Thoughts on Prayer: Learning to Pray from Scripture (Part 1)

There is a wide variety of literature in the books of the Old and New Testament: poems, historical narrative, letters, and Jewish apocalyptic writings, to name but a few. And, amazingly, God in his grace and wisdom divinely inspired the various authors of the Bible to reveal himself and his purposes through all of them. Indeed, Scripture is our all sufficient well-spring of truth to draw from to be obedient people of faith.

And woven throughout many of the books of the Bible are passages of a particular kind that, while not a genre of literature all their own, have the power to inform and transform our relationship with God. I speak here of the many passages that feature people praying or that talk about prayer. Prayers feature in many narratives, prophetic books, epistles, and books of wisdom. Abraham prays, Samuel prays, Hannah prays, Jacob prays, Hagar prays, Job prays, Isaiah prays, Jeremiah prays, Moses prays, Miriam prays, Deborah prays, King David prays, the apostle Paul prays, Elizabeth prays, Mary prays, and, of course, Jesus prays.

And we can learn from their prayers.

We even have a whole book of the Bible that consists of prayers: The Book of Psalms. These 150 chapters of praise, confession, lament, and petition are themselves enough to keep us busy learning about prayer.

Jesus, of course, teaches his disciples to pray by giving them the words of The Lord’s Prayer. He also instructs his disciples about prayer in other ways.

So over the next few posts, I want to suggest three ways we can learn about prayer from Scripture.

The first is this: we learn about the God to whom we pray. This is no small thing. Often when our prayers are hindered by confusion or doubt or worry, it’s in part because we fail to grasp the character of the God of Scripture. If we are worried that God is angry or disappointed with us, this will affect the manner of our prayers. If we think that God doesn’t care about the everyday details of our lives, we will likely avoid praying altogether or pray without any assurance that God hears us.

To take one basic example, look at the prayer of praise and thanksgiving of Psalm 136:1:

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His faithful love endures forever.

Psalm 136:1

Here we see that God is good. His goodness is a reason for gratitude, because his goodness means, in part, that he seeks our good. He is therefore trustworthy. His will towards us is not ambivalent, much less malevolent; rather, he looks upon us with love.

And not only that, but he embodies faithful love. That is, his love is not dependent on us or our circumstances. It’s a reliable, consistent love, not the sort that’s fickle or subject to the whims of the moment.

Think about praying while knowing these things about God. Here is a God who you can trust with the deepest cries and longings of your heart. He cares for you. Such truths ought to instill our prayers with confidence. Knowing that God is good and loving ought to open us up to prayer. Think about what the apostle Peter says:

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you at the proper time, casting all your cares on him, because he cares about you.

1 Peter 5:6-7

However, if the picture of God in our heart and mind ever begins to drift away from these foundational aspects of his character–his love and goodness–what would happen to our prayers? Maybe we would find ourselves asking: “Will God listen to my prayers?” “Does he really care about me?” Who God is matters to how we pray.

But there’s more. Scripture also reveals that Christian prayer is trinitarian in nature. That is, we pray not to some vague, non-descript God, but to the God who reveals himself as Father, Son, and Spirit. We see this, for instance, in the prayers of the apostle Paul:

For this reason I kneel before the Father from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named. I pray that he may grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power in your inner being through his Spirit,  and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. I pray that you, being rooted and firmly established in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the length and width, height and depth of God’s love, and to know Christ’s love that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ephesians 3:14-19

All three Persons of the trinitarian Godhead participate in our prayers. And we can’t fully understand what it means to pray without knowing God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We pray to the Father in the name of the Son through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our God is irreducibly personal. He is intrinsically relational. He is not the impersonal Force of Star Wars.

The basic Old Testament affirmations of God’s goodness and faithful love (that we see above in Psalm 136:1) also come to full flower in passages such as the one from Ephesians. Here Paul expresses in a beautiful, profound way that we can know and experience the fullness of God’s love only through the Son; and that it is the Holy Spirit who makes that love real to us.

So when you and I pray, we pray to a personal, relational God who is actively seeking our good, who seeks to pour out and make known his love for us, and who wants his love and goodness to be the driving force of our prayers for ourselves and for others.

In other words, we don’t have to convince, persuade, or manipulate God to listen to us. He is firmly predisposed to listen. He is the listening God. He is infinitely inclined to listen; and the more this reality takes root in our hearts, the more inclined to pray we will be.

This leads us to a third way we learn about God from the prayers in the Bible. Scripture shows us the good news that God seeks to have intimate fellowship, a genuine relationship, with us.

Consider the language of Genesis 3:

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.

Genesis 3:8

Though this happened after the man and his wife had listened to the serpent, the portrait of God here is of one who seeks out human beings. He came to the man and woman even after they had disobeyed him. Not even their sin would ultimately keep God from graciously reaching out.

This is also true for us. Sometimes we think that because of stuff we’ve done, things for which we feel ashamed or embarrassed, that we’ve cut ourselves off from God. Now, in a sense that is the case. Sin breaks our fellowship with God. It becomes an obstacle to the intimacy he seeks to have with us. Yet just as God reached out to the man and woman in Genesis, he also reaches out to us. In the Scriptures we also see that through the good news of Jesus God makes possible the restoration of this fellowship.

When the time came to completion, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba, Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then God has made you an heir.

Galatians 4:4-7

Based on what Paul tells us here, God the Father sent God the Son into the world precisely in order for us to receive God the Spirit so we could have this most intimate and personal of relationships with the very One who created us and sustains us.

So, in other words, God redeems us through Christ and he does this so that we might be adopted as sons (and daughters) and enter into a profoundly personal relationship with him. The Holy Spirit prompts us to cry out to him as a child would to a loving, reliable parent.

Notice Paul says that those who receive the Spirit will cry out Abba! Father! The term Abba is an Aramaic term for Father that has a much more informal, personal tone, like “Daddy” or “Papa.” It is the word for Father that Jesus uses when he is in the Garden of Gethsemane before going to the pain and humiliation of the cross: And he said, “Abba, Father! All things are possible for you. Take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, not what I will, but what you will.”

Put another way, being adopted as sons and daughters of God the Father means sharing in the intimacy that exists between the Father and the Son through the Spirit.

Imagine trying to pray without the knowledge that God is good and loving, that he is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and that he even entered his own creation to restore the relationship he has always intended us to have with him.

Here’s the thing: we needn’t imagine such a scenario. Because our prayer can rest on the bedrock of what Scripture teaches us about him. This is the good news.

And this is why our understanding of God needs to be the foundation for our prayer.

Next time I’m going to look at how in Scripture we learn what we are to pray about.

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