I came to saving faith in Jesus Christ almost four years ago, in January of 2007. Since then, I've gone through many ups and downs in my walk with Christ. There have been times of great growth in understanding, sanctification, and discipleship; at other times, there has been stagnation, neglect, and drifting.
This past summer was one of the times when I was lax in praying, in reading God's word, in focusing on Christ. I spent most of my time reading and thinking about things that had nothing to do with God or any aspect of Christian faith. As a result, I drifted.
Then, in early September, my wife and I went on one of our periodic trips to South Korea, to visit her family. Oddly, God often uses overseas trips to force a spiritual crisis in my life, and this trip was no exception. While we were there in Korea, something came up from home in Canada that we had to deal with, and it forced me to reconsider my relationship to God, and His relationship to me.
Did I really have any assurance of my own salvation, and therefore trust in His gracious protection and provision to us through His New Covenant? Was I one of His children? Was He withholding His grace from me as chastisement? Did I even really believe in God, or was I fooling myself? Could I even trust the many ways I'd witnessed of how God had worked in my own life in the past? If I really trust God, why am I so often plagued by fear, worry, anxiety, or doubt? If I really love God, why do I still struggle with sin?
Before we'd left for Korea, I'd already determined to spend the time there to get back on a right footing in my Christian walk, and had sought out a church in my wife's hometown. It was an English-speaking church, primarily for the small expat community, but it turned out to be a singularly Christ-exalting church: a tiny congregation who loved Jesus, with a pastor who preached from the Bible, but showed genuine loving care for his small flock.
The first Sunday I was there, the pastor preached from 2 Chronicles 7:14, on God's words to Solomon upon the completion of the Temple:
If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.
Now, this text has great meaning for us Christians, as long as we remember something first: God's promise is one whose conditions we can never perfectly fulfill, as long as we are sinners living in a fallen world. Therefore, God provided His Son Jesus Christ, who led a sinless life and died on the Cross for our sins, in our stead; and He gives us His Holy Spirit, so that we may humble ourselves, pray, seek God's face, and turn from our wicked ways!
Anyhow, my unfolding life since that day has been a practical, daily lesson in the application of that verse, as the Holy Spirit has lain lessons on my heart. And one of the primary ways in which I am being transformed is in my understanding of prayer.
We pray to God for our requests; we take prayer for granted; we rattle off our prayers with little thought; we perservere at praying then give up; or we just abandon the practice over time, only praying to God when in difficulty. But what has been pressed upon my heart is the fact that prayer is foundational to our life as believers. It is not merely an adjunct, much less an optional extra. It is the basis of everything.
How do we repent for our sins? Through prayer. How do we turn back to God when we've been wandering and drifting? Through prayer. How do we ensure that the works we do are done out of love for Christ, and not out of a sense of duty or obligation? Through prayer. How do we bring our requests to God? Through prayer. How do we exalt and glorify God? Through prayer. How do we receive the daily blessings He provides us (food, health, family)? In prayer. How do we get help in time of need? Through prayer. How do we humble ourselves in times of abundance? Through prayer. We must anchor everything we do in prayer.
How do we even begin to comprehend the full scope of what the Bible has to say about prayer? Just the very word "pray" (or "prayer") itself occurs hundreds of times in the English Bible, and those are only occurrences of the exact word. The concepts of calling on God, asking of Him, and so on, are also expressions of prayer. Prayer is all over the Bible, and not just descriptions of it or counsel regarding it, but actual prayers, as well: much of the book of Psalms, for starters; and prayers are scattered throughout the rest of the Old Testament, as well as the New Testament. Sometimes prayers are addressed directly to God; on the other hand, Paul started each letter by addressing his recipients via an indirect prayer to God.
Perhaps the best place to start, however, is in the simple apostolic exhortations to be constant and diligent in our prayers, always praying to God for everything: Romans 12:12; Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 4:6; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; 1 Timothy 2:1, 4:4-5, 5:5; James 5:13-18; Jude 1:20. I may expand upon these verses at a later time, but suffice it to say for now that many of these exhortations to prayer are given within a larger context of instructions on working out our sanctification in our day-to-day conduct.
The biblical teaching on prayer is so vast, that it helps to turn to what our forefathers (or contemporaries) in the faith have written or taught about it, and which the Holy Spirit has used to convict me of the centrality of prayer to spiritual life, as I have begun to really wrestle with what prayer is all about.
First of all, the Anglican J.C. Ryle made the case for the importance of prayer, much better than I ever could, in his sermon "A Call to Prayer." Ryle's Baptist contemporary, C.H. Spurgeon, likewise preached on "True Prayer—True Power!" (an uncharacteristically charismatic-sounding sermon title!). I have mixed opinions about some of pastor John Piper's preaching, but his 2008 sermon "Put in the Fire for the Sake of Prayer" was very instructive, as well. The unattributed article "A Bible Study on Repentance sets out well the biblical case for one of the most fundamental forms of prayer: repentance.
Getting to more specific examples, first, writer Tim Challies posted an amazing story from the recent True Woman Conference, on the conference's ministry of male, volunteer, round-the-clock Prayer Warriors (do not skip that article!). And then there are the treasures of prayers themselves. In the mid 15th century, for the first time, prayers were being written and published in English, with the approval of the government. At a time when evangelicals were at the forefront of the English Reformation, a collection of Godly Prayers was published, beginning in the 1550s. These are profoundly deep, rich, nourishing, and biblical prayers that are timeless, and just as relevant for our Christian walk today as when they were first written.
The Godly Prayers were designed for personal use, but were published as an appendix to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the Church of England's liturgical handbook, which first came out in 1549, as the Latin mass was done away with. At the heart of the BCP is the schedule of daily morning and evening prayer services, and weekly Sunday communion services, along with special services for Christian holidays. At the heart of this service schedule are "collects": short, doctrinally rich prayers offered by the congregation to God. These collects were likely written by Thomas Cranmer, the greatest of the Church of England's evangelical reformers. One Mr. W.S. Peterson took the pains to extract them from original 1549 BCP, and arrange them in a beautiful, online e-book, which may be accessed as a PDF file: Prayers from the English Prayer Book. The pastor Tim Keller recently wrote about Cranmer's collects in the Redeemer Report.
That's all for now; but above all, we must remember one thing. Prayers are not just about the words we use, and not just about how we should pray, or when, or what for. It is much more fundamental than that. Prayers are our way of accessing the very throne room of God. They are the way in which we speak to God, our Heavenly Father, and bring our thanksgivings, supplications, repentances, intercessions, and petitions to Him. And the reason that Christians can approach Him in boldness, trusting that He will hear our prayers, is because we have been washed in the blood of Jesus Christ, shed upon the Cross for our sins. His blood has paid the price for our sins, in order that we may come near to the mercy seat of God (Hebrews 10:19-23). This is an amazing privilege, and one that we should never, ever take for granted.