Prayer and the Christian*- Jacobus De Jong, Th.D., Professor of Diaconiology and Ecclesiology
This is a slightly altered version of a talk given under the same title to the young people societies of Rehoboth Canadian Reformed Church of Burlington, Ontario, on March 15, 1975.
IHA, March, 1976 by Rev. Dr. Jack de Jong
Prayer is one of the most down-to- earth subjects that one can speak on, and yet at the same time one of the most complex. Prayer can be one of the simplest things to do — even a child can pray. Yet it remains impossible to comprehend the full import of what actually occurs when someone prays. Despite its Roman Catholic background, I was struck by Minet's painting Angelus (The Prayer), which depicts a peasant couple praying in the field after gathering the day's harvest. It's only a peasant couple praying, but, as Tennyson said, "More is wrought in the world by prayer than man ever dreamed of". It's only a peasant couple praying, but the prayers of the plain and simple God-fearing people are more significant in the history of the world than the greatest deeds of the mightiest men.
Precisely these considerations make this topic difficult, for we are left with the question whether it is pos sible to say anything useful about prayer without destroying the simplicity of the act itself. Without guidance it is impossible to speak sensibly about prayer. But the Lord has told us in His Word what prayer ought to be, and how it should be done. The Bible also tells us how people actually prayed. I would like to look at these two aspects of prayer, the differences between them, and finally how the same Lord to whom we pray also ensures that our prayers are acceptable to Him.
WHAT IS TRUE PRAYER?
The first thing we can say about prayer is that it is a calling upon the Name of the Lord, an outpouring of our soul before His face. It is a speaking to (not with) the Lord, a humble and reverent address to His throne. How is this possible? Can we, who are so full of sin and selfish motivations, speak openly to the Lord God Almighty, "who dwells in unapproachable light"? (1 Tim. 6:16) For who can stand before the face of His majesty? (Ps. 130:3) As the psalmist says, "Fire goes before Him and burns up His adversaries round about. His lightnings lighten the world; the earth sees and trembles." (Ps. 97:4) His wrath is overwhelming and His anger reaches out over the whole earth.
Nonetheless, it is possible to speak to the Lord and address Him, because the Lord, the Almighty and All-powerful One, has become, through Jesus Christ His Son, our Father. In His infinite wisdom and mercy, He has bowed Himself, descending to the human level in His Son, and establishing, through Him, a covenant with us. We can never stand before the throne of grace independently, i.e. on our own. We are placed there by the Holy Spirit, and we stand there as covenant partners with the Lord. He made a covenant with Abraham and his seed and we, too, are members of that covenant in Christ, through faith.
It is in this covenant relation that we ought to pray. Prayer must be directed to the one true God, the God of the covenant. Only in this relation do we correctly see the boundaries that must be maintained. In prayer we must remember God's immanence as well as His transcendence, His love as well as His wrath, His fatherly concern as well as His divine power. One may not be emphasized at the expense of the other. Both sides of the covenant must be remembered in prayer.
Because true prayer presupposes God's covenant with us, one may not speak to Him as if he had never received anything from Him. The covenant is a gift of God's favour, and our obedience is only a matter of God's sovereign grace. Prayer thus begins with the understanding and acknowledgment of sovereign grace. We stand before Gods' throne as empty vessels waiting to be filled. That's why the Catechism places the aspect of thankfulness in the foreground. In correct prayer, one first thanks the Lord for the rich covenant blessings he has received. (Ps. 50:14, I Tim. 4:3-5) We offer thanks for His promises, and the way He has fulfilled them in our lives.
Just as we give thanks to the Lord for His promises, so we make our appeal to the Lord on the basis of His promises. Calvin says that prayer is an appeal upon the promises of the Lord. It is an appeal that the Lord will fulfill His promises in our life, in our family-life, and in the life of the congregation. One may not just ask anything of the Lord. No, one must pray according to the covenant stipulations that the Father has given in His Word, i.e. we may only ask the Lord for what He has promised to give us, and no more. What is that? The Catechism answers that we may ask the Lord for all things necessary for body and soul. Such an answer should be viewed not abstractly, but very concretely for our life. We may ask the Lord for what we need right now.
These are the stipulations that the Bible gives us for true and correct prayer. In summary, one may define prayer as follows: a trusting and thankful calling upon the Name of the Lord according to the covenant demands He has given us in His Word so that, being cognizant of our need and misery, we may, on the basis of His revealed promises, unceasingly thank Him for fulfilling them in the past, and beg Him to continue fulfilling them in the future. However, one may argue that this view of prayer is just too formidable, just a little too much to swallow. We have all heard these things before, but can we relate to them? Often we don't even know our need and misery. We have certain feelings about what we need, but this may not be what the Lord has told us we need.
The above considerations tell us that it is not always easy to pray in the way the Lord demands it of us. Other factors could be mentioned in this regard. At any rate, we know that prayer is not always done according to the norm, and was not always done correctly in the past. For the Bible tells us how people actually prayed, and it is immediately noticeable that it didn't always occur according to rule. Let us first consider how people prayed in the Old Testament.
In this connection I would like to pass on a few points from an imaginative little book by Prof. H. J. Schilder of the Netherlands called Ik Schreeuw Het Uit. "Schreeuw" is the Dutch word for 'yell, 'scream' or 'cry'. Particularly the last word, 'cry', or 'outcry' are the common English equivalents used in the Bible. Try to think of how many times you heard the word read in the Old Testament. You will probably remember that it occurs many times, right through from the patriarchs to the exile. Over and over again we hear the refrain: "The people cried to the Lord". Different shades of meaning can be attached to it. The late Prof. S. U. Zuidema even included the word "brullen", which implies a near-incoherent uncontrolable, deep-seated emotional outburst, a complete "letting loose" of intense turmoil, grief, deep anxiety and fear.'
The term occurs first in Ex. 2:23, where it states that "the people of Israel groaned under their bondage, and cried out for help, and their cry under bondage came up to God". This indeed was a cry to the one, true God, but asks Schilder, was it a cry of faith? We cannot say this, for Israel had forgotten the God of their fathers. The Lord heard their cry, not because it was so orderly, and properly done out of faith, but because He remembered the covenant that He made with Abraham and his descendants. In the wilderness, too the people lose heart and cry out to the Lord in their distress. Was it a cry of faith? Hardly. More often than not it was a crying of unbelief, a last resort measure. Yet, the Lord hears the cry of His people for the sake of His steadfast love and His covenant promises.
With slight variations this pattern repeats itself many times after the people of Israel entered the promised land. The first chapters of the book of Judges summarize the sequence: the people would forget the Lord who delivered them, and so the Lord would send the heathen nations upon them, in order to punish them. Only then do they turn from serving other gods, and cry out to the Lord. Here, their crying was clearly not a crying of faith, because the Lord refused to help them, Judges 10:10 ff. Only when they turned to Him, and put away their idols, does He become indignant over their misery. (vs. 16)
All this indicates that the prayers of the people of the Old Testament are prayers that arise out of the need of the hour. Jehoshaphat appeals to the promises of God and then says, "We do not know what to do, but our eyes are up on thee." (2 Chron. 20:12) Many of the psalms, as well as the cries of Job and Jeremiah, are addresses that are born out of suffering and intense anxiety. Think of Jeremiah's wail and lament over the pending destruction of Jerusalem; (Lam. 3) he watched it all happen according to what the Lord had foretold. Also these prayers of the faithful in the Old Testament show that sovereign grace was first in the lives of God's people.
Then there is the prayer of the New Testament Christian — our prayer. Because this is the dispensation of Pentecost, the time in which the Spirit has been poured out upon all believers, our prayer should be different from the prayers of the Old Testament people of God. Are they so different? Indeed, often they appear just the same. Our prayers, just like those in the Old Testament, are laden with the emotions of the human soul; often they are mixed with doubt, confusion, anger, dismay and dejection. Sometimes we don't know what to say, and sometimes we simply cry out. When we read of those who suffered in concentration camps and work camps in the Second World War, we realize that there is still much grief and anguish in human prayer. Sometimes the pain can be so deep that it isn't possible to pray anymore; the spirit becomes weak, and the words just won't come.
Thus, prayer in the life of a believer is often filled with many obstacles. The power of sin and the power of the devil try to block our prayers and lead our minds away from the Lord. Confusion and laziness attack us, and often we just don't take the time to pray. We are always in a hurry. Then there is the doubt, heaviness and melancholy of our hearts — sometimes we are just not in the mood to pray, and if we pray, we pray in doubt. (Heb. 11:6, Ja. 5:3) Our cares and concerns often become an obstacle to prayer, as well as our relation to our neighbours in the Lord. For if one cannot ensure the correct relation to his neighbour, it is impossible to have the correct relationship with God. (1 Peter 3:7)
All of these obstacles are real in our life, and we experience them in a way similar to what we read in the psalms of David, and in the cries of God's people. At one time or another, we all meet with turmoil and distress. And we must struggle daily with the weaknesses of our flesh. How then can we be sure that our prayers will be heard by the Lord? When we notice how great the differences are between the sort of prayer the Lord wants and our actual prayer, should that lead us to despair? Or can we expect the differences to be removed?
Yes, we may be assured that the Lord will remove those differences, if only we trust in Him, and believe in His Name. For the Lord Jesus (lid not teach prayer for nothing; He wants His disciples to pray, not as the Pharisees did, but in the way He taught them. Prayer doesn't come naturally; it requires training and discipline to pray correctly. Our hearts and lips must be circumcised, as Isaiah says. We must continually struggle to pray as we ought to pray.
As we grow in learning to pray, the Lord still accepts our prayers, even with their many faults and shortcomings. Why? Because the covenant promises of the Lord still stand. He still listens to His people for the sake of His steadfast love, and on account of His covenant promises that were sealed to us at our baptism. We can pray today and still be heard because, as we saw, this is the dispensation of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit no longer dwells with the Father, but now dwells and works in us through the preaching of the Word. He helps is in our prayers — He leads us to the prayer bench. He gives us the words to pray, and when we can't find the words, He still prays for us.
The Holy Spirit speaks for us to the Father, on the basis of the work of the Son. For, as Paul says, "we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." (Rom. 8:26) And because He intercedes for us, all our prayers are answered. There is no such thing as an unanswered prayer. All else may fail, but our mumbling, our sporadic groaning, indeed, even our "brullen" will be heard by the Father, for the sake of His Son.
For He cares for us, and bends down to help us for His Son's sake. He visits us and unifies the 'ought' of prayer with our actual prayers. He unifies our words and deeds, our thoughts and actions. By the grace of His Spirit, he unifies our whole life, and so leads all of His children unto the end, when the prayers of the whole church shall be answered in full, and He will be all in all.
1) S. U. Zuidema, Ons Gebed, Wever, Franeker, 1951, p. 12.