UNDERSTANDING PRAYER
Part 1 of 2


Prayer is such a vital and fundamental aspect of the Christian life, yet so few of us really understand what prayer is all about. Yet, since prayer is such a devotional and experimental subject, it is difficult to find any article or booklet that systematically deals with it in a short enough, easily digestible manner. Experience teaches us that, whenever we write or speak about prayer, there is always a sense that we have not dealt with the subject as sufficiently or as warmly as we ought. Perhaps this is why those who have attempted to write about prayer often end up writing many pages on it. It is not without reasons that in the 1559 edition of Calvin’s Institute of Christian Religion, the longest chapter is reserved for the subject of prayer. Few of us, however, have the patience or time to plough through these works, and so most of us would have only some hazy and isolated ideas, even for the most basic aspects of prayer. It was because of the discovery of this deficiency in myself several years ago that I wrote the larger part of this present article, as a kind of summary and key-facts reference. Bear this in mind if you should find this article dry and unfitting for the subject matter. For more devotional treatments, I would recommend: John Bunyan’s booklet entitled Prayer (numerous reprints by Banner of Truth since 1965), A.W. Pink’s A Guide to Fervent Prayer (Baker, 1981), Thomas Brooks, The Privy Key of Heaven, in Works, 2.165–299, and John Calvin, Op. Cit., 3.20.1–52.


In this two-part article, we shall be addressing some commonly asked questions about prayer, with the intent that, as our knowledge is hereby enlightened, we shall also with the Lord’s help be more delighted to pray and will enjoy much more our daily communion with God through prayer.


What is Prayer?


The best definitions of prayer are not to be found in the dictionaries or some academic works, but in the words of pious men who knew experimentally the teachings of Scripture, and had greatly exercised themselves in prayer. There is much we can learn from these definitions.


WSC
 98. What is prayer?

A. Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.


Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to His Word, for the good of the Church, with submission in faith to the will of God (John Bunyan, Prayer, 13).


[Prayer is] a communion of men with God by which, having entered the heavenly sanctuary, they appeal to him in person concerning his promises in order to experience, where necessity so demands, that what they believe was not vain, although he had promise it in word alone (John Calvin, ICR 3.20.2).


Prayer is the converse of the soul with God. Therein we manifest or express to Him our reverence and love for His divine perfection, our gratitude for all His mercies, our penitence for our sins, our hope on His forgiving love, our submission to His authority, our confidence in His care, our desires for His favour and for the providential and spiritual blessings needed for ourselves and others (Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, [Eerdmans, reprinted 1989], 3.692).


Notice how these definitions exalt God and humble us by highlighting our frailty and our dependence on God. God is the Creator, while we are the creatures. Although “prayer is nothing else than the opening up of our heart before God” (Calvin on Isaiah 63:16); it is a profound mystery in which God,—who has foreordained all things and is sovereignly bringing to pass all things in the universe,—allows His children to come unto Him to petition Him with regards to their heartfelt desires.


Why is it Necessary to Pray?


But if God is sovereign, why is it necessary to pray? We have already answered this question in another article (vol. 1, no. 34, dated 20 Feb 2000). Therefore, we shall give only an outline here, viz.: We are to pray because (1) We are commanded to pray (1 Thes 5:17, etc.); (2) Prayer is appointed as a means for our physical and spiritual blessing that we may be humbled before God (1 Pet 5:6–7); (3) God is greatly honoured by our prayers, for in prayer we acknowledge His sovereignty and goodness; and (4) God’s sovereign decrees include our prayers, so that we are, as it were, given the privilege and responsibility of turning the course of providence.


Elements of Prayer


When we examine the prayers in the Scripture, we find that we can roughly classify statements of prayer into four categories, namely, Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. This gives us a convenient acronym: A•C•T•S, that can be helpful as a guide for public prayers. We shall look at each of the aspects of prayer. But it is important for us to remember that a prayer is not necessarily incomplete if it does not have all these elements. Calvin has rightly stated that “Prayer is an intimate conversation of the pious with God” (ICR 3.20.16). How could intimate and heartfelt conversation need always be structured according to some formula before it becomes valid? Even the Lord’s Prayer, though it provides a very important and helpful guideline for our prayers, is not a rigid form that must always be adhered to before prayer is valid.


In fact, notice that in the definitions of prayer given above, all except Hodge’s definition, emphasise supplications or petitions rather than the other elements. Bunyan does not even mention thanksgiving, praise and confession in his definition. The reason is because, although prayer may and should include these elements (as we shall see), the principle part of prayer, as a privilege given by God, is in petitioning Him. The Lord’s Prayer is a good indication of this fact, for if you examine it, you will realise that the body of the prayer is composed of six petitions. Even the parts which may be classified as praise and confession (“Hallowed be thy name” and “Forgive us our debts”) are framed as petitions. We must never fault anyone if his prayer has asking, but very little ascription of praise.


With that in mind, let us look at the four elements or kinds of statements that may be used in prayer:


Adoration

The first major element of prayer is adoration or praise. David intimates that this is one of the most important aspects of the believer’s relationship with God when he declares: “I will bless the LORD at all times: his praise shall continually be in my mouth” (Ps 34:1). And so the author of Hebrews urges us to “offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually” (Heb 13:15). As a sinful people, we have a tendency to forget that we are but creatures, who have nothing good in us, and that we are alive only because of God. Let us therefore ever be mindful to look up to God and to praise Him for His majesty, glory and power. May our attitude be like David whose heart is filled with such wonder and awe of God’s greatness and love that he exclaims: “Bless the LORD, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name” (Ps 103:1).


Do you find that you lack the eloquence to help you praise the Lord? Then read and meditate on the Psalms or take a walk in the nature park to observe God’s creation, and you will surely find the words you need as your heart overflows with praise.


Thanksgiving

The Apostle Paul says: “In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you” (1 Thes 5:18). Thanksgiving is therefore not only appropriate but commanded for our prayers. Praise and thanksgiving are closely related. We may say that praise is objective and relates to God’s perfections and work, whereas thanksgiving is subjective and relates to what God has done for us individually and corporately. Naturally, as dependant and undeserving children, we should thank the Lord for every blessing received, whether temporal or spiritual. And let us learn also to thank Him for such things as may appear to be not convenient or good for us. Remember that all things work together for good to then that love God (Rom 8:28).


Confession

Just as we look up to God to render our praises and thanksgiving, we must look down to see our own wretchedness and how we have not loved and obeyed him as we ought. We must humble ourselves and confess our sins. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn 1:9). On the other hand, the Lord will not hear our prayers if we regard iniquity in our hearts (Ps 66:18).


Let this exercise be not only specific, but accompanied with deeds of repentance. For example, in our personal prayers, “Lord, forgive me my sins” may be better replaced by “Lord, forgive me for my unkind word against Tom”; followed by a call to Tom to beg forgiveness for your sin against him. Let us not forget also that failing to do good when it is in our power to do so is sin that must be confessed (Jas 4:17).


Supplication

As we noted earlier, supplication is the principle part of prayer, and so every ejaculatory petition (cf. Neh 2:4; Mt 14:30) that we offer through the day is a complete prayer. We may pray simply: “Lord, save me!”; “Lord, grant wisdom!”; “Lord, give me the courage to speak”; etc. It may not only be needless, but superstitious, to mechanically offer praise, thanksgiving and confession before you come to supplication.


Having said this, however, it may be helpful for us to remember to make use of each of the four types of prayer in our daily regular prayer time. It is also a helpful guideline that, at such disciplined time of prayer, we should begin by asking the Lord not for our own needs first, but for the needs of others. This will not only help us to cultivate an attitude of selflessness, but also help us to remember to intercede for others, not only loved ones, and members of the church, and friends, but also for those servants of the Lord and those in authority over us (1 Tim 2:1–2). We are hardly ever forgetful of our own needs, but extremely forgetful when it comes to the needs of others. Praying for our own needs is of course legitimate and commanded: “Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil 4:6).


Requisites for Acceptable Prayer


This list is not intended to be exhaustive. Nevertheless, you may find it too much to remember at one reading. May I suggest therefore that instead of merely attempting to bear in mind each point, that you check your heart as you read and then resolve to work on at least one or two areas immediately. Furthermore, it would be helpful for you to constantly check yourself on all points.


Sincerity

One of the most important requirements of worship and prayer before God is no doubt that of sincerity. This is what the Psalmist means when he describes those who may abide in God’s tabernacle as those who speak the truth in their heart (Ps 15:1–2). Sadly, in this self-help, self-sufficient age, many professing believers no longer sincerely regard prayer as necessary. As a result, prayer for many has degenerated into mechanical rites with only liturgical significance. Indeed our Lord’s indictment against Israel may be levelled against many of us in our prayers: “they have not cried unto me with their heart, when they howled upon their beds: they assemble themselves for corn and wine, and they rebel against me” (Hos 7:14). God sees beyond our actions. He knows our thoughts and intents even better than we do. For this reason, if our prayers are mechanical, rather than heartfelt, they are of no value at all.


Humility and Reverence

A second related aspect, which must be borne in mind, is that of humility and reverence. While we may come before the throne of grace with boldness (Heb 4:16), we must realise that we are coming before the King of kings and the Lord of lords. The Lord Jesus, who is Himself God, demonstrates this in His humanity: “Who in the days of his flesh, when he had offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death, and was heard in that he feared” (Heb 5:7). This calls for a humble reverential attitude whenever we pray. Indeed, our prayers will only be effectual if we recognise our own helplessness, poverty and depravity as did the publican (Luke 18:10–13) and Manasseh (2 Chr 33:12–13).


Therefore, when we come before God to pray, we should first compose our mind and heart with the knowledge that we are entering into conversation with the Holy and Sovereign God. And as we pray, we must approach God humbly, abandoning all self-glory completely to Him.


This attitude of reverence also calls for reverential postures in prayer whenever possible. Yes, as we are redeemed both in our body and soul, it must be remembered that our acts of worship should involve our body too (cf. 1 Cor 6:20). It is difficult to have reverence and humility in our heart if we are slouching carelessly in our seats at prayer.


Asking According to His Will

One other requisite of acceptable prayer that is so often neglected is that of praying according to God’s will. This is highlighted by the Apostle John: “And this is the confidence that we have in him, that, if we ask any thing according to his will, he heareth us” (1 Jn 5:14).


But what does praying according to His will mean? First, we must remember that there are two aspects to God’s will, one is revealed in the Scripture, and the other is God’s decretive will, which is secret. We are never to order our lives according to what God has not revealed (Deut 29:29). Therefore when the Apostle John speaks about praying according to God’s will, he must be referring to the revealed will of God. Thus, in WSC 99, we are taught that “The whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer.” This refers not only to the manner we should pray, but to what we should pray for, namely, that it must not be contrary to the principle of Christian life taught in the Word. Thus, praying in regards to personal sanctification (cf. 1 Thes 4:3) and healing from diseases (Jas 5:14–15) are always right, but while it is right to pray for the Lord’s providence of daily necessity and even His blessing upon our work and calling (cf. Mt 6:11; Prov 30:8–9), it is never right to pray for worldly or material gains, or for the attainment of luxuries (see James 4:3).


Persistence, Importunity and Fervency

Our Lord highlights this in the Parable of the Persistent Widow, by which He teaches us that “man ought always to pray, and not to faint” (Luke 18:1–5). In so far as God does not make known unto us His decrees with regards to the eternal destinies of our loved ones, let us persevere to pray that peradventure they may attain unto eternal life by grace. “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (Jas 5:16b).


Faith and Hope

Closely related to sincerity in prayer is faith and hope in prayer. We are not only to be sincere in asking, but we must be sincere in believing that God will answer our prayers. The Lord Jesus says: “And all things, whatsoever ye shall ask in prayer, believing, ye shall receive” (Mt 21:22; cf. Jas 1:5–7). This does not mean that we must sincerely believe that God will answer according to our prayer, but that (1) God listens to our prayer and will answer according to His sovereign will; (2) God is able to answer according to our request if He chooses to; and (3) when our prayers are in accordance with God’s revealed will, God will certainly take into consideration our desires.


Reliance on the Name of Christ

Most of us will generally end our prayers with “in Jesus’ Name” or an equivalent phrase. This is in line with our Lord’s teaching about praying in His Name: “And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (Jn 14:13; cf. Jn 14:14; 15:16; 16:23–24). Sadly, however, many of us repeat the phrase mechanically without understanding what we mean, after all no prayer seem to be complete until we end with “in Jesus’ Name.” A search through the Scripture however reveals a startling fact: not a single prayer recorded in the entire Bible ends with “in Jesus’ Name.” Even the Lord’s Prayer does not so end. What then does the Lord mean? I believe what He means is that we must come to God through Him, i.e., on the basis of His work on our behalf, and on the basis of our identification with Him. John Calvin puts it eloquently: “Our prayers are acceptable to God only insofar as Christ sprinkles and sanctifies them with the perfume of his own sacrifice” (Comm. on Psalm 20:3). The Apostles understood what Jesus mean when they make their prayers “through Jesus Christ” (Heb 13:21; cf. Rom 16:27; 1 Pet 4:11; etc.). Let us therefore shy away from a mechanical repetition of the phrase “in Jesus’ Name,” for that would be taking the Name of God in vain. Rather, let us pray, realising that it is only through Christ we may approach the throne of grace (Heb 4:15–16). With such an understanding, every time we pray, our hearts must be filled with gratitude and humility.


Obedience and Purity of Heart

Finally, we must not forget that the acceptability of our prayers is also dependent on our spiritual walk with Christ, our purity of heart and willingness to keep His commandments. The Psalmist puts this in no uncertain terms: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me” (Ps 66:18; cf. Prov 15:29). Solomon expresses it in even stronger terms: “He that turneth away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination” (Prov 28:9; cf. 1 Jn 3:22). Sin separates us from God (Isa 59:1–2). If we refuse to obey the Lord’s commandments and so sin against Him, not only will our prayers not be acceptable, but they will be abominable in the sight of God. Let us therefore constantly watch our lives, pleasing the Lord in all our ways.


…to be continued

—JJ Lim