In 1845 preacher William Walford introduced to the world a new hymn. In the second stanza, he wrote,
“Sweet hour of prayer! Sweet hour of prayer! The joys I feel, the bliss I share, of those whose anxious spirits burn with strong desires for thy return! With such I hasten to the place where God my Savior shows his face and gladly take my station there and wait for thee, sweet hour of prayer!”
After reading those words some of us might wonder if we’ve ever actually prayed! Let’s be honest: Prayer is not always bliss. We don’t hasten to it gladly. We don’t pray for an hour. We don’t even know what to pray for (Rom. 8:26–27).
We’re not the first people to make these confessions. In the mid-seventeenth century, a group of British church leaders met to develop instructional materials for the Christians under their care. One of the products of that meeting was the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647). This document offers 107 simple and timeless questions and answers (Q/A) about the Christian life. The catechism’s two questions introducing the Lord’s Prayer can help breathe life into our sometimes-arid prayer habits.
What is prayer? (Q/A 98)
“Prayer Is Offering Our Desires to God”
“Desires” should not be misunderstood as “stuff we want.” God is a Father who delights in giving good gifts to those who ask (Luke 11:13). However, prayer is not like writing a Christmas wish-list. In prayer, we pour out before God the deepest yearnings of our hearts (Ps. 62:8). Far from a mere religious habit or crass shopping list, prayer is a heartfelt response to God’s promise to hear our inmost desires.
Prayer Is Requesting “Things Agreeable to God’s Will”
John writes, “This is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14). To pray rightly we have to know God and what he wants for us. My children know it is useless to ask for cotton candy at the fair—I’ll say no every time. They’ve learned it will be far more fruitful to ask me to read them a book. With God, things are not quite so simple. He operates on a different plane of wisdom than we do, but he has revealed his will to us. Prayers that are ignorant of God’s will (“Help me win the lottery;” “help me get revenge against my wife,” etc.) do not honor him and are a waste of energy.
Prayer Is Asking “In the Name of Christ”
At least five times in John 14–16, Jesus teaches his children to pray to the Father in his name. “If you ask anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:14). This does not mean that every Christian prayer has to end the same way: “In Jesus’ name, Amen.” The names of God’s Son are not passwords that unlock heaven’s plunder. Jesus means that we must pray to the Father from a vital relationship with God’s Son. This is how “in my name” operates in Scripture. In the Old Testament, true prophets always spoke in his name, that is, in concert with him (e.g. Deut. 18:19). Prayer in Jesus’ name means coming before God in profound dependence on Christ’s finished work.
Prayer Includes “Confessing our Sins, and Thankfully Recognizing His Mercies”
Both penitence and thankfulness are necessary postures of prayer because they reflect the genuine experience of every believer. We ask for forgiveness because we know we are sinners and that only God can pardon. Penitence doesn’t put believers back into God’s favor; those who are his can’t diminish his love (John 17:23). We acknowledge our sins because a posture of humility is the only appropriate way to approach a holy God (cf. Ps. 32:5-6; Dan. 9:4-19; 1 John 1:9). Assured of his mercies, we thank him for accepting us and blessing us with his kindness (Ps. 103:1-5, 136:1-26; Phil. 4:6).
How Should We Pray? (Q/A 99)
“The Whole Word of God…Directs Our Prayers”
In the school of prayer, the Bible is our textbook. Our prayers often indicate how long and how deeply we have drunk from the Scriptures. This doesn’t mean that the best prayers are fancy; many of the prayers in the Bible are simple pleas for help (e.g. Neh. 13:22) or outbursts of praise (e.g. Ps. 117), but when we immerse ourselves in God’s word, our hearts begin to learn the Bible’s prayer language.
Many Christians have found it helpful to distill their daily Bible reading into prayer points. Sometimes we can pray the word of God directly. When read through the lens of fulfillment in Christ, the Psalms especially can serve as a beautiful prayer book.
“Especially the Lord’s Prayer…Directs Our Prayers”
Jesus spoke his famous prayer (Luke 11:2–4) in answer to his disciples’ request, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Ever since believers have used the Lord’s Prayer as a prayer. Some people feel uneasy using a form prayer, as if doing so is an example of “vain and heathenish repetition” (Matt. 6:7). It is possible to use even the Lord’s Prayer in vain, but surely there is a difference between empty repetition and good repetition (Phil. 3:1). In Psalm 136, for example, twenty-six times worshippers repeat the phrase “For His mercy endures forever!” The Westminster Larger Catechism helpfully suggests that the Lord’s Prayer is to be used not only as a template for making other prayers, “but [it] may also be used as a prayer” (Q/A 187).
In his prayer, Jesus models what godly prayer is like: prayer should be God-centered and kingdom-focused. It must include confession of sin and thanksgiving for his provision. Through prayer we must seek what we need for body and soul so that we can live as children of heaven in a fallen world. Jesus’ preface, six petitions, and conclusion provide us with a rich template for growing in prayer.
Prayer isn’t always easy (why should it be?). But as we grow in the discipline of prayer, it can be a rich experience of sharing our heart with God’s.