Blog 152: 3.20.48 - 3.21.1

Iain D Campbell

Calvin discusses the adequacy of the Lord's prayer as a binding rule for his people. It is a summary both of what is acceptable to God, and what, consequently, is necessary for us. To add to this, or go beyond it, is to seek to add to God's wisdom, to go beyond God's will, and to stray from God. It is also to pray in some way other than by faith, since faith always leans on the Word of God. Prayer, therefore - our words to God - must first be based on God's word to us.

Calvin's discussion of prayer closes with an exhortation to believers to pray at specific times, and to persevere in the practice. In spite of a high theology of prayer, Calvin knows that we are weak and 'sluggish', and that we need to discipline ourselves to the exercise. Calvin suggests that there are times of the day particularly suited to prayer: 'when we arise in the morning, before we begin daily work, when we sit down to a meal, when by God's blessing we have eaten, when we are getting ready to retire' (3.20.50). Not that this excuses us from the exercise of prayer at other times; with 'eager hearts' we ought to 'hasten back to God', to acknowledge him in all our ways.

By naming such times as appropriate hours for prayer, Calvin is not suggesting that we bind God to a timetable: 'we are taught not to make any law for him, or impose any condition upon him, but to leave to his decision to do what he is to do, in what way, at what time, and in what place it seems good to him' (3.20.50).

By the same token, we learn through God's dealings with us in prayer, to wait on him, and to persevere in the exercise of prayer. There are times when our desires must be suspended, although we still wait on God in faith: 'even though he does not appear, he is always present to us' (3.20.51). He may not answer us immediately; such delays, Calvin argues, are no sign that God is angry with us. Many of God's praying people in the Scriptures, he says, 'are almost worn out with praying and seem to have beaten the air with their prayers as if pouring forth words to a deaf God'; yet they do not cease to pray. Calvin's argument is that the faith that prays is superior to the events for which we pray, or which come about by prayer.

'But', he goes on, 'if finally even after long waiting our senses cannot learn the benefit received from prayer, or perceive any fruit from it, still our faith will make us sure of what cannot be perceived by sense, that we have obtained what was expedient' (3.20.52). God may deny our requests while still attentive to our prayers, precisely so that we will rely all the more upon his word. After all, 'the Lord proves his people by no light trials'. These very delays are the encouragements to persevere in prayer; without that perseverance, he says, 'we pray in vain'.