How to Approach God in Prayer

Read: Hebrews 4:16

Many people today are so unacquainted with God or feel that he’s so far away they don’t even know how to talk to him and hardly even dare to try. But you can learn a way to approach him with confidence.

Suppose you wanted to approach God in prayer, to come into his presence with your needs and concerns. How should you go about it? With what attitude should you come? Here’s the heart of the Bible’s answer: “with confidence.” One New Testament passage puts it just that way. It’s from the letter to the Hebrews, chapter 4, verse 16:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Did you hear that? Let us draw near, let us approach God, with confidence.

Sometimes this same word is translated “boldness.” It comes from a root which means literally “all speaking,” “total freedom of utterance.” It suggests praying in an uninhibited way, without fear or hesitation, trusting fully that we shall be heard. It pictures a childlike freedom in pouring out our hearts to God.

Now when we ask, “How should we approach God in prayer?” a number of other answers can, of course, be given. We could say, “approach him with reverence and awe,” or quite appropriately, “with thankfulness.” Each of these is important too: “with penitence,” “with humility” or “with surrender to his will.” But no one of these, nor all of them together, can take the place of holy confidence. To pray with confidence is to pray with faith. And in New Testament Christianity, faith is the “one thing needful” in coming to God.

Listen to this same author of Hebrews in another place. “Without faith it is impossible to please him. For whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” In other words, we cannot please God, we cannot draw near to him acceptably, without confidence, without faith.

James, the brother of our Lord, instructs his fellow Christians that when anyone asks God for wisdom, he should ask in faith. “For he who doubts,” James goes on to say, “is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind, for that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord.” Prayer, to be effectual, to be heard and answered by God, must be offered in the faith that he will respond, that is, it must be offered with confidence. These apostolic writers are simply echoing this teaching of Jesus: “Have faith in God . . . whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you will receive it and you will.” True faith certainly involves those other elements we were thinking about. But all our praying, whatever else it includes, needs this basic confidence. You could even call it a distinctive mark of the Christian gospel. It empowers those who receive it to approach God with joyful confidence.

Now why is that so? What is there about the Christian message that awakens such trustful certainty in prayer? This passage from Hebrews, chapter 4, highlights three grounds for this new confidence. First, the gospel reveals God’s character, what he is like and how he feels toward us. Second, it proclaims how he has opened the way into his presence through Jesus as mediator. And third, the gospel brings with it great and precious promises.

God as “Father”

What does the gospel tell us about God’s character, about who he is? We owe it to Jesus that we can call God “our Father.” It’s true that he had been known to the people of Israel as the father of the nation. They were familiar with the wonderful truth that he had chosen Israel to be his son. But it was Jesus who made that designation personal and breathed into it childlike confidence. He was the first, as far as we know, ever to use the term “Abba” in approach to God. “Abba,” an Aramaic word for “Father,” is what we call a diminutive form, a very homely, familiar word. “Abba” was what the tiny Jewish boy learned to call his father in the home. It was like our “daddy” or “Papa.” The New Testament writers make it clear that whenever Jesus prayed, that was the term he used: “Abba, Father.”

In the Bible, fatherhood means “authority.” God speaks through his prophet Malachi to a wayward people. He reasons. He pleads.

A son honors his father and a servant his master. If then I am a father, where is my honor? (Malachi 1:6)

Jesus honored his Father in heaven. He listened to the Father’s voice, obeyed him from the heart, sought to please him in all things. For him, Father was a term of reverence. It implied submission to authority. But for Jesus, the will of this Father was self-giving love. The heart of the eternal was most wonderfully kind. He had read in the prophets how God feels toward his children:

Is Ephraim my dear son? Is he my darling child? For as often as I speak against him, I do remember him still. Therefore my heart yearns for him; I will surely have mercy on him, says the Lord. (Jeremiah 31:20)

Jesus spoke of God in that way again and again. He taught his disciples to believe that God was their Father, that he knew all about their needs and took their concerns to heart. According to Jesus God’s fatherly desire to give far exceeds that of the kindest earthly parent. “Fear not,” he said to his disciples, “It is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32). And in the matchless parable of the prodigal son, he has taught the whole world that God is like the father who goes running to meet his returning boy. He pardons him, welcomes him, even spreads a feast in his honor (Luke 15:11-32).

And Jesus, you see, made all that believable by treating people in that way himself. He was the Son of the Father, the revelation of his glory, and when people saw how Jesus cared for them, they could begin to believe that God is a father like that. That’s what Jesus said, “He that has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

That’s what this apostolic writer has in mind when he talks about coming to God in prayer. He says it’s like approaching a “throne of grace.” Do you see that marvelous combination? Majesty and mercy. The King’s authority and the Father’s loving heart.

Now just imagine, friends, how your confidence in prayer would grow if you knew you were coming to a “throne of grace,” to someone who has both limitless power and perfect love. Who wouldn’t run to his throne? Would such a Father ever turn you away?

Jesus as Mediator

But, you say, that is hard to believe. And you’re right. For many people, it seems desperately hard. So much that happens in the world doesn’t seem to bear it out. Such terrible evils happen to people every day! Such monstrous injustices go unpunished and unchallenged! Helpless people are ground under in one calamity after another. Little children are neglected or abused. Many either starve to death or have their powers blighted by malnutrition. How can God be both almighty and all-kind when the world is so full of outrage and heartbreak?

And that’s not all that makes it hard to approach God with confidence. There are evils within us too that trouble our consciences and make us afraid. “Even if God is all you say he is,” objects someone, “how can I be sure he’d bother with someone like me?”

It may sound strange to say, friends, but if you feel like that, there is really hope for you. Much more so, in fact, than if you see no problem in your coming to God. Your sense of unworthiness, unfitness to approach God, has a basis in fact. You’re in touch with the way things are. All of us are sinful people. We’ve turned away from God in our hearts, gone our own way. In one way or another, we’ve rejected his authority and spurned his love. It’s hard to believe that he would be accepting and kind toward us, isn’t it?

But the same Jesus who taught us that God is Father also did something to open the way into his presence. Listen to these words that come just before those about praying with confidence:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sinning. (Hebrews 4:14-15)

Jesus has become for us “a great high priest.” He once gave himself to die for our sins. He lives now, risen from the dead, to intercede for us. He is our brother who knows us through and through and who has opened for us by his death a new and living way into the presence of God.

Your sense of sin, your uneasy conscience, reminds you that you cannot come to God on your own. He is the holy Lord. You and I are flawed, wayward human beings. We need a mediator, a go-between, someone who can introduce us to the Father, someone who can make right between us what’s gone wrong. And Jesus Christ is all of that.

That’s why we can approach God with confidence. That’s why we can know that God is a welcoming Father, even for the most unworthy of his children, because he gave his Son to die for us and because Jesus suffered in our place to bring us to God. That, at least, is what reassures me. When I come to God, I know he’ll hear me, not for my sake, but for the sake of his dear Son. Not because I’m worthy, but because Jesus died and lives to plead on my behalf. And it’s that way for all who believe in Christ. We know that God will answer our prayers because we appeal to him in the name of Jesus, our Mediator.

What about you? Have you learned to depend on him as your Savior, your sin-bearer, so you can call God your Father through him? If you haven’t, there’s no time like the present to put your trust in Christ and come to the Father through him.

The Promise-Keeper

Here’s one more ground for a Christian’s confidence in approaching God. Not only has he made himself known to us as Father and opened a way into his presence through Christ, he has also given us his Word. David Livingstone, the famous British missionary, once likened God to “a gentleman of the strictest honor.” God keeps his promises.

People sometimes believe that having faith in God means believing that he will do anything they want him to do. On that basis, faith becomes a technique to manipulate Almighty God—example: “I think of anything I’d like to have. I pump up my confidence that God will give it, and then, bingo! He has to come through. I’ll get it every time.” A lot of foolish prayers have been prayed with that outlook, and I’ve prayed some of them myself!

But as I have studied the Scriptures I’ve come to a different perspective about faith. Faith doesn’t mean for me that God will do anything I ask if only I can get myself to believe hard enough. No, it’s believing that God will do what he promises to do. It’s holding on to the fact that he is faithful.

For that reason, the promises of God in the Scriptures have come to have enormous significance for me. They give me confidence. When I base my prayer on what God has pledged himself to do, I don’t have to wonder whether this is his will or not, whether he will answer my prayer or not. He has given to me, and all his children, his covenant promises. So I pray as King David prayed, “Remember your word to your servant . . . do as you have said” (Psalm 119:49). Then, though the answer may be long delayed, though all my circumstances seem to shout that God isn’t hearing me, I can hang on—because I have his promise. He’ll make it good.

One of the promises that I have brought before God again and again is this very one we’ve been talking about:

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)

Friends, through that apostolic writer, God is speaking to us, to you, to me. He’s saying, “If you come to me through Christ and pray with confidence, you’re always going to receive mercy. There’s always forgiveness for you. There’s always a hearing ear and an understanding heart. Your concerns will always be dealt with kindly.” And more, “You’ll find grace to help in time of need.” That’s “seasonable help” he’s talking about—just what you need when you need it. We aren’t always sure what that is. We don’t always know just what to expect. But God says that when you spread your need and concern before him as your Father, trusting in his Son, he’ll give you, at the right time, grace to help.

So how should you approach this wonderfully generous, faithful God? That’s right—with confidence.

About the Author

Dr. William C. Brownson was the President Emeritus of Words of Hope. Dr. Brownson served Reformed churches in Lodi, New Jersey, and Chicago, Illinois. In 1964 he was appointed Professor of Preaching at Western Theological Seminary, a position he occupied for ten years before serving at Words of Hope. In addition to a widespread speaking ministry in churches, on university campuses and at conferences, Dr. Brownson wrote extensively for the Church Herald, other Christian periodicals, and authored many books. Dr. Brownson died April 1, 2022.