PRINCIPLES of PRAYER
Dr. Craig Blomberg
As Christians, we all pray, some more than others. The Bible tells us to, and in obedience, we attempt to honor God’s commands. But do we truly pray biblically? Do our prayers follow the patterns and instructions of the Bible?
Name-it-and-claim-it-if-you-have-enough-faith prayers and prayers of spiritual warfare, even prayers at prayer meetings all too often sound like “shopping lists” of requests. “God, do this … God, I want that … God, I want you to perform according to my expectations … “
Many Christians do not realize that the New Testament promotes none and directly contradicts some of these common practices. One of the standard “prooftexts” for a quiet time of prayer is Acts 17:11, in which the Bereans searched the Scriptures daily. But the Berean’s goal was to see if Paul’s teaching about Jesus could be justified from the Old Testament; the passage says nothing about prayer. This doesn’t mean a specific time of daily prayer and Bible reading isn’t good … it’s just that it is never commanded.
“Name-It-and-Claim-It” is downright unbiblical because it teaches us not to include with our prayers the crucial condition “if the Lord’s will be done,” as Jesus commanded in Matthew 6:10: “your [God’s] will be done on earth as it is in heaven”[NIV].
And prayer is notably absent from the armor God supplies for spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6:13-17, though Paul does treat that topic in the ensuing verses: “And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints” (vv. 18f, NIV).
A great many more biblical prayers involve praise, adoration and thanksgiving than intercession, though clearly all are indicated and appropriate. So what does the New Testament stress about prayer? Let’s look at a small sampling.
- The model of Jesus from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Often, preachers try to encourage consistency in prayer by berating those who turn to Christ only in difficult times. Of course, it is advisable to pray when things go well. The Gospels, however, nowhere describe Jesus as praying daily, though as a faithful Jew, he no doubt did so. Rather, the synoptic Gospel accounts highlight how Jesus turned aside at particularly strategic or dangerous times in his ministry for an extended, focused period of communion with his Father. From this model, we find that it is perfectly appropriate to come to God with particularly intense prayer at crisis times in our lives. For example, Jesus prayed at the beginning of his ministry (Mk 1:35); before calling his disciples (Lk 6:12); after feeding the five thousand (Mt 14:23); and in Gethsemane (Mk 14:32-42).
- The model of Jesus from the Gospel of John. The lengthiest prayer recorded in the Gospels is Jesus’ own high priestly prayer found in John 17. In it, Jesus prays for himself (vv. 1-5), his disciples (vv. 6-19), and for us who would come to faith later (vv. 20-23). But throughout his prayer runs the theme that his followers might model the same oneness, the same unity which he himself has with the Father. Surely it must be appalling to him now, the way his church has split into hundreds of denominations, each often competing for the same people and money. From this, we can learn that it is particularly crucial to pray and work for the unity of all God’s people. Evangelical Christians are summoned to work hard to cooperate with one other in accomplishing the unifying mission of the church worldwide (c. Mt 28:18-20).
- The disciple’s model in Acts. Through prayer, God brings revival and growth to his church. This principle is hardly surprising; we’ve all heard it over and over. But who would guess it from the priorities of our personal and corporate Christian lives? Prayer preceded and helped bring about Pentecost (Acts 1:14); formed a regular part of early Christian worship (2:42); and led to the filling of the Holy Spirit and bold witnessing (4:31). Prayer was also chosen by Paul and Barnabas as early church missionaries (13:1-3). Church historians testify to the consistent link between regular gatherings of believers for prayer and the outbreak of revival. A recent example literally brought down the Berlin Wall. So why are we in the West so anemic in our prayer lives? And why do so few churches have regular prayer meetings? And why do the churches which do have prayer meetings usually turn them into another time for preaching?
- The model set forth in Paul’s letters. Biblically, praying for people’s spiritual needs takes priority to praying for physical or material needs. Today, however, many churches recite a lengthy litany each week of physical ailments of their members. Although it is natural and permissible to pray for our sicknesses, should we not include at least two prayers for spiritual health for every one related to physical or financial problems? Paul customarily begins his letters with such prayers and peppers them with plentiful praise. He thanks God for the spiritual gifts given to believers (1 Cor 1:4-9); for comfort received during suffering, which can then comfort others who share in that suffering (2 Cor 1:3-7); and for all the spiritual blessings accompanying salvation (Eph 1:3-10). He prays that our love might increase in knowledge and fruit (Phil 1:9-11; cf. Eph 3:16-19); that we might live lives which are truly worthy of Christ (Col 1;9-10); and, notably, that the fellowship which faith produces may result in good works: he prays “That the communication of thy faith may become effectual by the acknowledging of every good thing which is in you in Christ Jesus” (Philemon 6 [KJV]). Perhaps if we prayed more for the spiritual health of our leaders and ourselves, fewer of us would fall into serious sin.
- The model set forth in Hebrews. God does indeed guarantee us “health and wealth” … but only in the life to come. The most convincing evidence against the notion that God will give Christians anything they ask for, if they just ask with enough faith, is Jesus’ own prayer in the garden (Mk 14:32-42). As fully human, Jesus did not want to endure death, yet he left things up to God’s will. We know how they turned out. Hebrews carries the story one stage further, referring to the cross: Jesus “offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb 5:7 NIV). But Jesus was not spared the cross. We, too, may often be called to carry our own crosses, but we can take heart from Paul’s remarkable perspective that “our light and momentary trouble are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all” (2 Cor 4:17 NIV).
- The model set forth in James. James teaches, “You do not have because you do not ask God” (4:2 NIV). Even though God is sovereign, he has determined to give us some good things only if we ask for them. Fortunately for us, this is not true in many instances, or we’d all be in sad shape. As James points out, sometimes when we ask, we still don’t receive because we ask with wrong motives (v. 3). At other times, it may not be the Lord’s will (v. 15). Surely, James expects his readers to remember and apply chapter 4 when they get to chapter 5 with its teaching about prayer for healing (5:14-16). Still other times, it is not the Lord’s will for our “fleshly thorns” to be removed, as classically described in Christ’s response to Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10: “To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness'” [NIV]. At the same time, we may lose out on many blessings if we do not ask enough. In 4:2, James echoes Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount about disciples asking and receiving because God delights in giving good gifts to his children (Mt 7:7-11).
- The model from Revelation. As we anticipate the life to come, a major portion of praise and adoration in our prayers always uplifts us. Christian gatherings where people, before sharing prayer requests, praise God for something good he has done for them, set a good example for all of us. Praise for God’s holiness, power, and mighty works fill the book of Revelation (e.g., chps. 4-5; 7:9-12; 1:15-18; 12:10-12) Some Christians have an unhealthy fascination trying to determine if we are living in the last generation. Each year brings a new book to the market predicting a new date for the end. We would be far better off if we studied and imitated the praise hymns of Revelation at least as much as, if not more than, the more difficult-to-understand parts of its prophecy.
So what does all this add up to? No one simple formula, that’s for sure. The diversity of the New Testament’s teaching on prayer makes it difficult to capture the “big idea,” unless that “big idea” states that God remains in charge, ever surprising us with what he may do when his people pray.
Consider these questions for yourself. How is my prayer life? Do I pray for revival and unity among God’s people as well as praying for my own crisis? Does praise of God fill my prayers? Do I give it the attention it deserves?
– Adapted from “Surprising Prayer Principles” by Dr. Craig Blomberg in Denver Seminary’s Focal Point, Winter 1993. Dr. Blomberg was a professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. Reprinted by permission.