Prayer is oxygen to the Christian life–without it, we’ll eventually choke and die. Knowing this Calvin devoted a significant section of the Institutes to the topic of prayer. In it he gives attention to the theology of prayer, the proper form, and has a wonderful section commenting on the Lord’s Prayer. Practical-minded theologian and pastor that he was, he knew that some have objections or questions about prayer.
A very common one, now and then, runs along the lines of “If God is God, shouldn’t he already know what we need without us having to ask for it? Does he need to be woken up or something?” Calvin says the people who ask that haven’t yet noted in scripture that”he ordained it not so much for his own sake as for ours.” Just as in worship, God is rightly owed the praise he is offered, but the profit of this sacrifice also, by which he is worshiped, returns to us.” The same is true in prayer. So, “while we grow dull and stupid toward our miseries, he watches and keeps guard on our behalf, and sometimes even helps us unasked, still it is very important for us to call upon him.”
Calvin then lists six reasons God wants us to pray to him:
First, that our hearts may be fired with a zealous and burning desire ever to seek, love, and serve him, while we become accustomed in every need to flee to him as to a sacred anchor.
Secondly, that there may enter our hearts no desire and no wish at all of which we should be ashamed to make him a witness, while we learn to set all our wishes before his eyes, and even to pour out our whole hearts.
Thirdly, that we be prepared to receive his benefits with true gratitude of heart and thanksgiving, benefits that our prayer reminds us come from his hand [cf. Psalm 145:15-16].
Fourthly, moreover, that, having obtained what we were seeking, and being convinced that he has answered our prayers, we should be led to meditate upon his kindness more ardently.
And fifthly, that at the same time we embrace with greater delight those things which we acknowledge to have been obtained by prayers.
Finally, that use and experience may, according to the measure of our feebleness, confirm his providence, while we understand not only that he promises never to fail us, and of his own will opens the way to call upon him at the very point of necessity, but also that he ever extends his hand to help his own, not wet-nursing them with words but defending them with present help.
Without prayer, our sinful hearts are blind and deaf to the myriad ways God is constantly providing for us all that we need, confirming his promises. It is for these reasons, and more, that God invites us to pray, and indeed at times, “gives the impression of one sleeping or idling in order that he may thus train us, otherwise idle and lazy, to seek, ask, and entreat him to our great good.”
This is why Calvin thinks it “excessive foolishness” to point to God’s providence as an excuse for prayerlessness. If scripture teaches us both that God is providentially guiding all things and yet teaches us to call upon his name in prayer, then it is godlessness parading itself as wisdom to teach otherwise. Calvin reminds us of the text “For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous, and his ears toward their prayers” [1 Peter 3:12; Psalm 34:15; cf. 33:16, Vg.], which “commends the providence of God” and does “not to omit the exercise of faith.” Scripure teaches both and so we should believe and practice both.
Let no one claim Calvin as a support for their prayerlessness. A strong grasp of God’s providence might stop our prayers from being panicked, wheedling, bargaining sessions, but it should never turn us away from persistently seeking out God for all of our good.
Soli Deo Gloria