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, 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 (3.20.5).1
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?
I would humbly propose that a better solution would be to confess our sin of irreverence and inattentiveness, repent, and ask God to rescue us from our proclivity to sin. Then, by the grace of God, we as believers should believe the promises of God, especially those blessings God has given to prayer, and with ardor and awe attend to our holy conversation with our omnipotent and merciful God. In this way, again, we show that God himself and his grace is the most relevant way for us to be released from sin and to combat the Tempter who would draw us away from our blessed Lord and God.
- John Calvin, Institutes (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; LCC 21; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 854. [↩]
- One of the marks of our milieu is the debasing of friendship and conversation; we catalog and number and define our friends via social media websites. We hardly know how to speak to one another anymore. One wonders if this practice has had or will have further negative ramifications on our ability to attend to the Word and prayer as we ought. [↩]
- I have in mind difficulties like ‘unemotional’ singing of old hymns, inattentiveness to the preached Word, etc. [↩]