Our Father which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
Commonly known as the Lord’s Prayer, this is the prayer that Jesus gave his disciples as a model of how they should pray. I’ve given it in the form in which I memorized it as a child, the KJV version of Matthew 6:9-13. Other Bible passages quoted in this post will be from the ESV.
In this post I’ll consider what prayer is, why we should pray, how prayer works, how we should pray, and unanswered prayer, guided by but not limited to Chapter 18, “Prayer,” of Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 1994), which my family and I are reading in our family Bible reading time.
What is prayer?
Prayer is talking to God. The acronymn ACTS is often used to summarize the main kinds of prayers:
Why should we pray?
We don’t pray to tell God what we need because He already knows that, Jesus’ telling his disciples, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). Rather we pray because prayer expresses our trust in God to provide for us in the way that parents provide for their children. On the same occasion in which Jesus gave the Lord’s Prayer to his disciples he told them, “Which of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)
Two other reasons suggested by Grudem for why we pray are that it brings us into deeper fellowship with God, which is something that He wants, and that it allows us to be involved in activities that are eternally important, an aim expressed in the first three petitions of the Lord’s Prayer.
How does prayer work?
Prayer can change how God acts. For example, God told Moses that He was going to destroy Israel because they made and worshipped a golden calf, Moses implored God not to destroy them, and “the LORD relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people” (Exodus 32:7-14; verse 14 quoted). James tells us, “You do not have, because you do not ask” (James 4:2), implying that we’d receive more from Him if we’d ask.
Because God is holy and we are sinful, we can’t come into His presence on our own. However because we have Jesus as our mediator (“There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus,” 1 Timothy 2:5), we can come to Him. Grudem considers whether believers in the Old Testament and unbelievers, neither of which had/have Jesus as mediator, can come to God. He concludes that God accepted the sacrifices of the former on the basis of the future work of Jesus and that He may but hasn’t promised to accept the prayers of the latter.
Jesus told his disciple to pray “in my name” (“I chose you…so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you,” John 15:16). This doesn’t mean ending our prayers with “in Jesus’ name.” It means coming to God on Jesus’ authority and in a way consistent with his character and will. Of course there’s nothing wrong with our ending our prayers with “in Jesus’ name.”
As Paul observes in Romans 8:26-27, the Holy Spirit helps us in our praying: “Likewise the Spirit himself helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” The commentaries which I consulted disagree on whether the groanings referred to are the Holy Spirit’s own or ours which the Holy Spirit makes into effective prayer.
How should we pray?
Prayers may be offered in any place, at any time of day, and in any posture. The Bible encourages both secret prayer (“When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret,” Matthew 6:6) and united prayer (“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers,” Acts 1:14). Daniel prayed three times a day (Daniel 6:10), but Paul told the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), suggesting that although it is good to have regular times of prayer we should be in personal communication with God all the time. In the Bible people generally stood or knelt when praying, Solomon’s doing both during his prayer of dedication of the Temple: “Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel and spread out his hands toward heaven…Now as Solomon finished offering all of this prayer and plea to the LORD, he arose from before the altar of the LORD, where he had knelt with hands outstretched toward heaven” (1 Kings 8:22, 54).
Grudem suggests several conditions for praying effectively. For each condition, he explains it fully and and provides several relevant Bible passages. Here I’ll just list the conditions and give one relevant Bible passage for each of them. If you have a question about why Grudem suggests any of them or about what it involves, ask me in a Reply to this post and I’ll try to answer your question.
– Praying according to God’s will. 1 John 5:14-15.
– Praying with faith. Mark 11:24.
– Obedience. 1 Peter 3:12 (quotation of Psalm 34:15-16).
– Confession of sins. Matthew 6:12.
– Forgiving others. Matthew 6:12.
– Humility. Luke 18:9-14.
– Continuing in prayer over time. Luke 18:1-8.
– Praying earnestly. Hebrews 5:7.
– Waiting on the Lord. Psalm 130:5-6.
– Praying in private. Matthew 6:6.
– Praying with others. Matthew 18:19-20.
– Fasting. Joel 2:12.
What about unanswered prayer?
I haven’t received everything that I’ve prayed for, and I’m sure that you haven’t either. Why haven’t we? Maybe God wants us to wait for our answer, as the souls of the martyrs whom John saw under God’s throne in heaven were told to do in answer to their prayer for God to avenge them (Revelation 6:9-11). Or maybe God intends something else for us, as Jesus recognized when he closed his prayer that God remove “this cup” from him with, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Or maybe we haven’t met the conditions for praying effectively listed above under “How Should We Pray?”
What should we do? We should make sure that we’re meeting the conditions for praying effectively. We should accept God’s answer as David did when the child for whom he was praying died, resuming his normal life with the explanation that “while the child was still alive, I fasted and wept, for I said, ‘Who knows whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead. Why should I fast? Can I bring him back again?” (2 Samuel 12:22-23). And we should continue to trust God, knowing that “for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28).
Works about prayer that I found especially useful in my personal study of prayer, besides Chapter 18, “Prayer,” of Grudem’s Systematic Theology, are:
– Calvin, John. “Prayer….” Institutes of the Christian Religion. Edited by John T. McNeill and translated and indexed by Ford Lewis Battles. Volumes 20-21 of The Library of Christian Classics. Philadelphia, Westminster, 1960. Pages 850-920. Besides containing material helpful in considering the questions posted in this post, this chapter contains an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer by one of my favourite commentators (Calvin).
– Liefeld, Walter L. “Prayer.” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. 4 volumes. Edited by Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1979-88. Vol. 3, pages 931-939. Besides containing material helpful in considering the questions posted in this post, this article contains a survey of prayer in the Bible.
– Smith, Charles W. F. – “Prayer.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. 4 volumes. Edited by George Arthur Buttrick. Nashville, Tennessee: Abingdon Press, 1962. Vol. K-Q, pages 857-867. Besides containing material helpful in considering the questions posted in this post, this article contains a survey of prayer in the Bible.
– Thiessen, Henry Clarence. “The Means of Grace: II. Prayer.” Lectures in Systematic Theology. Revised by Vernon D. Doerksen. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979. Pages 302-305.