God’s promises show us how to pray
Talking about prayer is usually a good way to get Christians feeling guilty. We almost all feel that we don’t pray as consistently as we should. We are often more distracted and discouraged than devoted to prayer.
There are three problems which can get in the way of prayer. First, is the simple problem of motivation. We often just don’t feel like praying. We know we should, we even want to want to pray — but we don’t.
The second problem is that it can be hard to know what to pray. Our prayers for each other are often very vague and bland and even when we pray for ourselves it can be superficial, at least till we face obvious and pressing problems.
Finally, there is a big theological question which can get in the way of praying: Why pray at all if God has everything planned and under his control?
The simple observation that in the Bible prayer is consistently tied to God’s promises offers an answer to all three of these problems.
The connection is obvious with one of the most remarkable prayers in the Bible in Daniel 9. Israel have been in exile for 70 years, and Daniel is an old man who has served in the administration of the Babylonian empire for much of that time. Through it all, he has been praying toward Jerusalem, longing to return there. He has also been reading his Scriptures. He knows that through Jeremiah the Lord has said that the exile will come to an end after 70 years (Dan. 9:2; Jer. 29:10-14).
The promise from Jeremiah is the prompt for Daniel’s great prayer; it stirs him to a deep and moving request. He acknowledges the Lord’s righteousness and the people’s sin (Dan. 9:4–7). He admits that the punishment of the exile has been deserved (Dan. 9:11-15). Then he asks the Lord to do just what He has promised. He asks for forgiveness for the people, that the Lord will turn from His anger and look with favour on the temple and city which lie in ruins. He appeals to God’s great mercy, which is the basis for the promises in Jeremiah, and cries out “O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act!” (Dan. 9:18-19).
Daniel’s prayer is remarkable and moving and bold. He is humble and dependent, yet he also asks the Lord for exactly what he wants. He almost insists that the Lord act without ever speaking as if he has a right to demand things.
His prayer is answered at two levels. First, Gabriel comes to tell him that the answer lies far off, not 70 years but “70 sevens” (Dan. 9:21-24). This looks forward to Israel’s redemption by Jesus. There is a more immediate answer as well. Within a few months of Daniel’s prayer, Darius the new king, also known as Cyrus, sent the exiles in Babylon back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. The writer of Chronicles points out that this comes from the Lord to fulfil what He said to Jeremiah (2 Chron. 36:22–23).
Everything about Daniel’s prayer – its motivation, confidence, request and answer – are based on the word of the Lord to Jeremiah. Daniel prays because he knows what the Lord has promised, and the Lord uses Daniel’s prayer to fulfil that promise.
We hear Jesus’ announcement: “I am coming soon.” Then John prays, and teaches us to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus.”
The connection between prayer and promises is repeated over and over again in the Bible. Daniel’s example is one of the most obvious and dramatic, but, once you are aware of the pattern, it is easy to see many examples.
Think about the Lord’s prayer. Each element of the prayer is echoed somewhere in Matthew, not as a request but as a promise. Jesus had already announced that the kingdom was near (Matt. 4:7) when He taught His disciples to pray that it would come. He also promises that our heavenly Father knows our needs and will provide for them (Matt. 6:32–33). He says that God forgives our sins (Matt. 6:12,14; 9:2; 12:31; 26:28) and protects His people (Matt. 16:18; 24:13, 22).
Paul too, regularly prays in a way which reflects God’s promises. He writes that believers have peace with God, hope and joy through the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:1-5) and he prays “may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in Him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 15:13). He says that he is confident that God will complete the good work which He has begun in the Philippians, and then prays that God will do just that (Phil. 1:4-11). These are just two of many examples of this pattern in Paul’s prayers.
The final words of the book of Revelation show the same truth. We hear Jesus’ announcement: “I am coming soon.” Then John prays, and teaches us to pray, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20).
God’s people ask Him to do what He has said He will do and, because they ask, He does it. John Calvin observed this connection and pointed out that prayer is the way in which God has determined that we will receive what He has promised: “it is … by the benefit of prayer that we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father”. We come to our Heavenly Father, present our requests and know that He will answer because He has already taught us what we need in His promises.
So Calvin concludes an important lesson about prayer: “To us nothing is promised from the Lord which we are not also bidden to ask of Him in prayer … we dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon” (J. Calvin Institutes III.xx.2).
Learning from God’s promises can change our prayers. It reminds us that prayer is not presenting a “shopping list” to God, hoping that He might come through on at least a few of them. Instead, I look at His promises and see prayer as primarily trusting God for His promises and asking Him to keep them. God is not a genie who grants our wishes. He is the Lord of the universe and our loving Father: so we ask for His promises.
Focusing on God’s promises challenges the priorities of our prayers. Instead of our immediate desires, we find we are asking that we will grow in grace, that God’s church will be faithful, that His kingdom will come and Jesus will return.
Praying from God’s promises helps to answer the three problems of prayer. Dwelling on the promises is a great motivation to pray. They also teach us what to pray for, and we can ask confidently. We can be bold like Daniel, asking God to do what He has said He will do. It also gives us some insight into why we pray if God is in control. God uses our prayers to fulfil His plans. Jesus will return at the time the Father has set (Mk 13:32), and He will return because the church around the world cries out “Come Lord Jesus”. When the Lord returns, the whole world will wonder at God’s faithfulness: He will have answered our prayers.
So look at the treasures promised in the gospel and dig them up by prayer.
John McClean teaches Theology at Christ College, Sydney.