Prayer: Sweet Communion With Our Father
There are two spiritual undertakings to be continuously part of a believer’s life and growth in Christ toward holiness. One is the reading of Scripture, and the second is prayer. Both activities are the essence of our communion with our heavenly Father, whereby he communes with us through his Word and we commune with him through prayer.
The Apostles recognize this duality of sanctification, “We will give ourselves continually to prayer, and the ministry of the Word” (Acts 6:4). Our intake of the Bible and our reciprocal breathing out to God in prayer are the composite interchanges between man and the living God. The Apostle Paul encourages believers to “pray without ceasing,” that we should be “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication, and not to be “anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (1 Thess. 5:17; Eph. 6:18; Phil. 4:6). Scripture and prayer are woven into the very fabric of the life of every believer—hearing God as he speaks to us through his divinely revealed Word and us speaking to God as we pour forth our hearts in prayer.
The Protestant Reformer John Calvin wrote extensively about prayer. In his sermons, commentaries (especially his commentary on Psalms), and his magnum opus, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin viewed prayer as the chief exercise of faith in the Christian life. Throughout his copious writings, Calvin concludes that prayer is a precious gift rather than an academic problem. As a pastor, he focused primarily on our communion with God in prayer rather than its doctrine, which shows how pastorally practical his theology is. In the final edition of his Institutes, Calvin defines prayer as “a communion of men with God by which having entered the heavenly sanctuary, they appeal to him in person concerning his promises to experience that what they believed was not in vain” (Institutes, 3.20.2). In his Instruction in Faith, Calvin writes that prayer is “a communication between God and us whereby we expound to him our desires, our joys, our sighs, in a word, all the thoughts of our hearts.” Calvin rightly saw prayer as the holy and familiar conversation between our heavenly Father and his children. Prayer is “an emotion of the heart within, which is poured out and laid open before God” (Institutes, 3.20.29). A fundamental aspect of Calvin’s theology of prayer is that prayer was not primarily instituted for God, for God sovereignly knows all things, but rather for men. Thus, prayer is a means given to believers so that by faith, they can “reach those riches which are laid up for us with the heavenly Father” (Institutes, 3.20.3).
Calvin considered prayer to be the chief exercise of faith in the Christian life and suggests six ways our communion with God in prayer contributes to our growth in Christ:
- Prayer inflames our hearts with the desire to seek, love, and serve God.
- Prayer trains us to expose the secrets and desires of our hearts to God.
- Prayer promotes gratitude.
- Prayer leads to meditation on God’s kindness as a result of his having answered our prayers.
- Prayer produces even greater joy in those things that we have obtained through prayer.
- Prayer serves as a personal confirmation of God’s providence. (Institutes, 3.20.3).
These purposes must be pursued within the Christian life in a biblically directed way. Therefore, proper prayer must be grounded in God’s Word by faith. That is, the content of our prayers must be shaped, controlled, and restrained by Scripture, for prayer and Scripture are inseparably linked as a golden chain of faith around the life of the believer.
In Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, he instructs his disciples on how different the prayer life of true believers should be from the hypocritical Pharisees. In Matthew 6, Jesus interjects a short discourse on prayer and provides an efficient framework for how believers are to pray. Jesus doesn’t offer instructions on the posture, length, or even place of prayer for any posture, length, and place will do. None of these is the issue. Rather, Jesus teaches that our holy communion with God should be as natural to us as breathing—a way of life.
Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6 that we know as “the Lord’s Prayer,” is not a prayer to be prayed verbatim but is a model for all prayer and communion with God. Jesus says, “Pray, then in this way” (Matt. 6:9). He’s not suggesting that we use these exact words per se, but that these words are a model for all of our prayers, “in this way” or “in this manner, pray.” But before launching into this model prayer, Jesus offers vital instructions on the proper way to pray.
The first lesson is to guard against a desire to be praised, “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward” (Matt. 6:5). There’s a sinful desire within us to be seen, applauded, and praised by others. The Pharisees, to which Jesus is pointing, had little interest in conversing with God but instead wanted to be noticed by others that they may be praised for their external spirituality. However, like these hypocrites, it’s often the case that a desire for outward praise in response to our spirituality indicates a lack of true spirituality within our hearts. Jesus says, “they have their reward.” For their reward is the transitory praise of men rather than the eternal blessings of God. It’s necessary to understand that Jesus is not condemning public prayer but rather teaching that when we pray, we must be conscious that our primary audience is God, not men.
Second, Jesus warns against a desire to manipulate God, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7). Jesus offers two groups of examples of what not to do—Pharisees in their desire for the praise of others and the Gentiles (pagans) for their manipulation of God. In the ancient world, many believed that if they repeated certain words, that eventually, their god would be compelled to answer. Jesus points out that seeking to manipulate God to amass worldly things is not the purpose of prayer. Instead, prayer is a spiritual conversation with God whereby we lift our desires and requests, submitting ourselves to his sovereign will to grant us what he wishes. To think we can manipulate God is to misunderstand his kindness to his children. Jesus reminds us that God doesn’t begrudgingly bless us with things, but it is “your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32).
Third, prayer reveals our Father’s goodness by cultivating genuine humility, “but when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt. 6:6). The fountainhead of all of our communion with God emerges from a secret life of prayer—time spent away from a watching world, alone with only you and your heavenly Father conversing with him by faith. In secret, we are best equipped to pour ourselves before God, open the secret recesses of our hearts, confess our sin, lift our petitions and intercessions on behalf of others, sing praises to him, and enjoy the unbridled sweetness of fellowship. At the end of verse 6, Jesus says, “and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” What comforting solace to our troubled hearts to realize that our Father knows our needs, sees our desperate condition, and stands ready to dispense his loving care. The underlying motivation of our prayer life should be the recurring reminder that God is far better to us than we will ever deserve or could ever imagine.
These instructions of our Lord then lead us beautifully to his model prayer, which is useless unless we have the right heart-posture to approach his majestic throne of grace. As Calvin writes, we come to communion with God in the “disposition of a beggar,” recognizing that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17).
Dustin Benge is associate professor of biblical spirituality and historical theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, KY. He is the author of the forthcoming, The Loveliest Place: The Beauty and Glory of the Church (Crossway, 2022). He and his wife, Molli, live in Louisville.
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