‘Lord, teach us to Pray!’

How easy it is for us to become frustrated over our carelessness in prayer and, indeed, the way it all too often ends up with prayerlessness and damages our walk with God. Like Jesus’ disciples, again and again we need to say, ‘Lord, teach us to pray!’ That is, not merely that we need to learn repeatedly what to pray and how to pray, but also the place of prayer as a sine qua non of the life of faith.

Of course, we know this – all too often from the painful reality of recurrent failure – and we assume we know where the answers lie. We quite rightly look to the prayers in Scripture that function both as patterns for praying, but also as prayers we can use ‘off the shelf’ for ourselves. There are, however, other dimensions to God’s provision that educate and train us in our prayer life. A key, but often overlooked example being the context of the prayers we find in the Bible.

So, for example, Daniel’s lengthy prayer in chapter nine of the Old Testament book that bears his name. It’s passion, contrition and confidence all flow out of the fact he had been reading the prophecy of Jeremiah and was witnessing the fulfilment of what God had promised and revealed through his servant. What Daniel says to God is a direct response to what God had already said to his people. The words we offer to God in prayer are shaped by a reverent and reflective response to his words to us in Scripture.

When we move into the New Testament our horizons for prayer are elevated even further. Especially through observing Jesus at prayer; but also, through the prayers of his apostles.

Paul is a model of this since many of his letters have prayers for his readers embedded along with the instruction they contain. Often, as we compare the content of the specific prayers he offers for them, we catch a glimpse of what he wants them to learn. But his prayers go further. Indeed, they often give us a glimpse of what shaped him as a man of prayer, as much as his prayers themselves.

One of the most striking things in terms of what shaped Paul’s prayers is what shaped him as a man of prayer. We see this in the details Paul often highlights about himself in relation to the prayers he offers. His context impacts the content of his prayers.

So, as he writes to the Philippians and summarises his prayers for this church, he identifies three things that shape the way he prays: who he is, what he is and where he’s at as a Christian.

As he never tires of reminding his readers elsewhere, his self-understanding was never confined to what he was in himself; it was always in his being ‘in Christ Jesus.’ This spills over into the way he regards every true believer and the new community to which they belonged (Php 1.2). This undergirded his confidence in prayer, guaranteeing a hearing in heaven because he was united to the man from heaven as our Great High Priest, Mediator and Advocate with the Father.

The apostle was also profoundly conscious of what he was: a ‘servant of Christ Jesus’ (Php 1.1). His redeemed relationship with our Lord was bound up with the whole new role in life he had been given. No longer was he given over to serving himself, or the cause of his former life as a Pharisee; he had been called into the service of the King of kings and Lord of lords and gladly gave himself to all that this entailed.

The final detail to which Paul points in relation to his prayer for the Philippians is quite literally to where he was at. He was in prison (Php 1.12-13). Painful and frustrating though his situation was, he did not chafe against it. Instead, he saw it as a God-given opportunity for the gospel he might otherwise never have had.

These three seemingly incidental details were crucial to his being able to pray with confidence about the future of this troubled congregation (Php 1.6-11). Despite their failures, he knew God’s grace would bring them to where he promised they would be.

So too for us, when we remind ourselves of who we really are ‘in Christ,’ what we now are as his ‘servants’ and where we’re at in terms of God’s providential dealings with us, our prayers are guaranteed to be enriched, because our focus is ultimately upon our Saviour.

Mark Johnston