Book 3 Chapter 20 Section 1-52
In this epic chapter on prayer (a total of 52 sections over 58 pages) Calvin outlines his four golden rules for entering the throne-room of God. But before these four steps to heaven, Calvin outlines the reasons why we should pray at all. Firstly, we should pray so that our hearts are always aflame with a “serious and ardent desire of seeking, loving and serving him”. Secondly, that we would learn to expose every thought and desire to the presence of God. Thirdly, that we would be full of continual gratitude and thanksgiving for all his blessings. Fourthly, that as we receive what we ask for we would be “led to long more earnestly for his favour.” And finally, that we would by experience learn to recognise and submit to his providential care in our lives.
So if these are the reasons Calvin gives for encouraging us to pray, how are we to go about it? How can we approach this sovereign, righteous, omnipotent God we have heard so much about in the last three books of his Institutes? Well Calvin’s four steps to the throne-room of heaven are:
1. Reverence to God – “to have our heart and mind framed as becomes those who are entering into converse with God”. Turning all our thoughts to God and not being distracted by wandering thoughts. Calvin exhorts us to rise above ourselves – not in the sense that our minds are disengaged, but rather that we should make use of whatever is driving us to our knees to supplicate passionately, for “it is by much anxiety that the fervour of prayer is inflamed.”
2. A sense of our want – “we must always truly feel our wants, and seriously considering that we need all the things which we ask”. We should not let habit, or custom, make our prayers cold and our hearts indifferent. If we struggle to feel our need we would do well to consider that our daily inner battle with sin and temptation – then we will always have fuel to fire our hearts with supplication to God.
3. The suppression of all pride – he who comes into the presence of God to pray must divest himself of all vain-glorious thoughts, lay aside all idea of worth. We must “discard all self-confidence, humbly giving God the whole glory.” We must come humbly, seeking his pardon, for humble “confession of guilt, forms both the preparation and commencement of right prayer.”
4. A sure confidence of being heard animating us to prayer – we should be animated to pray with the sure hope of succeeding. While it may appear that there is a contradiction between “a sense of the just vengeance of God and firm confidence in his favour”, they are actually perfectly aligned for “it is the mere goodness of God that raises up those who are overwhelmed by their own sins.” For just as repentance and faith are tied together in our salvation (Book 3 chapter 3), so in prayer they must both be present.
Recognising the high standard he has set for our prayers, Calvin adds the caveat that the four laws “are not so rigorously enforced, as that God rejects the prayers in which he does not find perfect faith or repentance.”
As I meditate on this chapter on prayer it challenges me to examine my own pray life. How do I fare when assessed by these criteria? How often do I genuinely feel the weight being in God’s presence? Do I spend long enough in prayer that my coldness and apathy are burned away?
I confess that my prayer life is not what it should be. On one level the excuse of having a young family and a full-time job mean its hard to carve out time to be alone with God. However, over this year I have managed to find the time to keep up with a demanding reading and writing schedule. Through iTunes I am able to listen to preachers from all over the world on my way to work, and I get great insight from Christian blogs that I follow. But for all the great teaching that fills my thoughts how much time do I spend cementing this teaching into my life through prayer?
It is so easy to skim the surface of the Christian media and not realise that this is not feeding my soul at the deepest level. One of the great dangers of our day is to have all the best teaching in the world at our fingertips and still have a superficial relationship with Jesus. I realise that I need to read less, but pray more. I need to listen to fewer sermons and pray more. It seems to me that good teaching is like the yeast that works through the dough – only a little really good teaching is needed, the rest of the effect is produced by the kneading of prayer as I meditate on the truths and ask God to build them into my life.
[PS. I know this blog post might mean I get fewer readers, but if that is because people are praying more then great! I’m sure God would be pleased with that result!]
“Martha, Martha, the Lord answered, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” Luke 10.41-42
Father help me to take these truths that I am learning and turn them into godliness by the work of your Spirit as I spend time in your presence. Help me to discern the good from the best and prioritise above all else spending time with you. Amen