What Prayer Means: A Rediscovery of Biblical Prayer

Jennie Baddeley | Apr 16th, 2010

Are you a person of prayer?

Most of us, I suspect, would immediately say, 'No, that's not me.' Most of us are sure that we don’t pray enough, for long enough, for the right things, or well enough to be described as a 'person of prayer'. But it's worth stopping to ask ourselves what this great 'person of prayer' might be like. We might suggest a person kneeling in prayer at 4am, clothed simply, probably older, with an enraptured look on their face. Or someone who spends hours and hours in prayer each day. Or someone who prays impressively. But are these good descriptions? Do they reflect the Bible's attitudes? Some of these ideas about prayer aren't helpful – they come from a view of prayer many of us have inherited without thinking, and so they take us away from seeing prayer as an expression of a dependent relationship with our loving Heavenly Father. We're going to examine these ideas and critique them by looking at one man’s rediscovery of prayer through reading the Bible.

Many wrong ideas about prayer have come from mystical pietism. This was imported into English-speaking Evangelical Christianity particularly in the later part of the 19th century and had its roots in medieval mysticism. The idea at the heart of it all was that knowing God was hard work, and not open to ordinary people. A person came to know God through spending hours and hours praying and meditating on God. Then they would have a climactic experience which would often take the shape of a vision or vision-like moment. This experience was particularly important because it would change the person into someone who was more like God and less like other people. When the person was like God, then they would be able to know God.

This process had a high cost. A person would have to cut themselves off from other people and was not free to love their neighbour with all their energy, but had to sink their best time each day into prayer. They were not free to ask God for things as they prayed because they had to be entirely focused on God. Prayer wasn’t about relating to God or depending on him. It was all about earning the right to know God. And in the end, a person who was a 'man or woman of prayer' became different to everyone else according to mysticism: they were like God in a way that ordinary people could not be like God, and they had to sacrifice much to achieve this.

This approach was common in the time of John Calvin. He lived in the 16th century and was a minister of the gospel in Geneva at a time when the gospel was being rediscovered across Europe and many people were engaged in mission and church planting. Calvin was responsible for some of the key resources which fueled this, including a Bible college (known as the 'Academy') in Geneva. Many people from all over Europe attended this college, and went back to start churches and spread the gospel in their homelands, often under severe persecution.

Radical rethinking

Calvin was very interested in prayer but he didn't just take on the ideas about prayer that were all around him. Instead, he went to the Bible and examined it to see how people prayed and how prayer was described. He formed his ideas about prayer from that and his written reflections are helpful even today because they are based on the Scriptures.

1. Prayer is relational

It's an expression of our utter dependence on God our Father to give us everything we have through Jesus. We depend on God to forgive us because of the death and resurrection of his Son for us. We can't impress God so much that he will find another way to forgive us, because we are simply unable to do that. And this is the foundation of all prayer: coming to God, knowing of our sin but depending on him for forgiveness and believing that God really does forgive us because of Jesus. This is radically different to the mystic approach, which sees prayer as something a person does to convince God to let them know him. Calvin showed that the Bible teaches that prayer is relational: it’s not about impressing a disinterested God, but about drawing near to a loving God whom we already know because we know Jesus. This God forgives us and gives us all we have because of the Lord Jesus.

2. Prayer is not an 'out of this world' type of thing.

It is about us in our everyday lives with our everyday concerns living out our dependence on God. So, it is not a lower form of prayer to speak with God about the mundane things of everyday life. Calvin describes how God takes

… even our bodies under his safekeeping and guardianship in order to exercise our faith in these small matters, while we expect everything from him, even to a crumb of bread and a drop of water.[1]

Far from a view of prayer which disdains the ordinary and mundane as distracting a person from coming to God, Calvin reminds us that prayer is relational and so the tiny things matter. The Christian is to pray for everything because even the smallest thing we have comes from God. This is so central to how Calvin understands prayer that he suggests we deliberately stop to pray at set times in the day: when we get up in the morning, before and after meals and when we go to bed. These times are not just for asking God for what we need, but realizing what God has given us – even the smallest things – and being grateful to him.

3. Prayer provides relief from great distress

Prayer is not just for people who have life under control and so can invest countless hours each day into meditating upon God. Instead Calvin sees a special function of prayer is to help those who are in trouble and even says that these times

… best stimulate them to call upon God. For among such tribulations God’s goodness so shines upon them that even when they groan with weariness under the weight of present ills… yet, relying upon his goodness, they are relieved of the difficulty of bearing them, and are solaced and hope for escape and deliverance.[2]

In other words, when we are unsettled and distressed, that is the time to pray. We don’t wait until we have our head in the right place and life sorted and then pray; instead we come to God our Father in the middle of the mess we are in and cry out to him. Prayer isn't for Sunday in our best clothes; prayer is for everyday wherever we are and whatever circumstances we are facing. Calvin holds this position because he understands prayer as reflecting a person's real boldness to come to God with their concerns. This boldness doesn't come from confidence in themselves or a naturally optimistic attitude that God is 'nice' and will just accept them. Instead, that confidence arises because of God’s promises to us in Christ. When we come to God in our emergencies and cry out to him, we are putting into action our faith in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus for us, to make us right with God. Praying is actually an act of radical faith: that this extraordinary God whom we serve and worship is interested in our lives because we belong to him in Christ. Prayer in emergencies isn't 'second rate' because prayer is relational. It's natural to cry out to God when we are in a crisis because we depend on him for everything, and know his kindness towards us because of his Son.

4. Prayer doesn't stop us loving others

Calvin sees prayer as relational not just because we are relating to God when we pray, but also because it is important in our relationships with our brothers and sisters in Christ. He states that prayer is a reminder that God has not just saved us individually through the death of his Son, but has made us family. So when we pray we should not forget or ignore our Christian brothers and sisters. Instead prayer gives us the opportunity to love them by doing good to them through prayer. Even when we feel unable to help our brothers and sisters because we have no contact with them, through distance or because we do not know their circumstances, Calvin points out that we can be hard at work loving them in prayer. Prayer doesn't limit our ability and opportunity to love, but gives us another opportunity to love and care for each other.

As we've seen, this view of prayer is completely different to mysticism. Mysticism requires long hours, cut off from other people in prayer trying to earn the all-important moment of 'connection' with God. Calvin shows us that prayer doesn’t cut us off from other people. Instead we are set free to pour out our concerns about others to God, adding this to our loving them in practical ways and to praise God for the work he does in their lives. Prayer isn’t just about loving God, it is also about loving our neighbours.

Telling God the truth

In the end, it is hard to see the mystical pious view of prayer is all that different from a quest towards self-improvement. In contrast, Calvin points out that when we pray we aren't trying to impress God or become something other than who we are. We tell God the truth about ourselves: that is, that we need him. We know this is true because it's what God tells us about ourselves. When we pray we also express to God the truth about who he is: that is, God is our loving Father who accepts us in Christ, and we depend on him for all things. We know this is true because it's what God tells us about himself. Prayer is saying 'yes' to what God has already told us about himself and about ourselves. It's not about our self-improvement, but about our declaration of ourselves as needing God for salvation and for all things. We don't have to pretend to be more than we are.

In the end, prayer isn't that impressive. It's just saying 'I need God so much, and he listens to me because of the Lord Jesus', but instead of saying it with words, we say it with actions, the action of putting our concerns before God. So, for those of us who live like that, even if we can think of a million ways our prayer lives could be improved, we can say "we are people of prayer", and continue in our commitment to live God’s way. As Calvin puts it:

Even though we do not excel in a holiness like that which is praised in the holy patriarchs, prophets, and apostles, yet because we and they have a common command to pray and a common faith, if we rely upon God's word, in this we are rightly their fellows.[3]

[1] John Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion (trans. Ford Lewis Battles; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), III.xx.44, 908.

[2] ibid., III.xx.11, 863.

[3] ibid., III.xx.14, 868.

First published in the Autumn 2007 edition of SALT magazine.