When we are called to pray publicly, many of us are uncomfortable with making a concise, to-the-point prayer, especially if it is short. As a result, we often pad our prayers with additional and incidental details in order to make up the length. This must be consciously avoided not only for sincerity sake, but for the sake of those praying with us.


Showmanship

Yet another common problem with prayer noted by our Lord is that of showmanship: “And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward” (Mt 6:5). Today, the problem may not be quite the same, but showmanship sometimes appears in the sudden bursts of pretentious eloquence in public prayers. It is true that in pouring out our hearts to God, we sometimes need to use words that we would not use in ordinary conversations, but when big sounding words are used only in public prayer, but never in our privateprayer, it is symptomatic of showmanship. Let us therefore abandon all efforts to artificially make our prayers sound lofty and eloquent. It is to say the least abominable to try to please men rather than God in our prayers (Gal 1:10).


When Not to Pray?


Prayer is an important aspect of the Christian life. We are called to pray and to pray constantly. But that does not mean that we are to continue in prayer until God grants us our requests. There are at least two situations in which we are not to pray:


When We Ought Rather to Act

When the Israelites lost the battle against Ai the first time, Joshua rent his clothes and prayed before the ark until the evening. But instead of receiving the Lord’s approval, he received a rebuke from the Lord for continuing in prayer: “Get thee up; wherefore liest thou thus upon thy face?” (Jos 7:6–10). There was sin in the camp, and Joshua should have understood that. Instead of praying only, he should have investigated and rid the camp of the offending party. In the same way, remaining in prayer after we failed an examination is not very helpful. We should rather begin to study for a re-examination as soon as possible.


When it is Clear that our Desire is against God’s Will

Moses was told by the Lord to stop asking to be allowed into the promised land (Deut 3:26). It was clearly against His will to do so. In the same way, we ought not to persist in prayer when we know that what we are asking is contrary to God’s will. Praying that the Lord will bless your relationship with an unbelieving girlfriend or boyfriend is certainly not pleasing to God. A proper course of action would be to call off the relationship rather than pray.


Conclusion


As we mentioned in the introduction, this article is intended to be a kind of a key-facts reference, which seeks to answer some of the most common questions concerning prayer. It is hoped that this is achieved to some degree. But now remains the most difficult question: How to put into practice the Apostle Paul’s injunction: “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thes 5:17). We must answer this question individually as we seek to have a disciplined Christian life and a life that is constantly lived before the face of God.


JJ Lim