Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©


"One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, 'Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples'."

We have considered already the place of intercession in biblical prayer, and in relation to this Anthony Bloom presents an interesting and unusual perspective when he says,

'people seem to think that petition is the lowest level of prayer; then comes gratitude, then praise. But in fact it is gratitude and praise that are expressions of a lower relationship. On our level of half-belief it is easier to sing hymns of praise or to thank God than to trust him enough to ask something with faith. Even people who believe half-heartedly can turn to thank God when something nice comes their way; and there are moments of elation when everyone can sing to God. But it is much more difficult to have such undivided faith as to ask with one's whole heart and whole mind with complete confidence. No one should look askance at petition, because the ability to say prayers of petition is a test of the reality of our faith.'(1)

From the Bible we can learn much as to the right things and the wrong things for which to ask. To know the right things is to avoid vague and rather meaningless prayers. R.E. Clements puts it, 'Vagueness, abstractions, and broad generalities are the enemies of wise and thoughtful prayers --. If we do not know properly what we wish to ask God for, it becomes a shabby excuse for non prayer when we resort to undefined generalities.' (2) We can do better in prayer than simply to say, 'God, bless so and so --.'

When can we pray with whole-hearted faith and assurance? The answer must be, 'when we pray for the right things, the things that we know that it is God's will to grant. All too readily we pray for things without any assurance that God's giving them to us would be for our own highest good. Too readily we choose what to do and then we ask God to bless our work. We choose where to live and ask God to bless our home. Confidence in prayer requests in fact lies much further back: its basis is the plea for guidance as to what God wants for us, what to do, where to live, and in asking for grace to accept the conditions of life that he intends for our own highest well-being and our living in his service.

The prayers of the Bible, and above all the Lord's Prayer, (Matt.6:9-13 and Lk.11:1-4) teach us what we should ask in prayer. Teresa of Avila said, 'to know how to pray the Lord's Prayer well will show you how to pray all other prayers.' (3) Martin Luther wrote near the end of his life, 'To this day I suckle at the Lord's Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer ---.' (4)

The things for which our Lord taught us to pray and the things which in Scripture are given as the promises of God are certainly things for which we can pray with confidence. The prayer that Jesus gave us is truly a pattern for our praying. In relation to the things he taught us to pray for, as also in relation to God's promises that we have in other ways, we can say, "Lord, remember", as perhaps is the meaning of the way that Isaiah 62:6 speaks of "the Lord's remembrancers" (RV).

Primarily, however, we turn to the Lord's Prayer, remembering especially that it was given in response to the disciples saying to Jesus, "Lord, teach us to pray" (Lk.11:1). Jesus taught them to pray by praying, and by praying for the right things. In particular the Lord's Prayer has within it the different ingredients that we can feel to belong to true prayer, the different aspects that we have studied earlier. It deals with the past by forgiveness, with the present as we ask for our daily needs to be met, and in relation to the future we pray for deliverance from evil. In effect it begins with praise (implied in the opening request for the hallowing of the name of the Lord), thanksgiving (implied in the fact that we can come to God as Father), confession of sin, and it goes on to petition, intercession, and it includes commitment ("Your will be done" being a dedication of ourselves to God's rule). It may be right to say that there is nothing new in the Lord's Prayer and hat all its phrases can be paralleled from the Old Testament or the teaching of the rabbis (5). What is new and very significant is the order and relationship of those memorable phrases.

The opening of the Lord's prayer makes us realise that the God to whom we come is One to whom we have a relationship as "Father", but also one who is transcendent above us "in heaven". Both of these realities of prayer we have considered as we have thought of prayer as dependent on the nature of the God to whom we come. As Tom Wright puts it, 'This prayer starts by addressing God intimately and lovingly as "Father" - and by bowing before his greatness and majesty. If you can hold these two together, you're already on the way to understanding what Christianity is all about.' (6). The Lord's Prayer, furthermore, is both a prayer that any one of us can pray as an individual, but the "our" reminds of that we are not just individuals as we relate to God, we come with others and we come on behalf of others. (7)

We will make our study of the things for which we may rightly pray, first from the clauses of the Lord's Prayer and then from other prayers and other teaching on prayer that we have in the Bible. In the Lord's Prayer the order of the clauses has in itself a lesson for us. Karl Barth emphasises that the first three petitions have 'Thy', 'Thy', 'Thy', while the last three have 'us', 'our', 'us', 'us'. We are called to identify ourselves with God's cause and he shows that he identifies himself with our needs. We are taught in effect to pray, 'We are concerned about thy cause --- Look on us and make our human cause thy care.' The linking of the two comes 'from our commitment as children of God'. We cannot go on living unless God meets our needs. We need to ask forgiveness as we are powerless to put things right ourselves. We are asking God to deal with us as if we have never sinned - for that is forgiveness.' (8)