Whilst there is no “how to” for prayer which does justice to its depth and breadth, the “Lord’s Prayer” of Jesus, the Psalms, and the great prayers of others, are our best guide. A brief glance at these shows that healthy prayer holds three balancing truths in tension:
Conversation AND encounter
The writer of Psalm 1, which introduces the whole book of 150 Psalms, urges us to slow down and meditate – not to empty our minds, but to meditate on “his law day and night” and then respond. The slow reading of a passage or word of Scripture allows the truths God reveals there to inspire our praise, confession or intercession. This conversation with God enriches spiritual life enormously for anyone who takes the time (which may be a few minutes a day) to do it.
But prayer is also encounter – when we pray we are neither mouthing empty words which bounce off the ceiling, nor going through the motion of being pious. We are in the presence of God. This is apparent in the prayer life of Jesus in the gospels, in his use of “Father” addressing God. But it is also apparent in the wonderful prayers of Paul, about which DA Carson writes so helpfully in his book “A Call to Spiritual Reformation“. “For this reason” Paul says in Ephesians 3, “I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and earth derives its name”. To pray is to stand, or to kneel, in the presence of God, before saints and angels, beside the Son, filled with the Spirit.
Awe AND intimacy
The Lord’s prayer combines both.
First – I suspect intentionally – it teaches us to pray “hallowed be your name” before we pray “give us today our daily bread”. Jesus is teaching us a vital spiritual lesson. If we rush into asking about the things which make us anxious, we miss the peace and joy which come from praise and gratitude. How can the God who is so mighty and merciful not give us also all that we need?
CS Lewis in his “Reflections on the Psalms” (in a chapter entitled “A Word About Praising”) points out that praising God (like praising a beautiful sunset or piece of music) comes naturally as part of the delight in Him. “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation”.
Second, intimacy. “Forgive us our sins”, continues Jesus. Prayer is the privilege of face-to-face encounter, so to speak, with God through his grace in Christ. Because of our sins, we would be prevented from drawing near, but the death of Christ our sacrifice has opened the way and removed the barrier. “Let us then draw near to God’s throne of grace with confidence” (Hebrews 4:16). Intimacy with God through knowing our sins forgiven is as essential as praise.
Discipline AND delight
One of the traditions of the Church is daily prayer (also called the Office). At its simplest it is the habit of spending a few minutes morning, noon and night in reading the Scriptures and in responsive prayers of praise, confession and intercession. It can become a dry formality – my experience at theological college was just that. Yet where evangelical piety has reduced in the last century to the “quiet time” defined as “read the Bible as just an intellectual exercise, and bring a list of prayer needs”, it might refresh us all through including reflection on Scripture which leads to praise and confession. At its best it trains us to encounter God through His Word and respond in praise, confession and intercession. As Tim Keller notes in the final chapter of “Prayer”, entitled “Daily Prayer”, both Luther and Calvin encouraged Christians to learn private prayer from public prayer with others, whether in midweek “services” or groups of believers gathered informally.
A second cornerstone of Anglican worship is the Collects written by Thomas Cranmer (Archbishop of Canterbury under three Tudor monarchs and architect of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer). These prayers are widely regarded as some of the most Biblical and well-constructed in existence. The pattern they follow (noted by Tim Keller in chapter 12 of his book) is both elegant and deeply prayerful:
expressing our need
requesting His help
affirming His glory.
The best are near-perfect expressions of faith in prayer. An example follows at the end.
Other godly Christians have written great prayers which deepen our faith. Those of Augustine (“Lord, you made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you”), Francis of Assisi (“Master, grant that I may never seek so much as to be understood as to understand”), and Richard of Chichester (“to know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly”) are good examples, and many more are found in pocket collections like this one.
But at the same time prayer is a delight. We do not need to limit prayer to set times of the day or words of others, or feel that we can pray only at our bedside, and not at the kitchen table or on the commute to work. Discipline deepens us, but delight reminds us that through grace heaven is accessible at any moment. There may be times when prayer is dutiful, but as our faith deepens we will find that God becomes more and more beautiful to us, and prayer becomes more and more a delight in which we long to spend all our days.
Prayer – Collect for Easter Day (Cranmer) (now for “Fifth Sunday of Easter”, Common Worship)
who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ
have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life:
grant that, as by your grace going before us
you put into our minds good desires,
so by your continual help
we may bring them to good effect;
through Jesus Christ our risen Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.