The light of nature itself teaches us that prayer is a universal duty. It is practised, more or less, wherever a divine being is acknowledged. But all too often it is practised in a purely mechanical fashion, as if the mere utterance of words were enough to please God. The truth is, as Christ taught while He tabernacled among us, that “God is a Spirit: and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). Prayer, as an element in the worship of God, must be a spiritual exercise. In the words of the Shorter Catechism, summarising the teaching of Scripture, “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, if sincere, will be the expression before God of our actual desires, not merely the uttering of words. “There may be much speaking”, explains A S Paterson, “where there are no desires; and the words of the mouth, without the desires of the heart, are but empty sounds in the ears of a prayer-hearing God.” (1) Formal prayers, which do not express our sincere desires, cannot truly be called prayers; they cannot be classed as spiritual worship.
If our desires are to be accepted in heaven, they must be God-honouring desires; they must therefore be agreeable to God’s will. We dare not ask for anything that is sinful, anything that is contrary to God’s holy law. What then if we do not know that it is His will to grant what we desire? May we ask for what may not be according to God’s secret purpose? Indeed we may, provided we submit to that will. Paul could not have been sure that it would be God’s purpose to remove the thorn in his flesh, which was such a great affliction to him. But nonetheless he asked to have it taken away. And how wonderfully submissive he was when his request was refused! “Most gladly therefore”, he declared, “will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Cor 12:9). But though Paul’s request was refused, the Lord granted him something better: the assurance of continual blessing: “My grace is sufficient for thee: for My strength is made perfect in weakness”. His prayer did indeed receive a gracious answer.
We too are to be altogether submissive to the Lord’s will. We do well to qualify our petitions with the words: “If it be Thy will”. Yet who can enter completely into the spirit of the Saviour: “Not My will, but Thine, be done”? In this life the graces of believers are imperfect, but it is a mercy to have at least the beginnings of true, gracious submission. In another world, God’s children will see more clearly that He did all things well. Their duty here is to trust in God’s goodness to them – to believe that, in all His dealings towards them, He is acting according to His wisdom, not only for His glory but for their good, especially for the good of their souls.
Our prayers should reflect this. In our desires, eternity is to loom larger than time, the things of the soul larger than the things of the body. So the Saviour directed: “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness”. He had spoken of what in themselves are necessary questions: “What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed?” Yet such matters must not have first place in our desires. But Christ’s promise to those who do seek the blessings of the kingdom of God before everything else is that “all these things shall be added unto you” – what we shall eat and drink and what we shall be clothed with. We are not forbidden to pray for things that are purely temporal; “in everything“, we are told, “let your requests be made known unto God” (Phil 4:6). But our prayers – and the desires they express – are to be focused much more on the things of the kingdom.
Yet our prayers are clearly not a means of informing God about our needs, for we must confess, “There is not a word in my tongue, but, lo, O Lord, Thou knowest it altogether” (Ps 139:4). It is not, says Paterson, “that we may alter His mind concerning us, or incline Him to anything which He was formerly unwilling to grant, for with Him there is no ‘variableness or shadow of turning’, but we must pray to Him because He commands and entreats and encourages us to do so” (p 389f). Prayer is the means He has appointed for us to obtain the blessings we ask for. It cannot be a method of applying pressure to God to bring Him to give us what we want.
An American pastor, concerned for two of his flock who had been arrested in Afghanistan on charges of spreading Christianity, thought of the early Christians pleading for Peter’s release from prison. He declared, “Our hope is . . . in gathering enough prayer so that what happened in the Book of Acts can be realised”. Thankfully, the prisoners were released in the providence of a gracious God but, as we come before Him in prayer we must recognise His sovereignty, His right to do “according to His will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth: and none can stay His hand, or say unto Him, What doest Thou?” (Dan 4:35). No matter how many people may come before the Lord pleading for a particular outcome to some situation, and no matter how earnestly they may plead, we must recognise that He may see it best not to grant their request. In any case, He knows everything better than we do; He sees the end from the beginning; He looks at every situation with infinite wisdom; He understands perfectly what is ultimately for His glory and for our good. And we must be willing to submit to His holy will as it is revealed in providence.
Our prayers must be presented in the name of Christ. To quote Paterson again, “this is not merely to mention the name of Christ in the conclusion or in any other part of our prayer, but it is to mention His name by faith, depending on Him alone for access to God, and for acceptance and a gracious answer to our prayers” (p 390). How can we approach the great and holy God except through the Mediator He has appointed? And how can we pray in a God-honouring way unless grace is in exercise in our hearts? What a mercy then that the Holy Spirit is revealed as the Spirit of prayer – the One who gives grace to sinners so that they present living petitions at the throne of grace, even the “groanings which cannot be uttered”.
We are sinful creatures, unworthy of the least of God’s mercies, and we are to confess this in prayer. “We do not present our supplications before Thee for our righteousnesses,” said Daniel in making intercession for his people; he knew that neither he nor his people had any righteousness of their own. The foundation for his petitions was: “Thy great mercies”. So it must be with us also, for we have no righteousness of our own; we must make the merits of Christ the foundation for the blessings we plead for.
Finally, prayer must, in Paul’s words, be “with thanksgiving”; we must acknowledge God’s goodness to us in very many ways. Paterson gives three reasons why “thanksgiving to God for His mercies is absolutely necessary”. They are: “(1.) We cannot expect a blessing to accompany them while we have not a heart to acknowledge them. (2.) It is a debt we owe to God. (3.) If there is no acknowledgement of mercies received, it is a highway to prevent us receiving more” (p 393).
Let us then consider prayer as a duty which we must all engage in continually as God’s creatures who are under obligation to worship Him. Let us bear in mind our duty to pray, not only as individuals, but also, where possible, as families and as part of a congregation united in public worship. Let us not rest satisfied if the duty has been carried out in a formal, outward fashion, but let us seek to engage in it as a spiritual activity, in dependence on the merits of Christ and in the exercise of grace wrought in us by the Holy Spirit. And as we do so, let us look up expecting an answer.
1. A Concise System of Theology, (often referred to as Paterson on the Shorter Catechism), p 389, 1841 edition. All quotations in this article are from this valuable volume.