Some Christians can make prayer seem like bit of a puzzle. Not that they portray prayer as confusing — far from it. They make it more like a jigsaw puzzle: once you get each piece in the right place (and they only fit one way) the picture emerges automatically. In the puzzle theory of prayer you just have true faith, use the special words, and the answer you sought is guaranteed.
The problem is that approach does not really fit the nature of the God we pray to.
Actually, it sort of reverses the prayer of Christ in Gethsemane:
“Not Thy will, O Lord, but MINE be done!”
I find the teachings on prayer in classical Reformed theology much more winsome. Take for example Question 117 of the Heidelberg Catechism. Sure, there is a checklist there too of what proper prayer looks like. You can paraphrase it like this:
- Prayer has to come from the right place — you have to mean it with your heart.
- Prayer has to be directed to the right person — the God revealed in Scripture.
- Prayer has to be about the right things — God has pre-approved lots of topics in the Bible.
- Prayer has to reflect our real relation to God — we are needy and he is majestic.
You might even describe these as rules. But these are far more helpful rules than ones requiring us to muster up perfect faith without any doubt creeping in.
The Catechism does not set up our faith as the criterion. Instead it emphasizes that God is reliable. It is God’s promise in Scripture that is the “unshakable foundation” for our prayers. That is a good thing. People who act like they have perfect unshakable faith always sound like they are trying to convince themselves — or us.
We are weak and wavering.
The confidence of faith comes and goes.
The foundation stone of God’s promise is what remains steady.
And what is that promise? A number of biblical texts do sound like Jesus is saying that anything and everything we ask will be given — the Catechism’s footnotes include several — but the overall biblical emphasis is not that God is obliged to give what we ask. The Catechism also cites Daniel 9:17-18 and Psalm 143:1 and summarizes the issue this way:
“…God will surely listen to our prayer
because of Christ our Lord.
That is what God promised us in his Word.”
This is what we really need. We need to know that God listens, hears us in the situations of our lives and the needs of each moment. When we are driven to cry out to God, the best help of all is that we are truly known and truly loved.
That’s how the pieces fit together. Really I wouldn’t want it any other way.
- What do you find people think of as the “rules” of prayer?
- What are the promises of God you most depend on in prayer?