Prayer: The Chief Part of Gratitude
Read Psalms 50:14, 116, 1 Corinthians 14:15
The Heidelberg Catechism emphasizes that prayer is the chief part of Christian gratitude. Even though we are familiar with this statement of the Catechism, it seems that this teaching is not often practiced. We have all kinds of ideas of prayer. Thereby we may have all things for the asking. Accordingly our prayers are often preoccupied with the material world, our bodies, etc. But, that prayer is the chief part of gratitude is difficult for many to imagine.
Priority of Praise
We are able to show our gratitude in various ways. The law precedes the treatment of prayer in the catechism. By obeying the law we reveal our gratitude and our love for our Lord. "If ye love me, keep my commandments." When the individual commandments are kept, we show our gratitude. Yet, prayer is the chief part. This truth must color our whole view of prayer. If we really believe that therein we show our thankfulness as in no other way, our prayers will be reformed. No longer will we approach God with a long list of our wishes, but, with overflowing praise. Of course we may ask for things! But, they are not the main things — if we truly believe what our confession states.
It is noteworthy in the Scriptures that many of the Psalms are prayers. The statement of the catechism seeks to raise our prayers to such a height that they become Psalms! When we enter our place of prayer the praise of God is to be uppermost in our minds and hearts. God is placed first. Then we will also experience the real blessedness of prayer. Neither will we sing anymore: Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer, because He always hears us.
In Jesus' Name
Although many people consider prayer to be a simple thing, we soon discover that prayer is difficult if we follow the Biblical pattern of it. Gratitude is not easy for us. One has to come a considerable way into the Christian life to reach gratitude. It is the third part of that which is necessary for us to know. First we must realize our sin and confess it. Then we must know the redemption which we receive through the blood of Jesus Christ. Then comes our gratitude! Only the person who has tasted the redemption which we have in Christ is able to pray. Jesus emphasizes this fact when He teaches us that we will only be heard when we pray in His name. How can one approach the throne of God in prayer if he does not know Jesus Christ? Those who only use the blessed name of our Saviour in oaths cannot pray! Yet, almost everyone speaks of the times they have prayed.
Petitions and Thanksgiving
It has often been said that need teaches one to pray. When the need of the individual becomes so great that he does not know where to turn, he prays. There are even examples of this in the Scriptures. Peter cries out when he is about to be swallowed up by the waves: "Lord help me!" Wasn't this a prayer? It certainly was. However, although we cry out many times when we are overwhelmed by the need of the moment, this is not the kind of prayer which is "the chief part of gratitude." It is true that we are not always able to pray a well structured prayer and one which contains all the things which are proper to prayer. But, this should not blind us to the necessity of expressing our heartfelt thanks to God in prayer.
Need usually doesn't teach one the proper prayer. God demands of us that we come to Him and that we come to Him in the proper way. We learn how to pray from Him, "at His feet." Then it becomes prayer which is acceptable. The Psalmist says in Psalm 50:14: "Offer unto God the sacrifice of thanksgiving; and pay thy vows unto the Most High". Our prayers are to be sacrifices of praise. That is the way we render true thanksgiving to our God. Then we do not only show gratitude for the things we have received, but we show gratitude for Him! True thanksgiving is a matter of the heart. What can we give to God? How can we enrich Him? It is high time that we get away from the notion which is all too prevalent, that we do much for the Lord! Whatever we do for Him we owe to Him. The Psalmist in Psalm 116:12-13 shows us the proper way. He also asks: "What shall I render to the Lord for all His benefits to me?" His answer — "I will take the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord." He responds to the Lord by taking more! In this way we discover what true gratitude is.
Our grateful prayer is often blunted by our mistaken idea of what true prayer really is. Many have a "mystical" view of it. The Apostle Paul shows us that that is not the right attitude. It is marvelous beyond human comprehension that a sinner is able to approach the Maker of heaven and earth and that he is guaranteed an audience with Him. Yet, we must beware of a mistakenly mystical and subjective view of prayer. The Corinthian people had many gifts. Speaking in tongues seemed to be somewhat common in this church. But, in spite of their many gifts, they also had more problems than any other church to which the Apostle ministered. Concerning prayer Paul says: "I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the understanding". Prayer must not be left in a sphere where the understanding is not able to enter. Prayer, to be truly our highest form of gratitude, must be exercised by the whole man including his mind. Some have said that we cannot really study prayer or dissect it. It is a living thing and if it is dissected — it dies. If that were true one would not be able to preach on prayer. Our Lord teaches us differently in John 17. He does not teach that mystical view which has banned the understanding from the arena of prayer.
Our Lord's Lesson: The Lord's Prayer
The more sincere and the deeper the prayer, the less is asked. We must never lose sight of the teaching of the Lord's prayer regarding this matter. Not only has our Lord taught His disciples to pray a beautiful prayer, He also taught them by means of the order of the various petitions. First He places the things of God and His praise. We may not overlook this. Although the physical needs of the one who is praying get a turn, they are by no means first! To put the matter bluntly, many pray and give the impression that prayer is the cheapest way to obtain things! Young people often ask: What may we pray for? This is a question which we hope to answer in a later outline. Suffice it to say now that many of the things prayed for reveal a view of prayer which is far from placing gratitude first.
If prayer is "the chief part of gratitude which we owe to our God," all our prayers should reveal this confession. When a man comes into the presence of God he must know what he is doing. He ought to listen carefully to the word which God has spoken before he opens his own mouth to speak to the Most High God. We are taught in the Scriptures again and again that some did not come to God in the proper manner. The two sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, are examples. They had just recently entered the work of the priesthood. Then they came with "strange fire" into the presence of God (Leviticus 10:1). It is not easy to determine why it was "strange fire" and various interpretations are given. I think, however, that the text itself makes clear they brought this fire which He had not commanded. They went their own wilful way. They come with censers as types of the prayers of God's people, and He did not accept these prayers. Although this should have been a day of rejoicing in the life of Aaron because his sons could now do the priestly work with him, it became a day of grief because God destroyed both of them. He hereby taught Israel and all those who will later read His revelation that they may not play fast and loose with the prayers which are brought into His presence.
"In Everything Give Thanks."
If prayer is to be the chief part of the gratitude which believers are to bring to their God, what does this suggest about the frequency of their prayers? Are we always so thankful that we have to take time out to express it in prayer? That is the way we ought to be! We must learn to follow the order which has been taught us in our confession. When we know, really know, Who God is and when we really know our own deepest need, we will give unceasing thanks! Then our prayers rise from the beginning to the end of the day. "What shall we render to God for all His benefits to us?" Let us not forget any of them.
This view of prayer (that it is the chief part of gratitude) answers many other questions which come to our minds. Unbelievers often view prayer as being harmless and even profitable for little children, but not for the thinker. He should know better than to believe that his utterances will be heard by anybody and that these utterances are going to have any effect. But, this is not true. We must do much self-searching to realize our needs and to realize how much we receive of which we are unworthy. Such a realization moves men to gratitude. It moves them to a gratitude even though others may pity them for their lot. While believers are able to be thankful in the prosperity which their God sends them, they can also be thankful in the many reverses which they may have to endure. Prayer, when properly understood, will reveal what kind of people we are.
We have proceeded on the assumption that we have much for which we are to give thanks. No doubt, this thought is widely accepted. Yet, often say: We cannot be thankful enough! Try it! Be sure you know the way we are to give thanks. We must learn to pray! When our prayers rise as incense before God, He will hear us — He will have mercy on us — He will open the windows of heaven upon us so that we will not be able to contain all that He gives. Then the child of God bows his head and prays. His prayer is always: "How good Thou art!"
Questions for Discussion:
- How would you describe the content of most of the prayers which you hear and which you yourself, utter? Do we usually follow the guidance of the Catechism?
- Must we also be discerning when we listen to the prayers of others? Should the congregational prayer bring your needs before the throne of grace?
- If we must listen carefully to prayers uttered in public, does this entail the danger of taking a blessing away from us?
- Should we pray according to the occasion? Should all the needs of Christendom be mentioned in our mealtime prayers? Have you ever heard someone pray for many things at mealtime except for a blessing on the food?
- Do you think people often bring "strange fire" before God in their prayers? What do you think of "prayer requests"?