7 Principles of Prayer
The best books and teachings on prayer always revolve around, or at least include, an exposition of the Lord’s Prayer not because of my subjective preference but because it is God’s direction for effective prayer. This, however, is contrary to many Christians today who view prayer more as a means to get God to do stuff for them instead of communing with God. The Lord’s Prayer is more of a formality, not a guide, and they enthrall themselves with step by step methods to pray effectively. To them, effective prayer gets the most from God.
J.I. Packer, who recently went to be with the Lord, diagnosed the root of this problem as having the wrong centre of reference in our theology. The source of the problem extends further than our prayer lives. It fails, Packer notes, “to produce deep reverence, deep repentance, deep humility, a spirit of worship, a concern for the church.” What is the root of this failure? The centre of reference is man. As such, Packer explains, “it is too exclusively concerned with to be ‘helpful’ to man—to bring peace, comfort, happiness, satisfaction—and too little concerned to glorify God.”
A man-centred approach to the Bible and the gospel certainly changes the course of almost everything in the Christian life, including prayer. This means biblical, God-glorifying, God-centred prayer—the Lord’s Prayer—is more concerned with bringing God glory than being “helpful” for us. Incidentally, or by a round-about way, that kind of prayer turns out to be more “helpful” to us.
In his book, Prayer, Timothy Keller traces seven principles of prayer through the teachings of Augustine, John Calvin, and Martin Luther. They are God-centred, and they follow the progression of the Lord’s Prayer.
“Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
‘Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
‘Give us this day our daily bread.
‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]
— Matthew 6:9-13
1. Be the right person for prayer
The first words of the prayer tell us a lot about the one to whom we pray, but it also tells us a lot about the kind of person who prays. Not everyone has the privilege to call God their Father. In a sense, God is the father of all He created, but there is a special title of Father given for His relationship to His children. John tells us in his gospel that only those united to Christ have this special privilege. “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-13). The following petitions of the Lord’s Prayer give additional support to this point. Unless we come humbly to God through Christ, we cannot come to Him as our Father.
2. Pray to the Father in Jesus’ name
Some of the great Christians of old made a habit of addressing each person of the Trinity when they prayed. Because we commune with a triune God, such a practice is commendable with caution. Scripture portrays the work of Christ as our mediator (1 Timothy 2:5) and the Holy Spirit as our intercessor (Romans 8:26-27), leaving us with the question of whom they mediate and to whom they intercede. The answer is God the Father. This is why we pray in Jesus’ name, not as some magical incantation, but as wholehearted trust in Christ’s priestly office of mediator. So, while we address each person of the Trinity, we cautiously understand the work of both the Son and the Spirit is to bring us to the Father.
3. Fear God in Heaven
Throughout the wisdom literature in Scripture, the act of fearing God stands out as the primary theme. What Solomon, David, and the other authors intended by it was to get to the heart of Christian living. Fearing God is not some disinterested reverence, but awe and fear at the greatness, severity, holiness, and perfection of God that consumes the believer from the heart to good works. In prayer, we are to have the same attitude. While we address God as Father, we also address Him “in heaven,” indicating His rule over us. This is our attitude for prayer, setting us in a humble posture as we come to our Father. What this means for us when we pray is that we do not come to God with our best, most polished, and fancy worded prayers, but that we come as we truly are—that we pray from our heart and not from our lips.
4. Humility in exaltation
Unsurprisingly, our humble posture in prayer bears fruit in exalting God. The difference between many of our prayers and the way Jesus taught us to pray is in the recipient. We are often the benefactors (perceived more often than actualized) of our prayers because our centre of reference is us. On the other hand, Jesus’ way of praying centres on God, teaching us our greatest concern in prayer is exalting and glorifying God, not helping ourselves.
5. Submissive trust
Augustine, Calvin, and Luther each emphasized God’s wisdom and will as more important than ours, particularly in praying for our daily necessities. If it is true that God’s will overrides ours in prayer, many will ask, why pray at all? Three simple answers guide us to trust God and submit to His will. First, God invites us to pray about anything (e.g. The Psalms). Secondly, we won’t receive it if we don’t ask. Thirdly, we are prone to interpret God’s blessings as products of our own efforts. Prayer is not meritorious, nor are we wiser than God so our prayers must, therefore, follow Jesus’ example: “Thy will be done.” Implied in this prayer is the crushing of our will so that we no longer consider it. Is this terrifying? Yes, to the one who doesn’t trust in God’s goodness. However, God in His goodness has better intentions for our lives than we do, even if they take us down paths we never intended to go. The point of prayer is not to help us do what we want but to glorify God. So, we do not fear being told “no” because we asked for the wrong thing; we trust God wholeheartedly instead and submit ourselves to His goodness.
6. Confident trust in God’s goodness
If we submit to God’s goodness in prayer, thankfulness and gratitude will temper our prayers. Paul tells us it is God’s will for us to pray with thankfulness incessantly (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Why does a grateful heart display our trust in God’s goodness? The answer might be obvious, but it is worth noting: gratefulness blocks everything but God’s goodness from our focus. God always has good intentions for His children, even in troubling and testing times, and we glorify Him when we concentrate on it.
7. Confession of sin
Confessing our sin to God is the practical application of the above principles combined. Since God is holy, and we are not, confession of sin is fundamental to being the right person for prayer. It recognizes that we are not what we will be. It confirms our innate inability to save ourselves. It is humility. Positively, confessing our sin exalts the perfection of God and the righteousness of Christ, and when we confess, we entrust ourselves to the goodness of God.
Both Calvin and Luther maintained that the most important principle of prayer is no principle or rule of prayer places God in our debt. In other words, no principle of prayer forces God to act for us. We are back to where we began: prayer is not about helping us. It will help us as a result, but such is not God’s intention for prayer. So, let us pray, centred on God in awe and fear, trusting only in His goodness to us in Christ.
 J.I. Packer’s introduction to John Owen’s book, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.