Read Psalm 141:1-2, Psalm 142, Acts 9:11
This season we will deal with the subject of "prayer." This is not only a very important subject but it is also one concerning which there is a great deal of ignorance. Although the disciples of our Lord have been brought up in the religious homes of that day, these mature men ask Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray!"
We will not deal with successive Scripture passages in these outlines this season because the subject matter does not lend itself to that. Instead, we will seek to illumine various aspects of prayer as they are revealed in various Scriptures, and the last outlines will deal with some of the prayers which are found in both the Old and New Testaments. We will not deal with the Lord's Prayer because that was treated in a previous series by this author on the Sermon on the Mount.
Prayer is an intimate outpouring of the soul to God. As a result, it is dangerous to criticize prayers. Yet, this must often be done if we would be true to the Scriptures and our Confessions. Many today seem to talk to God as an equal. Sometimes one gets the impression that they hardly consider Him equal. Some give the impression that they have a direct insight into the will of God and we hear them pray: We know you are going to do this! Others love to speak of the fact that they are uttering "just a little prayer." I, for one, do not know what a "big prayer" is! One even hears today that the first personal pronoun is used while they are praying in a group. Some who pray in public inform the Lord of various things. They will even tell him, when quoting a verse of Scripture, where it is found! So we could go on. A good case could be made for the thesis that some "gossip" in prayer. They will pray for someone and thereby tell the group concerning this person's evil deeds — while seemingly praying for his repentance and the forgiveness of others. To say that these things must be avoided is saying the obvious, but they are too common in our circles.
It is important that we learn how to pray because our prayer life reflects and affects our spiritual life and the public prayers uttered in worship services will affect the obtaining of a blessing by those who have come to worship. It is possible, for example, to listen to a sermon which is really Scriptural and Reformed and, during the same service, to listen to a prayer which exudes mysticism and fundamentalism. We must learn what the Scriptures have to teach us on this subject.
Appropriate Prayer to God
True prayer acknowledges the God to Whom we pray as the One who is infinitely far above us. He is the Source of all good. He is the Source of all blessings. We may not conceive of Him as being so like us that we talk to Him as we would to the man down the street. Jesus taught His disciples to pray. True, He is our Father, and that is a great blessing for His people, but He is the Father who is enthroned in the heavens! We must also know ourselves and our needs when we pray. This is the only way whereby we come in the proper frame of heart and mind. It is the only way whereby we will come in the proper humility.
The question has often been asked, and is still being asked, "What is prayer?" I suppose that the best answer we are going to be able to give to this question is that prayer is having communion with God. This definition may not cover all the various aspects of prayer, but it will do for our everyday life. In order to have communion with another it is necessary that each speaks but that each one listens too. God has spoken to us in His Word. We better listen to Him first before we begin to speak. Prayer meetings in which the Word of God is not heard, are dangerous! We can only know Him properly through the revelation He has given of Himself. Our prayers will then find much of their content in that word which He has spoken. The late Prof. Volbeda used to tell us: "Your prayers must breathe Biblicity!" The Word will guide us in our prayers. The special needs which an individual may have are not addressed by the Scriptures but the Scriptures inform us concerning Him to Whom we pray and concerning our basic needs!
In our prayers we are, of course, not to be preoccupied with ourselves. We may never do that and certainly not in our prayers. God must receive the praise and glory of all our life and surely also of our prayers. Later we will deal a little more fully with the approved content of prayer.
All the creatures our God has made look to Him for all things, but only man, the one who was made in His image, is able to pray. Man is engaged in his highest activity when he prays. The question is sometimes asked, and if not asked, is at least close to the surface, why should we pray? Is it even proper? God knows all things, hence we don't have to tell Him anything. God has also determined all things. He is also the unchangeable One. Why should I, then, pray to Him? Surely, the old motto, "Prayer changes things," is theologically incorrect! These are the questions which have bothered people over the centuries. In order to receive an answer to these questions we must again listen carefully to the word of God rather than to our own logic. He has commanded us to pray and regardless of the logic men use to excuse their lack of prayer, they are disobedient! It is indeed a comfort for us to know that God does not change and that is the reason we are not consumed, yet, we may never think of God as like an impervious rock! Again and again in the Old Testament we read that "it repented the Lord," and He did not do those things which He had said He was going to do. After the one prayer of Hezekiah He added fifteen years to his life. There are many other examples. Is it proper to pray? Without prayer a believer would die spiritually! When Ananias is understandably afraid to approach Saul of Tarsus, he is told: "Behold he prayeth!" God has met this former enemy of the church of Christ and has turned him completely about. He has been converted! No one is able to fight against God and win. Ananias, if you want proof of his conversion, he is on his knees before his God! He has been humbled. No longer do you have to be afraid of him. He is now a fellow-believer; in fact, you now come together before the throne of grace! He has been rendered helpless. I have met him and he now realizes that he must come to Me for all things — even his life. When a person becomes sincere in his prayer he is harmless — he is a brother. With this information the Lord strengthens Ananias to his difficult task. Beautifully He teaches us what it means to pray.
Isn't it too bad that the prayer of Paul during his three days of blindness has not been recorded for us? There are other instances in which the Bible is silent regarding important episodes in the life of believers, such as the meeting of the resurrected Lord with Peter alone on the Resurrection day (Luke 24:34). But, it is not strange that the Bible maintains a silence regarding such experiences because they are instances of intimate communion. These are not revealed for our curious probing.
Old Testament Teaching
The entire Scriptures teach us about prayer. The New Testament is much richer than the Old in such teaching, but prayer has always been essential in the spiritual life of God's people regardless of the time in which they lived. In the Old Testament there are naturally more symbolic references to prayer. In the tabernacle and in the temple the altar of incense had an important place. The rising smoke of the incense symbolized the prayers of God's people rising to His mercy seat. Psalm 141 also speaks of the prayer of the believer rising as incense before the face of God. That incense, or its smoke, was closely connected to the altar of burnt offering. The sacrifices had to be brought to show the penitence of the one sacrificing, but, the mere sacrifice might be brought with a heart which was still far removed from Him. The prayers of God's people would show the sincerity of the sacrifice which was brought.
In Psalm 142 the poet pours out his heart to his God. He has undergone many bitter experiences. These he now lays before the eyes of God. He does not intend to list the reasons why he is suffering so many reverses and difficulties. We must rather see what a comfort it is for the child of God to bring all his needs before the God who is able to afford help in time of need! Prayer is not a psychological crutch which causes the person who prays to feel better after he has it off his chest! This is the way prayer is explained in many circles today. The believer has a different experience. The life-line between him and his God is established in prayer! God speaks in His word and the believer responds in thanksgiving and prayer.
A wonderful gift has been given to us in the very fact that we can and that we may pray. The person who prays is never alone. The person who prays cannot remain despondent regardless of the circumstances. He has communion with his Father Who is Maker of heaven and earth and upholds all the things He has created. The confidence and the joy which return to the heart of the believer are such as cannot be described to others who have nowhere to go with all of their difficulties. Only the believer can pray. Are there atheists in the fox holes of Bataan? No, but there are also no atheists in hell — everyone there too will know there is a God! We must know Him to Whom we pray — but, He has revealed Himself! May we learn to pray properly.
Questions for Discussion
- Is it possible to err in prayer as much as in doctrine? Do you think that the name of God is often used in vain in prayer?
- Is the congregational prayer a very important part of a worship service? If it is, why do we hear a great deal about the quality of the sermon which was preached but seldom hear anything about the prayer which was uttered?
- What is a father's role in the prayer life of a family? Is it proper to have even the smallest children pray — so that they may learn by doing?
- How must we know God to be able to pray properly? He is a Father to His people; but must we also stand in awe of Him?
- Is silent prayer in the home just as good as audible prayer?
- Why is it that many God-fearing people find it very difficult to lead in prayer? How can this difficulty be overcome?