Category Archives: Prayer
A letter from John Newton to a friend, on prayer (August 15, 1776):
I sometimes think that the prayers of believers afford a stronger proof of a depraved nature than even the profaneness of those who know not the Lord. How strange is it, that when I have the fullest convictions that prayer is not only my duty — not only necessary as the appointed means of receiving these supplies, without which I can do nothing, but likewise the greatest honor and privilege to which I can be admitted in the present life — I should still find myself so unwilling to engage in it.
However, I think it is not prayer itself that I am weary of, but such prayers as mine. How can it be accounted prayer, when the heart is so little affected — when it is polluted with such a mixture of vile and vain imaginations — when I hardly know what I say myself — but I feel my mind collected one minute, the next, my thoughts are gone to the ends of the earth.
If what I express with my lips were written down, and the thoughts which at the same time are passing through my heart were likewise written between the lines, the whole taken together would be such an absurd and incoherent jumble — such a medley of inconsistency, that it might pass for the ravings of a lunatic.
When he points out to me the wildness of this jargon, and asks, is this a prayer fit to be presented to the holy heart-searching God? I am at a loss what to answer, till it is given to me to recollect that I am not under the law, but under grace — that my hope is to be placed, not in my own prayers, but in the righteousness and intercession of Jesus. The poorer and viler I am in myself, so much the more is the power and riches of his grace magnified in my behalf.
Therefore I must, and, the Lord being my helper, I will pray on, and admire his condescension and love, that he can and does take notice of such a creature — for the event shows, that those prayers which are even displeasing to myself, partial as I am in my own case, are acceptable to him, how else should they be answered?
And that I am still permitted to come to a throne of grace — still supported in my walk and in my work, and that mine enemies have not yet prevailed against me, and triumphed over me, affords a full proof that the Lord has heard and has accepted my poor prayers — yea, it is possible, that those very prayers of ours of which we are most ashamed, are the most pleasing to the Lord, and for that reason, because we are ashamed of them. When we are favored with what we call enlargement, we come away tolerably satisfied with ourselves, and think we have done well.
As recounted by Charles Spurgeon in sermon #108:
Oh! to have heard Luther pray!
Luther, you know, when Melancthon was dying, went to his death-bed, and said, “Melancthon, you shall not die!”
“Oh,” said Melancthon, “I must die! It is a world of toil and trouble.”
“Melancthon,” said he, “I have need of thee, and God’s cause has need of thee, and as my name is Luther, thou shalt not die!”
The physician said he would.
Well, down went Luther on his knees, and began to tug at death. Old death struggled mightily for Melancthon, and he had got him well nigh on his shoulders.
“Drop him,” said Luther, “drop him, I want him.”
“Ho,” said death, “he is my prey, I will take him!”
“Down with him,” said Luther, “down with him, death, or I will wrestle with thee!”
And he seemed to take hold of the grim monster, and hurl him to the ground, and he came off victorious, like Orpheus with his wife, up from the very shades of death. He had delivered Melancthon from death by prayer!
“Oh,” say you, “that is an extraordinary case.” No, beloved, not one-half so extraordinary as you dream. I have men and women here who have done the same in other cases; that have asked a thing of God, and have had it; that have been to the throne, and showed a promise, and said they would not come away without its fulfillment, and have come back from God’s throne conquerors of the Almighty; for prayer moves the arm that moves the world.
The following excerpt humbles me. It’s taken from a letter written by John Newton on how a believer, who readily affirms the majesty of God’s character, can so often fail to act upon this knowledge in the prayer closet. The most obvious evidence is in how easily our minds wander off to chase after vain thoughts that so easily distract our attention from prayer (source: The Works of John Newton, 1:246–247):
We know how we are often affected when in the presence of a fellow-worm; if he is one on whom we depend, or who is considerably our superior in life, how careful we are to compose our behavior, and to avoid whatever might be deemed improper or offensive!
Is it not strange that those who have taken their ideas of the divine majesty, holiness and purity, from the Scriptures, and are not wholly insensible of their inexpressible obligations to regulate all they say or do by his precepts, should upon many occasions be betrayed into improprieties of behavior from which the presence of a nobleman, or prince, would have effectually restrained them, yea, sometimes perhaps even the presence of a child?
Even in the exercise of prayer, by which we profess to draw near the Lord, the consideration that his eye is upon us has little power to engage our attention, or prevent our thoughts from wandering like the fool’s eye, to the ends of the earth.
What should we think of a person, who, being admitted into the king’s presence, upon business of the greatest importance, should break off in the midst of his address, to pursue a butterfly? Could such an instance of weakness be met with, it would be but a faint emblem of the inconsistencies which they who are acquainted with their own hearts, can often charge themselves with in prayer.
In her Washington Post column today, “Does God play favorites?” (5/9, A17), Kathleen Parker argues that Christian prayers are no more special than the prayers of say a Hindu or a Muslim because “new brain research supports the likelihood that one man’s prayer is as good as any other’s.” To back this up she introduces NPR reporter Barbara Bradley Hagerty and her book Fingerprints of God a book that shows neurologically that “whether one is a Sikh, a Catholic nun, a Buddhist monk or a Sufi Muslim, the brain reacts to focused prayer and meditation much in the same way. The same parts light up and the same parts go dark during deep meditation.” I don’t doubt it. But she makes a fundamental mistake.
A drunk man blabbing in the street and a man filled with the Spirit of God and speaking the gospel in a foreign language apparently have some similarities to an observer. But they are doing very different things (Acts 2:5–13). Similarly, an act in the bedroom that is borne out of sinful lust between an unmarried couple as compared to the same act in the bedroom that originates from marital love and faithfulness are two radically different acts, even if they are physically indistinguishable. The physical appearance of the act often does not distinguish the sinfulness or the holiness of the act itself. This is what C.S. Lewis called “transposition,” when higher and more complex elements of the spirit world are acted out in a less complex material world they often don’t look particularly unique to the human eye. Or, as Lewis explained, when you take a book that was written in a very complex language and translate that book into a much more simplified language you must (out of necessity) give certain words multiple meanings. The same is true spiritually. The prayers that are pleasing to God—those prayers that are mediated by the blood of Jesus Christ and are reinterpreted and amplified by the voice of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 10:19–22, Rom. 8:26) are prayers that may in fact look exactly the same in a neurological scan as all other prayers and meditations that are not sanctified by the blood of Christ and not prayed through the Spirit.
To understand spiritual complexities we don’t study the simplified translation, we study the original book. In seeking to understand the spiritual world we must look down from heaven to earth rather than from earth up into the heavens. This is only possible through God’s revelation. God’s word is the only source that will help us make spiritual sense of physical acts that appear to be similar. And this is why brain activity can never determine the spiritual value of one’s prayers and meditation. It’s to attempt to understand spirituality by looking in the wrong end of the funnel.
For more on transposition see Lewis’ marvelous essay in The Weight of Glory (pages 91–115).
Batter my heart, three person’d God; for, you
As yet but knocke, breathe, shine, and seeke to mend;
That I may rise, and stand, o’erthrow mee,’and bend
Your force, to breake, blowe, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt towne, to’another due,
Labour to’admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in mee, mee should defend,
But is captiv’d, and proves weake or untrue.
Yet dearely’I love you,’and would be loved faine,
But am betroth’d unto your enemie:
Divorce mee,’untie, or breake that knot againe;
Take mee to you, imprison mee, for I
Except you’enthrall mee, never shall be free,
Nor ever chast, except you ravish mee.
—John Donne, The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (The Modern Library, 1952) p. 252.
“The sonnet does not build toward union with God, either bodily or spiritually. Instead, it builds toward personal regeneration. The demands to be taken, conquered, imprisoned, enthralled, and ravished are ultimately expressions of the fundamental desire that pulsates throughout these poems as a whole” [Ramie Targoff, John Donne: Body and Soul (University of Chicago, 2009) p. 123].
Speaking of prayer and Plato, note this excerpt from John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion:
“Plato, on seeing men’s want of skill in making requests to God, which, if granted, would often have been disadvantageous to them, declares this, taken from an ancient poet, to be the best prayer: ‘King Jupiter, bestow the best things upon us whether we wish for them or not, but command that evil things be far from us even when we request them.’ And, indeed, the heathen man is wise in that he judges how dangerous it is to seek from the Lord what our greed dictates; at the same time he discloses our unhappiness, in that we cannot even open our mouths before God without danger unless the Spirit instructs us in the right pattern for prayer.” [McNeill/Battles; 3.20.34; 2:897-898]
Of course this does not mean Calvin is uncritical of Plato. He certainly is critical of Plato in other places. But it’s interesting to me that Calvin feels the freedom to incorporate pagan literature into his instruction upon the Lord’s Prayer.
Prayer is multidimensional and it can be defined in several ways and taught through many principles of scripture. But one of the most foundational themes—especially obvious in the Old Testament—is that prayer is a bloody thing.
Take these few examples:
• The Lord blesses Solomon’s desire to build a temple, a place of sacrifice, and says it will be a place where “I will hear their prayers” (2 Chronicles 7:11—17). After the temple was completed it was dedicated and in this dedication ceremony Solomon offered a prayer on behalf of the people (1 King 8:22—53), said a corporate benediction (8:54—61), and this was followed by a blood sacrifice (62—66). In the temple, prayer and sacrifice went hand-on-hand, as God intended.
• In one place David builds an altar and his prayer is heard (2 Samuel 24:18—25). At another place, David entered the presence of God with sacrifice (Psalm 66:13—15) in the hopes of answered prayer (19—20). The Psalmist commonly weds together the themes of prayer and sacrifice (Psalm 4:1,5; 54:2,6; 54:2,6).
• The value of Job’s prayer for his friends is inseparable from the sacrifice made by his friends (Job 42:7—10).
• The prophet Isaiah decried the hypocrisy of Israel which made the sacrifices useless and, as a result, God closed his ears to their prayers (Isaiah 1:10—13 with v. 15). Without proper sacrifices there was no hearing.
• The nations were invited to worship God by assembling at “a house of prayer” where God would hear their prayers because offering and sacrifices were offered (Isaiah 56:7).
For the Old Testament saint, prayer and sacrifice were linked. And the same is true today. No prayer from our lips reach the ear of God without the sacrifice of Christ for our sins. The only pathway to the Living God is paved with Blood.
So we mustn’t grow content with the absence of Blood in our contemporary books on prayer.
Christian parents have many reasons to thank to God for all the practical resources now available on parenting. We easily forget that biblically informed and cross-centered books, articles, and conferences have not been around forever.
But as I know from personal experience, this wealth of material at our fingertips can also subtly lead us to believe successful parenting is merely the accumulation of sound bite suggestions, reading the right material, and accurately putting all this into practice. Discernment and practice are critical, but even more essential to successful parenting is the active grace and power of our sovereign God. Like few other responsibilities, parenting reveals our human weaknesses and provides us with many opportunities for prayer.
In his new book A Praying Life, Paul Miller shares a number of personal stories in his growth in personal prayer including this one, which—if I’m honest—confronts my personal pattern of parenting. Miller writes,
When our kids were two, five, eight, twelve, fourteen, and sixteen, I wrote this in my prayer journal:
March 19, 1991. Amazing how when I don’t pray in the morning evil just floods into our home. I absolutely must pray! Oh, God, give me the grace to pray.
It took me seventeen years to realize I couldn’t parent on my own. It was not a great spiritual insight, just a realistic observation. If I didn’t pray deliberately and reflectively for members of my family by name every morning, they’d kill one another. I was incapable of getting inside their hearts. I was desperate. But even more, I couldn’t change my self-confident heart. My prayer journal reflects both my inability to change my kids and my inability to change my self-confidence. That’s why I need grace even to pray…
It didn’t take me long to realize that I did my best parenting by prayer, I began to speak less to the kids and more to God. It was actually quite relaxing.
–Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life (NavPress 2009) pp. 59-60.
From the Desiring God National conference this Fall in Minneapolis I am reminded of a short excerpt from the first panel discussion with Justin Taylor, John MacArthur and John Piper. The question was over responding to discouragement. Piper gave this glimpse into his (very humbling) prayer life.
“Probably, I pray the prayer ‘keep me’ and ‘preserve me’ as often as I pray any prayer. Keep me saved – because I think God uses means to cause us to persevere. Keep me in the ministry – I don’t want to be a short-lived person [minister]. Keep me married – I don’t want to wreck it that way. Keep me! I pray that: ‘now unto him that is able to keep you from falling’ (Jude 24, KJV). I pray that blessing down on me a lot.”
Whether we are discouraged or not, that’s a great outline for our personal prayers.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived and died in Nazi Germany. You can imagine the delight of the Nazis when, in 1940, Bonhoeffer published a book – Das Gebetbuch der Bibel – calling Christians to recapture the importance of the Psalms. A Christian pastor publishing a German book highlighting the importance of the Hebrew Scriptures was about as welcomed by the Nazis as a swastika flag burning demonstration. They threatened Bonhoeffer with a fine and then retracted it. Three years later he was arrested for his anti-Nazi sentiments and hung in 1945. You know the story.
The English translation of this German book is known to us as The Prayerbook of the Bible. Although his arguments can sometimes be over-stated, this short work presses us to see the importance of the Psalms in the Christian community. Not surprising, it remains one of Bonhoeffer’s beloved classics.
But why, in light of the bubbling anti-Semitism, did Bonhoeffer risk his life to draw Christians to the Psalms?
The Psalms + the Lord’s Prayer
First, Bonhoeffer noticed a parallel between the themes of the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms. And there are striking parallels. He learned this from Martin Luther who wrote of the Psalms “it runs through the Lord’s Prayer and the Lord’s Prayer runs through it, so that it is possible to understand one on the basis of the other and to being them into joyful harmony.”
Here is what Jesus taught His disciples to pray (Matt. 6:9-13):
“Our Father 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 also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.”
Because these parallel themes run through the Psalms, Bonhoeffer concludes the Psalms too find their origin in Christ. If the Lord’s Prayer is from Christ, we can be certain these similar themes in the Psalms are from Christ, too. There is a deeply Christological understanding of the Psalms for Bonhoeffer. The Psalms are the voice of Christ modeling prayer and worship for His people in the presence of the Father.
The inspired prayers
Whether or not we fully embrace his Christological thesis, we are led to an important question about the composition of the Psalms.
“Now there is in the Holy Scriptures one book that differs from all other books of the Bible in that it contains only prayers. That book is the Psalms. At first it is something very astonishing that there is a prayerbook in the Bible. The Holy Scriptures are, to be sure, God’s Word to us. But prayers are human words. How then do they come to be in the Bible? Let us make no mistake: the Bible is God’s Word, even in the Psalms. Then are the prayers to God really God’s own Word? That seems difficult for us to understand. We grasp it only when we consider that we can learn true prayer only from Jesus Christ, and that it is, therefore, the word of the Son of God, who lives with us human beings, to God the Father who lives in eternity. Jesus Christ has brought before God every need, every joy, every thanksgiving, and every hope of humankind. In Jesus’ mouth the human word becomes again a human word” (5:156-157).
Track his argument here. Are prayers not the spontaneous expressions of a human heart towards God? If so, why are they here written and included in Scripture? If the prayers of David merely originated in the heart of David, why are they preserved in Scripture?
Bonhoeffer responds that the Psalms are preserved in Scripture because these prayer/songs are inspired by God. Or to put it another way, God wrote these prayer/songs to Himself! God – by the inspiration of the Spirit through the pen of the Psalmists – leaves us a pattern of prayer and song that brings us back to the model of Lord’s Prayer. See that? So the Psalms in prayer and praise model the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer.
This leads Bonhoeffer to a further conclusion: prayer is not merely waiting for spontaneous thoughts to emanate from our hearts.
“We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and only then can we pray them with Jesus Christ. Thus it does not matter whether the Psalms express exactly what we feel in our hearts at the moment we pray. Perhaps it is precisely the case that we must pray against our own heart in order to pray rightly. It is not just that for which we ourselves want to pray that is important, but that for which God wants us to pray. If we were dependent on ourselves alone, we would probably often pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. Not the poverty of our heart, but the richness of God’s Word, ought to determine our prayer” (5:157).
The Psalms are God’s prayers as inspired by God. As children learning to talk from the language of their parents, the Psalms are teaching saints the language of prayer (5:155). It does not first matter whether the Psalms seem to be what we would pray for any more than we would naturally pray “hallowed be your name” or “lead us not into temptation.” Our prayers do not rest upon the impulse of our hearts, but the richness of Scripture.
The point is we are not limited in prayer until we feel ready to pray. We can learn to pray.
“Teach us to pray”
This returns to the beginning of the book. Bonhoeffer begins with the disciple’s request, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
“’To learn to pray’ sounds contradictory to us. Either the heart is so overflowing that it begins to pray by itself, we say, or it will never learn to pray. But this is a dangerous error, which is certainly very widespread among Christians today, to imagine that it is natural for the heart to pray. We then confuse wishing, hoping, sighing, lamenting, rejoicing – all of which the heart can certainly do on its own – with praying. But in doing so we confuse earth and heaven, human beings and God. Praying certainly does not mean simply pouring out one’s heart. It means, rather finding the way to and speaking with God, whether the heart is full or empty. No one can do that on one’s own. For that one needs Jesus Christ” (5:155).
We need to learn how to pray. The disciples request was answered by Jesus showing them how to pray and what to pray. He models for His disciples the very words to speak – a prayer that certainly would not have naturally emanated from our hearts. The Psalms therefore lay a pattern that touches our prayer and worship lives. These are the inspired prayer/songs of God. They are the words God has chosen to be worshipped with and pleaded by.
For Bonhoeffer, encouraging Christians to pray and sing the Psalms was a worthy exchange for his comforts in Nazi Germany. “Whenever the Psalter is abandoned, an incomparable treasure is lost to the Christian church,” Bonhoeffer wrote. “With its recovery will come unexpected power” (5:162).
The above quotes were taken from volume five of the Works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Fortress Press has packaged The Prayerbook of the Bible with Life Together – a thought-provoking book on the value of small groups and Christian community.