The Meaning Of Prayer

Prayer is a form of communication between God and ourselves by which we set before Him our desires, our joys, our complaints — in short, all that goes on in our heart. This being so, every time we call on the Lord we should be careful to descend into the depth of our heart and to speak to Him from there, and not just with the throat or tongue.

Of course, it is true that the tongue is helpful in prayer, in that it keeps the spirit more attentive as it thinks about God, and also because this part of our body, specially designed to extol God’s glory, must be engaged alongside the heart in reflecting on His goodness. Yet the Lord announces through His prophet that punishment awaits those who honor Him with their lips while having no will to actually do it — people whose hearts are far from Him.

Then the Lord said,
“Because this people draw near with their words
And honor Me with their lip service,
But they remove their hearts far from Me,
And their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote,
Therefore behold, I will once again deal marvelously with this people, wondrously marvelous;
And the wisdom of their wise men will perish,
And the discernment of their discerning men will be concealed.” Isaiah 29:13, 14

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’” Matthew 15:8, 9

If true prayer has to be a pure movement of our heart towards God, we must rid ourselves of every thought of our own glory, all notion of our own dignity and self-confidence. So it is that the prophet exhorts us to pray, not relying on our own righteousness but on the Lord’s immense mercy, that He may grant our requests out of love for Himself, seeing that we are named with His Name.

O my God, incline Your ear and hear! Open Your eyes and see our desolations and the city which is called by Your name; for we are not presenting our supplications before You on account of any merits of our own, but on account of Your great compassion. O Lord, hear! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, listen and take action! For Your own sake, O my God, do not delay, because Your city and Your people are called by Your name.” Daniel 9:18, 19

This awareness that we have of our own extreme need must in no way deter us from approaching God. Prayer has not been instituted that we might arrogantly exalt ourselves before God, nor that we should extol our dignity, but so that we might admit our poverty, groaning like children telling the father about their troubles. Such a way of thinking should, rather, be like a spur, moving us to pray even more.

There are two things which should really stir us up to pray: first of all, God’s directive which commands us to pray; and then the promise by which He assure us that we will receive what we ask.

Those who call on God and pray to Him receive remarkable comfort, for they know that by praying they are doing something which pleases Him. Being sure of the promise, they have, in addition, the certainty of being answered. “Ask, and you will receive. Knock, and it will be opened to you. Seek and you will find” (Matthew 7:7), says the Lord. And again, “Call on me in the day of distress; I will deliver you, and you will glorify Me.” (Psalm 50:15)

This last passage points out that there are two sorts of prayer: invocation (or request) and thanksgiving. In request we set out before God what our hearts desire. In thanksgiving we acknowledge the blessings He has given us. And we must make sure that we constantly use both kinds of prayer.

This is because we are plagued with such poverty and destitution that even the best of us must sigh and groan continually, and call on the Lord with all humility. On the other hand, the generous gifts which the Lord lavishes upon us in His goodness are so very abundant that, wherever we look, the wonders of His works are seen to be so great, that we always have reason for praise and thanksgiving.

John Calvin, Truth For All Time

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