Reading through Keller’s book Prayer, I was reminded of one of the most fascinating and comforting passages in all of Calvin’s Institutes. Many don’t know that one of Calvin’s longest chapters in the Institutes is his section on prayer (Book III, Chapter 20.) in which he discusses all sorts of disputed questions, comments on the Lord’s Prayer, and gives out a bunch of practical advice. Keller notices the heart of it are his five “rules” for how to properly approach prayer in the presence of God and so he devotes an entire chapter of his book to exploring them (chapter 7, pp. 97-107).
The first is that we are to approach God with reverence, or holy fear. By fear, yes, there is the element of being afraid, but it’s not the sort of fear that comes with a terror of punishment. As Keller points out, we have no fear of that for Christ is our mediator. Rather, it’s the joyful fear that comes with not wanting to offend someone you greatly admire and love. We should approach God, the Holy King, with no less a sense of awe and careful delight. (III.20.4)
Second, we need to get rid of any sense that prayer is unnecessary or that we are sufficient for our own lives. We need to come to him with a sense of spiritual humility, dropping the false face that wants to perform for God, or present our own spotless record. We need to come utterly dependent, alive to the reality that we need God and are here because of our great lack. In other words, God isn’t interested in fake prayers, but truth. (III.20.6)
Then, there are two more rules that Keller lumps together. The first is to come to God with submissive trust. God is God and so we pray to him as Jesus did in the garden, submitting our will to his. We are to honestly ask for what we want and need, and yet still acknowledge that God is wise beyond our wants and needs. He may do something different and that’s not just okay, it is good. (III.20.8)
But, fourth, we must also not let this submissiveness turn into apathy or a lack of faith. We need to trust that God will actually answer us. Much like Kierkegaard’s knight of faith who will accept whatever God gives him, he nonetheless goes to God hopefully and confidently, knowing that God is a good Father who wants to answer prayers. We mustn’t think him grudging, bitter, or unwilling, but generous and powerful to answer. (III.20.11)
With these rules in mind, we come to Calvin’s the fifth rule, the rule that Keller calls the “Rule against the Rules”, and we are to remember in all of this that God is a gracious God. In other words, there are proper ways to pray, but Calvin doesn’t want you to stop praying just because you’re inevitably going to get it wrong. God is a forgiving God. So pray anyways. I’ll quote him so you see what I mean:
This also is worth noting: what I have set forth on the four rules of right praying is not so rigorously required that God will reject those prayers in which he finds neither perfect faith nor repentance, together with a warmth of zeal and petitions rightly conceived.
I have said that, although prayer is an intimate conversation of the pious with God, yet reverence and moderation must be kept, lest we give loose rein to miscellaneous requests, and lest we crave more than God allows; further, that we should lift up our minds to a pure and chaste veneration of him, lest God’s majesty become worthless for us.
No one has ever carried this out with the uprightness that was due; for, not to mention the rank and file, how many complaints of David savor of intemperance! Not that he would either deliberately expostulate with God or clamor against his judgments, but that, fainting with weakness, he finds no other solace better than to cast his own sorrows into the bosom of God. But God tolerates even our stammering and pardons our ignorance whenever something inadvertently escapes us; as indeed without this mercy there would be no freedom to pray. But although David intended to submit completely to God’s will, and prayed with no less patience than zeal to obtain his request, yet there come forth—sometimes, rather, boil up—turbulent emotions, quite out of harmony with the first rule that we
laid down… (III.20.16)
Calvin goes on to list a number of ways that we fail in our prayers and the need for God’s forgiveness at every step of the way, otherwise we would have no hope of being heard at all. He says that he recounts all this, not so that people give themselves a pass, but :
…that by severely chastising themselves they may strive to overcome these obstacles; and although Satan tries to block all paths to prevent them from praying, they should nonetheless break through, surely persuaded that, although not freed of all hindrances, their efforts still please God and their petitions are approved, provided they endeavor and strive toward a goal not immediately attainable.
What we have here is the difference between leniency and grace. Many of us look at Calvin’s rules, and then Calvin’s assurance of forgiveness and might be tempted to think that Calvin is making too big a deal here. The reason we can pray is that God doesn’t mind us coming to him without holy fear, submission, and so forth. God just likes that we come as we are and pray as well like.
But while that initially sounds better, Calvin knows that we need a deeper assurance than that. Most of us, deep in our guts, know that the way we pray matters. It has to matter. So this picture of a lenient God who doesn’t care isn’t comforting. We’ll still, in the back of our minds, be terrified to pray incompletely, or inappropriately, and so we’ll shy away. Calvin wants us to build our prayer life on a deeper foundation than leniency. He wants us to build it on the foundation of God’s grace in the Gospel.
Yes, you’re going to get this wrong. Yes, you’re going to pray like a proud idiot sometimes, but that’s no reason to stop praying. It’s only as you go to God with confidence that he hears your prayers even as he forgives them, that you will grow in your walk with God. As you grow in prayer, and you grow in your knowledge of God’s forgiveness, and eventually lose your pride and begin to pray to him the way you ought to. It’s a virtuous cycle.
So, why should you be confident in prayer? Because God forgives them.
Soli Deo Gloria