The Bible’s Commands to Pray
As it turns out, the Bible does command Christians to pray.
Paul closes his first letter to the Thessalonian church with a list of things they need to remember to do. On that list is a short sentence on prayer, “. . . pray without ceasing . . .” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, ESV) This command is pretty clear. Pray. We must pray. Occasional prayer is not enough. Prayer during just times of crisis is insufficient. We must pray without ceasing. We must be constant and fervent in our prayer. The God of the universe wants you talk to him – regularly.
Jesus also issues a directive to pray. He prefaces one of his parables by saying, “And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” (Luke 18:1, ESV) The parable he goes on to share helps people understand that they need to pray, and pray a lot. He proceeds to tell the parable of the persistent widow.
The parable is the story of a widow who is being oppressed and appeals to a judge for justice. This judge does not fear God or people. He is not motivated by a love for God, and he does not care what other will think about him for ignoring the widow. So, he ignores her at first. But the widow keeps coming to him seeking justice. He resists for a while, but ultimately gives in – only to get her to go away. Jesus implies we need to be like the widow. We must pray. And we must pray frequently. We should pray so much that God could identify with the judge.
For good measure, Paul adds a few more commands to pray. To the Colossians he says, “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Colossians 4:2, ESV) Clearly an imperative: pray. Pray faithfully. Be sure to be grateful and give thanks as well.
To the church in Philippi he pens one of the more familiar passages on prayer, “. . . do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6, ESV) A word of encouragement to many. Great hope comes from being told to not worry and ask God for your requests. Make no mistake though, the word in the original Greek for “let your requests be made known” is in the imperative. This is an encouragement, but also a command.
At a fundamental level then, prayer is a matter of obedience. The Word of God commands us to pray. We must strive to become people of prayer.
The Command is Paired with a Promise
For some people, reading the above may have just been a “bad news first” moment. Already stretched by life’s demands, we are now adding something else to the to-do list. We might feel like our burden just got a little heavier.
This is a normal response. Theologian John Calvin knows this is a common response, and in his Institutes of the Christian Religion he points us to hope. He acknowledges the command to pray. He Calvin also points out that the command to pray is paired with promise.
Preaching his sermon on the mount, Jesus tells his disciples, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11, ESV)
What an amazing promise. Especially for someone who has just been ordered to pray. Yes, we have to pray, but we are also promised that God will answer our prayers. Prayer is not intended to be some empty ritual that we do simply because we must. It is intended to be powerful experince. And it is intended to be effective. What we seek in God’s presence – we will find! What we ask for – we will get! Our time conversing with God will have meaning far beyond rote ritual.
Jesus’ promise is a broad overarching promise to make our prayer effective. God’s Word reveals many other, more specific promises in regards to prayer. In the Psalms, Asaph tells us of God’s promise to hear our prayers: “I cry aloud to God, aloud to God, and he will hear me.” (Psalm 77:1, ESV)
The apostle Paul reminds the church in Philippi, “And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:19) This verse appears on a lot of coffee mugs, but it is still true. God promises to meet our needs.
The pages of God’s word include other promise in regards to our prayer life. One is God’s promise to guide us (Psalm 31:3). Another is his promise to give us wisdom when we ask (James 1:5). One of the most comforting to me is the promise to always forgive us when we confess our sins (1 John 1:9).
These promises change everything.