Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©

Chapter 7 ATTITUDES IN PRAYER (Continued)

1. Repentance

"We do not make our requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive!"
Prayer us the contrite sinner's voice
Returning from his ways,
While angels in their songs rejoice,
And cry: "Behold he prays!"
(James Montgomery)

In considering prayer as dependent on who we as humans are, we have seen that we can only approach God as sinners needing forgiveness. Our attitude must involve a turning from sin in repentance. We have to acknowledge our need of a Copernican revolution in our lives, a turning from seeing self as the centre of life to seeing God as centre, a turning from our self-chosen ways to God's ways. That is what repentance means, and such an attitude is a prerequisite for true prayer.

The Bible often speaks specifically of penitence and confession of sin as a necessary attitude in prayer. Leviticus 26:40-42 puts it, "if they confess their iniquity and the iniquity of their ancestors, in that they committed treachery against me -- then will I remember my covenant -- and I will remember the land." Numbers 5:5-8 speaks of wrongs in human relationships being dealt with by the confession of the sin committed, the making of restitution, and then the offering of sacrifice. Psalm 51:17 speaks of what is more important than such offerings when it says, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." Many prayers in the Bible include the specific confession of sin (as in Ezra 9:5-15, Neh.9:16-37, Dan.9:4-19). Conversely the Bible often emphasises that if there is no acknowledgment of sin and turning from it, prayer will go unanswered. Most significant are the words of Isaiah 59:1-2 , "the Lord's hand is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. Rather, your iniquities have been barriers between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear." When we deal with the problems of unanswered prayer we will consider other passages of Scripture where we find this same emphasis.

Jeremiah 3:13 is typical of the ways in which the Lord calls people to come to him in penitence, "Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the Lord your God --- and have not obeyed my voice". Jesus pictured the attitude of true repentance and confession in the parable where the son knew he must return to his father and acknowledge, "I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Lk.15:21). Hebrews 10:22 speaks of our approaching God "with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience ---." For all who turn to him in repentance and faith "the Lord longs to be gracious. --- blessed are all who wait for him!" (Isa.30:18) This is one aspect of the blessedness of 'mourning' spoken of in Matthew 5:4, and out of such mourning comfort is found.

2. Humility

"Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof".
'Lord, teach us how to pray aright,
With reverence and with fear;
Though dust and ashes in Thy sight,
We may, we must draw near.'
(James Montgomery)

Repentance and humility belong closely together. They can be distinguished in that repentance involves the acknowledgment of our sinfulness beside God's holiness, while humility involves the acknowledgment of our smallness beside God's greatness. 'Humility is the indispensable foundation for a life of true prayer' says Houston (1). Job had argued with God, but then a deep experience of the majesty of God especially in relation to creation led him to confess, "I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (Job 42:6).

There can be no hypocrisy or showmanship in a true relationship with God. This is often expressed in the Old Testament, and it was no doubt to inculcate the attitude of humility that the people were told (in Ex.20:25-26) that they were not to build an altar of hewn stones, thus defiling it by the work of human hands, nor were they to go up by steps to the Lord's altar. In Jacob's prayer in Genesis 32:10 he acknowledged, "I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant." Ecclesiastes 5:1-2 calls people not to be rash when approaching God, nor to be quick to speak for "God is in heaven, and you are on earth; so let your words be few."

We have examples in both Old and New Testaments of those who did come to the Lord with due humility. Abraham, as he interceded for Sodom and Gomorrah, acknowledged that he was but "dust and ashes" before God (Gen.18:27). 2 Chronicles 33:12, 19 and 23 says that Manasseh who had lived a life utterly contrary to the ways of God ultimately "humbled himself greatly before the God of his ancestors". In the next chapter (34:27) it is said of Josiah that he humbled himself before the Lord. Isaiah 58 prescribes the right attitude to God when it speaks about the kind of fasting that is acceptable to God, and the kind that is not acceptable. Those who would fast acceptably must truly humble themselves and then do in obedience what the Lord requires. That same attitude is most movingly expressed in the words of 2 Chronicles 7:14 where there is both a promise and a condition in the message of God, "If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land." The prophets said repeatedly that the Lord sought those who would "fear" him and "reverence his name" (e.g. Jer.5:24). The Psalms are full of such statements as that "the friendship of the Lord is for those who fear him (Ps.25:14).

The New Testament bears the same message. There is freedom of access to a gracious God, but those who come to God must come "with reverence and awe" (Heb.12:28). Humility and contrition over against arrogance and pride are taught supremely in the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14. Jesus in his teaching dealt with the special temptation to pride when prayer is in public. He openly rebuked those who prayed publicly so as to receive the commendation of others (Matt.6:5-6, Mk.12:40). Prayer offered to fellow-men and -women rather than to God is not prayer at all. Samuel Chadwick puts it, 'Prayers that are a pretence require an audience. They are intended to be heard of (other people), and they have their reward in skill of phrasing, a show of earnestness, and a reputation for piety. These things do not count with God. They cannot live in His presence.' (2) Jesus' words about "worship in spirit and in truth" (John 4:24) present positively the right attitude, as do the Beatitudes that pronounce God's blessing on "the meek" and the "poor in spirit" (Matt.5:3 and 5).