Let us imagine that you were gifted a piece of property. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, you were told that buried in the backyard was a vast store of treasure along with an account of much of the treasure that you should expect to find. Furthermore, a precise description of where the treasure lies and how to dig it up is given to you. Now, let us go on to imagine that each morning you wake up, glance into the backyard, and walk away, allowing the treasure to remain in the ground. 

John Calvin, in his Institutes of Christian Religion, devotes one of his longest chapters to prayer which he describes as “a perpetual exercise of faith”. We are completely without resource to bring about our salvation and yet the Spirit of God makes Christ known to us and by faith in Him, we receive every spiritual blessing. As Calvin describes it, in Christ “he offers all happiness for our misery, all abundance for our want, opening up the treasures of heaven to us.” Now, understanding our great need and our greater resource in Christ and knowing “God as the sovereign disposer of all good, inviting us to present our requests”, if we refuse to ask God in prayer, we are like the man who knows where the treasure is but leaves it buried. Prayer is the exercise of faith.

Exercise is a word that can be used both as a noun or as a verb and it seems that both are intended. First, prayer is an activity that springs from faith. Calvin writes, “faith unaccompanied with prayer to God cannot be genuine… As faith springs from the Gospel, so by faith our hearts are framed to call upon the name of God (Rom. 10:14).” Christ has opened up a way for us into the heavenly sanctuary of God. If any nervousness, because of our sinfulness, remains we know that Christ himself, who has always been Son and is now King, remains at the Father’s right hand, interceding for us always. Therefore, we can approach the throne of grace, asking of God that which He promised to us in His Word. Calvin concludes:

Accordingly, we see that nothing is set before us as an object of expectation from the Lord which we are not enjoined to ask of Him in prayer, so true it is that prayer digs up those treasures which the Gospel of our Lord discovers to the eye of faith.

Prayer is an exercise that comes from our faith in God but prayer is also that which God uses to exercise our faith. One might ask, if God is this “sovereign disposer” wouldn’t He already know what we want or need and doesn’t that render prayer pointless? Or is God asleep or weak? Does He need our prayers to startle Him awake or to empower Him to action? Perhaps God is petty, like the little kid in your grade school when the teacher finally gives him some authority, and now he gets pleasure from demanding everyone grovel to him. 

God certainly does desire proper honor to be given to Him for providing every good thing and He does get pleasure from our coming to Him in prayer. But not for those reasons.  Rather, as we receive from Him what we ask for in prayer we glorify Him more, and, as it always does, this glorifying God rebounds back as good to us. In the same way that it pleases an earthly father to see his children’s joy at receiving his gift and to respond with recognition and gratitude to the giver, it pleases our Heavenly Father as well. 

In what ways is prayer so useful to us that God has us pray despite knowing what we want? Calvin outlines at least five ways:

  1. Prayer fans the flame of our desire to seek, love, and serve God because we learn He is our resource in every need
  2. Prayer filters our heart's desires since we’d be ashamed to ask of God things we know it is inappropriate for us to want.
  3. Prayer prepares us to receive all His benefits with gratitude. Having prayed for it first, it reminds us that it came from His hand, not from us, and thus keeps us from pride.
  4. Prayer increases the joy of receiving because we recognize that what we ask for we’ve received. A few years ago, when my desk was under the basement stairs, all I had to sit on was an old, hard, rickety chair. Having mentioned it to a church member, the next day I received an office chair in the mail. My joy of having a better chair was multiplied by the joy of knowing this person cared enough for me to get me what I needed. 
  5. Prayer deepens our trust in God’s providence. He not only promises us but He is able to deliver on those promises. It’s not pointless to pray for what God has promised, in fact, that is precisely the kind of prayer He commands us to pray. (Ps. 145:18)

Persistent asking does not bother a Sovereign God, nor is it pointless. But perhaps it seems to you as though God is, in some way, withdrawn from you. Far from being a sign that God doesn’t care or desires to distance himself from his children, it is His very means of urging us to get off the couch, grab a shovel, and get into the backyard every day to dig. He may seem withdrawn, but He is not far off.

For these reasons, though our most merciful Father never slumbers nor sleeps, he very often seems to do so, that thus he may exercise us, when we might otherwise be listless and slothful, in asking, entreating, and earnestly beseeching him to our great good.