I recently wrote a devotional book, Everyday Prayer with the Reformers (P&R, 2020). It features eighty-five one-page devotions based on a sentence or two from one of the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. I’ve been doing devotional books like these to introduce folks to some of the teachings of major theologians in a form where a biblical passage is given, and my one-page devotion discusses a quote from the Reformer, followed by a prayer point or reflection question. The book can be used for individual devotions or small group devotions.
The Reformers were people of prayer. They saw prayer as central to the Christian faith. Prayer is “conversation with God,” even “intimate conversation with God,” according to John Calvin. In prayer, we speak to God and listen to God. Prayer is offered in faith as we believe God hears and answers prayers. Prayer is enabled by the Holy Spirit who moves us to pray, guides us in prayer, and leads us into God’s will and way through our prayers. Prayer is the lifeline of our faith!
What do the Protestant Reformers have to teach us about prayer? They say much, each devotion focusing on an aspect of prayer, which—I hope—can be helpful in our Christian lives. The Reformers give us theological understandings of prayer, which provide foundations from which our prayers can emerge. Here are some themes from the Reformers which speak to our prayer lives today.
- Know God Wants Us to Pray. Jesus told his disciples directly: “Pray then in this way” (Matt. 6:9), followed by the Lord’s Prayer. God commands and invites us to pray. As Thomas Becon wrote: “For God neither for our worthiness nor for our unworthiness heareth us; but for his commandment and promise sake. He hath commanded us to pray; therefore we ought to pray.” God desires to be in a relationship of trust and love with us and prayer is a way that relationship is established and strengthened. What a wonderful blessing it is that we pray—because God wants us to pray! Our prayers are met by our Heavenly Father, who wants the children of God to be in this deep relationship of trust and love. Prayer is God’s gracious gift to us. So we obey God’s command and desire: we pray!
- Pray with a Focus. Sometimes we pray “free-flowing prayers” in which, in a kind of stream of consciousness, we pray to God. Other times, we want to be more focused on our prayers. The Reformers spoke of two main dimensions to our prayers: thanks and petition. Heinrich Bullinger wrote that “prayer is an humble and earnest laying forth of a faithful mind, whereby we either ask good things at God’s hands or else give him thanks for those things we have received.” This is the rhythm of our prayer lives, reflecting the rhythms of our lives themselves: We ask and thank God, or we thank and ask of God. The two are tied closely together. Our petitions to God—when they are answered; evoke our thanks to God. In the midst of thanks to God, we offer God our petitions. We keep this focus, always remembering what God has done and what God will do.
- Be Honest with God. Throughout the Bible, people pray to God and express their deepest emotions and desires. The Psalms, particularly, are full of examples of those who “let it all hang out” before the Lord. So, the Psalmist urges: “Pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us” (Ps. 62:8). Luther captured this when he wrote: “Voice your complaint freely and do not conceal anything from him. Regardless of what it is, just throw it in a pile before him, as you open your heart completely to a good friend. He wants to hear it, and he wants to give you his aid and counsel. Do not be bashful before him…Out with everything.” Biblical examples and Luther’s words ought to give us the confidence to be honest with God—radically honest. There is no masquerading or hiding before the Lord, who knows our hearts and lives (Psalm 139).
- Trust God’s Will and Answers. The Psalmist is in trouble. So, he prays: “Be pleased, O God, to deliver me. O Lord, make haste to help me!” (Ps. 70:1). This is a prayer of desperation. God must “deliver” and “help” this person. English Protestant Reformers reminded their readers that along with our earnest prayers to the Lord, there must also be “a resolution of patience and submission. With belief and assurance, we must understand that God’s time, be it sooner or later, is our best time, even though present sense and weak flesh suggest the contrary.” Even in grim and dangerous circumstances, we must continue to have patience in trusting God’s will and answers to our prayers. We have faith. We submit our will to God’s will since whether it be “sooner or later,” God’s time is the best time.
- Watch for God’s Answers. When we pray, we often have in mind a very clear sense of what God’s answer to our prayer should be; and in what way God should answer our prayer. Sometimes we may even prescribe these things to God! But we need to remember that God appoints the means by which God’s answers come to us. So, we always need to be on the watch for ways God’s answers are given. Archbishop James Ussher wrote: “For as God hath fore-appointed all necessaries to be given us; so hath he also appointed the means whereby they should be brought to pass, whereof Prayer is a chief.” God answers and carries out these answers by the means God chooses. When we pray, we don’t know the ways God will choose to answer our prayers. So, in our prayers, we “ask and knock” (Matt. 7:7), but we also keep on the lookout for God’s answers—which can come to us in ways we do not expect! How exciting!
- Persevere and Be Patient. We believe God hears and answers our prayers. But sometimes we wait and wait and wait, and it seems no answer from God emerges. This can lead us to a power failure of the spirit! The Psalmist prayed: “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, that he may hear me. In the day of my trouble I seek the Lord; in the night my hand is stretched out without wearying; my soul refuses to be comforted” (Ps. 77:1-2). The Psalmist continues to pray in the midst of the “trouble” which surrounds him. John Hooper said that by “continuance in prayer we learn two things: the one, perseverance in prayer; and the other, patient expectation and willing sufferance until God send redress and ease.” Continuing in prayer, said Hooper, teaches us that it is only God who can help us. This continuance also gives us more opportunities to repent of our sins—which may be the source of our troubles. So we practice the “Two P’s” in prayer: perseverance and patience. These are not easy for us. But they are essential. We endure in hope and trust God while we wait!
- Pray for Others. Epaphras shows up briefly in the New Testament. To the Colossians, Paul said he was “our beloved fellow servant” and “faithful minister of Christ” (Col. 1:7) who is “always wrestling in his prayers on your behalf” (4:12). Paul recognized Epaphras was a person of prayer. Would our friends say that about us? Jean Daillé commented: “Paul says first that Epaphras always strives in prayer for them ‘that you might abide perfect and complete in all the will of God.’ Prayer is the best office that we can perform to those we love.” Have we thought of prayer like this before? There are many ways to serve others in different times and places. But one way we can always serve them—whenever the time and wherever the place is: to pray for them. This is our ministry. Prayer really is the best thing we can do for those we love!
All our prayers are for God’s glory. Today, our prayer lives can be energized. They can be strengthened when we realize the power of prayer and its importance for our lives and the lives of others. Let’s commit ourselves more fully and vigorously to lives of prayer! As the Protestant martyr, Hugh Latimer proclaimed: “The greatest comfort in the world is to talk with God, and to call upon him.” Let us pray…!
Donald K. McKim is a retired minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is a former pastor, seminary Academic Dean and Professor of Theology, as well as Executive Editor for Theology and Reference for Westminster John Knox Press. He has written and edited a number of books including Everyday Prayer with John Calvin, Coffee with Calvin: Daily Devotions; and Moments with Martin Luther: 95 Daily Devotions. He and his wife LindaJo live in Germantown, Tennessee.