Pumped Up About Prayer
A confession: Over the years I’ve found much of what I’ve read about prayer to be unhelpful. Last week I worked out why.
Prayer is usually considered under the heading of ‘spiritual disciplines’ which makes it the spiritual equivalent of running on a treadmill or flossing your teeth. Viewing prayer purely as a spiritual discipline drags the whole business back into the world of law, and law can never impart life.
I awakened to this by reading Calvin’s teaching on prayer and found as I read that my heart was being warmed with a fresh desire to pray. Calvin describes prayer as, “The chief exercise of faith by which we daily receive God’s benefits.” He uses the illustration of a field in which God has buried vast treasure. God points out the treasure in His Word, faith believes what God says, and prayer is the spade with which we dig the treasure up and make it our own. “We dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s Gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon.”(Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 20)
I’ve found Calvin’s description of prayer helpful because it delivers prayer from the world of law and brings it into the realm of Gospel where it belongs. Instead of a duty to be fulfilled, prayer is a gift to be enjoyed. Instead of being a means of giving to God through the discipline of our devotion, it becomes a means of receiving from God through the bounty of His grace.
In the ministry of Unlocking the Bible, we aim to bring the Gospel to all of life. Here’s a great example of how the Gospel transforms our understanding and experience of prayer. There’s a world of a difference between ‘having your quiet time’ as a spiritual discipline and drawing near to God to possess what He promises to you in Christ.
Thinking about this further, I’m finding that Calvin’s description of prayer shifts the focus of what I look to receive from God through prayer. If prayer is, “the chief exercise of faith by which we daily receive God’s benefits,” it follows that the primary gifts I receive through prayer are not ‘answers’ to items or needs on my prayer list, but rather a lively experience of what God has promised in my own life and in the lives of others for whom I pray.
This is profoundly helpful. If you are like me, you will often find it difficult to know what to ask for in prayer. God knows what He is doing in any given situation. I don’t. What I, and others for whom I pray, need most is not a particular outcome to the problem being faced, but the ability to stand, to endure and to bear fruit in any circumstance of life. This is God’s gift to us in prayer: He does not trust us with power to dictate the outcome of events, but with the means to appropriate His grace in all that we face.
Prayer asks God for what He has promised, and looks to receive it. Through prayer a sense of God’s love and patience, and kindness and power and glory, and joy and peace are made real, alive, fresh and present in your soul today. Through prayer you lay hold of all that is yours in Christ: your forgiveness, your cleansing, your hope, your adoption, your freedom, your redemption, your election and your eternal destiny – so that you may savor and rejoice in all that is yours in Jesus Christ.
Many people experience a sense of unreality in their spiritual lives. Football and money and friendships are tangible and immediately enjoyable. But to many, the blessings of the Gospel seem more distant, vague, detached from the reality of daily life. Some people say they believe the Gospel, but they do not feel that the Gospel is life-changing for them.
If that’s your situation, let me give you this challenge: If you are not praying, how are you believing? Prayer is the chief exercise of faith. It is the means by which what God promises in the Gospel becomes real, alive, fresh and present in your experience today.
Calvin says, “Nothing is promised… from the Lord, which we are not also bidden to ask of Him in prayers.” (Institutes, Book 3, Chapter 20) It is possible to walk over the Gospel field with a spade in your hand while never actually digging up the treasure to make it your own. Thinking about that folly makes me want to pray.
Date Posted: March 9th, 2010