There it is in the church bulletin. The elders have announced that somewhere in the middle of the week they are calling the congregation to gather for Prayer Day. Some churches observe this day in March, others in May. Somehow it always takes us by surprise.
During the service, the congregation sings several songs, and the minister has a nice sermon on the necessity of prayer. Sometimes the worship service even includes a prayer or two for the nation, crops and industry, the church, and the family. While the elders call us to gather for prayer, we should note that such prayers are a great privilege, but they also have some pitfalls.
It is a great understatement to say that it is a marvelous privilege to come before the Sovereign Creator in prayer. Our God is not a God who left this creation and its inhabitants to fend for themselves. He is very active in his creation and calls on his people to come to him in prayer. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt. 7:7).
As troubled creatures, we consider it a joy to be invited to come into God’s presence with all of our needs, real or imaginary. The heart is strengthened as we come into his presence individually and corporately. We gather each spring in confidence that the requests we present before the Lord do not fall on deaf ears but upon a gracious God who loves his people.
He promises that he will provide for us. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it so beautifully in Lord’s Day 9 when it says, “I trust him so much that I do not doubt he will provide whatever I need for body and soul, and he will turn to my good whatever adversity he sends me in this sad world.” And then it adds, “He is able to do this because he is almighty God; he desires to do this because he is a faithful Father.”
As feeble children we are invited to knock on the doors of the bountiful storehouse of the almighty Father in the assurance that he is able and willing to do more for us than we can even begin to think or ask. In his Word, God encourages us to cast all our cares on him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7). In times of plenty and in times of want we are able to approach his throne of grace in the assurance that he will provide all that is beneficial to our spiritual well-being. What a privilege! Given to us is the key to true security, even in times of economic failure.
As we travel through our pilgrimage in this world, we may be confident that God is able to dispel our fears and lead us safely to the glory that awaits us. In his grace he makes our faith strong; through His Spirit he guides us along the path that leads to him.
There is no better way to sum up the privilege that is ours than to use the words of Paul: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:4).
Obviously, our prayers come in conjunction with our labors. Valuable and necessary though they may be, long hours of toil, a bank account, insurance policies, and the like provide only a tenuous hold on the future. They will quickly fade away should the Lord remove his blessing from them. The only true antidote to worry is to make our petitions and requests known to God.
In Psalm 37:5–6 David wrote,
Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, the justice of your cause like the noonday sun.
Without blessing from God, all our sowing and reaping will offer little satisfaction as we struggle to survive in this dog-eat-dog world.
As those who exercise the privilege of coming to God through Christ with a childlike trust, we can have confidence despite the economy. Our confidence must be based upon the promises of God rather than our efforts and the fickle predictions of man.
Those who gather for a time for prayer enjoy many benefits, but there are hazards as well.
First, there is a very real danger that we become more concerned about our prosperity than our piety in our prayers.
When times are good, we certainly want to keep the momentum going. We often forget that North America is an incredibly rich continent and that there are many who are less fortunate than we are. We need not fret about where our next meal will come from. We have comfortable homes in which we live. Indeed, we are blessed. Often, we credit ourselves for our prosperity. After all, we have worked hard for everything we have. Because we work hard, we often forget that it is God who must give the increase.
Let us not, in our prayers, cease to give thanks to the One who so richly blesses us with the ability to work—and also for the fruit of our labor.
Second, there is a very real danger in our praying that we are more interested in using God to attain our goals rather than seeking to serve him.
Years ago the farming community I lived in was going through a severe drought. The crops were dying in the field. The churches in the area decided to have a special service where we would pray for rain. The church was packed. In earnest prayer we lifted up our voices to the Giver of every good and perfect gift. Before the service was over we could hear the rumbling of thunder in the distance.
Although other pastors did not feel the need to cooperate, one church held a service of gratitude the next week. It was poorly attended.
Petitions that have self-interest as their basic motivation are always an abomination to God. He is an all-consuming fire with jealousy for his own honor. Certainly, we are to come before God to pray for crops and industry. We must be careful, however, that we do not pray in order to get something, but to give something. We pray not first for our own sake, but for God’s sake.
Third, there is a danger that our prayers are aiming for ownership rather than stewardship.
The question is often asked what we may pray for. Is it just for bread and the bare necessities? Perhaps we could include a few added comforts for more gracious living. The answer is not a simple yes or no. It depends on what motivation lies behind the prayer. We may and should pray for anything and everything we truly believe is for our spiritual benefit, for the glory of God, for the coming of his kingdom, and for the best interest of his church.
Christian stewardship, in distinction from ownership, is a recognition that everything we ask for and receive from God really does not belong to us. It belongs to God, who has entrusted certain material possessions into our care. They have been placed into our care so that we may use them for his service.
Aware of this truth in our giving and our asking and receiving, we must reckon with the fact that all we have must be used for God’s glory. Treasures laid up in heaven are the only ones that really count. Prayers that arise out of a deep sense of stewardship are the prayers that are pleasing to God.
As the elders call us to come together for prayer, let us make certain that our motives are right—that we come in thankfulness to our God for his gracious provisions given to us.
Rev. Wybren Oord is the co-pastor of Trinity United Reformed Church in Lethbridge, AB, and the editor of The Outlook.