Reverence in Prayer

PMT 2014-054b by Ryan Martin
Religious Affections Ministries

The section on prayer in John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is surely one of the most beloved passages of that influential work. Therein, Calvin addresses, among other matters, the importance of reverence in corporate prayer. For Calvin (Inst. 3.20.5).1), an essential mark of reverence in corporate prayer is attentiveness. He says,

Whoever engaged in prayer should apply to it his faculties and efforts, and not, as commonly happens, be distracted by wandering thoughts. For nothing is more contrary to reverence for God than the levity that marks an excess of frivolity utterly devoid of awe.

In this matter, the hard we find concentration to be, the more strenuously we ought to labor after it. For no one is so intent on praying that he does not feel many irrelevant thoughts stealing upon him, which either break the course of prayer or delay it by some winding bypath.

But here let us recall how unworthy it is, when God admits us to intimate conversation, to abuse his great kindness by mixing sacred and profane; but just as if the discourse were between us and an ordinary man, amidst our prayers we neglect him and flit about hither and thither.

Let us therefore realize that the only persons who duly and properly gird themselves to pray are those who are so moved by God’s majesty that freed from earthly cares and affections they come to it

Calvin uses the basic mark of respect and dignity in human conversation–attentiveness–as a crucial analogy to the dignity and reverence we owe God in our prayers.2 Reverence in prayer is not limited to this mark that Calvin stresses, though surely it at least includes it. Calvin observes the infinite majesty of God over that of mortal men, and emphasizes that our Creator and Lord is worthy of much more attentiveness than a man bearing even the most important message.

Yet, how often do we fail in this basic element of our prayer? How often, indeed, do we, as Calvin says, “flit about hither and thither”? How often are our thoughts, whether in corporate or private prayer, on something other than our God and the petitions we might bring him, sometimes even in plotting how we might later sin?

What is the answer to this problem? Judging from popular solutions proposed by American evangelicals to other “worship difficulties”3 faced in the recent decades, perhaps the answer is to change the way we pray. Maybe we should beam our prayers via images to the congregants’ smartphones, or begin rapping our prayers. Is this how we should prevent such irreverence in prayer?

To finish this article, click: Reverence in Prayer

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