” Devote yourselves to prayer” – Col. 4:2
There are many difficult questions when it comes to prayer. How do I pray? When do I pray? If God is sovereign, what does prayer accomplish? Does prayer actually change things? These are all questions that can and should be answered, however, I want to consider what is said most often in the New Testament regarding prayer, that we should devote ourselves to it. We find this specific command in several places, as well as examples of this in many others. Jesus often prayed for extended periods of time (Luke 6:12). The early church “devoted themselves to prayer” (Acts 2:42). The apostles saw devotion to prayer as one of their primary responsibilities as leaders of the church (Acts 6:4). It was Cornelius’ continued prayers that brought Peter to his house (Acts 10:4). God responded to the earnest prayers of the church when he broke Peter’s prison chains (Acts 12:4-7). Paul prayed continually for his churches, and exhorted them to do the same (Rom 1:10; 12:12; 15:30; 1 Cor 7:5; Eph 1:16; 6:18; Phil 4:6; Col 4:2, 12; 1 Th 1:2; 1 Tim 2:1; 5:5; Philem 1:4, 22). In light of Scriptures clear command regarding prayer, we should ask three questions.
1) What is Prayer?
John Calvin summarized prayer as when “we call upon Him to manifest Himself to us in all His perfections.” This definition captures three essential aspects of prayer. First, it is creatures communicating with their creator. We call upon him. It is thus for our benefit, and not his. When we call upon our creator, we enter into intimate communion with him, recognizing our utter dependance upon his provision. When we communicate to and listen to our heavenly Father, we grow in his grace and in his knowledge, becoming more sensitive to and more aware of his constant presence and protection in our lives. Second, it is plea for God to reveal himself to us. It is a means by which we call upon our creator to rule over our lives. We recognize that all things are of him, that all good gifts come from him. We realize that he is powerful and able to enter into our circumstances, and by his sovereign power to work all things together for our good, as we love him and as we trust him. When we pray we are acknowledging God’s rule over our lives, his ability to work in our lives, and his goodness in the midst of any circumstances he allows to enter into our lives. Prayer is then a demonstration of absolute trust and dependance on our Father’s perfect provision. Finally, prayer recognizes God’s perfections. If God were not powerful, able to do what he pleases on earth, why should we pray? If God were not good, working all things together for the good of his people, why should we pray? If God were not everywhere present, able to attend to the needs of ALL of his children all at once, they why should we pray? Our prayers acknowledge our finite helplessness, and God’s infinite wisdom and provision.
2) Why Do We Pray?
First and foremost, we pray because it is commanded in Scripture, and it is the example given us by Jesus and the apostles. Jesus assumed that his followers would pray when he said, “when you pray, pray in this way…” And Paul is not short on exhortations to pray either: “pray for me”, “pray without ceasing”, “present your requests to God”, “devote yourselves to prayer”, “persevere in prayer”, etc. Second, as already discussed, prayer draws us into a more intimate relationship with our heavenly Father. We pray not to change him, but to change us. Third, prayer is effective. God his sovereign, and in his sovereign will prayer is one of the means by which he works in the world. He responds to prayer. There are so many unknowns in this world; so many doubts and fears. We pray because we know that God answers prayer, and his answer is always right and good. It gives us a greater sense of God’s purpose in all things, and we can trust his perfect wisdom as we pour our fears and needs before the feet of our God in heaven. As John Piper has said,
3) How Do We Pray?
Thankfully, this question was asked directly of Jesus, and he gave a direct answer when he said,
“¶ “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. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 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. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:5–13 ESV)
First, Jesus tells us how not to pray. We should not pray to be seen by others, nor should we pray as though our words themselves have something to do with the effectiveness of our prayers. Both of these negatives have to do with having a prideful heart. Prayer is first and foremost an act of humble submission before a holy God, thus we pray not to receive the accolades of men, but to commune with our heavenly Father. Jesus then tells us how to pray. It is not as though we should repeat this prayer every time we pray, and then our prayer life will be complete. Rather, this is an example of the proper type of prayer. We acknowledge God as our Father in heaven. He is our Father, and thus desires to give good gifts to his children (Matt. 7:11), and he is in heaven, and thus has the authority to do so (2 Chr 20:6; Psa 115:3). We are to worship our Father every time we pray. He is holy, and we should recognize it. We should also pray that his perfect will be done as he brings his kingdom into this world. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven” is not a denial that Jesus has brought God’s kingdom into the world, but it is rather a request that his kingdom would come in its fulness, so that earth and heaven would of one accord do all things to the praise of his glorious grace.. “Give us this day our daily bread” is a recognition that only God can provide our daily needs. It is also a demonstration of trust, that we don’t worry about tomorrow, but trust that God will provide for our needs one day at a time (Luke 12:27-31). We also pray for forgiveness, and that we would forgive others. We don’t deserve forgiveness, yet our father forgives us when we confess our sins. So also, we must forgive, for we have been much forgiven. Finally, we pray for victory over Satan and his temptations, recognizing that Christ has already defeated the powers of the evil one (Col. 2:15), and thus has provided victory over temptation day to day (1Cor. 10:13). Prayer comes in many different forms, but the prayer of Jesus succinctly includes every aspect of what a healthy prayer looks like: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication (ACTS).
As believers, let us not neglect this essential spiritual discipline. Jesus Christ modeled it and the scriptures command it. It is our only way to commune with a holy God, and it is a humble recognition of his sovereign goodness and of his gracious provision.