“Lord teach me to pray.” – Luke 11:1
Christ teaches us to pray by his Word and by his Holy Spirit, working together. Not by the Word without the Spirit, and not by the Spirit apart from the Word, but by the two together—by the Holy Spirit’s use and application of the Word.
Christ’s Word, of course, means more than the sayings of Jesus Christ that are recorded in the four Gospels. The whole Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, is the Word of God and is properly spoken of as “the Word of Christ.” The Old Testament is the Word of Christ given through Moses, the prophets and the Psalmists; the New Testament is the Word of Christ given through the apostles and evangelists. When we say that Christ teaches us to pray by means of his Word, we mean that he teaches us to pray by means of the whole Bible of the Old and New Testaments.
While the whole Bible has a bearing on the subject of prayer, still some. parts of the Bible are more directly related to prayer than others. In particular, Christ teaches us to pray, first, by his own example of the life of prayer, which is presented to us in the Gospels; and secondly, by the prayer which he taught his disciples, which is commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Divine Instruction a Necessity
Why do we need divine teaching to pray aright? We need it, not merely because of our human limitations, but even more because of our fallen, sinful condition. We cannot find within our own sin-darkened consciousness the knowledge of how we ought to approach the infinite, holy God in prayer. We need the guidance that can come only from the written Word of God, and we call get it from the Word only as our hearts are quickened and illuminated by the special work of the Holy Spirit.
Apart from the teaching of the written Word, men inevitably pray ignorantly, foolishly and wrongly. Though prayer is regarded as almost universal in the human race, much that is called “prayer” is false and wrong. Jesus warned against praying “as the heathen do,” who vainly suppose that they shall be heard “for their much speaking.” Heathen prayer, of course, is wrong not only because of its error of “much speaking” but also because it is addressed to a false divinity, and it fails to realize the need of a mediator for access to the divine presence.
But apart from the prayers of the heathen, many prayers of professing Christians are wrong and ignorant prayers. All attempts to approach God’s presence otherwise than through Christ as Mediator are unacceptable to God. Christ is the appointed Mediator between God and men; it is through him alone that we have access to the throne of grace. Today many “liberal” ministers address their prayers to God directly, with no recognition of Christ as Mediator. They will start their prayer by saying “Our heavenly Father” and end it with the words “In thy name. Amen,” or perhaps simply, “Amen.” Such prayers are not only a grievous dishonor to Jesus Christ, but unacceptable to God.
“Prayer Changes Things”
Among evangelical Christians there are also certain common forms of wrong prayers, and abuses of prayer. A very common one is the oft-repeated motto, “Prayer Changes Things.” While those who say “Prayer Changes Things” probably in most cases have no unorthodox idea in their minds, still this expression is objectionable and ought to be avoided. The truth is that God changes things in answer to prayer when and if it is his will to do so. To say “Prayer Changes Things” tends to give people the idea that prayer is a force, somewhat as electricity is a force. Indeed, many popular Bible teachers do not hesitate to say positively that prayer is a force. They will say that prayer is a more powerful force than dynamite, a more powerful force than atomic energy, and so forth. All of this is very wrong. While it is certainIy true that great changes have come to pass in answer to prayer, still it is not true that “Prayer Changes Things,” and it is not true that prayer is a force or a power. Prayer is communion between persons, therefore prayer is not a force. “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” (Shorter Catechism, 98) . An offering up of desires by one person to another person cannot proper!y be regarded as a “force.”
We may never forget that God is a Person. God is not a force, and prayer offered to God is not a force. Prayer offered to God by his children through Christ the Mediator is always answered, but, as pointed out by a children’s catechism, the answer is not always “Yes.” It is sometimes “Yes,” sometimes “No,” and sometimes “Wait.” Since the way in which prayer is to be answered cannot be dictated by us, but must be left to the sovereignty of God, we can see how improper it is to speak of prayer as a force, or to say “Prayer Changes Things.”
Another wrong kind of prayer is prayer that disregards God’s revealed will. We smile at the story o[ the little boy who said to his mother, “I am praying that Berlin will be the capital of France, because that is what I wrote on my examination paper at school today,” yet sometimes Christians pray with equal folly when they ask God for something which is contrary to his will revealed in his Word, the Bible. We may not ask God’s blessing on anything that is unjust, or in any way contrary to the moral law of God. A thief about to rob a bank has no right to pray for God to establish the work of his hands upon him. A Christian about to take an unnecessary automobile trip on the Sabbath Day has no right to pray for God’s blessing and protection from accidents along the way. A minister solemnizing the remarriage of an unscripturally divorced person has no right to ask God’s blessing on the union that is being constituted. A minister serving as“”chaplain” of a Masonic lodge has no right to offer prayer for God’s blessing on the lodge, for it is in its essential nature contrary to the revealed will of God, and therefore it is wrong to pray for God’s blessing on it. The only prayer that such a minister could rightly order in such circumstances would be a prayer that God would give special grace to himself and all the other members of the lodge to see the error of their way and renounce the whole system of oath-bound secrecy.
Prayer and God’s Secret Will
Yet another wrong kind of prayer is prayer that disregards God’s secret will. By God’s secret will is meant God’s decree by which, from all eternity, he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass (Shorter Catechism, 7). This will of God is called “secret” because it is unknown to men, except in part, as it has been revealed in the prophecies of the Bible. Apart from that portion that has been revealed in the prophecies, the secret will of God can be known by men only as the actual events unfold in the realm of time and space. God’s secret will, in its fulness, is known only to God himself. Some things we know are in accordance, not only with God’s revealed will, but also with his secret will. For example, that Christian believers be sanctified and finally glorified is determined by the secret will of God; such is the assured destiny of every true believer; that much has been revealed in the Scripture. But that a particular Christian is to have perfect bodily healing, that he is to have business and financial success, that his family will be protected from accidents and illness and his children grow up to maturity—such matters as these may, or may not, be in accordance with the secret will of God. A Christian has no way of knowing, in advance, whether it is God’s will that he be successful in a particular business venture, or whether the field that he has planted to wheat will or will not produce a good crop. Similarly the goals set by various church and religious organizations must be regarded as subject to the secret counselor will of God. God may, or may not, have foreordained from all eternity that a ‘denomination will gain a certain number of new members within a particular period of years. This information is not given in the Bible, therefore we have no way of obtaining it in advance. A prayer for the attainment of such goals can only be offered with the limitation “If it be thy will.” We must avoid any attempt to dictate to God. God, not man, decides what is to come to pass. We are to do our duty, ask God’s blessing on our efforts, and express willingness to subordinate our desires to his secret will.
Christians pray wrongly, too, when they have .mechanical or quantitative notion of the efficacy of prayer. A great deal has been foolishly spoken and written which tends to give the impression that quantity is the thing that counts in the matter of prayer. Some people seem to think that if they pray half an hour daily, and have received certain blessings in answer to prayer, that they would receive twice as great blessings if they would pray a whole hour daily. I knew a student in Manchuria who fell asleep in class and was unable to attend to his lessons. A fellow-student asked him what the trouble was. He replied, “I stayed up all night long last night praying.” The other student asked, “What were you praying so earnestly about?” and the reply was, “Nothing in particular; I just wanted to spend a whole night in prayer.” The fellow-student was able to give this brother some sound advice. He said, “You would glorify God more if you would pray a reasonable length of time and then get your needed rest, so that you could keep awake and attend to your Bible lessons in the day time.”
There may be times of crisis and’ spiritual stress, of course, when a Christian ought to spend hours in prayer. But prayer is only one of our du ties, and in our ordinary daily life we are not to spend hours in prayer to the neglect of other necessary duties in family, church and society.
No Substitute for Obedience
Prayer is also wrong when it becomes a substitute for obedience to God. When God commanded Abraham to take his son Isaac and offer him as a burnt offering, Abraham did not say: “This is a serious matter. I will spend two weeks in prayer for divine guidance as to what I ought to do.” If he had offered such a prayer, it would have been an abomination to God. The will of God had already been clearly revealed to him; to pray for guidance after that would have been to despise the revealed will of God.
Yet many Christians do just that. Some will pray for guidance as to whether they should leave a church 1hat witnesses faithfully to the truth of God, and join one that is compromised by modernism and unbelief. Others will pray for guidance as to whether they should marry a person who is not a professing Christian. They forget that they need no special guidance to answer such questions. God’s Word says plainly: “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers” (2 Cor. 6: 14), and we have no right to pray for “guidance” as to whether we should obey that command or violate it.
As all these wrong forms of prayer arise from disregard or neglect of the teaching of the written Word of God, we can see how important it is that Christ “teach us to pray” by his Word and Spirit. If we come humbly to him, he will teach us not only how to avoid all that is wrong in prayer, but to practice and take delight in what is right and acceptable to God.