He is “the God of all grace” (1 Peter 5:10). Not only did he choose us before the world began, and give his Son to save us, and cause us to be born again, but he also sustains the whole of our Christian lives, from day one to that Day, in his matchless grace. He covers our lives with his unexpected kindness through people and circumstances, in good times and bad, and showers us with unforeseen favor in sickness and health, in life and in death.
But he doesn’t always catch us off guard. He has his regular channels — the means of grace — the well-worn pathways along which he is so often pleased to pass and pour out his goodness on those waiting expectantly. The chief thoroughfares are his word, his church, and prayer. Or his voice, his body, and his ear.
The Speaking God Who Listens
First sounds his voice. By his word, he reveals himself and expresses his heart, and unveils his Son as the culmination of his speaking. By his word, he creates (Genesis 1:3) and recreates (2 Corinthians 4:4), not just individual members, but a body called the church.
And wonder of wonders, not only does he express himself and bid us hear his voice, but he wants to hear ours. The speaking God not only has spoken, but he also listens — he stops, he stoops, he wants to hear from you. He stands ready to hear your voice.
Christian, you have the ear of God. We call it prayer.
A Conversation We Didn’t Start
Prayer, very simply, is talking to God. It is irreducibly relational. It’s personal — he is the Absolute Person, and we are the derivative persons, fashioned in his image. In a sense, prayer is as basic as persons relating to each other, conversing, interacting, but with this significant caveat: In this relationship, he is Creator, and we are creatures. He is Lord, and we are servants, but because of his amazing love and extravagant grace, he invites us to interact. He has opened his mouth. Now he opens his ear.
Prayer, for the Christian, is not merely talking to God, but responding to the one who has initiated toward us. He has spoken first. It is not a conversation we start, but a relationship into which we’ve been drawn. His voice breaks the silence. Then, in prayer, we speak to the God who has spoken. Our asking and pleading and requesting spring not from our emptiness, but his fullness. Prayer doesn’t begin with our needs, but with his bounty. Prayer is a reflex to the grace he gives to the sinners he saves. It is soliciting his provision in view of the power he has shown.
Prayer is the glad response from the Bride, in a happily submissive relationship with her Groom, to his sacrificial and life-giving initiatives.
The Great Purpose of Prayer
It shouldn’t surprise us, then, to find that prayer is not finally about getting things from God, but getting God. Born in response to his voice, prayer makes its requests of God, but is not content to only receive from God. Prayer must have him.
It is not wrong to want God’s gifts and ask for them. Most prayers in the Bible are for the gifts of God. But ultimately every gift should be desired because it shows us and brings us more of him. . . . When this world totally fails, the ground for joy remains. God. Therefore, surely every prayer for life and health and home and family and job and ministry in this world is secondary. And the great purpose of prayer is to ask that — in and through all his gifts — God would be our joy. (John Piper, When I Don’t Desire God, 142–143)
Or, as C.S. Lewis says so memorably, “Prayer in the sense of petition, asking for things, is a small part of it; confession and penitence are its threshold, adoration its sanctuary, the presence and vision and enjoyment of God its bread and wine” (The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 8).
Prayer’s Practices in Perspective
So, prayer — having God’s ear — is ultimately about having more of God. And having God’s ear (like hearing his voice) is not first and foremost about our particular practices and postures, but the principle of continually relating to him, privately and with others. He is holy, and so we worship (adoration). He is merciful, and so we repent (confession). He is gracious, and so we express appreciation (thanksgiving). He is loving, and so we petition him for ourselves, our family, our friends (supplication).
Because prayer is part and parcel of on ongoing relationship with God, Luke doesn’t highlight the particular times or places of early-church prayer, but tells us, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). And Paul charges the church not to specific prescribed habits, but to “be constant in prayer” (Romans 12:12), to “continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2), to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), to be “praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Ephesians 6:18).
Such a pervasive call to prayer is not the stuff of impersonal achievement and raw discipline and boxes to check, but intimate relationship. It has underneath it not an iron human will, but an extraordinarily attentive divine Father who is eager to “give good things to those who ask him” (Matthew 7:11).
Not only is he a Father who reveals his bounty in words, and “knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8), but he wants you to ask. He wants to hear. He wants to interact. He means to have us not in a hypothetical relationship, but in reality.
In Jesus’s Name We Pray
All this is possible only through the person and work of his Son. Not only did Jesus die for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3), and to show God’s love for us (Romans 5:8), but he rose from the grave and ascended to heaven as “a forerunner on our behalf” (Hebrews 6:20), appearing in the very presence of God on our behalf (Hebrews 9:24). Jesus is “at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). Having conquered death, the God-man, stationed in his glorified body, “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Our having God’s ear is as sure as our having God’s Son.
And so in this light, we make general intentions into specific plans. We find a regular time and place. We pray by ourselves and with others. Scheduled and spontaneous. In the car, at the table, in bed. We pray through Scripture, in response to God’s word. We adore, confess, give thanks, and petition. We learn to pray by praying, and by praying with others, and discover that “praying regularly with others can be one of the most enriching adventures of your Christian life” (Don Whitney, 77).
Christian, you have the ear of God. Let’s make the most of this.
A revised and expanded version of this article now appears in Habits of Grace: Enjoying Jesus Through the Spiritual Disciplines. The book is available in hardback, for Kindle, as an audio book, and free of charge as a full PDF.
David Mathis also has written a study-guide workbook to facilitate individual and group study of the book.
Also available is an email course of five short videos, provided by Crossway Books.