“Only a life of prayer and meditation will render a vessel ready for the Master’s use” (George Muller). “Prayer is the distinctive mark of the Lord’s powerful servants. All of them, in spite of considerable differences, offer to us this common trait: They are men who pray much and who pray fervently” (Adolphe Monod). For some of us, sentences like these are encouraging and inspiring. Many of us also find them discouraging and disheartening. We understand the importance of prayer and admire those who devote themselves to it. Yet, we feel incompetent, ill-equipped, and even unable to pray. We wonder how to begin, and once begun, how to continue.
Whether we love to pray or are daunted by the thought, it is important we pray, and pray in a way pleasing to God. God commands us to pray (1 Thess. 5:17, Rom. 12:12b, Col. 4:2a). He promises that he will use our prayers to sanctify us and to accomplish his foreordained will (WSC #88, James 5:13–16, 1 John 5:4–15). He also offers sober warnings against praying with the wrong heart (Isa. 1:11–15, Luke 18:9–14). Clearly, it is necessary that we pray and that we pray in the way God prescribed.
Many books, blogs, and articles have been written on how to pray. Some encourage free-form prayer, others offer specific scripts. Some argue prayers are only valid if infused with unshakeable faith that we will get the thing asked. Still others argue that corporate prayer is the most authentic form. The plethora of resources and opinions often leave us more confused and disheartened than before. Rather than try to offer the next book on how to pray, I propose to provide three principles for prayer grounded on Scripture. Using these principles, along with insight from our spiritual forebears, we can pray more confidently and joyfully.
Principle #1: We Pray with an Acknowledgment of our Neediness
When we pray, it is important we begin in the right place. In a well-known parable on prayer, Jesus describes both the right and wrong starting points. Jesus describes how a Pharisee prays by recounting to God his good deeds and thanking God for his superiority over other men. Meanwhile, a tax collector, poignantly aware of his sinful state, beats his breast begging God to be merciful to him. Jesus concludes that it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee who is justified (Luke 18:9–14). What differentiated the prayers of these two men? The tax collector acknowledged his own neediness, while the Pharisee was blind to his need.
A prerequisite to prayer is acknowledging our own need for forgiveness. When we repent and are saved, God gives us a new heart. Out of this regenerated heart flows a deep sense of our own sinfulness before a holy God, which drives us to consistent, thorough, and heartfelt repentance both for past and present sins (see Ps. 51:1–7, Ps. 6, 32, 38). As Calvin writes, “supplication for pardon, with humble and ingenuous confession of guilt, forms both the preparation and commencement of right prayer.” When we come into prayer with such a mindset of repentance and confession, we come with a right understanding of ourselves and God. “He who comes into the presence of God to pray must divest himself of all vain-glorious thoughts, lay aside all idea of worth; in short, discard all self-confidence, humbly giving God the whole glory, lest by arrogating anything, however little to himself, any pride cause him to turn away his face.” The Bible teaches that we have nothing God does not give us.
Coming to prayer with repentant hearts teaches us to see our utter dependence on God not only for forgiveness but for all our daily needs. Without this understanding, we are unlikely to pray at all—those who don’t think they need, don’t ask. Calvin also writes: “in asking we must always truly feel our wants, and seriously considering that we need all the things which we ask, accompany the prayer with a sincere, nay, ardent desire of obtaining them.” We must feel our need. The persistent widow in Jesus’ parable knew her need and knew that the local judge, though wicked, was the only one able to meet her need. So she confidently and consistently brought her needs before him (Luke 18:1–8). A prerequisite to proper prayer is a deep sense of our need which drives us to cry out to God for mercy, help, and necessities. We are unlikely to do any of this, however, if we do not first have a right understanding of the One to whom we cry.
Principle #2: We Pray with a Focus on God’s Character
A child who does not know his father is not likely either to talk to him or ask much from him. He doesn’t ask because he doesn’t know whether his father is likely (or even able) to give him what he asks. He doesn’t talk to him because he is a stranger. A son, however, who knows his father well, and knows his father loves him deeply, will ask freely for whatever his heart desires—sure that, even if his father says no, it is for his own good.
Jesus teaches us to pray, “Our Father, who art in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). In so doing, He is teaching us to acknowledge at the very same time our close familial connection with God and his infinite superiority over us. Acknowledging the former teaches us to ask with childlike faith. Acknowledging the latter teaches us to ask with confidence that the One from whom we ask can give us what we ask.
Our knowledge of God is animated and made more real to us through prayer. Scripture reveals to us God’s character and how he acts out of that character. The more we study Scripture, the more we discover about who God is. Therefore, our prayers must also be accompanied by and grounded in Scripture.
Principle #3: We Pray with and from Scripture
When David pleaded with God, he did so based on who God had revealed himself to be throughout Scripture (for example, “Turn, Lord, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love,” Ps. 6:4). We can not only pray like David when we need deliverance, but use David’s words as our own. Abraham pleaded with God to spare Nineveh based on his justice (Gen. 18:22–25). When we know our request is in keeping with some aspect of God’s character, we too can appeal to it in our prayers. Moses, when begging God to spare Israel, reminded God of the glory due his name and of his promise to be faithful to his covenant relationship with the Israelites (Exod. 32:11–14). We can also make requests of God based on promises he has given in Scripture. When Mary was overflowing with gratitude, she offered a prayer of praise based on who God is and what he had done for Israel and for her (Luke 1:46–55). When our hearts are filled with joy, we can use her words (and others like them throughout Scripture) to express it. These people all knew what God had revealed about himself and appealed to what they knew in their prayers. They essentially repeated back to God what God had already told them about himself.
When we pray like this, we can pray boldly. For we do not ask based on our merits or work, but on God’s promises. It takes the focus off us and places it on God. It frees us to use God’s own Word even when we are at a loss for words.
A Final Note
We are all imperfect prayers and sure to pray for the wrong things or do so wrongly. This should in no way discourage us from trying. For we have three very great assurances on our side. Jesus is our perfect and sympathizing High Priest who delights to intercede for us; the Holy Spirit is constantly helping us in our prayers (even praying when we cannot); and the Father receives our prayers for Jesus’ sake (Heb. 4:15–16, Rom. 8:26–27, 1 John 2:1). Therefore, dear Christian, let us pray. As toddlers learning to walk, our first steps may be faltering and we may often stumble, but we can be sure our Father will uphold us along the way.
Elisabeth Bloechl is a member of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, house cleaner, and aspiring writer. She lives in Indiana with her husband and two children.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Press, 1997), III.10.9.