If you were to ask the average churchgoer to list the most important elements necessary for a healthy prayer life, you would be delighted if you heard them give such answers as a proper environment without distractions, discipline and determination, an attitude of faith and expectancy, or freedom and confidence. Indeed, these are all crucial components of biblical prayer.
The Son of God himself “would often slip away to the wilderness to pray.” (Luke 5:16) He taught that His disciples must “pray and not lose heart,” just like the widow persisted before her judge. (Luke 18:1-8) James instructs us to offer requests to God “in faith, without doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.” (Jam 1:6) And the writer of Hebrews reminds us that we must take advantage of our privileges as God’s children and “draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in the time of need.” (Heb 4:16)
Listening Influences Our Prayers
But the most important aspect of prayer is actually not the environment, attitude, or manner of our speaking to God. What contributes most to the health of our praying is what comes before we even open our mouths to address the Almighty. It is our hearing—our listening to the oracles of God on the pages of Scripture—which influences our praying the most.
Using Latin terminology to emphasize the primacy of God in all things, theologians call God the principium essendi (foundation for existence), the principium cognoscendi (foundation for knowing), and the principium loquendi (foundation for speaking). It is this third principium which is particularly important for our understanding of prayer. While theologians typically refer to it to emphasize that we could not speak about God if God had not first spoken to us, the principle also relates to prayer.
If God had not first spoken to us, we could not speak to him
Man’s speaking to God is directly dependent on God’s Word to man. Without God’s propositional revelation, prayer in any meaningful sense would be impossible.
Study Well to Pray Well
As such, to be a man or woman of prayer necessitates being a man or woman of the Word. It means submitting oneself to the absolute authority of Scripture in whatever it says. It means approaching Scripture as “the oracles of God” (Rom 3:2)—oracles which cannot be altered, contested, ignored, or disobeyed. Thus, if you are to pray well, you must be committed to studying well. True prayer—just like true preaching—cannot be practiced or experienced without this foundational commitment.
Illustrations Throughout the Bible
When Moses interceded for Israel after she refused to enter the Promised Land, he prayed using God’s previous revelation as the starting point:
But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as You have declared, “The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.” Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now. (Num 14:17-19, citing God’s previous words given in Ex 34:6-7)
For more instruction from Dr. Klassen on prayer, consider taking his Institute for Church Leadership course, The Practice of Prayer.
In this course, students will study the nature and substance of the Christian prayer life. With a detailed study of Old and New Testament prayers and of the scriptural teaching regarding prayer, the course is designed to impact the personal prayer life of students and to equip them for the responsibility of leading and helping other believers in their personal and corporate prayer life.
Similarly, when Daniel petitioned God on behalf of exiled Israel, he, too, did so having been motivated by words of special revelation:
In the first year of Darius the son of Ahasuerus . . . I, Daniel, observed in the books the number of the years which was revealed as the word of the LORD to Jeremiah the prophet for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years. So I gave my attention to the Lord God to seek Him by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth and ashes. (Dan 9:1-3, citing the prophecy of the “70 years” given in Jer 25:11-12 and 29:10)
The early church, in response to the protection God provided to Peter and John in response to the threats of the Jewish Sanhedrin, responded in prayer filled with Old Testament quotations:
And when they heard this, they lifted their voices to God with one accord and said, “O Lord, it is You who MADE THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH AND THE SEA, AND ALL THAT IS IN THEM, who by the Holy Spirit, through the mouth of our father David Your servant, said, 'WHY DID THE GENTILES RAGE, AND THE PEOPLES DEVISE FUTILE THINGS? THE KINGS OF THE EARTH TOOK THEIR STAND, AND THE RULERS WERE GATHERED TOGETHER AGAINST THE LORD AND AGAINST HIS CHRIST...'" (Acts 4:24-26, citing Ex 20:11 and Ps 2:1-2)
Conversely, Solomon stated that there is no way to be both ambivalent to God’s Word and “spiritual” at the same time: “He who turns away his ear from listening to the law, even his prayer is an abomination” (Prov 28:9; see also Ps 66:18).
The Starting Place for Your Life of Prayer
A statement from the life of George Müller helps illustrate the priority that God’s Word must have in our prayer practices. Recognizing that he had put the cart before the horse, Müller writes,
Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer, after having dressed in the morning. Now I saw, that the most important thing I had to do was to give myself to the reading of the Word of God and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, whilst meditating, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord. I began, therefore, to meditate on the New Testament, from the beginning, early in the morning. (A Narrative of Some of the Lord’s Dealings with George Müller, vol. 1)
Hearing the Word of God as He has delivered it in Scripture is the starting place for your life of prayer—whether you are a new disciple of Jesus Christ or a seasoned prayer warrior. If you find yourself struggling in prayer, it can ultimately be traced to your struggle in the study and understanding of Scripture. A right approach to Scripture will not only motivate and enable you to pray better, but it will instruct you how to pray and provide you with the right content to pray.
We tell our children often, “Listen before you speak.” The same holds true for our praying.
For undoubtedly, that which God abundantly makes the subject of His promises, God’s people should make the subject of their prayers. It also affords them the strongest assurances that their prayers shall be successful. (The Works of Jonathan Edwards)