In the Throne Room
As you learned in the last lesson, George Müller once said that he never failed to gain an audience with the King. It is therefore evident that his prayers proceeded from an exalted view of the Being who would hear them.
Scripture supports Müller’s perspective on prayer. It teaches that when we pray, we go before the throne of grace, a reference to the throne of God in heaven (Heb. 4:16). Our prayers rise to Him as He sits in regal estate upon the seat of dominion over the universe. We should therefore pray with a sense that our prayers should be appropriate for presentation to a king. We must not slip into complacency about our words, as if they were mere sounds in the air. We must always remember that they go to a place of supreme holiness and majesty.
As we pray, it is helpful to fix our mind's eye upon the heavenly throne room. We find it pictured in several passages (Isa. 6:1-3; Ezek. 1; Dan. 7:9-14; Rev. 4-5). The throne of the Father emanates a brilliant glory, which Paul describes as unapproachable light (1 Tim. 6:16). The light has dazzling color. The throne itself is sapphire, or blue (Ezek. 1:26). The presence of God shines in the hues of jasper and sardine (Rev. 4:3). (The exact meaning of jasper is unknown, but according to the ancient writer Pliny, the best kind was colored in a shade of purple. Sardine is blood-red.) Light in all the colors of the rainbow, with green dominant, plays about the throne (Ezek. 1:28; Rev. 4:3). Around the throne and perhaps enveloping it with their wings are four strange yet magnificent creatures called zoa, a term that the King James Version translates as "beasts," but in modern English a better rendering is "living creatures" (Rev. 4:6-9). From their description we can see that these are the same as the cherubim often mentioned in the Old Testament (Gen. 3:24; Ps. 99:1; Ezek. 10:1–9, 15–20; 11:22) and perhaps also as the seraphim seen by Isaiah (Isa. 6:2, 6). Before the throne stands an innumerable company of angels who continually praise God with thunderous voices (Rev. 5:11).
If our prayers go to such a place to be uttered openly, before all, should we not be careful in what we say? Should we not prune from our prayers all childish babblings, petty gripings, irreverent imaginings, pointless wanderings, and self-preoccupied musings? When addressing an earthly sovereign, we would use solemn and reverent speech full of praise. In like manner we should pray to God.
Each person of the Trinity has a distinct role in prayer.
1. The Holy Spirit is our intercessor. When we have done as much as we can to make our prayers presentable to a King, they will still be awkward and uncouth. We need help to speak the language of the court of heaven. For this reason God gives us a helper in the person of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:26-7). He takes our fumbling attempts at prayer and reworks them so that both in form and content they will be suitable for utterance in the Father's presence. He edits out anything that might give offense, and sharpens our requests so that they seek real benefits.
2. The Father is the One who answers. In the model prayer that Jesus provided, He directed us to begin, "Our Father" (Matt. 6:9). It is the Father who hears and weighs our requests and then designs an answer according to His will (Matt. 6:8). Moreover, if the answer requires heavenly intervention in human affairs, He is the One who issues the executive order.
Is it therefore wrong to pray to other members of the Trinity? Certainly not. The last prayer of the Bible addresses Jesus (Rev. 22:20). But this prayer is essentially an expression of our love, saying we love Him so much that we cannot wait to see Him. To direct love and praise to Jesus or the Holy Spirit is never wrong.
It is not even wrong to approach them with petitions. A child may ask Jesus to come into his heart. In our hymns we ask the Holy Spirit to fill and control us. But we should understand that such petitions ultimately go to the Father for His disposal. Both the Son and the Holy Spirit are wholly subservient to the will of the Father. The Bible teaches that the Father grants salvation (2 Tim. 2:25) and gives the Spirit (Luke 11:13).
3. The Son gives us access to the Father. If we know Jesus, our sins have been blotted out. We are, as it were, clothed with Jesus, so that when the Father looks at us, He sees the Son in His perfection rather than ourselves in our sinfulness (Gal. 3:27). Except for our identification with Jesus, the Father would deny us the privilege of coming into His presence, and He would refuse to hear our prayers. For this reason, in obedience to what Jesus Himself taught us, we pray in Jesus' name (John 16:23, 24, 26).
What does this mean? Many Christians feel that when praying we must explicitly acknowledge that Jesus is our sole avenue to the Father, and so they conclude every prayer with the phrase, "In Jesus' name, amen." Many others feel that the requirement to pray in Jesus' name merely means that we must first establish a relationship with Christ before we try to pray. Yet Jesus says nothing to suggest that we should not take Him literally when He commands us to pray in His name. Thus, it seems to me that to use the traditional closing phrase is a wise course, if only to remind us that except for Jesus, we would never win a hearing before the throne.
Those who pray "in thy name" seem to be confusing persons of the Trinity—a common mistake in prayer. The pronoun "thy" refers to the Father if the Father is the person addressed at the beginning. Failure to distinguish the persons of the Trinity when praying often leads to creative theology. How often have I heard someone thanking the Father for dying on the cross!
When referring to conversations between the heavenly Father and other beings in His presence, Scripture often compares the scene to a court room (Job 1:6–12; 2:1–6; Zech. 3:1–5; Rom. 8:34). The judge is God the Father, God’s people are the defendants, and their advocate is God the Son (1 John 2:1; the role of "intercession" that Rom. 8:34 credits to Him implies pleading on their behalf). If there is a lawyer for the defense, is there also a lawyer for the prosecution? Yes, Satan is our adversary in these proceedings. His name means "adversary." He is called "the accuser of the brethren" (Rev. 12:10). In the story of Job, we see that his role is to challenge the testimony of those who profess to be God's children (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-7). He seeks and obtains permission to try whether their faith is genuine. But opposing him is our Advocate, who seeks and obtains forgiveness for all of the moral blemishes that give the accuser grounds for vilifying us before the Father.
The devil works not only at undermining God's love for us, but also at blocking answers to our prayers. In the Book of Daniel, we learn that the forces of evil can oppose and delay the good angels who are implementing decrees of the Father (Dan. 10:12-3, 20).
Manner of Prayer
Although we depend on the Spirit's intercession to make our prayers acceptable, we should nevertheless try our best to offer good prayers. God always expects His children to make full use of their own faculties as they seek to do right. How then should we pray? Novices in the practice of prayer need to understand that it does not have rigid requirements.
1. Posture. As Christians we avoid the lotus seat and every other posture characteristic of Eastern meditation. Also, to distance ourselves from Muslim practice, we do not kneel on a prayer rug. But any natural posture—whether sitting, standing, lying prone, lying supine, or kneeling—is suitable for prayer. The circumstances may dictate which is best. A sitting or standing posture is most compatible with good order in a public service. For private prayer, many prefer a lying or kneeling posture. Each posture has special uses.
- Sitting. The best posture for fidgety children is probably to sit with hands folded. In Scripture, sitting for prayer is (to my knowledge) never mentioned except with reference to saying a blessing before meals (Luke 24:30).
- Standing. As Jews do today when they go to the Wailing Wall, so also Jews did in ancient times when they went to the Temple. They prayed in a standing position (Luke 18:11; Mark 11:25). Even today, standing is the usual manner of congregational prayer, no doubt because we sense that to stand is more respectful than to sit.
- Kneeling. The Bible frequently refers to kneeling in prayer (Acts 7:60; 9:40; 20:36; 21:5; Eph. 3:14; etc.). Bowing the knee to God carries unmistakable meaning. When we do it, we confess our lowliness before His lofty grandeur and we pay Him homage (Phil. 2:9-11). Also, we acknowledge Him as our Lord and King. The purpose of kneeling in prayer is therefore to show both humility and dependence. Today's Christian is apt to shun kneeling in prayer and to choose, rather, a more comfortable position. But he should ask himself, why? Is there any feeling in his heart that kneeling makes him look small and foolish? If so, he is exactly the person who should kneel when praying.
Jesus set an example of kneeling in prayer when He went to the Garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:41). There, the challenge, at least for the disciples, was to remain awake, and they disappointed Jesus by falling asleep. One virtue in the kneeling posture during long prayer or prayer at night is that it helps us to resist drowsiness.
A common method of corporate prayer in the early church was to pray with hands raised (1 Tim. 2:8). This was an old Jewish custom (Psa. 28:2; 63:4; 134:2). From which posture the hands were normally raised is uncertain. Some texts associate the custom with kneeling (1 Kings 8:54; 2 Chron. 6:13; Ezra 9:5). The purpose of this method was doubtless to show that the object of the believer's faith was no mere idol of wood or stone. Rather, He was no less than the God of heaven above.
- Lying down. The numerous Biblical examples of lying prostrate in prayer (Num. 20:6; 2 Chron. 20:18; Matt. 26:39) suggest that this posture carries humility a step farther. It is a good way to address God when we are so overcome with weakness or helplessness that we wish to express an urgent desire for His sustaining grace.
2. Voice. We need not pray in a loud voice, or even in an audible voice. God can hear us although we pray silently (1 Chron. 28:9; Psa. 139:4). Therefore, we can pray when we are surrounded by people, in a class or worship service perhaps, and we can even pray while we are talking to another person. No circumstance can deprive us of our recourse to prayer. Wherever we are, we can instantly begin praying as soon as the need or desire arises, and we can say whatever is on our hearts.
3. Place. As we showed in our discussion of personal devotions, the best place for communion with God is somewhere private (Matt. 6:5-6).
4. Time. Although we can pray whenever we desire conversation with God, Christians have always regarded certain times as especially appropriate.
- Before meals. The tradition of blessing a meal set before us rests on the example of Christ ( Matt. 14:19; Mark 8:6-7; Luke 24:30), as well as on the age-old practice of all believers (1 Sam. 9:13; Acts 27:35; Rom. 14:6; 1 Cor. 10:30).
- Before bed. Some children recite a memorized prayer before going to sleep at night. It would be better, though, if their parents used bedtime to teach them how to pray spontaneously.
- At the beginning of a meeting. Congress, state legislatures, and political conventions have always opened with prayer, as have religious gatherings of all kinds, including classes in Christian schools and business meetings in the church. The purpose of prayer on such occasions is to seek divine aid.
- Before danger. Christians pray before battle, before surgery, and even before travel. They do so to beseech God's protection.
- After success. Christians recognize that it is appropriate to thank God after receiving some blessing, such as a new job or a new child, or after deliverance from some trial, such as an illness. Coming out of danger is another time for grateful prayer.
- Before a major personal decision. The need then is for special wisdom.
Priorities in Prayer
Already in our discussion of personal devotions, we established several priorities in prayer.
1. Confession of sin first. No prayer reaches the Father if it comes from a heart stained with stubborn sin.
2. Praise and thanksgiving before requests. When addressing the great King, we should demonstrate humility and dependence by telling Him how much we appreciate Him (Psa. 33:1; 118:28; 1 Tim. 2:1; Phil. 4:6). To neglect praise and thanksgiving is not only self-centered, but counterproductive. How can we expect Him to hear us if we take His help for granted? Thus, we should put off listing our requests until after we have thanked Him for His goodness in the past.
3. Others first. It is best to pray for others before praying for self. A habit of putting others first in prayer helps us become more other-centered.
4. Greater attention to spiritual matters. Requests for physical needs are as legitimate as requests for spiritual needs. Yet only one request in the Lord's Prayer seeks a material or physical benefit. The rest seek God's glory or man's spiritual welfare. Thus, physical needs should not dominate our prayers. As we pray through a long list of sick people, asking God to restore them, we should not ignore each one's spiritual condition. James cautions us that healing may require forgiveness of sins (James 5:14-5).
Economies in Prayer
1. Eliminating rashness. The Preacher in Ecclesiastes instructs us to sift out all rashness from our prayers (Eccles. 5:2). Rashness includes any thoughtless complaint or vow. It is better not to make a vow than to make one and later cast it aside (Eccles. 5:4-5). Preachers and youth workers must refrain from pressuring young people into commitments that they are not ready to keep.
2. Eliminating vain repetition. Mindless repetition of the same words, as when a Catholic recites the Rosary, accomplishes nothing of value (Matt. 6:7-8). A classic example of vain repetition arose during Elijah's contest with the priests of Baal. Their frenzied day-long pleas for Baal to consume the sacrifice were vain repetition, monotonously calling out words that were never heard and never answered. Elijah's effective prayer for Jehovah's intervention was simple and brief (1 Kings 18:36-7).
It is important, though, to distinguish between vain repetition and perseverance in a good prayer. The former is deficient in one or more of three respects. It is devoid of meaning, it comes to God on unacceptable terms, or it proceeds from the mouth only and not from the heart. Persevering prayer that expresses the fervent desire of a righteous man truly "availeth much" (James 5:16).
3. Being specific. Do not pray for "all the missionaries in Africa." The problem with most general prayers is that they seek no more than what God will do anyway. Whether or not you ask for it, God will bless all the missionaries in Africa. It is better to use prayer as a tool for creating some new benefit.