Blog 147: 3.20.28 - 3.20.30
In these paragraphs, Calvin moves on from his criticism of the contemporary practice of prayer to the saints to the nature of true prayer itself. Underlying the discussion of private prayer is the understanding that God, as sovereign, is the one who gives all good things; thus; the believer's prayer is always to be directed to God whether in petition or in thanksgiving. This is a beautiful example of Calvin's understanding of piety and how both cognitive knowledge of who God is and practical Christian behaviour are inextricably connected: one cannot pray correctly unless one knows who God is; and the sign of knowing God is that one then prays correctly.
While private prayer is to be constant, there is also a time for public prayer. After all, the church is a corporate body, not just a collection of individuals. Nevertheless, there are peculiar temptations associated with public prayer: vain repetition, a desire to show off, and an appetite for gathering an audience of admirers. These are to be avoided at all costs; but public prayer is still something noble and great for God has honored it throughout history. And it must not be forgotten that the church is the people of God, not some building or area marked out for `holy' purposes.
What Calvin says here is brief but brilliant. In a day when many in evangelicalism are moving in directions that owe more to eastern mysticism than Christian teaching and historic practice, it is important to remember that true prayer rests upon a true doctrinal content. Prayer is not emptying ourselves and entering some zen-like state; rather, it is crying out to God for his grace, depending on him for all things, acknowledging him as sovereign, and thanking him for all he has given us.
There is also a distinction between public prayer and private prayer. In public prayer, the one praying leads the thoughts of the congregation as they enter the presence of God. This is an awesome responsibility and should be reflected in the language we use. For me, no sentence in such a prayer should ever begin, `Oh Lord, we just want to......' Prayer is not about us, it is about God; nor should it be clichéd; it should be shot through with awe and wonder.