In all of the time I have been a Christian and in all of the time I have served in my ministry at the local Church I have never heard anyone say the following sentence: “I am satisfied with my prayer life.” For many in the local Church their prayer life is discouraging because they “tend to say the same old things about the same old things.”[i]
My hope is that this brief article can be a starting point for you as you seek to have your mind renewed by the Scriptures on the joy of prayer. It is important to know from the onset that I am by no means an expert on prayer. I write this as a fellow pilgrim seeking to commune with God deeper today than I did yesterday. I hope that my personal study may encourage your walk with the Lord and enrich your prayer life.
In this article I aim to do three things. I’ll let you be the judge on whether or not I am successful. I want to give you a biblical definition of prayer; I want to give you Scriptures that you can begin praying immediately; and I want to give you a puritan format for prayer from the perspective of one of my favorite puritans, Matthew Henry.
Matthew Henry was an English minister in the late 1600s and early 1700s and his writings and ministry had an impact that has far outlasted his life. He has influenced men such as George Whitefield and Charles Spurgeon, and he can teach us much on the subject of prayer. The primary purpose of prayer is to bring glory to God through communion with Him and this is our joy. Let that sink in for a moment. The primary purpose of prayer is not to request things (although we may do so according to God’s will). The primary purpose is to know God.
We may begin to know God by what Matthew Henry calls the adoration[ii] part of prayer. We need only to observe, mediate and pray three passages of Scripture to support this aspect of prayer in our lives. In the adoration part of prayer, we must “rouse” ourselves to take hold of God:
“There is no one who calls upon your name,
who rouses himself to take hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us,
and have made us melt in the hand of our iniquities.” (Isaiah 64:7 ESV)
In the adoration part of prayer, we must seek God’s face.
You have said, “Seek my face.”
My heart says to you,
“Your face, Lord, do I seek.” (Psalm 27:8 ESV)
In the adoration part of prayer, we must give God glory.
“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.” (Psalm 29:2 ESV)
The second aspect of prayer that deserves attention is that of confession. Matthew Henry states, “We must next take shame to ourselves, which is our due, and humble ourselves before him in the sense of our own sinfulness and vileness; and herein also we must give glory to him (Joshua 7:19) as our Judge, by whom we deserve to be condemned, and yet hope, through Christ, to be acquitted and absolved.”
Confession for the believer is to see one’s self as underserving of the grace of God, but thankful that in Christ there is complete forgiveness. The believer is completely forgiven for every past, present, and future transgression. Every ounce of God’s wrath has been poured out on Christ on the cross for the believer. This should deeply promote the believer’s communion with God. When confessing sin consider this passage in Ezra and consider praying it back to God:
6 saying: “O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift my face to you, my God, for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens.” (Ezra 9:6 ESV)
As a believer however, you cannot stop with just a confession of sin. Again, we must remember that in Christ we are forgiven. This passage from Romans can help to navigate our prayer toward the gospel:
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25 whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-26 ESV)
Confession to God should naturally lead the believer to the third aspect of prayer Henry teaches us about. This third part of prayer is petition. The petition is a time for the believer to ask God for the grace to repent quickly and grow in godliness for the glory of God. And this is for our good. In addition to this it is an acknowledgment of a believer’s complete dependence upon God for everything. Consider praying these three passages of Scripture as you relate them to your individual life.
“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in you.
8 Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool!” (Psalm 39:7-8 ESV)
7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8 ESV)
14 And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” (1 John 5:14-15 ESV)
The fourth aspect of prayer is that of Thanksgiving. Henry reminds us, “Our errand at the throne of grace is not only to seek the favor of God, but to ascribe to him the glory due his name, (Psalm 29:2) and that, not only by an awful adoration of his infinite perfections, but by a grateful acknowledgment of his goodness to us, which cannot indeed add anything to his glory, but he is pleased to accept of it and to reckon himself glorified by it, if it comes from a heart that is humbly sensible of its own unworthiness to receive any favor from God, that values the gifts and loves the Giver of them.”
This aspect of prayer may be the most difficult of them all. Because of our sinful nature, we tend to easily remember the negative things in our lives and we quickly forget the innumerable blessings from God. One of the practical ways I seek to remember my blessings is by documenting them. Also, I truly believe that if we would spend considerable time reflecting on the gospel graciously applied to our lives by the Holy Spirit, we would naturally spend more concentrated time in a posture of thankfulness. God freely saved us. We did nothing to deserve this. Our union with Christ exists only because the Holy Spirit has applied His [Christ] righteous actions to our lives. No matter what circumstance we find ourselves in, Christians have reason to be eternally grateful to God.
The final aspect of prayer that is profitable for our short study is the act of intercession in prayer. Henry defines this as an “address and supplication to God for others.” The Apostle Paul reaffirms this when he states, “…18 praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints…” (Ephesians 6:18 ESV)
It brings glory to God when we pray for the salvation of others (1 Timothy 2:3-4). It follows the example of our Lord to be an intercessor for others (Philippians 2) and it is a means of grace by which God makes unbelievers see (2 Corinthians 4:4). Ultimately when we pray, there is no better example in all of Scripture then when our Lord taught his disciples to pray when he stated:
5 “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 6 But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
7 “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 Pray then like this:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread,
12 and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:5-13 ESV)
We would do well to cooperate with the Holy Spirit by allowing the Scriptures to be our navigation for our prayer lives. It is there that we will find joy in this wonderful gift God has given us.
[i] A phrase used often by Professor Donald S. Whitney in his book, Praying the Bible, Crossway, 2015.
[ii] This article will utilize aspects of Matthew Henry’s book, A Method for Prayer, Christian Heritage, 2015.
Joey Tomlinson (DMin, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is a husband, father, and pastor at a local church in Newport News, Virginia. He blogs regularly on broadoakpiety.org and hosts a weekly podcast called The Broad Oak Piety Podcast with another local pastor in the community.