How to pray: discipline and delight

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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:

addressing God

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)

Almighty God,
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.



Prayer: learning from Calvin

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In his excellent new book “Prayer”, Tim Keller (chapter 7) summarises John Calvin’s four “rules” of prayer. This inspired me to read the original chapter on prayer in the great French reformer’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”, and I have not been disappointed. Calvin’s guidance is deep and heartwarming.

Calvin starts with the great question people ask “Why do we need to pray to God at all?” “Does he not know what our difficulties are, and what we need, until aroused by the sound of our voice?”

He replies that “those who argue thus forget the end for which our Lord taught us to pray. it was not so much for his sake as for ours…That our heart may be enflamed with love for and trust in him…that wrong desires may be kept from us as we learn to place our wishes in his sight…that we may be prepared to receive all good things with gratitude.”1

Calvin’s four “rules” for prayer follow, but they are not so much “rules” as attitudes of heart, without which prayer is impossible.

1. Reverence for God

(Psalm 25:1 “To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul”.)

Those who engage in prayer do so only when they are “so impressed with the majesty of God that they do so free from all earthly cares and affections”2. We cannot “grovel in the mire” if we want to experience fellowship with God on High.

This also, says Calvin, sets us free from praying for the wrong things. Whilst God encourages us to pour out our hearts over what troubles us (in that sense, anything is on the agenda), prayer is not giving rein to unwise or selfish desires. Rather our respect for God’s glory and greatness means that we approach with his will and desires on our hearts, not our own. “This is the confidence that we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14).

At this point Calvin is making the same point as in the (Anglican) Homily 19 written around the same time, where we are urged to pray first for spiritual needs and then material ones (“seek first his kingdom and righteousness, and all these things will  be given to you” Matthew 6:33).

2. Sense of need

(Psalm 50:15 “Call on me in the day of trouble”.)

Casually coming out with words, without a heartfelt desire to be heard and helped by God, is not prayer. Never enter God’s presence without a strong desire to obtain what you ask3, says Calvin. He is not saying that I always have to feel desperate to pray – we can equally pray when joyful, he notes (James 5:13 “Is any of you in trouble? Let them pray. Is any joyful? Let them sing psalms”). But prayer must come from a sense of empty-handedness before God.

We are told to pray “at all times” (Ephesians 6:18) and this reminds us that, even if we are rich and well-fed, we must constantly thank God for the rain, sun and harvests that have given us food to eat and clothing to wear.

Repentance is a vital aspect of sensing need. Approaching God as if we deserve to be given access to his throne is a sign of spiritual complacency often warned against in Scripture: “these people draw near to me with their mouth, but their hearts are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). But approaching with hearts desperate for forgiveness leads to confidence, “Whatever we ask, we receive from him, because we keep his commandments” (1 John 3:22).

3. Sense of unworthiness

(Daniel 9:18: “We do not present our requests because we are righteous, but because you are merciful.”)

The proud or “vain” heart thinks it approaches God as His equal, having a right to be heard because of my status or abilities. Calvin warns that this is a grave mistake, and gives an impressive number of examples of people of faith in the Bible who pray with humility at their own sinfulness or weakness, and yet are heard by God. Confidence in prayer increases as self-confidence decreases. His point is that we are heard not because we are clever or righteous, but because God is gracious and merciful. David says in Psalm 25:18 “Look upon my affliction and pain, and forgive my sins”.

4. Confidence of success

(Mark 11:24:”Whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it shall be yours.”)

We may need to beware self-confidence when we pray, but we can be confident that God hears us.

Some say it is arrogant to be certain that God hears our prayers, that we should rely on the prayers of “saints” more holy that us, but this assurance in prayer, says Calvin, is simply Christian faith in action. Just as our confidence in being reconciled to God rests not on our moral uprightness but Christ’s death for us, our assurance of being heard rests not on our spiritual perfection but on Christ’s opening the way for us into God’s presence.

“So then let us approach the throne of grace boldly that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help us in our our time of need” (Hebrew 4:16). Jesus, our great high priest, intercedes for us (Hebrew 7:25). The Anglican Homily on Prayer  emphasizes the same point, that “Jesus Christ is the mediator between us and God” (quoting 1 Timothy 2:5, a key verse also to Calvin).

It is actually an act of defiance NOT to pray: Psalm 50:15 is an open invitation to anyone – “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will deliver you”. We may feel embarrassed by our unworthiness to come into His presence, or inadequate to pray compared to “saints” we admire, but the door is open, and “it would be presumptuous to go forward into the presence of God, had he not anticipated us by his invitation”4.

How strange that we neglect prayer, and take its promises so coldly, when it is so openly and universally offered to us if we will just come in reverent, empty-handed humility. “The name of the Lord is a strong tower; the righteous run into it and are saved” (Proverbs 18:10). “Ask and you will receive” (Matthew 7:7).

Calvin’s caveat: “rules” are there to be broken

“We may not be as godly as patriarchs, prophets, or apostles” says Calvin. Our attitudes of heart may often be weak. We may pray with hearts that are at times worldly, self-reliant and proud. “But if we trust the promises of God”, he finishes, “we are in respect of the privilege of prayer their equals.”5


Read Psalm 25 slowly, making its praise of God and its cries to Him your own.

1 Calvin, Institutes III.20.3

2 Institutes III.20.5

3 Institutes III.20.6

4 Institutes III.20.13

5 Institutes III.20.14

What, exactly, is prayer?

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There are plenty of sermons preached and books written on “How to Pray”. I have a brilliant one with this title by nineteenth-century evangelist RA Torrey. His passion for constant, agonised and fervent intercession is a little daunting (I’d like to think prayer is about joy and thanksgiving too) but it is full of “how to pray” and “what to pray about” advice.

But there are few books on Christian shelves which start with the vital prior question: what is prayer? Surely, I would argue, we must ask this first, not only to be clear what we are doing when we “pray” but to make our expectations of what happens when we pray both realistic, and sufficiently high. We need to know what prayer really is if we are to gain confidence in experiencing the real thing.

O Hallesby’s classic, entitled “Prayer“, spends a brief chapter on this question but only really comes up with this definition: it is opening the door to God, or it is telling God how helpless we are. I can’t argue with either idea, but somehow I feel these are experiential definitions (what we do when we pray) and not theological ones (what prayer is).

Prayer is  not a general sense of the “spiritual”, of the kind which people describe when enjoying the peace of a garden or the beauty of a sunset – although these things may prompt prayers of praise and thanks to the Creator.

Prayer is not saying religious words. Jesus criticised those who thought that the more words they used, and the longer they went on speaking, the more likely God was to hear them. God knows what we need before we ask1.

Prayer is not an undirected cry to an unknown deity – or at least, Christian prayer is not that. All the prayers of the Bible are spoken in response to the God who has revealed Himself. Revelation from God leads to communication with God.

Moses prays to the LORD who caught his attention with a burning bush and then declared himself holy, the God of Moses’ fathers, compassionate, and named “I Am/I will be” or “The One Who is ” (Hebrew Yahweh or LORD)2. The Psalms cry out in praise, or desperation, to the God of Israel who created the earth, called His people, and redeemed them from slavery in Egypt. Paul prays to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus prays “Our Father in heaven”, a response both to the intimacy (“Abba” is a respectful word used by a child) and the majesty (“in heaven” means “in the high, infinite and eternal place where God is”) of God.

Prayer is therefore Trinitarian. We pray as Christians to the Father, through the atoning sacrifice and intercession of the Son, in the power of the Spirit within us by faith.

People often ask me two questions about prayer. First, which member of the Trinity do we pray to? The answer is in the above statement. Just as faith is coming to the Father through Jesus, and united by His Spirit, so is prayer. Second, what about praying to the saints? The Biblical pattern, again, is that through Christ, unworthy though we feel, we have the extraordinary privilege of direct access to “the throne of grace” (God) along with, not through, the great Christians who have lived before us.

Prayer is intelligent response to God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible.

John Calvin did believe that all of us have a sense of God’s presence (sensus divinatis) but he also taught that we need our image of God shaped all the time by the Bible’s picture of Who He is, or we create a false one. Of course, we may pray about matters not directly mentioned in the Bible, whether confessing sin, seeking guidance or interceding for the sick. Prayer is not limited to using or responding to words in the Bible. But it is only when we pray in response to God in the Bible that we know our prayers are God-centred, just as it is only when we read the Scriptures that we can be sure God is speaking to us.

In his book “Prayer“, which I am enjoying reading this Lent, Tim Keller uses this definition of prayer: a personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God. Comments?

Prayer for this week

Read Psalm 66 slowly, repeating each phrase in praise of God for the ways in which he has revealed himself.

1 Matthew 6:7-8

2 Exodus 3:1-15

Why is prayer precious?

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Prayer is unnatural for human beings. From our first breath we learn the art of self-reliance, whereas prayer is the art of communion with, and relying on, One greater than ourselves. That prayer comes unnaturally is ironic, given that it has from long ago been called “the breath of the soul”: God is all around us – and through faith, within us – yet we train ourselves not to recall this or experience it. It ought to come naturally, but through our sinfulness, it does not.

In our church we are reading the book “Prayer” by Tim Keller during this Lent season through to Easter (the challenge, if you want to join us, is to read one of his five “Parts” each week). Our hope is not only to learn about prayer but to deepen our life of prayer – both as individual Christ-followers, and when we come together. Since I suspect that, like me, you do not find prayer “natural”, but, rather, an activity that takes effort and practice, let’s start with a look – as Keller does in his Part One – at why prayer is so central to Christian life, and so great a privilege.

It’s hard to miss the centrality of prayer to the life of people in the Bible. Paul writes “Pray at all times” (Ephesians 6:18) and “in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God” (Philippians 4:6). The Pentecost church devoted themselves to “the prayers” (Acts 2:42), along with the teaching, fellowship, and breaking bread. The Old Testament patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob all prayed, connecting in a direct and intimate way with the LORD. Moses prayed often, whether in thanksgiving (Exodus 15), or intercession. The most dramatic example of the latter is in Exodus 17, where Israel is facing the Amalekite army. Moses’ strategy for faith and victory is to send his best general (Joshua) out to fight, whilst he prays, his arms raised to heaven. The battle takes so long that he tires and needs a seat – and the support of two colleagues – to keep his arms raised until victory is secure!

David composed many of the Psalms which take the forms of prayer, and which celebrate a God who hears prayer (eg 65:2, “You who answer prayer, to you all peoples will come“). Solomon’s own prayer at the dedication of the temple was that it might be a place to which Israel’s prayers could be directed with confidence (2 Chronicles 6:21).

We will look in future posts at how the Bible defines prayer, but it would be impossible to focus on prayer without putting the Lord’s prayer central: it is, after all, how Jesus taught his disciples to pray!

Jesus clearly sees prayer as a frequent, normal and central part of faith. From the very first words of his prayer “Our Father“, prayer is both a direct communion with the living God, and a response to God as He has revealed himself to us. Prayer is fellowship not with a shapeless unknown God, but with the God known in the Bible as the holy, mighty and merciful “Father” to his people.

Jesus starts his lesson in prayer this way in order to teach us perhaps the most important thing about prayer: it is not saying to God “sort this mess out” but encountering God and responding to Him in all his greatness. My prayer life will only be as great as the God I seek when I pray.

Prayer is about so much more than “asking for a parking place”, or the atheist’s classic, “God, if you’re there, sort this out for me”. It is wondering communion with God, joyous expression of gratitude, rediscovery of grace, connection with the purpose and power of God.

George Herbert (1593-1663) wrote these inspiring words (quoted by Keller) which poetically portray the breath of prayer. I make no apology for quoting them here:

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
         God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
         The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
         Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
         The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
         Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
         Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
         Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
         The land of spices; something understood.
Herbert captures what prayer is from its privilege to its power, from its mundane origin to its magnificent reach.
A few decades earlier, John Calvin (1509-1564) wrote a wonderful sixty-page chapter of his famous “Institutes” on the theme of “Prayer” (chapter 20 of Book 3). On the first page, in a memorable image, he urges his readers to uncover the treasures of the gospel through prayer,
“To prayer, then, are we indebted for penetrating to those riches which are treasured up for us with our heavenly Father. For there is a kind of fellowship between God and mankind by which, having entered the upper sanctuary, they appear before him and appeal to his promises…prayer digs up those treasures which the gospel of the Lord reveals to the eye of faith”.
Prayer will only seem great to us when God, and the treasures of His grace “dug up” through prayer, are also great to us. But great they are indeed.

Prayer exercise

Read Psalm 30 (a psalm of praise and thanksgiving) and spend some time putting into words your wonder at God’s greatness, faithfulness and mercy to you.