Saturday, August 7, 2010

Prayer: Our Own Insufficiency and Humility

Yesterday was the beginning of Calvin's examination of prayer. We covered his first rule of prayer which was reverence. Today we will look at two more of his rules of prayer: our own insufficiency and humility.

More exactly, Calvin's second rule of prayer is this: "that in our petitions we ever sense our own insufficiency, and earnestly pondering how we need all that we seek, join with this prayer an earnest - nay, burning - desire to attain it." He is critical of certain prayers that are learned by rote and repeated with no true meaning. "For many perfunctorily intone prayers after a set form, as if discharging a duty to God." I am sure he is in part referring to many of the prayers of the Roman church, which are assigned to its congregants in order to fulfill penance for their sins. There is a place for standardized prayers such as the Lord's Prayer, however, the meaning of the prayer must not be lost by just repeating the words and not feeling it in your heart.

James wrote, "Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms," (James 5:13, New King James Version). God wants us to pray. Have you ever noticed that you naturally pray more when you are going through sufferings? The harder my life is, the more I find myself praying. "Therefore common sense itself dictates that, because we are too lazy, God pricks us the more sharply, as occasion demands, to pray earnestly... the more harshly troubles, discomforts, fears, and trials of other sorts press us, the freer is our access to him, as if God were summoning us to himself." Paul tells us in multiple places to pray at all times or to pray without ceasing. There is no inappropriate time for prayer because there is no inappropriate time for us to need God's help. We must recognize that we are insufficient to provide for ourselves and require God's help every step of our lives. However, we must be careful what we pray for because as James says, "You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures," (James 4:3, New King James Version). However John wrote, "And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight," (1 John 3:22, New King James Version). Calvin responds to the passage by saying, "...only sincere worshipers of God pray aright and are heard." He goes on to tell us that in order to pray rightly, we must first be unhappy with our sin then we can "take the person and disposition of a beggar." This leads us into the third rule of prayer...

The third rule is this: "anyone who stands before God to pray, in his humility giving glory completely to God, abandon all though of his own glory, cast off all notion of his own worth, in fine, put away all self-assurance - lest if we claim for ourselves anything, even the least but, we should become vainly puffed up, and perish at his presence." We see plenty of examples of this type of humility in the saints of the Old Testament. Calvin highlights some passages by Daniel, David, and Isaiah where they all recognize their own sinfulness and need for God's mercy. Calvin goes as far to say, "the holier he is, the more he is cast down when he presents himself before the Lord."

According to Calvin, the very most important part of prayer is begging for forgiveness of our sins. He writes, "the beginning, and even the preparation, of proper prayer is the plea for pardon with a humble and sincere confession of guilt. Nor should anyone, however holy he may be, hope that he will obtain anything from God until he is freely reconciled to him; nor can God chance to be propitious to any but those whom he has pardoned." He then distinguishes between general and specific confessions. We do this each Sunday morning at church. The "prayer of confession" that is said by the congregation in unison tends to be more of a general confession of sins. Then we normally have a period of silence, where we plea for remission of our own specific, individual sins and penalties.

These same people mentioned before for self-abasement before God, in other places claim righteousness. For instance David wrote :
  Preserve my life, for I am holy;
         You are my God;
         Save Your servant who trusts in You!
         (Psalm 86:2, New King James Version)
That does not sound particularly humble. Calvin explains, "By such expressions they mean nothing else but that by their regeneration itself they are attested as servants and children of God to whom he promises that he will be gracious." So glory is given back to its rightful owner, God. In other places (I find particularly in the Psalms), these claims of good are often in comparison to God's enemies and not in comparison with God's standard of goodness. Calvin goes on by stating, "The godly man enjoys a pure conscience before the Lord, thus confirming himself in the promises with which the Lord comforts and supports his true worshipers...his assurance his prayers will be answered rests solely upon God's clemency, apart from all consideration of personal merit."

Tomorrow's reading: 3.20.11-3.20.14

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