Questions About Prayer
As I walked by a church a few days ago I noticed the slogan on its wall: ‘Try praying’. This church was not the first to use these words to encourage people in difficulty to begin to pray. To encourage people to pray is obviously a good thing, but the slogan does raise important questions.
1. Who are we to pray to?
It must be a being who has a real existence, who can hear us when we call on him. He must have the power to supply our needs, to remove our troubles, and to make our situation in life easier. If the being to whom we pray is not all-powerful, we cannot expect to get much, if any, help from him. If that being cannot hear the petitions of people everywhere, it is most unlikely that he will hear us when we pray to him for help. If he cannot hear us and if he cannot help us, there is no point in praying to him.
But there is real point in praying – if we pray to the living and true God. He is the only Being who can answer our prayers. He can do anything we ask for – provided it is something that a perfectly-holy Being may do, provided it will be good for us to receive what we have asked for, and provided it is according to his holy will. God will never help us to do anything that is sinful – although he may allow us to have it by way of judgement. But then it would be a punishment for our sinful, God-dishonouring attitudes, for he may give rebellious sinners up to follow their own desires when they are determined to reject him.
Nor will God give his children what they pray for if he knows that it will not be good for them, especially if it will not be good for their souls. Yet, if God’s children are sinfully asking for something, and so much setting their hearts on getting it that they do not give God the first place in their thinking, he may give it to them – and, sooner or later, they will realise that they would have been far better off without it. They will realise that they were making it an idol, giving it a place in their heart which only God should have.
Perhaps it is reasonable to expect that a message about prayer on the wall of a Protestant church will necessarily refer to prayer to God. Yet a Roman Catholic reading the message might easily imagine that a prayer to Mary, the mother of Jesus, would be just as effective – perhaps even more so. But the Bible never tells us to pray to Mary, only to God. And this is a world where large numbers of gods are being worshipped by those who reject the true God – the One who created all things. So multitudes of people are ‘praying’ to beings that have no existence, except in the minds of those who worship them. These prayers can never be answered.
Buddhists assume that there is no God and that what they call ‘the divine is within the life of the individual’ person who is praying (the words in quotation marks are taken from a Buddhist organisation’s website). And the purpose of prayer, we are further told, is to awaken a person’s ‘inner capacities of strength, courage and wisdom rather than to petition external forces’. For them, prayer can only be a means of arousing themselves to do better. How much they need to realise their own limitations!
But there is only one Being who is able to hear people praying, wherever they are right across the globe. He is the God who has revealed himself in the Bible. He is the true God, the living God – in contrast with idols, who have no real existence beyond the stone or wood of which they are made. These false gods have no personalities, and so they have no capacity to think, or do anything in answer to the petitions addressed to them. But the God who has revealed himself in the Bible is able to answer their petitions, because he is all-powerful. And he is able to give the best possible answer to these petitions, because he is perfectly wise.
2. How are we to approach God?
We must remember that we are sinners and that God is altogether holy. David asked the Lord: ‘Who shall dwell in Thy holy hill’? David was thinking about the Tabernacle, where God’s presence was. Who could live safely in the presence of the holy God? And he answered his own question: ‘He that walketh uprightly, and worketh righteousness, and speaketh the truth in his heart’ (Psa. 15:1,2). In other words, it is only someone holy who can come near to the holy God.
Yet neither David himself, or anyone else before or since, has been perfectly holy. How then can anyone draw near to God in prayer? The answer must be: Through a mediator, someone who is perfectly holy and can stand between God and sinners, to present their petitions to him. But where can we find such a person? In his great mercy, God has provided a Mediator: his own Son, who came into this world to reconcile sinners to God. And on the basis of his sacrifice at Calvary, Christ Jesus acts as Mediator by presenting the petitions of unholy sinners to a holy God. That is the only way we can expect him to hear us. And that is why we include in our prayers such words as: ‘for Jesus’ sake’.
3. So should we try to pray?
There should be no doubt about the answer. We must pray. We must always pray. God created us; so we are to worship him. And prayer is part of worship. One should not be too critical about a call to prayer, but there is something not quite right in the tone of the slogan, ‘Try praying’. God is infinitely great; he is infinite in majesty; so we must think about him with great reverence.
Prayer to God is not something that we may try when all other possibilities have been exhausted. When we think of doing something, the first thing we should do is pray. When we see a danger, even at a great distance, the first thing we should do is pray. In the morning we should pray for God’s care and blessing in connection with everything that will happen through the day, and we should do so for Jesus’ sake. He knows everything about what is to take place; we certainly do not. And in the evening we should ask God to forgive all the sins we have committed that day and to watch over us through the night, for Jesus’ sake.
But what is the most important thing you should pray for? It is for your soul: that all your sins would be forgiven, that you would be delivered from the power of sin, that you would live a holy life, that you would love God, that you would trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. If you are to come before the holy God in prayer, it is totally wrong to focus so much on the ordinary things of this life that you ignore your soul. After all, the things of this life, important though they may be, will all pass away. But your soul will exist for ever. So you must seek ‘first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness’. If you do this, Christ promises that all other things that you need ‘shall be added unto you’ (Matt. 6:33).
Philip Henry was a godly English minister. He knew he should take everything before God in prayer. And that is what he did when two of his children were seriously ill. He prayed earnestly for them. He said, ‘If the Lord will be pleased to grant me my request concerning my children, I will not say as the beggars at our doors do: “I’ll never ask anything of Him again”. But, on the contrary, He shall hear oftener from me than ever. And I will love the Lord the better and love prayer the better as long as I live.’ Yet, even if God did not heal the children, we can be sure that Henry continued to pray – even without the encouragement of an answer to that particular time of prayer.
It is good for us to pray: to commit our present and future circumstances to God, who rules over everything and does so wisely. We should not only commit to him our days and years in this world, but especially our eternal future. We should not only commit to him the ordinary affairs of life, but especially our spiritual needs, so that we would live holy lives, seeking to spend our days to God’s glory.