Prayer and the Reformed tradition
The Reformed tradition is not a monolithic statement of doctrine. It is a variety of voices from different times and circumstances. It is more like a conversation among a great many people than a single voice — although sometimes it will seem as if it is a choir, each member of which is singing a different song.
The unity within the tradition tends to be thematic. The Book of Order posits a central theme: “Central to this tradition is the affirmation of the majesty, holiness, and providence of God who in Christ and by the power of the Spirit creates, sustains, rules, and redeems the world in the freedom of sovereign righteousness and love” (F-2.05). There is nothing terribly distinctive in this affirmation — almost all Christian denominations can and do say something similar. The fundamental point is that we begin with God.
And that is true of prayer. There is not a Reformed understanding of prayer. There are many, but they converge in several places. The first is that when considering prayer, we must begin with God. For, to paraphrase a sermon by Jonathan Edwards, God is a prayer-hearing God.
There is a caricature of the Reformed view of God that sees God as a capricious tyrant who loathes his children and is anxious to punish them. There is no doubt that the Reformed ethos stresses both the sovereignty of God and the seriousness of sin. But that is balanced by the love of God. Our prayer is not a vain attempt to appease a god who despises us. It is quite the opposite. Our prayer is a response to the One whose love embraces us.
Prayer and grace
Prayer is rooted in the love of God. In the Christian life, God’s grace, which is the expression of God’s love, always has priority. Grace is not something that occasionally enters into creation. Grace forms creation. Grace surrounds creation and is woven through it. In the theater of creation, grace confronts sin and evil with forgiveness and renewal. We live enveloped by grace. The bedrock of Reformed thinking lies in the realization that the God who created us has willed to save us.
Prayer is our response to God’s loving grace. Grace evokes gratitude. The entire Christian life is grateful thankfulness, and prayer is, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it, the most important part of thankfulness (4.116).
Prayer and Jesus Christ
In prayer, we also deal with the embodiment of God’s grace, Jesus Christ. The Reformed tradition, especially in its early anti-Roman Catholic polemics, insists that prayer can be made to no other. We can certainly pray along with Mary and the saints, but not to them.
This is the negative side of the positive affirmation that Jesus Christ is the sufficient mediator. We call God “Father” because we are members of the Body of Christ, God’s Son. This is the Christological basis of prayer. Jesus Christ is the one to whom and through whom we pray. We have access to the Father through him because he is one with the Father and one with us. Jesus is the one who has taught us to pray, and he is the one to whom we direct our prayers.
This does not mean that appending “in Jesus’ name” to a prayer is a guarantee of efficacy. “In Jesus’ name” is not a magic formula like “open sesame!” or “abracadabra!” To pray in Jesus’ name means to offer a prayer that Jesus would offer, to pray along with Jesus. To offer a prayer that is contrary to the explicit teaching of Christ and conclude it with, “in Jesus’ name,” is little short of blasphemy.
Prayer as invitation and command
We are commanded to pray, but that does not make prayer an onerous duty. The New Testament links prayer and rejoicing: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). In prayer, we make our joy explicit. We rejoice that we have a God. We rejoice that God has brought us into being. We rejoice that God does not abandon us, no matter what our circumstances. We rejoice that our many sins do not remove us from the realm of grace, that God acts to heal and renew us. Finally, we rejoice that God’s love is given to all (The Confession of 1967, 9.50). Finally, we rejoice that God welcomes our prayer and delights in it, just as parents delight in the words of their children.
The “what” of prayer
What, then, should we pray for? What is the content of our prayer?
Prayer is often classified according to its subject matter. There are prayers of adoration, prayers of confession, prayers of intercession, prayers of petition and so on. These divisions are helpful to a point, but we must realize that all prayers are prayers of petition, in the sense that all prayers are requests. In prayer, all we can do is ask. In prayer, we depend on the grace of God alone, and whatever is given by God is given from God’s benevolence and mercy.
We have seen that prayer arises out of our response to God’s grace. It cannot help but be thankful. Words of gratitude — explicit gratitude, naming our blessings — are primary in our prayers.
The first thing that must be said is that prayer is not simply a means to an end. Prayer is an end in itself. God’s grace contains an invitation into renewed fellowship. Grace restores the relationship between God and humans that was intended from the beginning. Prayer signifies our intention to live concretely in this relationship. It demonstrates that we are willing to enter into conversation with God, to make known our desires, our fears, our intentions, our shortcomings.
Consequently, we must break away from an instrumental view of prayer. Prayer is not simply a way of getting what we want. It is perfectly true that we are bidden to make our desires known to God (Philippians 4:6), but the basis of that is that we are known by God (Galatians 4:9). Making our desires known occurs in the context of ourselves being known.
Gratitude. We begin with giving thanks. We are not thankful enough. We take many of the good things in our lives, including those things upon which our lives depend, for granted. We forget that they are gifts. We must be grateful that God wills to be our God, and wills to restore our broken relationship. We must be grateful that God bids us to pray, to speak in response to the good word that has been spoken to us. We must give thanks for all that is good in our lives, because they come from God. Our existence is not a neutral thing. God has willed that we come into being, in a particular time and place — a time and place that is also the good gift of God.
Confession. Prayer demands repentance. We must acknowledge our sins and shortcomings before God, for this is a part of our healing. Confession, just as prayer itself, is rooted in the love of God.
Contrary to some widespread caricatures, the Reformed tradition is not obsessed by sin. It is, however, clear-eyed about it. We are sinful creatures, and will remain so all the time we are on this earth. Confession is rooted in the love of God. God will not allow us to remain mired in our sin because God loves us. God wants to eradicate sin, not simply punish it. The regular discipline of acknowledging our sin and asking forgiveness is only possible because of the assurance that God wills to be gracious to us. Confession is grounded in hope. Consequently, confession is itself a form of gratitude.
Intercession. Our prayer is not just petition on our own behalf. It is intercession, as we ask for God’s grace and mercy on behalf of others.
There are no limits to this intercession. Certainly we will pray for those closest to us, whose situations we know best. But because God loves all the world, we also can and must pray for all the world.
Prayers for the church must also be a part of our intercession. In our time, in which the church seems to be on the defensive everywhere it especially needs our prayers — not simply for its survival or well-being, but that it carry out its mission and not lose heart.
Petition. Petition in the narrow sense is prayer on our own behalf: those prayers in which we ask for our needs and desires — all that is signified by “our daily bread” in the Lord’s Prayer. There is nothing wrong or selfish in this, provided we are not overcome by avarice and greed. Our petitions must always be guided by the admonition of Jesus, “Strive first for the kingdom of God” (Matthew 6:33).
The “how” of prayer
How should we pray? This question leads to much confusion because there are so many varied responses. Alone or together? Silently or aloud? At certain set times during the day or just whenever we feel moved? Should call God “God?” “Father?” “Mother?” And so on.
Charles Schulz poked some gentle fun at this in a “Peanuts” comic strip when he had Linus tell Lucy, “If you hold your hands upside-down, you get the opposite of what you pray for.”
If we become obsessed with questions about technique, we risk falling into a phariseeism of prayer — an attitude that thinks God won’t hear our prayers unless we get them exactly right. This threatens to introduce works-righteousness into the last place works-righteousness should be. The historical Reformed tradition has shown little interest in such things. The Reformed understanding of prayer emphasized simplicity and straightforwardness in the life of prayer. Calvin does recommend designating certain times of the day for prayer, simply to guard against sloth — the human tendency postpone or overlook prayer.
Prayer can and should take place in solitude, according to Matthew 6. But there is also group prayer: the prayer that is a part of corporate worship. Such prayer is not a violation of Jesus’ directives in Matthew 6, for there is all the difference in the world between praying with people and praying in front of them simply to demonstrate one’s piety. Such prayers should be in the common language of the particular place, and (blessedly) should not be “excessively long and irksome,” as the Second Helvetic Confession puts it (5.220).
Beyond these guidelines, prayer in the Reformed tradition is marked by freedom. Prayer is simply asking God for what we need, confessing our sin and asking forgiveness, making sure that our desires conform to God’s will, giving thanks for all that is good in our lives, and asking God’s intercession for others.
In all this, there is little that sets the Reformed understanding of prayer apart from other Christian traditions. Rather, other traditions, no matter what their patterns and customs of prayer might be, can make similar affirmations. Differences remain on the invocation of the saints and the degree to which prayers are elaborated and accompanied by other liturgical aspects such as incense, but in our time the polemics have been muted. The fundamental understanding of prayer is now broadly shared: Prayer is the human response to the grace of God, made in obedient and joyful submission to the One who embraces us in compassion and love, to which we bring nothing but our need.
DAVID W. JOHNSON is associate professor of church history and Christian spirituality at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. He is an ordained teaching elder and author of “Trust in God: The Christian Life and the Book of Confessions.”