This article is part of our weekly series, “Our Life’s Comfort: One Year of Being Shaped by the Scriptures.” Read more from the series here.
(116) Q. Why do Christians need to pray?
A. Because prayer is the most important part of the thankfulness God requires of us. And also because God will give his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who continually and with heartfelt longing ask God for these gifts and thank him for them.
(117) Q. How does God want us to pray so that he will listen to us?
A. First, we must pray from the heart to no other than the one true God, who has revealed himself to us in his Word, asking for everything he has commanded us to ask of him. Second, we must fully recognize our need and misery, so that we humble ourselves in God’s majestic presence. Third, we must rest on this unshakable foundation: even though we do not deserve it, God will surely listen to our prayer because of Christ our Lord, as he has promised us in his Word.
(118) Q. What has God commanded us to ask of him?
A. Everything we need, spiritually and physically, as embraced in the prayer Christ our Lord himself taught us.
(119) Q. What is this prayer?
A. Our Father who is in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen.
When Jesus’s disciples asked for a lesson on prayer (Luke 11:1), we can’t hear their tone of voice or discern their spiritual temper. But we can imagine them asking out of frustration. Other spiritual leaders prayed for show on street corners (Matt. 6:5–8). Their own prayers weren’t so impressive. So maybe Jesus’s answer was simpler than they expected. He gave them a basic prayer structure and taught them to be sincere and persistent in bringing to God what matters most (Luke 11:8).
Three questions can help us learn from Jesus the basics of biblical prayer.
Why Must We Pray?
First, prayer is the most important part of our required thankfulness. Prayer is the heart’s sincere and grateful reflex to God’s lavish grace. And it’s required. We must “offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving” and “call upon [him] in the day of trouble” (Ps. 50:14). The key to a healthy prayer life is to believe that prayer is required but pray as if it wasn’t. You’ve probably seen a parent force her child to say “thank you” for a gift he didn’t want. Forced thanks is embarrassing. Better when a child is so excited by a gift that requisite thanks comes naturally. Our prayer lives are similar. Prayer is required. But don’t let it become a chore, like scrubbing toilets or taking out the trash. As with giving, God doesn’t want us praying “reluctantly or under compulsion” but cheerfully, as if we didn’t have to (2 Cor. 9:7).
Second, prayer is a means of grace. “Strictly speaking, only the Word and the sacraments can be regarded as means of grace, that is, as objective channels” to which Christ “ordinarily binds Himself in the communication of his grace.”[i] But prayer, though a subjective response to grace, is certainly an “outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of his mediation.”[ii] God gives grace to those who ask (Matt. 7:7; James 1:5). Like a good parent who is eager to help a frustrated child, God will “give his grace and Holy Spirit only to those who continually and with heartfelt longing” ask for these gifts. God says to us, “Call to Me, and I will answer you, and show you great and mighty things, which you do not know” (Jer. 33:3 NKJ).
How Must We Pray?
What is the proper heart posture of those whose prayers God hears?
Honesty concerns both personal sincerity and objective correctness. “We must pray from the heart to no one other than the one true God, who has revealed himself to us in his Word, asking for everything he has commanded us to ask of him.” Calling on God in truth (Ps. 145:18) is saying what we mean and meaning what we say. Pretentious and showy prayer is utterly inappropriate. It also requires that the content of our prayers be correct. “If we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14).
“We must fully recognize our need and misery, so that we humble ourselves in God’s majestic presence.” Fully competent, “self-made” people have no need to pray. If they do pray, their prayers are spoiled by a sense of deserving. God says, “[T]his is the one to whom I will look; he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word” (Isa. 66:2). Before the face of God’s majesty, we are dust (Ps. 103:14). Humble people pray to God saying, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you” (2 Chron. 20:12).
“We must rest on this unshakable foundation: even though we do not deserve it, God will surely listen to our prayer.” Why? “Because of Christ our Lord as he has promised in his Word.” Jesus said, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13). We can petition God with confidence because at the throne of grace our sympathetic high priest intercedes for us in our time of need (Heb. 4:14–16).
What Must We Pray?
We should pray for “everything we need, spiritually and physically.” This means “[w]e ought to pray in some way at every occasion.”[iii] But, as may be our tendency, we must not forget spiritual needs. Paul’s prayers emphasized the spiritual. He teaches us to pray for believers to know God’s will and walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing him. We should pray for fruitfulness in good works. We should ask God to strengthen his children for endurance and patience with joy, and give thanks that he has delivered us from Satan and brought us into his kingdom (Col. 1:9–14).
For praying like this, the Lord’s Prayer is a gift to the church in two important ways. “The Lord’s Prayer is not only for direction, as a pattern, according to which we are to make other prayers; but may also be used as a prayer.”[iv] Prewritten prayers that we read or memorize are valid expressions of believers’ hearts.
But as reading good books makes for good writing, so learning from the Lord’s Prayer can produce improved praying. Biblical prayers will follow Jesus’s template and adore the triune God, worshiping the holiness of his great name, praising his eternal authority, power, and glory. We confess our sins, admitting that we have accrued an unpayable debt against his majesty. But we also thank God for his grace and providence; when we consider his kindness we realize that we really could pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17, 18)! And we make supplications. In fact, six of the eight clauses of the Lord’s Prayer are petitions or requests. Jesus says, “Pray then like this” (Matt. 6:9).
If we have fallen into the rut of offering unfeeling, self-centered, impractical prayers that lack confidence and joy, let’s ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” And let’s learn from him as we study his prayer that has guided a hundred generations of Christian disciples.
[i] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1939), 604–605. Cf. Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 67.
[ii] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 154.
[iii] William Ames, The Christian’s Catechism, 199.
[iv] Westminster Larger Catechism, Q&A 187.