Prayer and the Ministry
Danny E. Olinger
Ministers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church must be humble men of prayer. Yet, as the Scottish preacher Alexander Whyte once said, "If you want to humble a man, ask him about his prayer life." We are all convinced of the importance of prayer, but for many of us prayer is a struggle. We end up caught between the demands of life in a fallen world and the requirement that we pray. But we cannot pray just when it suits us or how it suits us.
This was part of the problem that Paul encountered at Ephesus, as seen in his first letter to Timothy. There were nonpraying men at Ephesus who wanted to be leaders in the church. They not only rejected Paul's apostolic teaching, but also balked at prayer. Independent and elitist, they refused to pray for all sorts of men. Paul makes it clear, however, that arrogant, nonpraying men have no place in the gospel ministry.
If you enter the gospel ministry, you must humble yourself before Jesus Christ. You are serving at his pleasure, and the nature of your service is defined by his Word. If your heart is devoid of proper humility, your prayers will show it. A man's prayers reveal something of his heart.
Those who aspire to the gospel ministry, no less than those who are already ministers, should value prayer as much as preaching and visitation.
Set Aside Time to Pray
In his 1959 address at Westminster Seminary, "Intercessory Prayer: A Ministerial Task," OP pastor Eugene Bradford urges those aspiring to enter the gospel ministry to set aside a time to pray daily: "May you who aspire to the ministry not make the mistake that many have made. Begin here and now-if you do not already-to set apart a certain period each day for intercession with God, and resolve to continue this throughout your ministry, come what may."
John Calvin agrees with Bradford. He says in his commentary on Acts, "It is good to have certain hours appointed for prayer, not because we are tied to hours, but lest we be unmindful of prayer" (Acts, 1.418). And in his commentary on Daniel, he says: "Unless we fix certain hours in the day for prayer, it easily slips from our memory" (Daniel, 1.362).
If you think that your days are going to be less hectic once you leave seminary, you are sadly mistaken. Your days will be even more fully packed. Therefore, you need to discipline yourself now to pray regularly. Prayer is a means of grace to obtain the blessing you need for a fruitful ministry.
The temptation will be to substitute activity for prayer. That is what I battle personally. There are things that need to be done, and you want to do them well, but you will fail miserably if you forsake prayer.
The bottom line is that you both pray and engage in active service. Men who learn that their strength is found in the Lord are men who pray. And they engage in active service. After instructing the Roman believers to serve the Lord zealously, Paul added, "Be constant in prayer" (Rom. 12:1-12). One sign of becoming too self-dependent is a lack of prayer, and it happens to many of us in the ministry. Our ministry should be marked by giving God no rest in praying and in claiming his promises, and also serving the brethren from the heart.
Pray for the Flock
You must pray for the flock. The Westminster Form of Government lists eight duties that belong to the office of pastor. The first duty listed is prayer. Praying for the people of God confers a spiritual benefit on them, and you receive a benefit yourself. But if you do not pray regularly for the people of God by name, then you are impoverishing your ministry. You will be in their homes, and you need to be able to look them in the eye and say that you are praying for them. If you pray for them and tell them that you do so, they will know that you love Christ and that you love them.
They need to know that you are not a hireling. They need to know that you are concerned for their well-being. Praying for them builds trust. That is not why you do it, but it is one of the benefits of it. They will receive your preaching better. They won't hesitate to call you when they need help. They will more freely pray for you and your work.
If you struggle with this, you might want to meditate on these verses:
- 1 Samuel 12:23: "Moreover, as for me, far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you, and I will instruct you in the good and the right way."
The prophet Samuel says this to those who have rejected his ministry; how much more should we pray for those who have not rejected our ministry?
- Romans 1:8-10: "First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers."
It is as though Paul cannot conceive of serving God without also praying for these people.
- Colossians 4:12: "Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God."
Epaphras, whom Paul calls a "faithful minister" in Colossians 1:7, made it his business to struggle, to contend, for the Colossians. You don't take something lightly when you struggle and contend for it.
You will need the support of your session and your church in order to pray as you should. If every little thing falls upon your shoulders, you will not have time to pray as you should. If you micromanage everything in the church, your time will be squeezed. When that happens and you do not have time to pray, you lose and the church loses.
Praying for the church is central to the ministry. Bradford writes, "The judgment is inescapable that the minister who does not pray for those to whom he is called to minister is, indeed, no minister at all. He is proud, conducting his labors as though he can succeed without God's power. He is cold and lacking in compassion toward the flock, not realizing what is the deepest need of his people, namely, the blessing of God."
Prepare for Public Prayer
You must pray for your people during the week, but you are also called to lead the people in prayer during public worship. In the OPC's Directory of Worship, 3.5, on "The Usual Parts of Public Worship," you will find the following:
In public prayer the minister is the voice of the congregation. He should pray in such a way that the whole assembly of God's people may pray with him, and the members of the congregation not only are bound to listen as he prays but should themselves pray in their hearts. To these ends it is desirable that the minister prepare himself for public prayers by previous meditation.
The gift of leading in public prayer needs to be developed, just like the gift of preaching. Two books that are helpful in this regard are Matthew Henry's Method of Prayer and Samuel Miller's Thoughts on Public Prayer.
Henry urges ministers to begin the week by thinking of the prayers that will be uttered in public worship during the week. Public prayer should not be left to last-minute inspiration, but rather needs to be cultivated.
Miller is also critical of pastors who bestow little thought and no preparation on public prayer. He writes:
The more my attention is directed to this subject, the deeper is my persuasion that a large amount of the defects observable in the performance of public prayer, is to be referred, not altogether or mainly, to the want of piety, nor to the want of rich and varied talents, but to the want of an appropriate and adequate estimate being made of the importance of this part of the public service, and of suitable pains being taken to prepare for its happy discharge.
According to Miller, you prepare for it, and then you pour your heart into it. "It is an old maxim, that no one was ever truly eloquent who did not really and deeply feel: who did not truly and heartily enter into the spirit of the subject concerning which he undertook to speak. The maxim is uncontrovertibly just; but it is peculiarly and pre-eminently just in regard to public prayer."
Miller has a detailed list of the characteristics of good public prayer. At the top of that list is this: good public prayer abounds in the language of the Word of God. Miller states, "This language is always right, always safe, always edifying. There is in the language of the sacred Scriptures a simplicity, a tenderness, a touching eloquence peculiarly adapted to engage and impress the heart." In the same vein, Calvin says, "There is nothing more efficacious in our prayers than to set His own word before God, and then to found our supplications upon His promises, as if He dictated to us, out of His own mouth what we were to ask."
The Relationship between Prayer and Belief
Traditionally, the church has believed that the rule of prayer is the rule of belief and action. If you cannot pray it, then you should not believe it or do it. And if you should not believe or do it, then you should not pray it. Graeme Goldsworthy, in Prayer and the Knowledge of God, argues that the way we pray should reflect the way we understand Christ as Lord and Savior and the way we come to him in our thinking and doing. In short, it should reflect our knowledge of God. The question "What do you think of Christ?" could well be indirectly approached by asking, "How do you pray?" Do we pray as Calvinists expressing a grateful response to God's mercy in Christ, or do we pray as Arminians putting forth the effort to gain acceptance before God?
Christ and Prayer
In 1 Timothy, Paul battles men who want to lead, but are unqualified because of their rejection of his apostolic teaching and biblical prayer. He encourages prayer with these words: "I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling" (1 Tim. 2:8).
This passage recalls Malachi 1:11, "For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering. For my name will be great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts." Paul understands that under the new covenant, prayer, like worship, is not restricted to one place. Being in Christ, the "new man" prays in every place.
Paul takes temple language-that which occurred in the one place in Jerusalem-and applies it to the Christian life. That means that everything you do is affected by your union with Christ. All of life is to be lived in service to God, and that's why Paul refers to "holy hands."
In the Old Testament, the lifting up of holy hands was connected to blessings and oath-taking. When the priest gave the blessing of the Lord, he lifted his hands to indicate that God, through his servant, was placing his name upon people. This symbolized God's promise to bless his chosen people.
But that is only one side of the covenant. On the other side, the people of God bless the Lord. Hands were raised by the people of God in the Old Testament when they took an oath before the Lord, pledging themselves to their God.
That's life in the covenant. Today, we are saying with our prayers that we belong to our God. In response to God's work in us, we are placing our names upon him in an act expressive of the total commitment of our lives to our God. God pledges his life to us in his word, and we pledge our lives to him in our prayers. This is only possible through the work of the one mediator between God and man, the Lord Jesus. You are in Christ, and being in Christ you are free to love him and to give yourself to your brethren. One of the most fundamental ways that you do this is with your prayers. Our prayers bring our union with Christ into view.
J. C. Ryle, the great nineteenth-century Anglican theologian, wrote, "God's elect are a people who 'cry unto Him night and day'. They are essentially a praying people. No doubt there are many persons whose prayers are formal and hypocritical. But one thing is very clear: a prayerless man must never be called one of God's elect. Let that never be forgotten." What is true of the church as a whole must be true of those called to proclaim the good news concerning Jesus Christ. Gospel ministers must be men of prayer.
The author is the general secretary for the Committee on Christian Education and the editor of New Horizons. This article is based on a lecture delivered to seminarians participating in the Readiness for Ministry seminars. Reprinted from New Horizons, February 2006.