Call Upon God
Call Upon God
Bringing forward the topic of prayer tends to produce a variety of thoughts in our minds. On the one hand, we are all aware of the Biblical command to pray. We also know that our deepest joy and fellowship with God comes in times of prayer. Prayer, we realize, gives strength and wisdom and inner peace. On the other hand, most of us have a sense of guilt with respect to prayer. Remaining steadfast in prayer is not easy. Often the cares and business of life seem to leave little room for prayer. Even when we do pray, we find that our minds are prone to distraction. In other cases, people admit that prayer does not really grip their minds. Entering into communion with God holds no allure for them. They are too bored with God to pray.
What is Prayer?⤒🔗
In order to deal with the matter of prayer, we will need to first remind ourselves of what prayer really is. Scripture uses a huge variety of expressions to describe prayer. Some of these are: calling upon the Lord; seeking the face of God; crying to the Lord; drawing near to God; thanking the LORD; asking: supplicating; interceding; praising.
The unifying concept in the vocabulary of prayer is communication with God. At bottom, prayer is speaking to the Lord. Such communication with the divine Creator is possible only because He has taken the initiative in establishing a relationship with His people. Prayer communication does not take place in a vacuum, but in the context of God's covenant of grace.
In prayer, we call upon God's Name. His Name stands for His fame, for His glorious reputation as the creating and redeeming God. His Name is Yahweh, the LORD, and this holy Name reveals that God is faithful to His covenant (Exodus 3:13-16).
The Name of God means that He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty… Exodus 34:5-7
This unchanging, revealed Name of God forms the basis for all prayer. In prayer, we call not upon an unknown spirit. Prayer is not a despairing scream into the darkness of the night. It is not an appeal to a possibly existing deity. Instead, in prayer, we call upon the revealed Name of the God of the covenant, who has already drawn near to us in His grace and mercy. Prayer flows from a believing response to the divine invasion of our lives.
Since we know the Name of the Lord in all its glorious content from Scripture, there can be no vibrant and persistent prayer life without massive exposure to God's Word. Word and prayer form a partnership. We cannot understand the Word without a mind of prayer and we cannot pray without a mind for the Word. Without frequent reading of the words of the Spirit in Scripture, our prayer life will soon become shallow and idle.
The words of Paul in Romans 10 are relevant here: “But how are men to call upon him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without a preacher?” In preaching, we meet the Name of God. The Name is proclaimed to us in the fullness of salvation and judgment. Our response to the preaching must be calling upon the Name.
It follows that where there is no regard for the revelation of God's Name in Scripture, prayer degenerates into empty babbling. In answering the question, “What belongs to a prayer which pleases God and is heard by Him?”, Lord's Day 45 of the Catechism gives this concise answer: “First, we must from the heart call upon the one true God only, who has revealed Himself in His Word…” If human beings seek to approach God outside His self-revelation, their words reach no further than the confines of the room in which they stand. Prayer must always be offered to God in the context of the Bible. People who pray much but have little interest in Scripture or the preaching of Scripture are a species worthy of careful watching.
When we understand that prayer is convenantal response to divine initiative, the practical implication is that one's private prayer best follows the reading of God's Word. Many people who confess great difficulty in private prayer acknowledge rich increase upon adopting the practice of first reading God's Word. Then their prayer truly becomes a response to the Lord who first addressed them.
Most Important Part of Gratitude←⤒🔗
When we understand prayer as convenantal response, we can also grasp why the Catechism in Lord's Day 45 calls prayer “the most important part of the thankfulness which God requires of us.” We would be inclined to say that not prayer, but good works are the chief part of Christian gratitude. However, we know that the Lord created human beings for fellowship with Himself (see Lord's Day 3, Q.A.6). Man and woman were made to walk with God. Their lives made sense only in the framework of a relationship with their Creator exercised and cemented in prayer. When God redeems alienated sinners and reconciles them to Himself, the most immediate result is the opening of mouths in prayer. In this God delights and is glorified. For this communion with God we were saved.
Carl Henry writes the following on this point:
Prayerlessness is a spurning of that fellowship with God for which man was fashioned, a snobbish preference for solitude and self-reflection above conversation with the Almighty. Likewise, it involves a shameful neglect of spiritual and moral resources. Whoever prefers a monologue with himself to a dialogue with the Creator-Redeemer actually shapes an idol of himself.1
As we listen to the Scriptural teaching about prayer, we notice that there are many things which we ought to bring before the Lord.
In the first place, there is thanksgiving. The content of thanksgiving is vast, as extensive as life itself. For in God we live and move and have our being. If we realize that we owe life itself to God, and that He sustains us from moment to moment, thanks will never be far from our lips.
As we overhear the inspired saints in the Psalms, we find them praising God for His wonderful deeds of creation and salvation, for His steadfast love, for specific acts of deliverance, for the expansion of the Kingdom, for food and drink and family, for the beauty of the earth and for many other things indeed.
If we listen to the thanksgiving of the apostle Paul in his various letters, we observe His genuine gratitude for the faith of all Christians, for the triumph of the Gospel in the world, for the love of other Christians toward himself, for the divine supplying of all needs, for the growth of the Church in love and knowledge of Christ.
Paul also leaves us with exhortations to be faithful in giving thanks, not only in good situations, but in all circumstances (1 Thessalonians 5:18). We may think that our lives are a dreadful misery but we are not in hell. Therefore, even in persecution or in sickness or economic distress, there is ample reason for abounding in thanksgiving (Colossians 2:7). Again, the more we nurture the knowledge of God through the study of Scripture, the more we will be sensitive to the river of grace and peace irrigating our lives from day to day and so we will increase in appreciation.
Closely connected with thanksgiving is adoration and praise. In prayer, we declare our love for God and we proclaim before Him His greatness. Very often in the Scriptures, we hear the saints listing in their prayers the many revealed works of God.
For example, Daniel begins his prayer in chapter nine of his prophecies by saying: “O Lord, the great and terrible God, who keepest covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments…”
Or, consider the beautiful manner in which Ezra begins his penitential prayer as recorded in Nehemiah nine: “Thou art the LORD, thou alone; thou hast made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them; and thou preservest all of them; and the host of heaven worships thee” (Nehemiah 9:6).
For another dimension of this adoration of God, consider how in many of the Psalms, the authors list in great detail the attributes of God (see, e.g. Psalms 100:6; 145:8-9).
If our prayer life becomes stale, would it not be a great thing to be recharged by contemplating in Scripture the astounding perfections and works of God? Would not such study awaken our love for God? From our full hearts fresh words would flow forth again to Father in heaven. Too often our prayer is stifled because our theology is impoverished. We have a miniature deity and so our prayers are also slight and without ardor.
A necessary component of prayer is confession of sin. Apart from humble remorse, the sinner need expect nothing from God. Prayer that pleases God must reflect an awareness of our unworthiness to draw near to the King. Such prayer relies not on personal merit, but on divine grace. Nothing kills prayer more quickly than a spirit of pride and self-righteousness.
With Daniel, the godly will always pray like this:
O my God, incline thy ear and heart; open thy eyes and behold our desolations, and the city which is called by thy name; for we do not present our supplications before thee on the ground of our righteousness, but on the ground of thy great mercy. O LORD, hear; O LORD, forgive …Daniel 9:18
Because of our personal unworthiness, prayer is always in the Name of Christ. In Him, the forgiving favor of God becomes manifest. He is Jesus who saves His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). He paid for those sins and today He intercedes for His people. When they call upon God, their prayers are heard for the sake of Christ who sits at the Father's right hand. His holy Name makes it possible for miserable sinners to seek the Father's ear. We may come to the throne with boldness and confidence only because Christ is there as our Advocate. God's throne is dreadful and awful, but Christ has changed it to a throne of grace. Therefore, we have boldness and confidence of access to God (compare Hebrews 4:14-16; 1 John 2:1; Ephesians 3:12).
A further ingredient of drawing near to God is actual prayer. We often use this word to describe the whole act of coming before God, but it actually refers specifically to the bringing of our requests to the Lord. People who know their great deficiencies will have many requests. They know that without God's unceasing help and grace, they are paralyzed for Christian living. Without Him, believers know, they can do no good. Outside of communion with Him, they are useless for His Church and Kingdom. What motivates true prayer, then, is the sense that we are beggars before God. We have nothing, while all riches are His.
On the other hand, nothing kills prayers so effectively as a sense of self-sufficiency. The delusion of humanism is independence from God and the refusal to admit need. Many people in our society call upon God only in the moment of extreme crisis, when all other resources have proved obviously ineffective. However, while desperation can drive people to prayer, it can never keep them in prayer. Only a continuing sense of weakness and emptiness will lead us to seek the face of God who can fill us and make us strong.
In order to encourage our prayers, the Bible reveals God as a generous Father to His children. Indeed, He appears to us in Scripture as the “overflowing fountain of all good” (compare Psalms 145:7, 9; 100:5). He says: “ask and it will be given you” (Matthew 7:7). By revealing Himself to us in His bounteous goodness, God attracts us to Himself so that we feel free to bring our needs before Him.
Praying for Promised Good←⤒🔗
For what may we pray? In the first place, for everything that God has promised to us. In his exposition of prayer, Calvin describes prayer as a mining of the treasures that were promised to us in the Gospel.
His words are “Therefore we see that to us nothing is promised to be expected from the Lord, which we are not also bidden to ask of him in prayer. So true is it that we dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord's gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon.”2
In the Scriptures, the Lord promises His people a great deal: forgiveness of sins, peace beyond understanding, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, strength against temptation, protection against the evil one and eternal life. If we made a list of the promises of God, it would be very long indeed.
If God has bestowed such rich promises on His people which all find their yes and Amen in Christ (2 Corinthians 1:18), how is that we find ourselves often spiritually down and out, impoverished or even penniless? The answer is: we do not have because we do not ask.
We are poor because we do not go to the fountain of all riches. As Lord's Day 45 teaches us: “God will give His grace and the Holy Spirit only to those who constantly and with heartfelt longing ask Him for these gifts and thank Him for them.”
For what then must we pray? If we examine the prayers in the Psalms and elsewhere in Scripture, we will find that these prayers do not focus on personal needs. Instead they focus on God's glory, on the coming of His Kingdom, on the hallowing of His Name and the doing of His will. Even when personal needs are brought forward they are made subordinate to these greater goals. For example, if someone lacks a job, they may pray for a job. Why? Only to have money to spend on their passions? No, but so that they may use their job and its income for seeking God's Kingdom and its righteousness.
Thus, we may and must pray for all things necessary for us to be living members of Christ's church. Wisdom, insight into Scripture, growth in love and faith and knowledge, maturity, courage, steadfastness, patience in suffering, thankfulness in wellbeing, food and drink, and likewise many other Christian virtues are to be sought diligently of God in prayer.
In the prayers of the apostle Paul, of which we find many in his epistles, there is a constant stress on the progress of the Gospel in the world. He often calls upon the churches to be his coworkers in mission. How are they to do so? The answer is: by lifting up the cause of the Gospel to the throne of God (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 3:1; Colossians 4:13). Also today, the missionary work of the church must be at the epicenter of our prayers. It must be our heartfelt desire to see every knee bow at King Jesus and every sinner reconciled to God.
As did Paul, all Christians are to pray for the wellbeing of the church, especially their own congregation. They are to ask the Lord to equip the elders and ministers of the Word for their crucial task so that the local church may be faithful to God. Furthermore, there are many encouragements in Scripture for believers to intercede for each other. They are to pray for the sick, the poor, the wayward, the lonely, the handicapped, the orphans and widows. In this intercessory prayer is found God's cure for egoism and self-centeredness. In their prayers, Christians also remember those who face persecution, asking God to grant liberty and in the meantime steadfastness. In their prayers, they must seek the destruction of the evil one and of all false religion.
For all these matters, the Lord has given instruction and example to pray and He has bound Himself to hear our prayers. He promises to use our prayers for the advancement of His Kingdom. He says: ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find.
Self-Denial in Prayer←⤒🔗
There is another class of prayers, which while certainly permissible, have no guarantee of a positive divine answer. For example, a desire for a job, for a boyfriend or girlfriend, for success in school is legitimate. Indeed, the Bible encourages us to bring all our human needs before the Lord. If someone has a heartfelt desire for something but does not seek God's help and blessing, we can hardly take that person seriously as a Christian.
However, if we come to God with our human desires, we must also be willing to accept His will. If a Christian is in jail because of his faith, he may pray for freedom. If a Christian is lonely, she may pray for a husband. If our job has become unbearable, we may ask God to lead in a new direction. However, in all such prayers, there ought to be the element of surrender to God's purposes.
In other words, the cross of self-denial must find its place in every prayer. After all, prayer is not a matter of going with demands to the Lord. Instead, true prayer represents a complete surrender to the will and purposes of God. Instead of saying, “My will be done,” we confess, “Not my will, but thine, be done.” For these reasons, our personal needs and desires must not become an obsessive marathon of prayer before the Lord. After all, by the very act of prayer, we are confessing that God is a wise and good Father. His answer must be superior to our desire.
In summary, we see that Biblical prayer does not rise primarily from a person's own “felt needs.” Prayer has a much broader scope than our own personal comfort and pleasure. It is not a tool for increasing our conveniences. Instead, prayer is the cry of a soldier of the cross for strength in battle and for the ultimate victory of God's Kingdom. Our personal needs and desires have a place in prayer only when we subject them to the higher cause of God's glory. Otherwise we would pray wrongly, to spend things on our passions – to use and enjoy them outside of fellowship with God (see James 4:4). It goes without saying that God does not hear such self-centered prayers.
If You Have Faith←⤒🔗
If we turn now to necessary attitudes for godly prayer, we must speak first about the condition of faith. Faith is the confidence that what we have asked, God is able and willing to give. Christ says to His disciples, “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22).
We may listen also to the apostle John in his first letter:
And this is the confidence which we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will He hears us. And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of Him. 1 John 5:14-15
Also the word of James is here important:
If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives to all men generously and without reproaching, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for he who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways, will receive anything from the Lord. James 1:5-8
Why can prayer be full of expectation? Only because God has commanded our prayers to attach themselves to His promises. We know that God is truth, that He hates all lies, that He is faithful to His Word. Therefore, He fulfills all promises. He is ready to hear, His ears turned to us. What an inducement to prayer! After we pray, we don't simply hope for the best, but we start to watch with expectation for the Lord to implement His promises in our lives and in His Church.
From the Heart←⤒🔗
Furthermore, true prayer must be from the heart. Anything less than sincere prayer is a violation of the third commandment. If we pray without focus or seriousness, we take the Lord's Name in vain. When out of custom or superstition people draw near with their lips while their hearts and minds are far from God, He is insulted and will not hear them (cf. Isaiah 29:13). For these reasons, the often helpful use of standard form prayers, whether in home or church, must be balanced with prayers which express in our own words the desires of our heart.
With a Pure Conscience←⤒🔗
A further condition of prayer is a life of integrity. John says that we receive whatever we ask of God, “because we keep His commandments and do what pleases Him” (1 John 3:22). In the previous verse, John taught that “if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God.” In Psalms 34, verse 15, the poet states, “The eyes of the Lord are toward the righteous, and His ears toward their cry.”
Consider, too, Psalm 66:18: “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened.” On the other hand, Proverbs 28, verse 9 informs us that, “If anyone turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.” Based on his knowledge of the Old Testament, the blind man who was healed by Jesus could state categorically: “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, God listens to him” (John 9:31).
Taken together, these and many other texts inform us that only those who are truly repentant can really pray. The Psalmists often seem to boast of their righteousness and to use it as a ground for prayer. What they mean, however, is not that they are perfect and that God must hear them on account of their complete obedience to the Law. Instead, the meaning is that they are fully committed to the Law of God. They love God's Law and want to keep it. When they nonetheless break God's Law and fall short of perfection, they trust in the Lord's forgiving covenant love. In this sense they are righteous and can pray to God with a clean conscience (cf. Hebrews 10:22). The point is that they do not pray to God with pious words while in their hearts they still love evil.
A further condition here is the need for reconciliation with other people. Peter states that if a husband does not live in a considerate manner with his wife, then his prayers will be hindered (1 Peter 3:7). And Paul adds in 1 Timothy 2, “I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling” (vs. 8). When we wish to bring to God the sacrifice of praise from our lips, a condition is that as much as we are able, we live at peace with all men (cf. Matthew 5:23f).
A basic rule of Scripture is: pray constantly (1 Thessalonians 5:17; see also Ephesians 6:18, Colossians 4:2). Although there be many times when we feel and act on the spontaneous desire to pray, there must also be prayer habits. We read of the early Christians that they were devoted to “the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The point is that prayer may not be placed at the whim of our emotions so that we only pray when we feel like it. If we follow this method, the times when we feel like it will become increasingly less frequent. The Jews had the habit of praying three times a day (cf. Daniel 6:10). Often in the book of Acts we read of the ninth hour (3 o'clock) as the hour of prayer (see Acts 3:1; 10:30).
Of Christ, we read that He often withdrew to the mountain or wilderness in order to pray. Not infrequently, at crucial moments in His work, He would spend all night in prayer (see Luke 5:16, 6:12). He persevered in prayer in order to find from His Father strength for His saving work.
We are not bound by such rules, but we must feel ourselves bound to regular times of prayer. Apart from the prayer practices of our families and friends and apart from public prayer in worship services, there must also be quiet times in our daily lives where we go to a private place (Matthew 6:6) to call upon the Name of the Lord. Anything less than this is sub-Christian and leads to the erosion of faith and godliness.
Corporate prayer also needs our attention. Is there advantage in corporate prayer? We need not believe that when two or three or more pray together that this prayer is therefore more effective, that somehow God is more inclined to hear just because there is group prayer.
Nonetheless, there are Biblical encouragements for and examples of corporate prayer. For example, in Acts 4, after the release of Peter and John from custody, we read that they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. “And when they heard it, they lifted up their voices together to God and said…” (vs. 24 ff.).
Here we notice that in response to a great danger for the church, there is a boldness and fellowship in prayer. Although the prayer is ascribed to the church as a whole, it is hard to believe that the whole group could speak together in this way “without some form of written prayer available for them all to read simultaneously or without a common form of words being learned off by heart previously; the view that the Spirit inspired each member to say exactly the same words reflects an impossibly mechanical view of the Spirit's working. It is, therefore, more likely that one person spoke in the name of the whole company.”3
Nonetheless, it is important to notice the unity of heart and mind in prayer. The prayer of the assembled brothers and sisters is unanimous (cf. also Acts 1:14). The same Spirit works in the hearts of all believers the desire to call upon the one Father. We know from the Bible that this unity in prayer and praise greatly pleases the Lord. In many places we are encouraged as church to be “in full accord and of one mind” (e.g. Philippians 2:2). In Romans 15, verses 5 and 6, the apostle offers this prayer:
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In various places of Acts, then, we read about corporate prayer (1:14; 2:42; 4:24; 12:12). Most of these passages, however, have to do with the public worship of God which in those days took place in various rooms and homes around Jerusalem. Furthermore, we find no precedent whatsoever in Scripture for what today is often called “group prayer.” A typical group prayer would involve people sitting or standing together, often holding hands, and taking turns in bringing petitions and praise to God.
People of Reformed background usually feel uneasy with such practices. They fear that this kind of prayer meeting has no Biblical warrant, that it usually leads to emotionalism, that it can lead to disorder and lack of reverence for God and that it can create a climate for ostentation in which the emphasis is on having our prayers heard by man rather than by God. They wonder what advantage such prayers have over the regular prayers which are led by one man who is usually, in any case, a leader in the congregation. Scripturally, it is indeed hard to see any advantage in group prayer. Unity in prayer does not necessitate audible participation by all the saints, but demands instead unity of heart and mind and active involvement when someone leads in prayer.
From church history, it also seems apparent that exalting group prayer seems to go hand in hand with diminishing the significance of corporate worship. Pietists such as Philip Spener and A.H. Francke in Germany reacted to a perceived sterility in the church by organizing groups within the church to gather for prayer and Bible Study. The goal was to stimulate and share Christian experience. Similar groups were organized in England by the Methodists (very influential in America) and later in the Netherlands during the so-called Revell.
While we can admire the zeal of many believers and writers of these pietistic movements, it is clear that they were not church movements. Instead of seeking the reformation of a supposedly moribund church, the pietists moved the focus out of the church into the homes with their praying societies. The emphasis was no longer on good confession and right doctrine but on rich and warm experiences. Today, too, many Christians seem to value more the group meeting for prayer and Bible Study much more than the public worship of God. This kind of stress fails to take into account the Biblical presentation of the centrality of the corporate and official worship of God.
Of course, it sounds unbelievably blind to oppose prayer groups. The point, however, is not that we oppose them, but that we need to see them in their proper place and to make sure that all things are done in a dignified and orderly manner suitable for a reverent approach to the Living God. Indeed, who could be against believers coming together for prayer? No one could be anything but overjoyed to hear of such events. In fact, would it not be good if the weekly or bi-weekly Bible Study meetings would be combined with a more intense and detailed time of prayer? Would it not be good if ministers and/or elders would take a leading role in such meetings and also lead the assembled brothers and sisters in intercession?
After all, we live in the last days of the world. We live in a time of intense spiritual war. Enemies rage on all sides. We are weak. We are few in number. What is more natural in this urgent situation than for us to call upon the Name of the Lord with one heart and mind? We pray for the destruction of all those who oppose the Lord's Anointed One (Acts 4). We pray for the expansion and preservation of the church. We long for the Return of Christ in glory. We pray for the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit. We pray for all the members in their own situation.
Too often people want to solve problems in the church with all kinds of techniques and new strategies. In fact, however, the strength of the church is always found in the Word of God and in prayer. If the Bible is an open book and prayer is from the heart in church services, in our homes and in our group meetings, then we may expect a fuller and richer church life, a bolder confession and a more committed walk with the Lord. For God does not lie. He does give what He has promised. His Word is sure. He hears those who call upon Him and answers their cry.
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