A Plan for Prayer
(Westminster Shorter Catechism Questions 98-99)
by Bob Burridge ©2012
Have you ever heard someone say, “One of these days I really need to get organized”? You might hear that after a long search for a recipe in the kitchen, for a tool in the garage, or for lost phone numbers and addresses. Sometimes it’s when homework or projects pile up, or the to-do-list gets to where it could be bound into a book. It might even be when closets are so full you have to post warning signs about falling objects for the unwary who dare to open the doors too fast. We know that the only answer is to get organized with a plan to handle things better as they come along.
Planning sessions are absolutely necessary for our military and for a successful business. War is never something we want to rush into without careful organization and planning. Companies that make things but never plan how to market them end up with serious storage problems and bills that can’t be paid. Even our vacation trips have to be planned so we don’t end up running out of gasoline in some desolate area with no motels, stores, or gas stations.
We need practical planning for our spiritual lives too. God tells us what we ought to be doing to grow in Christ and as a spiritual family. The means of his grace become neglected if there’s no plan for using them. Prayer gets postponed or completely neglected if it isn’t figured into our busy schedules. Bibles tend to remain unread if there is no plan to read and study them. We tend to be late for worship or not show up at all, if preparations wait until the last minute. If we respond to people’s needs without thinking ahead we might offend those we want to help. If we live in the world without a thought for our duties as God’s people, we will probably effect it very little for the Kingdom of Christ. We become part of the problem instead of being part of the solution.
If the means of God’s grace are approached casually or in a disorderly manner they won’t benefit us or anyone else touched by our lives. When we have no plans, we generally accomplish little for our Lord’s glory.
Westminster Shorter Catechism questions 98-99 introduce us to the Lord’s Prayer. To make prayer an effective tool in our spiritual lives we need to follow the principles given to us in God’s word as we put together a good plan.
Question 98 asks, “What is prayer?” The answer is, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies.”
Prayer is vitally important for every Christian.
Prayer is needed for our growth and for our effective participation in God’s kingdom. The prayerful Christian is quite a contrast to the insecurities and anxieties of the world around us. In Philippians 4:6 the Apostle Paul writes, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God;”
Our prayers are not made to change God’s plan. When we pray we are engaged in that plan. God uses the prayers of his children as he moves in grace and judgment. He uses them to help the needy and to comfort the grieving. By our prayers God holds back the flood of evil, and enables us to do our work skillfully. He uses our prayers to strengthen our children and other loved ones, and to give us peace even in the midst of our tensions and anxieties.
It is amazing that a duty so important and so useful for God’s people requires such simple and ordinary skills. The simplest believer with no special experience or training, even one who doesn’t communicate well, can be extremely helpful to the church by simple diligence, fervency, and sincerity in calling out to God on behalf of his spiritual family.
We have this assurance in James 5:16, “… The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Dr. Martin-Lloyd Jones has said, “Man is at his greatest and highest when upon his knees he comes face to face with God.”
Prayer is that means given to us from our loving and sovereign God by which we grow in grace, and participate in the daily unfolding of Divine providence, and in the work of redemptive grace.
It helps to have a regular plan for when to pray.
When we get busy, things without a set time on our daily agenda usually get overlooked or forgotten. We schedule time for our favorite TV shows, regular shopping for groceries, plan to be free for important football or basketball games, make sure we stop work when it’s time for lunch, or when it’s time to go home at night. Yet the same people often never put things God commands on their schedules.
If something is not placed on our calendar or schedule, it usually doesn’t happen. Of course we should pray during the day whenever the desire or need arises in our hearts. However, it should also take place regularly as God’s word shows us by its many examples.
It’s good to begin and end each day with prayer. There are many biblical references to regular morning prayer. Among them are some classic passages.
King David wrote In Psalm 5:1-3, “Give ear to my words, O LORD, Consider my meditation. Give heed to the voice of my cry, My King and my God, For to You I will pray. My voice You shall hear in the morning, O LORD; In the morning I will direct it to You, And I will look up.”
In Psalm 88:13, Haman the Ezrahite wrote, “But to You I have cried out, O LORD, And in the morning my prayer comes before You.”
There are also examples of God’s people praying in the evening as the day ends. Jesus and others in Scripture show us that it is proper and right to pray before we receive meals, or when we leave our homes to go to conduct business or to travel. Certainly we should pray throughout every day, as we think about God’s blessings, or as needs come to our attention.
The Bible reminds us of the importance of prayer as we read or study God’s word. Psalm 119:18 is a helpful guide as we open the Scriptures, “Open my eyes, that I may see Wondrous things from Your law.”
It is important to pray as we prepare for worship, particularly as we ready ourselves to receive the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. Paul warns us to examine ourselves before we come to partake of that Sacrament. In 1 Corinthians 11:28 he wrote, “But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup.” Psalm 139 shows us that this examination begins with prayer, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me, and know my anxieties; And see if there is any wicked way in me, And lead me in the way everlasting.”
Set these regular times of prayer on your daily schedule. Be aware of your need to pray as God brings needs and blessings to mind.
We keep records and files of our important business transactions, of good recipes or collections. It is reasonable to do the same with our prayers. Keep a list. Pray from it daily. Review it often and praise God when you see him at work and requests are completed. When you set aside times for prayer let nothing interfere with those times.
It’s good to have a plan for what to say when you pray.
Question 99 of the Westminster Shorter Catechism asks, “What rule hath God given for our direction in prayer?”
Answer: “The whole Word of God is of use to direct us in prayer; the special rule of direction is that form of prayer which Christ taught his disciples, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer.”
The model prayer Jesus gave us in Matthew 6:9-13 is a valuable guide. The remaining questions of the Shorter Catechism are about each of the parts of that prayer. Jesus teaches us to pray that God’s name would be treated with the highest respect, that his kingship would be displayed in a greater way, that what he reveals as right would be done, that our daily needs will be provided, that we will be forgiven and kept from temptation and evil. We should praise God as Lord of his kingdom, the all-powerful God, as the one to whom glory is due forever.
In John 14:13 we are reminded that our prayers should be offered in the name of Christ, “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son.”
This does not mean just adding the words “in Christ’s name” to our prayers. It means that we pray as those who trust in what Jesus Christ is, and who are resting their eternal hope upon all that he has done and promised to us. We pray as those clothed in his righteousness, not our own. Everyone resting in the work of Christ prays with that foundation, spoken or not. In fact, while it is a good practice to add those words, few New Testament prayers actually use those words. Yet all New Testament prayers are made through Christ. That is what it means.
Prayer must be made for only those things that are pleasing to God. The Apostle John explains in 1 John 5:14-15, “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him.”
Prayers for things God has not promised or approved have no foundation for confidence. This is why prayer must be informed by God’s word, and consistent with what it says is good. It should never be to get our personal wishes or ways. James 4:3 warns, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.”
If we pray according to God’s revealed will (for things that fit within his promises and which promote his glory) then our prayers will be answered. This is what we do when we pray in the name of Christ. We pray as those united with him by God’s grace, and who therefore love and desire his ways. So in John 14:14 Jesus could say, “If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.”
So our regular prayers should begin with God’s wonder. Praise him for his glory, his promises, and the blessings he gives. Then consider your need by repenting of your sins and failure to honor him as he deserves. Return again to praise God for your salvation in Christ. That he died in your place, forgives your sins, and enables you in your battle to become more like him in thought, word and deed. Then bring your needs to him; for yourself, your family, friends, church, those you work with, and for the world and its leaders. Learn from God’s word how to pray from the examples and teachings God has preserved for us there.
Put the plan into practice.
It is even good to pray about praying. Ask God to help you do it better.
Once your plan for prayer is worked out, make a copy of the plan and put it where you can see it, where it can remind you about it. You might put it in your daily planner, post the plan on your refrigerator door, or on a bulletin board where you keep your jobs listed. However you remember things, put your prayer plan there.
Encourage one another to pray. Bring it up with your family and friends in conversations. Remember to be kind, supportive, and tactful if someone keeps forgetting to pray. The goal is to help one another improve, not to catch each other doing something wrong. Paul warns us in Galatians 6:1-2, “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
Prayer is a great responsibility and a wonderful privilege. If we expect to grow in Christ, we need the nourishment of all the means of grace. Prayer is one of those means. It is vitally important. If prayer is neglected, your whole spiritual life will suffer. We should not expect to grow spiritually without it.
Like a good meal that keeps your body healthy, your spirit grows healthy when you pray regularly. This is God’s promise to his children.
(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)