Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 45 - Prayer: The Most Important Part of Thankfulness
Question 116: Why is prayer necessary for Christians?
Answer 116: Because prayer is the most important part
of the thankfulness
which God requires of us.
Moreover, 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.
Prayer is speaking to God, aloud or silently to yourself. Is God listening? People who are walking down the street alone are sometimes talking actively. It is as if they are having a monologue, but through their cell phone they are in contact with someone else. Everyone assumes they are not just talking to themselves. In some invisible place, someone is listening to them.
Does God listen when people pray? No one gets a direct answer from him. Prayer is not like a phone call. Does it get picked up in heaven? Jesus typifies prayer as knocking at God’s door. “Knock and it will be opened to you.”1 That makes praying into an awesome reality.
Prayer as Evidence of Gratitude
Someone once called prayer “a key to open the storehouses of the treasures that God has for us” or “a hook to reach things beyond our reach”.2 Prayer, therefore, is a means of getting things that people cannot give themselves or to each other. When all possibilities are exhausted, prayer remains. “We can only pray”, is what we might say. To pray is to ask.
It is striking that the Catechism calls prayer first and foremost an expression of gratitude. It is even called “the most important part of the thankfulness”. Apparently there is no better way for Christians to show God how grateful they are to him than by praying.
The catechism refers to a remarkable call of God in Psalm 50. Israel is spending hands full of money on expensive sacrifices. They do not mind taking a precious bull from their stable and offering it to the LORD. The wrong thing is not that they offer sacrifices to him, but that they pretend that God eats the flesh of bulls and drinks the blood of goats, and is therefore pleased with their offerings. God calls them to offer him praise instead. They do this when they call on him in confidence in the face of danger. After all, his call “offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving” (v. 14) means concretely, “call upon me in the day of troubles” (v. 15). Anyone who prays in this way honours him, and at the same time paves the way to experience his help.3
So the LORD tastes their gratitude especially in their faithful supplication during the crisis and not only in their thanksgiving afterwards. That a child is happy with his father is proven not only when the danger is past, but even more so during the danger. The child runs in his or her fear to the father, wrapping arms around him and seeking protection from him. Never is the child more grateful to his father than in such a fearful moment, and never does it bring him more honour. Therefore, “the chief part of gratitude” is not only the prayer of thanksgiving after the crisis, but even more so the prayer of supplication during the crisis. Especially during severe emergencies, Christians can show how thankful they are to God. They do so by knocking on his door in their distress, convinced that he will open it to them. This is how they honour him most.
Paul’s injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18) is in the same line. It does not say that one should give thanks before all circumstances, but in them. God promises help in the most difficult situations. Whoever makes an urgent appeal to this, shows in all his supplication how grateful he is to God.
Furthermore, “in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). The word “with” does not loosely attach the thanksgiving to the prayer, but rather it implies that gratitude is stirred into it, as it were. This thanksgiving is not merely a separate part of the prayer, but embodies and characterizes it. “What makes prayer into a true prayer is the thankful amazement of being able to pray.”4
The Catechism summarizes God’s benefits as “his grace and his Holy Spirit”. This is the very greatest thing God can and will give a human being: mercy and the prospect of perfection. Christians can never prove their gratitude to God in any better way than by expecting everything from his grace and Spirit, in all circumstances.
God Wants us to Pray to Him
Calvin points out that the Bible commends no duty more often than that of praying. Prayer is never useless, for God promises that he allows “to be entreated by us” and thus to hear us. Therefore, no one needs to shy away from turning to him directly. “It were presumption to go forward into the presence of God, did he not anticipate us by his invitation.” “What can be more lovely or soothing than to see God invested with a title which assures us that nothing is more proper to his nature than to listen to the prayers of suppliants?”5 This supplication is not necessary in order to inform him of their difficulties. He already knows everything. Yet he gladly listens to their prayers because in them he tastes how grateful they are to him for his help. Sometimes he makes them wait and makes it appear as if he is deaf or asleep. 6 Thus he forces them to knock with even greater urgency. In this way he wants to prevent them from becoming lazy or praying for form’s sake.7
For our prayers we are not bound to set times. God wants us to pray to him and to give thanks “without ceasing”. There are no closing times. We will never catch him at an inconvenient time. The Catechism can refer to 1 Thessalonians 5:17 for this: “Pray without ceasing”. On the one hand, this will mean that the Christians being addressed should not skip the three fixed times of prayer (morning, noon, and evening). A definite regularity in prayer is good. In a busy life it gives stability to one’s contact with God. On the other hand, prayer must not become a rigid custom, with the recitation or rushing of prayers at set times. God wants a constant and open relationship. One may spontaneously thank him or call on him for help at any hour of the day or night.
Question 117: What belongs to a prayer
which pleases God
and is heard by him?
Answer 117: First,
we must from the heart
call upon the one true God only,
who has revealed himself in his Word,
for all that he has commanded us to pray.
we must thoroughly know
our need and misery,
so that we may humble ourselves
we must rest on this firm foundation
that, although we do not deserve it,
God will certainly hear our prayer
for the sake of Christ our Lord,
as he has promised us in his Word.
The Catechism sets high standards. A prayer may not be merely acceptable to God, but it also has to be pleasing to him. Whoever dares to think that of his prayer? Are you not then like a haughty Pharisee? Meanwhile, the most humble Christian cannot avoid the question of when God considers a prayer — including his or her own — to be so pleasing that he will answer it. The Catechism lists three conditions.
(1) God Must Agree
Prayer is not a haphazard way of asking for whatever you want. God has to be in complete agreement. Otherwise he cannot possibly answer such a prayer. But how can he ever be pleased with the prayers of short-sighted people? They are superficial and limited. It is not imaginary that they misjudge their need. Sometimes during their prayer their thoughts are focused elsewhere. How does such a flawed prayer come across to God? The Catechism refers to Romans 8:26. It holds true for all Christians that “we do not know what to pray for as we ought”. This is because of “our weakness”. Even with our best-chosen words and holiest feelings, we fall short.
The imperfection lies not only in the faulty words. There is a solution for that! We do have a perfect prayer. Jesus taught it to his followers. It contains exactly “all he has commanded us to pray”. But even when we use this perfect prayer, we do not pray ‘”as we ought”. Even then, God lacks the profundity he demands for a prayer to be pleasing. No one is capable of praying in such a way that God is absolutely pleased by it.
If this was all there was to it, no one could really reach God with his or her prayer and count on it being answered. Fortunately, Paul says something else in the same text. Christians may count on help. A miracle is happening while they pray. The Spirit comes to their aid in their weakness. To “intercede” is a vivid term. Martha uses it when she feels her sister should come and help her with her busy household chores. At one point she cannot handle it alone; she wants her sister Mary to come along and to help her.8
This is how the Spirit comes to the aid of Christians in their prayers. He does not take over from them, but he stands by them. He gives their weak words of prayer the necessary added value. He lifts them to a divine level. While they pray, he prays with them. He pleads for them with “inexpressible groanings”. While their own words and thoughts fall far short of divine standards, the Spirit is busy entreating God in his own language. To do this, he uses words that are unspeakable for people. This is the guarantee that their weak prayers will have the required depth. It remains their own prayer, but the Spirit ensures that God finds it pleasing.9
(2) We Must Thoroughly Know Our Need
Nothing seems simpler than knowing your own misery. As soon as you have to deal with troubles, you know what they are. In such situations Christians knock on God’s door. In their distress they beg for relief. They are allowed to do so. God considers it an honour when they ask him for deliverance. In this way they offer praise to him.
That changes as soon as they feel that they actually deserve a better lot in life. He notices this immediately in their way of praying. In their pleading there is an undertone of criticism of his control. Such a prayer—regardless of how moving and poignant it may be — is an attack on God’s integrity. They act as if he were allowing them to suffer unnecessarily and undeservedly. God does not care for such prayers. Therefore, thorough knowledge of our need is indispensable for a prayer that is pleasing to him.
In this case the reference to Psalm 143 is rather instructive. David is terrified that his enemies will kill him. They have already locked him up in a dark hole (v. 3). They are doing him a horrible injustice, but not God! David acknowledges to God that he has deserved no better fate. Does David perhaps have some wrongdoing on his conscience? There is nothing that points to it. Yet in his misery, awaiting death’s row, he pleads with God: “do not enter into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (v. 2). Here David gauges his real need. He is not merely praying for the destruction of his enemies, but primarily for God’s grace or favour (goodness). In verse 12 we find these elements juxtaposed: in your steadfast love cut off my enemies. David is pleading for grace and only on that basis he asks for the destruction of his enemies.
The LORD wants from those who pray to him in their distress to receive the full opportunity to actually extend his grace to them. Such a humble prayer is pleasing to him and he will indeed act on it.
(3) A Firm Foundation For Being Heard
Anyone who prays is hoping for an answer. Can you also count on it? Or is it more reverent to wait for it? Christians acknowledge that they are not worthy of God answering their prayers. This can get them so caught up that they do not dare to count on anything. They leave it up to God whether he will answer their prayer. Deep in their hearts they think that is the most respectful attitude.
God himself thinks otherwise. He wants them to have “solid ground”, i.e., a “firm foundation” in spite of their guilt that he will certainly hear their prayer. Yes — they are not worthy of it. They can never realize that deeply enough. On the other hand, neither can they realize deeply enough how firm and sure his promise is that he will hear their prayer for Christ’s sake.
Christians who consider themselves as worthless may cling to this promise. Do they dare to do so? Or do they consider that they themselves are too corrupt to be heard? Who does not? That is why we can be happy with what Calvin said about this is in a bold way: “the only prayer acceptable to God is that which springs (if I may so express it) from this presumption of faith, and is founded on the full assurance of hope.10
For however unashamed or bold it may sound, we honour God most of all when we expect everything from the Son whom he has given us.
An Answer to Prayer is Not the Fulfilment of a Wish
Not every prayer offered in faith brings about the outcome that we plead for. Christians do not always get what they ask for. So then, what do they gain from the “firm foundation” that God will “certainly hear” their prayer?
When God answers their prayer, he fulfills his promise of grace. This grace does not always herald the end of their actual need. Not all justifiable desires are fulfilled. Sometimes the need continues unabated.
Paul experienced this when he was hindered in his work by a “thorn in the flesh”. A demonic tormentor was behind it. Convinced of this, the apostle begged Christ to put an end to it. In the end he received the answer: “my grace is sufficient for you”. Christ did not merely mean with this that despite that malady there was still enough grace left. Paul needed to regard his ailment not as a loss through which grace diminished, but rather as a gain. His “thorn” was part of the grace that Christ gave him. In other words, this grace was not merely enough in spite of Paul’s ailment, but partly because of it. In fact, his discomfort was not a handicap to doing his work, but a prerequisite! Because Paul was so weak, the power of Christ came into play all the better. Once the apostle realized this, he did not even want to get rid of his affliction.11 Like Paul, Christians always receive sufficient grace. They always receive the best that God can give them. He never responds negatively to their faith-filled prayer for mercy, even though the need sometimes continues to persist. As often as he hears them pray he thinks of all that he has promised them for Christ’s sake. That is what he gives. These are all things— including the setbacks — that must work together for their good. Even when he does not grant their wishes, he hears their prayer and gives sufficient grace. The secret is that they should not subtract their setbacks from the given grace, but instead add these to it.12
Question 118: What has God commanded
to ask of him?
Answer 118: All the things we need
for body and soul,
as included in the prayer
which Christ our Lord himself taught us.
Question 119: What is the Lord’s prayer?
Answer: – See Matthew 6:9-13 –
Prayer is also asking. Asking things of God. But what? That is what he decides that and not us.
All the Things We Need
It may seem for a moment that according to the Catechism it is only about people’s needs. Do they perhaps pray only to benefit themselves? After all, praying means asking for everything they need for body and soul. Where is the focus on God’s honour?
The Catechism does not create a dilemma. It is very sure of its case and appeals to the Lord’s Prayer. In it Christ summed things up exactly. But in this perfect prayer, is then the honour of God not central? The Catechism apparently sees no contradiction between what people ask for themselves and what they ask for the honour of God. In the Lord’s Prayer these two matters go together. A brief overview confirms this. The first half is about God’s name and kingdom and will. All of this is equally indispensable for the well-being of one’s own body and soul! And conversely, people are given bread, forgiveness, and deliverance in order to be able to glorify God’s name, to get to work in his kingdom and to carry out his will. What people are asking for their own bodies and souls is of direct relevance to the great cause of God, and vice versa. Ultimately, also according to the Catechism, is about the God’s honour! According to Answer 128, the highest goal of our prayers is that “not we, but your holy name should receive all glory forever”.
Do We Have Two Versions of the Lord’s Prayer?
The Lord’s Prayer is familiar to us according to the text of Matthew 6:9-13. In Luke 11:2-4 it sometimes uses different words and is shorter13 What exactly did Jesus say? Should we play Matthew and Luke off against each other? Let us ask the sober question of whether Matthew and Luke are both reporting on one and the same occasion when Jesus taught his disciples to pray. It has been pointed out that this cannot be correct. In Matthew’s case, the Lord’s Prayer is part of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus gave this speech quite some time earlier than the conversations that Luke wrote down in which Jesus returns to this teaching.14 Apparently, after the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeated the core of this prayer using somewhat slightly different terms. Luke’s rendition is not of any lesser, but of a slightly different meaning. For the established and official text of the prayer it is good to stick to the “primary and complete teaching in the Sermon on the Mount and not to the later repetition given as Jesus and his disciple travelled through Palestine”.15