So far in our study of prayer, we have focused on our relationship with God in order to see how an appropriate understanding of the Christian life can generate good praying. We have been exploring our commitment to the real God in real faith for the living of the real Christian life; and we have discovered some tools to help us develop that relationship and deepen that commitment. We have been encouraged to see meditation or brooding or contemplation as a way of bringing ourselves into the presence of God. We have been shown why God wants us to praise him and we have learned to consider having God do a spiritual checkup on us.
Today we are going to explore the petitionary aspect of prayer and look at the key truths we need to keep in mind about human asking and divine answering. Now it is interesting that the Westminster Shorter Catechism – which is embraced by the Presbyterian Church – was written mainly by Anglicans but it is seen as one of the best documents to guide us in learning better praying.
The first question to consider from that Catechism is: What is prayer? The answer is that prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.
The second question is: What rule has God given for our direction in prayer? The answer is that the whole word of God is of use to direct us in prayer; but the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer.
The Catechism then asks four questions that lead us through the Lord’s Prayer. The opening part of the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to draw near to God. We come as children to a father who is able and ready to help us. Then we are taught to pray that God would enable us, and others, to glorify him in every way that he is known. Third we are encouraged to pray that the kingdom of God’s grace may come and that we, and others, may be drawn into that kingdom. Finally we are to pray that God, by his grace, would make us able and willing to know and obey his will in all things as the angels do in heaven.
Going beyond the Catechism, there are some other questions we can ask. First, what is it right to ask for in prayer? What is to be the scope and range of our petitions? Second, what should be the reason for our asking, that is, our motivation? Third, what is our reason for expecting God to answer our prayers? On what basis do we make our petitions? Fourth, how does God answer prayers? What should we expect when we make our petitions? But while we may ask these questions as we approach God in prayer, we need to ever remember that prayer is a two-way street. God will be asking his own questions about our asking: Why do you ask for this? How serious is the matter to you, and how deep does your concern go? Why do you think that what you are asking for is in line with my will? Would something other than the precise thing you now request satisfy you equally? Tell me. We expect as parents to question our children’s requests and so we can expect God to question our requests – not to deny them outright or to be vindictive but to come to appreciate our situation better and help us to learn to ask for what is really needed.
So first: What should we ask for? Scripture tells us that whatever we ask of God in the name of Jesus, we shall receive; but the key element is not the actual ask but what informs the ask. Remember that Jesus sought to do the will of the Father. He even asked for the cup to be taken away from him – the cup being a metaphor for the life he was asked to live that would lead to death on the cross; yet if it was the will of the Father for him to drink the cup – complete the life he was called to live and the death he was called to die - then that would be Jesus’ prayer. That worked for Jesus but how do we formulate petitions according to God’s will? We are to follow the guidelines of the Lord’s Prayer. We pray for daily bread – sustenance for body; we pray for daily pardon – release from the sins that trouble our hearts and minds; and we pray for daily protection – God’s presence with us to keep our whole being from falling off the path.
Now this may meet our needs but what about our petitions for others, especially when people ask us to pray for specific outcomes? First, we lay before God the reasons why we think that what we ask for is the best thing. Second, we are to tell God that if he wills something different then we will seek to understand how it is better, and it is that that we really want him to do.
Second: Why should we ask? What is the motivation of our asking?
The biblical perspective throughout is that, with God – the searcher of hearts – the inner realities of motivation, purpose and desire that prompt and energize our actions are just as important as the performance of the actions themselves. When our prayers become mechanical without focused thought, then our prayer is not from our heart. Remember that God assesses all our actions from the inside as well as the outside. The Lord’s Prayer was given not just that we might learn the words but that the spirit, the attitude of this model of prayer might also be appreciated and adopted as our spirit and attitude.
Third: On what basis do we ask? What are our expectations in prayer and what is the basis for those expectations? What reasons do we have for expecting answers to our prayers? Packer uses the image of a 3-legged stool. The stool will stand if all the legs are equal. The first leg is our knowledge that God is now our Father by adoption and grace. We have become God’s children through faith in Jesus Christ. The second leg is the promises of God as set forth in Scripture. Let us remember, though, that the promises of God have more to do with spiritual development. We are to seek to become more like Christ and so we seek to grow in grace in order that we might truly understand and appreciate the promises of God. The third leg of the stool is purity of heart, our own purity of heart before the holy God to whom we pray. As was mentioned in a previous message, purity is not in the moral sense that we so often think of but rather in the sense of unity of focus – our God-centeredness. Our centeredness on God, our unity of focus will lead us in our prayers.
Finally, how does God answer our prayers? The short and the long of it is that God always gives positive answers to our prayers; the prayers may be answered in the terms we outlined, in terms that differ from the ones we presented or we may be told to wait. Truly we are taught that we can expect answers to prayer and God will be faithful to answer; yet we also need to understand that the relationship we develop with God, our deepening knowledge of God and his will, our willingness to let God search us and change us will have a profound effect on not only what we ask for but what we expect of God.
Take heart, be of good courage, pray both in and out of season and trust God! And never forget the words of Jesus: Ask and it shall be given unto you; knock and the door shall be opened; for everyone who asks receives, and every one who knocks, the door will be opened (Matthew 7:7-8)