We shall consider the subject under three aspects : first, the problem of prayer; then prayer regarded as a gift of God; and, finally, prayer as an activity of man.
1. The Problem of Prayer
What place does prayer occupy in these catechisms? If you look through them you will notice that Luther deals first with the Commandments and then with the Creed, that is, the exposition of the faith. Calvin, however, begins with the Creed and the Commandments come afterwards. Thus he speaks of faith and then of obedience.
We Christians, therefore, regarded as believers and as obedient servants, are faced with a new problem, that of prayer. But is it really a new problem additional to faith and obedience? So it would seem. According to Calvin, prayer has to do with our life and our relation to the demands of this world. The question is, can I, as a Christian, really live according to the word of the Gospel and the Law, according to my faith and in obedience? Can I live thus amid the necessities of my existence? It is indeed possible to live in the holiness of obedience to the Gospel, as we are bidden to live and as we ought to live; but to do this we must listen to what we are told about prayer, we must ask God himself to come to our help, to teach us, to give us the power to walk in this path. This must be our quest, if we are to live, and the quest is prayer.
In Luther's catechism the situation of man at grips with faith and obedience is more closely examined. What is to be said, what can be done, in face of the fact that no one perfectly obeys the Law, while the Law demands perfect obedience, and whoever does not fulfil it perfectly does not fulfil it at all? However, we are believers, that is to say we have the beginnings of faith. Faith, in fact, is not something a man can possess as his own property. God says 'Put your trust in me, believe in me.' And I go forward and believe; but even as I go forward I say : 'Help thou my unbelief.' Life is before us with its difficulties and its demands, and the Law is there also, requiring obedience in spite of our weakness and the obstacles which rise up before us. I go forward with only the meagre beginnings of faith; and I am commanded to advance, to become perfectly obedient, to pursue the path of faith on which I have taken but the first step.
On the one hand is our interior life, the life of weak and wilful men; on the other, our exterior life in this world with all its problems and difficulties. In addition there is the Divine judgement which challenges us each moment saying : 'That is not enough.' And I may come to the point of asking myself : Are you, in truth, a Christian? In face of your meagre faith, your inadequate obedience, what do you mean when you say, 'I believe, I obey'? The gulf is immeasurably wide : we are challenged on all sides even when we believe and obey as well as we can. In such a situation (which is common to all Christians) prayer means turning to God, asking him to give us what we lackpower, strength, courage, serenity, prudence; to enable us to obey the Law and to keep his Commandments. And then, that he will grant us to go on believing and still believing and that he will renew our faith.
Such a request can be addressed only to God. As Calvin has said, this is a question of the honour we owe to his divinity, the honour due to him who has revealed himself to us by his Word. For it is the Word of God which upholds us in this situation in which prayer becomes a necessity.
Prayer means turning to him who has already spoken to us in the Gospel and the Law. It is he who confronts us when we are troubled by the imperfection of our obedience and the failure of our faith; he is the cause of our grief, and he alone can assuage it. We pray in order to ask him to do so.
Calvin points out that we are not alone in this difficult situation; we have Christian brothers and sisters from whom we may receive guidance and encouragement. But what men can do to relieve the wretchedness of our condition is simply to minister and dispense to us the good gifts of God : God himself does them the honour of using them to communicate his benefits to us and thereby puts us in their debt. Prayer therefore can in no way separate us from other men; rather, it unites us for it is something which concerns us all.
Before praying then, I first seek the company of other men. I know that you all experience the same difficulties as I do. Let us therefore take counsel together and give each other what we can. Nevertheless we cannot put our trust in our fellow creatures. There may be men able to speak to us of what we need or give us some indications of it, but the gift itself can only come from God. We cannot pray to men, not even to the saints.
In the sixteenth century it was necessary to assert that neither the saints of the Church nor the dead have power to help us. Perhaps, however, such a categorical statement might be questioned. I am not so sure that the saints of the Church cannot help us, for example, the Reformers and the saints who are alive on earth today. We live in communion with the Church of the past and receive support from it. But one thing is certain : neither living men nor those who are dead can be for us what God himself is to us : a present help in the great distress which is ours when faced by the Gospel and the Law. The same thing is true f the angels, who can help us but may not be invoked.
Thus, for the Reformers, everything led back to this question : How am I to meet God? I have heard his word, I wish to listen to it in all sincerity, and here I am in my utter nothingness! The Reformers were not unaware that there are other difficulties besides this, but they knew that all are implied in this reality : I stand before God with my desires, my thoughts, my wretchedness; I must live with him, because to live means nothing else but to live with God. I am caught between the demands of life, both small and great, and the necessity of prayer. The Reformers tell us that the first thing is to pray.
2. A Gift of God
Prayer is a grace, a gift from God.
Like the Reformers, we shall not begin with an account of what a man does when he prays. Clearly he does something, he acts; but to understand that action we must begin at the end, that is to say, consider in the first place the answering of prayer. This may seem surprising for, logically, we should first ask what prayer is, and only afterwards, whether we are heard when we pray. But for the Reformers the vital' point, the foundation of everything, is the certainty that God answers prayer. This is the first thing we must realize. Calvin says expressly that we obtain what we ask for. Prayer is grounded in that assurance.
Let us approach the subject by starting from the fact that God does answer; he is not deaf, he listens and, moreover, he acts. He does not act in the same way whether we pray or not. Prayer has an influence on the action, on the very existence, of God. That is the meaning of the word `answering'.
In question 129 of the Heidelberg Catechism, it is stated that the answer to our prayers is more certain than our awareness of the things we ask for. It would seem that nothing can be more certain than our consciousness of what we are asking, but, according to this catechism, God's response is much more certain. We also must have this inward assurance. We may, perhaps, have doubts about the sincerity of our prayer and the worth of what we pray for; but the answer which God gives us is beyond all doubt. Our prayers may be feeble and inadequate, but what matters is not the strength of our prayers but the fact that God hears them; that is why we pray.
How does God answer us? Here we should recall the article on Jesus Christ in Calvin's catechism. There is no better way of understanding God's response than by keeping in mind this thought : Jesus Christ is our brother and we belong to him; he is the head of the body of which we are the members and, at the same time, he is the Son of God and himself God. He has been given to us as our mediator and our advocate before God. We are not separated from God and, more important, God is not separated from us. We may be godless, but God is not without men. This we must recognize and this is what matters. Confronting the godless is God who is never without men because in God man - all men and we ourselves - are present. God knows man, looks on him and judges him, but sees and judges him always in the person of Jesus Christ, his own Son, who was obedient and in whom he is wellpleased. Through him humanity exists in God. God looks on Christ and looks on us in him; we have one who represents us before God.
Calvin goes so far as to say that we pray through his mouth. Jesus Christ speaks by virtue of what he has been and what he has suffered in obedience and faithfulness to his Father; and we pray as it were through his mouth inasmuch as he enables us to draw near and be heard, and he intercedes for us. Thus, in truth, our prayer is already made even before we formulate it. When we pray we can only go back to that prayer which was uttered in the person of Jesus Christ and is constantly repeated because God is not without man.
God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and that man, Jesus Christ, prayed and is praying still. Such is the ground of our prayer in Christ. This means that God has made himself surety for our requests, that he has himself willed to answer our prayers, because all our prayers are summed up in Jesus Christ; God cannot fail to answer because it is Christ who prays.
The fact that God yields to man's petitions, changing his intentions in response to man's prayer, is not a sign of weakness. He himself, in the glory of his majesty and power, has so willed it. He, who was man in Jesus Christ, by his own will is God and that is his glory and his almighty power. Therefore he suffers no diminishment in yielding to our prayer, but, on the contrary, by so doing he displays his greatness.
If God himself wills to enter into fellowship with man, to be as close to him as a father is to his child, this is no weakening of his power; God cannot be greater than he is in Jesus Christ. If God answers our prayers it is not simply because he hears us, or (as the efficacy of prayer is sometimes explained) in order to increase our faith, but because he is God-Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; God, whose Word was made flesh.
Let us now return to Luther, who calls us, or rather, orders us to pray. To abstain from prayer would be not to recognize that we stand before God, and hence to have a false idea of what God is. Such an attitude would render us incapable of grasping the fact that in Jesus Christ God meets us. When we become aware of this mystery, then we must pray; Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is there, and we who belong to him, who cannot do otherwise than follow him and speak through his lips, are with him. We have found the right road and now we have to walk on it. On this path the Gospel and the Law, the promise and the Commandments of God, are one and the same. God opens this road to us and bids us pray. Thus it is not possible for us to say, I will pray, or I will not pray, as if it were a question of pleasing ourselves; to be a Christian and to pray mean the same thing, and not a thing which can be left to our own wayward impulses. It is, rather, a necessity, as breathing is necessary to life.
The Heidelberg Catechism makes it even more plain. It points out that prayer is quite simply the primary act of recognition towards God. The word 'recognition' is more precise than 'gratitude' because it means acting in accordance with what we recognize or know : everyone who knows God must express his recognition to him. He recognizes what God is and what he has done for man in Jesus Christ; he assumes the position which is ours in Christ, and in that position man must pray.
Luther even adds that God would be angry if we did not pray, for that would mean that we despised his gift to us. Since he himself bids us pray, how can we neglect to do so? Thus the Reformers remind us that we do not pray just when it suits us, but that prayer, in the life of a Christian, is an essential and necessary action in its own right.
Furthermore, God, because he is our God, of his grace causes us to pray; where the grace of God is, there men pray. God works in us, for we know not how to pray as we ought; it is the spirit of God that moves us and makes us capable of praying aright. We have no skill to judge whether we are worthy or able to pray or whether we have zeal enough to do so. Grace is itself the answer to such questions; when we are comforted by the grace of God, we begin to pray, with or without words.
God also shows us the way to set about praying. Prayer is not an arbitrary action nor yet something undertaken blindly. When we pray we cannot adventure according to our fancy in this or that direction, asking whatever we please, for God commands man to follow him and take the place which he has assigned to him. This is regulated by God, not by our initiative.
How ought we to pray? It is not by chance that Jesus has given in the 'Our Father' a formula to teach men how to pray aright. God himself shows us how we should pray, for we have so many things to ask! And we think that what we want is always so important! Besides it is necessary that we should believe this. But so that our action may become a real prayer, we must accept the offer that God makes us. We cannot pray by ourselves, and if we suffer disappointments in prayer, we must accept them as God's means of showing us the way of true prayer. So he sets us, with our needs and our problems, on a path by which we may bring everything to him; but we must commit ourselves to that path. We need that discipline, and if it is absent, we must not be surprised to find ourselves crying out in a void instead of offering a prayer that is already answered.
The Reformers bid us rejoice that we possess in the 'Our Father' this pattern, by the use of which we may serve our apprenticeship in true prayer. Calvin rightly declares that, in the matter of prayer, we cannot act as aliens but, being citizens of the city of God, we must accept its constitution, its law, and its rules. Only on these conditions will there be a response answering to the problems of our life.
Because he is our God in Jesus Christ, God himself prompts us to assume before him an attitude that seems, at first sight, to be rash and daring; he requires us to meet him with a certain boldness. 'Thou hast made promises to us, thou hast commanded us to pray; and now I come, not with pious thoughts or because I like to pray (perhaps I do not like praying) and I say to thee what thou hast told me to say : help me in my necessity. Thou must do so, I am here.' Luther is right : the position of a man who prays demands not only utter humility but also a bold and manly attitude. There is a good kind of humility, which consists in freely accepting that place, in relation to God, which is ours in Jesus. If we are certain of what we are doing, and if we do not approach God on the strength of our own good intentions, then freedom is ours as a matter of course.
Thus God's good will towards us, that is, his mercy in Jesus, is a decisive factor in the matter which now concerns us. In question 117 of the Heidelberg Catechism it is stated that our firm foundation is the fact that God can hear our prayers, in spite of our unworthiness, owing to our Lord Jesus Christ.
3. Prayer as Man's Action
It follows from what has been said that prayer is quite simply the action by which we accept and make use of the Divine offer; an action in which we obey that commandment of the kingly grace which is the will of God. To be obedient to grace and to be thankful means that prayer is also an action on the part of man who knows himself to be a sinner and calls upon the grace of God. Man is confronted by the Gospel and the Law and by the feebleness of his own faith, even if he is not aware of it. We experience a certain sorrow and, at the same time, a certain joy; but we have not yet understood that we are sinners and that we do not achieve perfect obedience; we do not yet know that we are under a veil which must be removed. When we pray our human condition is laid bare to us and we are made aware of both our distress and our hope. It is God who places us in this situation, but at the same time he comes to our help. Prayer is therefore man's response when he understands his distress and knows that help is at hand.
We are not permitted to regard prayer as a good work to be performed, or a pious and pleasant duty. Prayer cannot be for us a means of achieving something, or making a gift to God and ourselves; we are in the position of a man who can only receive, who must now speak to God because there is no other to whom he can appeal. Luther said : We must all be destitute, for we are faced by a great emptiness and have everything to receive and learn from God.
Man's activity in prayer cannot be mere babbling, a stringing together of words or mutterings. The Reformers were emphatic on that point also. In the Roman Church there were many examples of the kind of prayer they were fighting against. This matter is equally plain and equally important for us today even if we are not Romans; prayer must be an act in which the feelings are engaged; it is not mere lip service, for God demands the allegiance of our hearts. If prayer is simply a formality, performed more or less correctly, if the heart has no part in it, it is nothing. Prayers made only with the lips are not merely superfluous, they are displeasing to God; not merely useless, but an offence against God. In this connexion, it is important to note, as Calvin points out, that prayer uttered in a language that neither the one who prays nor the congregation at prayer can understand, is a mockery of God, a perverse hypocrisy, for the heart cannot be in it. We must think and speak in a tongue that can be understood and that has a meaning for us.
Let us not pray just as we please, because then our unruly desires will have their way. Let us pray according to the rule given to us by one who knows our needs better than we ourselves do. He has directed us first to submit ourselves to him so that we may offer him our petitions. If we are to obey his order, we must, when praying, dismiss all such questions as : Does God hear us? On this point Calvin states categorically 'Such prayer is not prayer.' There is no possible excuse for doubting, for it goes without saying that we shall be heard. Even before praying we must assume that we have been heard.
We are not free to pray or not to pray, nor to pray only when we feel so inclined, for prayer is not an activity which is natural to us. Prayer is a grace, and we can expect this grace only from the Holy Spirit. This grace is with God and his Word in Jesus Christ. If we accept this, and if we receive what God gives, then all is done, everything is in order, not as the result of our good pleasure but in the freedom to obey him which is ours.
Above all, let us not suppose that man is entirely passive, that he can relax in an arm-chair as it were, and say : 'The Holy Spirit will pray for me: By no means. Man is impelled to pray, he must do so. Prayer is an action as well as a supplication to the Lord that he will put us in that posture which is pleasing to him. This is one aspect of the problem of grace and freedom : one labours, but all the time one knows very well that it is God who wills to make our work effective. Our human freedom is not destroyed by God's freedom; one submits oneself to the action of the Holy Spirit, but nevertheless one's own mind and heart are not asleep meanwhile. Such is prayer considered as a human activity.
By being loyal to the work of God we can share in that work. It is a great thing to preach, to believe, to obey even in our imperfect way-the Commandments of God. But in every expression of faith and obedience, it is prayer that brings us into a relationship with God and allows us to be fellow-workers with him. God calls us to live with him and our answer is : 'Father, I desire to live with thee.' Then he says to us : 'Pray, call on me; I hear you, I will live and reign with you.'
The Reformation was not carried out without the work of Luther, Calvin, and many others. God was working by causing them to share in his work. It was not through the brilliance of their virtue, their wisdom or their piety that God was able to accomplish his work with them, but through their humility and their boldness in prayer. And God calls us, as single individuals and in community, to take part in such prayer, which is an act both of humility and of victory. This act is demanded of us because we are given the power to perform it.
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