A few years ago, I was having a conversation with a friend about prayer. He confessed that his prayers had been few and far between. Thinking I might be able to offer him some encouragement, I asked him what he believed to be the reason for his lazy prayer life. His response was unexpected and profound. He said there was something deep down that recognized his unworthiness and feared to come into the presence of a holy God.  Some will immediately resonate with this reality and yet we know that God commands us to pray. We know the Bible says that prayers are eminently useful to us (see my previous blog HERE) but we feel as if we cannot bridge the gap. 

There is, however, another common response in modern Christianity that would seek to comfort my friend by claiming he is being too grave or harsh on himself. That would tell him to look to the gentle and lowly Jesus rather than the heavy-handed Father of the Old Testament. “Jesus, is our homeboy, our boyfriend, our buddy… just talk to him like a friend.” But this mindsight is actually a step farther away, and thus far WORSE, than my friend’s. It ignores that when the disciples asked Jesus to tell them how to pray, Jesus instructed them to start with, “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name…” It either ignores that it was Jesus who told the parable of the Pharisees and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) or makes the parable into a man-centered illustration about how to relate to one another rather than about how we are to approach a holy and just God.

There is something of truth in both these responses. The Father does love His children and He is the King of kings. One does not nonchalantly waltz into the presence of a king yet we are invited, even commanded, into His presence. These are not conflicting or contradictory. 

But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. (Ps 5:7) 

It is our assurance of His love that gives us the confidence to come into the presence of a holy God and it is our godly fear that improves our understanding of His love and increases our affections for Him. Though we can have confidence to come before Him to pray, we ought to seek to do so with proper respect and decorum. John Calvin, in his Institutes of Christian Religion, gives four rules for prayer which I will humbly and lightly adapt.

Focus our hearts and minds

Calvin tells us that we should “have our heart and mind framed as becomes those who are entering into conversation with God”. We can do this in two ways. 

First, the attention of our hearts and minds is focused. We should not be distracted or wandering in our thoughts. These distractions typically revolve around those things that are concerning us. But that does not mean that we disengage ourselves as if we have no anxieties or concerns because those are the very things that push us to seek God more. Instead, we should eliminate any vain or petty complaints. Anyone who has worked in the service industry knows the nature of distinguishing between a customer’s petty complaints and genuine concerns. The genuine concerns that remain should then be thrust toward God by petition rather than merely bouncing around. When I begin to imagine what I might do or say in the situation that concerns me (this being distinguished from meditating on how to apply God’s Word to a situation) then I know that I’m seeking my own answers to the problem rather than seeking the One who is the answer

Second, the requests of our hearts and minds are focused. Not only should we eliminate petty complaints or problems, but we should also eliminate unbiblical requests. 

Ask only in so far as God permits. For though he bids us pour out our hearts (Ps. 62:8) he does not indiscriminately give loose reins to foolish and depraved affections; and when he promises that he will grant believers their wish, his indulgence does not proceed so far as to submit to their caprice. (Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.5)

In order to focus our hearts and minds in this proper position, it may benefit us to position our physical bodies in ways that promote focus: lifting hands, kneeling, or praying out loud.

Arouse our hearts and minds

Calvin encourages that “in asking we must always truly feel our wants, and seriously considering that we need all the things which we ask” He illustrates this rule by offering confession as an example. What would we think of the person who asks for forgiveness while either not considering himself to be a sinner or, at the least, not considering his sins? We would think that his confession is fake and hypocritical. One which God would certainly not accept. Yet this is often how we pray as if we are not actually in need of His provision or at least not considering our great need in our particular circumstance. 

Would anyone come before a King to make a request in an indiscriminate, mechanical, and inattentive manner? Would anyone come before a loved one meandering and making requests that they may or may not actually desire? When my kids make a Christmas list, they consider what they put on it. First, because they know it's in our power to make it happen. Second, because they know that it is our desire to give them good gifts. How sad it would be if when asked what they wanted for Christmas, they lazily tossed out random things that came to their mind, and then they actually received them. Why did Grandpa get me this? It is what you asked for. We are encouraged to consider our needs, that which is truly our “daily bread”, and conform the way we pray accordingly (James 5:13).

Humble our hearts and minds

As was mentioned earlier, Jesus made it clear that those who pridefully think they are worthy to come into the presence of God in prayer will be humbled. Calvin implores us to “lay aside all idea of worth…discard all self-confidence, humbly giving God the whole glory, lest…vain pride cause [God] to turn away his face”

Everywhere God’s people are commanded to enter into prayer with repentance (Ps. 25:7, 18; 51:5; James 4:3). Repentance, then, is both a critical preparation for and entrance into prayer. Our hearts ought to be humble and genuinely repentant and we ought to express that repentance through confession of sin and request of pardon. Otherwise, we run the risk of being like a patient who asks the doctor to ease his symptoms without regard for curing the root of the disease. 

For the holiest of men cannot hope to obtain anything from God until he has been freely reconciled to him. God cannot be propitious to any but those whom he pardons. Hence it is not strange that this is the key by which believers open the door of prayer. (Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.9)

Indeed, Jesus told his disciples to forgive as they have been forgiven and to ask to be delivered from the evil one, which is fundamentally a request to deal with the disease and guard against further infection. We know that if we confess our sins he will forgive and cleanse us (1 John 1:9).

Embolden our hearts and minds 

Calvin continues that, although we humble ourselves, “we should be animated to pray with the sure hope of succeeding.” That, for Christians, repentance and faith always go hand in hand.  We ought to have great confidence and hope that our prayers are heard and will be answered because it is only through God’s abundance of steadfast love that we can even enter into His house with prayer (Ps 5:7). 

This boldness is not because we’ve made our requests simple or easy. Calvin adds, “it is not easy to say how much God is irritated by our distrust, when we ask what we expect not of his goodness.” By this he means that we don’t come to God asking for what we already expect but because we expect that God, in his goodness, will act. My kids may come to me asking if we can have pizza for dinner but they never seriously ask to have dinner period. They always get dinner. Therefore, we do not trust in the natural order of things but we trust in the One who orders nature.

This boldness does not contradict the respect and humility we have already noted because it is God himself who has promised to act for His people. 

“call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”  (Ps 50:15)

“The LORD is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him;  he also hears their cry and saves them. (Ps 145:18–19)

“For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is to us, whenever we call upon him?” (Dt 4:7)

“But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy when I cried to you for help. (Ps 31:22)

“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Mt 7:7–8

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. (Jas 1:5)

There is almost no end to such verses. 

It is strange that these delightful promises affect us coldly, or scarcely at all, so that the generality of men prefer to wander up and down, forsaking the fountain of living waters, and hewing out to themselves broken cisterns, rather than embrace the divine liberality voluntarily offered to them. (Calvin, Institutes, 3.20.14) 

I suspect that we don’t fully grasp that Christ himself intercedes for us, guaranteeing that our humble prayers, by faith in Him, will be heard in the throne room of God. As Spurgeon said, “I have a great need for Christ; I have a great Christ for my need.”

Forms in faith or faith in forms?

Is it then that Calvin unlocked the secret formula to prayer? The formalist is quick to make laws into cheat codes guaranteeing, even obligating, the actions of God. Let’s first remember that even Satan, when He came before God, gave respect and decorum (Job 1-2), and God even granted his request! Should this not encourage His children to pray?

Second, we quickly realize that we cannot follow these rules perfectly. This is and displays the mercy of God since God does not “reject the prayers in which he does not find perfect faith or repentance, accompanied with fervent zeal and wishes duly framed.” We cannot follow these laws perfectly or consistently but our faith is NOT in our ability to follow the rules but in a merciful, sovereign, and good God. God desires contrite hearts that seek to obey, not more formalistic sacrifices. On the other hand, to conclude that it, therefore, doesn’t matter how we enter His throne room, reveals a heart that is not trusting God and His instructions. 

So let us not pardon our failings as if they don’t matter nor pursue these rules as if they are the thing that ultimately matters. Let us flee Satan and sin and trust that a good God has given us the BEST instructions for pursuing Him. This is the obedience of faith.