Recent Posts
While the book of Acts gives examples of early churches gathering for worship—Scripture reading, [more]
Some might be surprised to learn that the word emotion is perhaps only 200 years [more]
Christians are often hurt and confused when problems come up and a leader abruptly leaves. [more]
Knock. Knock. Knock. Who could that be at the door? you think. I have so [more]
Jeff Straub Monday night, June 17th, in the presence of his family, Dr. Rolland McCune [more]

Reverence in prayer

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.

Ryan Martin

About Ryan Martin

Ryan Martin is pastor of the First Baptist Church of Granite Falls, Minnesota. Prior to that, he served as the associate pastor of Bethany Bible Church in Hendersonville, North Carolina. He is on the board of directors of Religious Affections Ministries. Ryan received his undergraduate degree at Northland Baptist Bible College, and has received further training from Central Baptist Theological Seminary of Minneapolis, Minn. (M.Div., 2004; Ph.D., 2013). He was ordained in 2009 at Bible Baptist Church of Elk River, Minn. (now Otsego, Minn.). He has a wife and children too. Ryan is the associate editor of Hymns to the Living God (Religious Affections Ministries, 2017). He contributed to the Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans, 2017) and is the author of Understanding Affections in the Theology of Jonathan Edwards: "The High Exercises of Divine Love" (T&T Clark, 2018).

  1. John Calvin, Institutes (ed. John T. McNeill; trans. Ford Lewis Battles; LCC 21; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 854. []
  2. 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. []
  3. I have in mind difficulties like ‘unemotional’ singing of old hymns, inattentiveness to the preached Word, etc. []

5 Responses to Reverence in prayer

  1. In a course at Westminster, I was required to read some essays by the modern French mystic Simone Weil. I would commend, in relation to your post here, her essay "Reflections on the Right Use of School Studies with a View to the Love of God." It is available both in a book called Waiting for God and in the very valuable ISI publication The Great Tradition.

    Her point (most relevant to your post) is that academic studies, for whatever other value they might have, are useful in that they cultivate in us the ability to give sustained attention. She mentions specifically long division problems. As (she maintains) prayer is itself sustained attention, long division problems (and other academic exercises) are make a vital contribution to spiritual life.

  2. I would have never thought of that. Never. :)

    Thanks, Michael. Seriously, I agree with what you're saying (via Weil). In our day of video games and shot camera cuts in film and television, we do need to take pains to cultivate long attention spans. I would even go so far to say that we need to encourage our church members to do this, and encourage them to push their children to cultivate these mental habits.

  3. The "answer" to the problem that you'd hear from the Anglican side of the aisle is this: write down your prayers on a piece of paper before you bring them to corporate worship. Then, when it is time for you to offer your prayer, read out loud what is on the paper and then stop.
    Such preparation works wonders against verbose, rambling, diffuse, and thoughtless praying, not to mention inattentiveness while praying. And little else can show more reverence when speaking to God than to prepare one's words with care before offering them to Him in the midst of the congregation.

  4. Ah, yes, Fr. Bill. Those are good suggestions for the one leading in corporate worship. I was actually trying to address those who hear the prayers in corporate worship or who are praying privately (though your advice might apply for the latter group).

Leave a reply