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Contemporary Version of Calvin's Institutes - Book 3, Chapter 20

Rendered (and to be completed) by Nathan Bierma
version of 2008-05-13 14:13
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1. We've just seen how completely bankrupt we are of anything good, how helpless we are when it comes to saving ourselves. So if we're going to get the help we need, we have to reach beyond ourselves and get it somewhere else. We've also seen that God lovingly and fully comes to us in Christ, offering full joy instead of despair, full riches instead of emptiness, unlocking the door to heaven. God does this so that we can love and trust in Christ, invest in him our entire future and put our fears to rest, clinging to him with total hope. This is a deep, mysterious, philosophical truth, but you can't understand it with fancy words and logical arguments; you have to have your eyes opened by God and, as Psalm 36:9 says, see light in his light. But even after our faith has shown us that whatever is needed or missing in us is fully given by God in Jesus Christ--the one in whom the fullness of God delighted to live, the one from whom we can draw life-giving water from as though he were a bottomless fountain--we're not done. Then we need to approach God in prayer and ask what his grace towards us has now transformed us to be. Once we know God as the all-powerful giver of every good thing, and know that he actually invites us to pray for anything, how can we stay away from him and keep from praying? That would be like if someone gave you a map and told you exactly how to find a treasure chest filled with gold, and you didn't bother to go find it and dig it up. This is why Paul suggests that faith without prayer is flat or fake; he says in Romans 10:14 that when you believe, your heart is tuned to call on God's name. He said the same thing in another passage, Romans 8:26, when he promises us that the same Spirit that adopted us into faith and locked our belief in the gospel in our hearts now gives us the power to bring our requests to God, groans for us when we can't put them into words, and puts the cry of "Abba, Father," on our lips. We've touched on this last part already--prayer as the cry of the heart--but now let's look at it a little more closely.

2. Prayer is the way we can dig up the riches from God's treasure chest. It's how God and humans communicate with each other; it's as though we enter heavenly throne room, walk up to his throne, and remind God of his promises to us, so that when we need to we can know, through prayer itself, that what God says in the Bible is true. And so we can ask in prayer for every thing that God leads us to expect from him. It's as though the gospel is a treasure map and prayer the shovel to dig up the treasure. Words simply cannot express how important and enriching prayer is. God, our Father, says to us that our only comfort comes by calling on him, and for good reason, since by praying to God we call for the reality of his care and guiding as we walk along, for his strength to hold us up when we're so weary we could collapse, for his goodness to listen to us, sinful and miserable as we are. In short, by praying to God we ask him to make his complete, full, perfect self known to us. And so we receive peace and calmness as we lay before him the burden of our guilt, and we rest in the solid certainty that we can't hide anything from God, and that he wants to provide for us.

3. But wait a minute, you might be thinking: Why does God need us to tell him what we’re struggling with and what we need? Isn’t it redundant to inform God of what he already knows? Or is he asleep at the wheel, and we need to wake him up with our prayers? But this ignores the whole purpose of prayer that the Lord taught us. Prayer is not for God’s sake as much as it is for ours. God does want, and for good reason, that we give him his due by acknowledging him as the source of everything good—anything worth praying for. But even the benefits of doing that bounce right back to us! The more the early church fathers, for example, prayed for God’s mercy, the stronger they felt the urge to pray more. Or take Elijah, who, even after God had promised Ahab to send rain to end the drought, still fell to his knees and prayed desperately, and kept sending his servant to check a rain cloud (1 Kings 18:42). This wasn’t because he was losing faith in God’s promise, but because he knew he had to lay everything out before God to keep his faith from getting sloppy or half-hearted. Granted, even when we get lazy and lose sense of how empty we are, God stays awake, and watches out for us, and sometimes even helps out when we fail to ask for something. But still, we need to pray with all our might, for a few reasons. First, we pray so that our hearts are always on fire with the desire to seek, love, and serve God, and we get used to going to him as our anchor in the bumpy seas of life. Second, we pray so that our thoughts are always on display before God; there isn’t any time or chance for dark urges to creep in, but instead we learn to lay out every want we have in full view before our heavenly Father, and pour out every ounce of our longings to God alone. For another thing, we need to prepare ourselves to receive answers to prayer with a thankful heart; praying helps us remember that what we receive comes from God’s own hand. When we receive what we pray for, and know our prayer has been answered, we are drawn into even deeper thankfulness and awe of God’s care for us—and we appreciate so much more what we have been given by God. Finally, prayer helps form in us a constant awareness of God’s providence adapted to reach us in our weakness, as we learn that God not only promises to watch over us and provide for us, and invites us to approach his throne whenever we feel the need, but beyond that, God stretches his arms over us, not just nursing us with words but actually defending our cause. This is why, although God is never really asleep at the wheel, he often seems to be! In reality, he’s just inviting us deeper into conversation with him, even when we’d just as soon settle for a more superficial relationship, but he keeps prodding us to learn to shed our self-reliance and lean even more on him. It would be ridiculous, then, to try to avoid praying by figuring that God has more important matters to take care of, like running the universe, and can’t be bothered with our petty requests. But God says just the opposite in Psalm 145:18: he is “near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” Nor can we say that there’s no point in telling God what he already knows we need, since God is so generous that even though he knows what we need, he can make it appear to us that he’s actually answering our request! This is what we read in Psalm 34:15—a verse that is echoed in other passages in the Bible: “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry.” This verse doesn’t take anything away from God’s perfect care for us, and yet it tells us to pray for things anyway, to keep our faith sharp. God’s eyes are open as he leads us blind people, and his ears are open, too, to hear our groans, in order to give us even more signs of his love for us. And so it’s true that “He who watches over Israel will not slumber or sleep,” even when it seems like God has checked out. Maybe he’s just trying to recapture our attention.

4. Good prayer is made from at least three key ingredients. First, hearts and minds that are ready to talk with God. We have to lift our minds out of the swarm of the tiny anxieties that clutter our concentration and contemplation of God, so that our minds are not just in a prayerful mode but actually somehow lifted above themselves. I'm not saying we can, or should, try to successfully rid ourselves of all pain and worry before trying to pray. It's the fury of that pain and worry that makes us burn to pray: faithful believers never try to hide their suffering from God, but desperately heave their cries toward heaven out of the pit of despair and the teeth of death. What I'm saying is that any fears and doubts that would clip our wings and make our minds come crashing down to earth rather than soar toward heaven, have to be thown out. When I say the mind has to be somehow lifted above itself, I mean that it must not come into God's presence smeared with the crud of foolish lusts and jealousies, or stay stubbornly within the boundaries of our own ego. It has to get on God's holy wavelength.

... [in progress]

[cf. Beveridge translation here]