Note: These are informal and personal notes created for a presentation to a Sunday School class. If you like this article, you can get a much expanded version in my book, A Prayer Book, from Amazon.
We all pray, regularly, I hope. But how often do we sit down and think about what prayer is and how we should go about it? I was challenged to think about prayer when a friend told me I ought to spend two hours a day praying in order to become a better person.
Ambrose of Milan calls prayer "the wing on which the soul flies to heaven." Prayer has also been called "the study of truth" and "the first impulse of the heart and the last resort of the will." The seventeenth-century poet, George Herbert, wrote a sonnet defining prayer:
Prayer the Church's banquet, Angel's age,The key here, is the last phrase, "something understood"--between God and the believer.
God's breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav'n and earth;
Engine against the Almighty, sinner's tower,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six day's world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted Manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well dressed,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul's blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
So, what is prayer?
My definition is something like this: Prayer is talking to God, communing with God (versus simply acknowledging God). When you talk to God, you can praise him, thank him, ask him for your needs, seek his will, ask him to intervene in the lives of others. And remember, too, that God is your friend, so that you can talk to him in the same way you would talk to a friend; that is, in your prayers you can use simple language and you are free to express not just praise or petitions, but confusion, questions, doubts, worries, frustrations, failures, and so on.
Whatever is on our minds, we can bring to God. For God is not a distant, aloof being nor is he a proud king whom we must approach carefully, formally, and fearfully, and toward whom we must use elaborate language to address. Jesus said, "I no longer call you servants . . . [but] I have called you friends . . . (John 15:15). We can talk to God as a friend, a friend, in fact, whom we trust. In first Chronicles we find that God helped the tribes east of the Jordan: "He answered their prayers, because they trusted in him." -- 1 Chronicles 5:20
Now, if we keep the idea that prayer is like communing with a friend, we can see that prayer may include more than a direct conversation. We can also pray-that is, commune with God-by reading a Psalm of praise, reading a Biblical passage, singing a praise song, or reading or reciting a Christian poem.
Prayer is worship. In prayer we celebrate God and our being his child. By doing so we not only please him, but we sharpen our attention to his goodness and care and mercy. God gives our lives meaning, purpose, and direction, and he provides that good will come from every event of our lives, no matter how hard our follies drive us in the other direction.
Praise the LORD! Praise God in His sanctuary; Praise Him in His
mighty expanse. --Psalm 150:1
2. To draw near to God.
Prayer honors God, for in it we acknowledge that he is our Lord and
we are his servants. We should therefore pray regularly. It is too easy
to get caught up in the daily busyness of life and to act as if God did
not have a role in our lives. We might think of him only when we pray
over our food. How powerful can a short prayer here and there keep us
in touch with our Source and Guide. Every prayer, however small or
brief, reconnects us with our spiritual energy source, our life giver.
Prayer also strengthens our bond to God. The more we think about
talk to him, enter into his presence, the closer to him we will be. If
you remember that God is our friend, then the question, Why should we
is the same as, Why should we talk to our friend? Communication builds
relationships. The same is true with our relationship with God. We need
to spend time with our friends in order to preserve and build a
In fact, it is spending time with God that allows us to know,
understand, and love him--just as it is with people. Brother Lawrence
in his Practice of the Presence of
God, says, "We must know before we can love. In order to know
God, we must often think of Him; and when we come to love Him, we shall
then also think of Him often, for our heart will be with our treasure"
(Ninth Letter). Elsewhere he writes, "Let all our employment be to know
God: the more one knoww Him, the more one desires to know Him. And as
knowledge is commonly the measure of love, the deeper and more
extensive our knowledge shall be, the greater will be our love..."
What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him? --Deuteronomy 4:7
3. To show gratitude.
We thank God for all he has done and continues to do. We remember that he is the source of all good things. Prayers of gratitude remind us of just how much we receive at his hands. We live in such a glut of material benefits that we are tempted to overlook just how much we have, how blessed we are. We can have hundred piece orchestras play for us on command, full house heat and air conditioning with the flip of a switch, hot and cold water at the twist of a knob--and it's water that won't give us cholera or even dysentery, either. Just two hundred years ago, not even kings could live like this.
Think regularly of the common blessings you enjoy--fresh fruit year around, electric light, personal computers, shoes, automobiles, telephones, ball point pens--and books. In the people realm, think of your friends and loved ones, your teachers, your doctor, your dentist. Count your blessings. And then thank the giver of all good gifts.
Give thanks to the God of heaven, For His lovingkindness is everlasting. --Psalm 136:26
Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus. --1Thessalonians 5:16-18
4. To ask for help for ourselves.
Since God already knows what we need, why ask him for anything? To
our dependence on God, to remind us of it, to make us recognize it.
(See Number 8, below.) We ask for help to get God's direct
intervention, especially when we are powerless to do something
ourselves. Of the several hundred references to
in the Old and New Testaments, more than 90 percent of them refer to
prayer, either personal or intercessary. We ask for help in order to
get some of God's power on
our side. We are powerless; he is all powerful. God wants us to pray
for our needs so that we can make clear to ourselves what we really
want, what our priorities are, and how dependent on him we are for
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. -- Philippians 4:6
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. --James 5:13
5. To ask for help for others.
Intercessory prayer is at least as common as prayer asking God to help us. We reach out to God for the sake of others, perhaps others who cannot pray or will not pray. We ask for guidance and protection for loved ones, that the light of Truth might come to those who do not yet know God, and that God will continue to be sovereign in the movements of every event in the world. Even when we will be the main actors in the answer to prayer, we still ask for his assistance and approval. Thus, if someone is sick and we are 3000 miles away and can do nothing, we pray for God's hand in direct healing, or that he will bring the healing assistance through others. If we happen to be the doctor at the bedside, we pray for God's help in our intervention and for his power to make the remedy work--and, if the remedy is weak or powerless, we pray that God will intervene with his own healing.
Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one
another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous
man can accomplish much. --James 5:16
6. To persuade God to act on our behalf.
Ivan Turgenev rather cynically said that the purpose of most prayers is to ask God that two and two will not make four--in other words, we often pray for God to deliver us from the laws of physics, or from the natural consequences of our actions. However, there is Biblical authority for the fact that God can sometimes be persuaded to change our future. One of the most powerful is from second Kings 20:
In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, "This is what the LORD says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover." Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, "Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes." And Hezekiah wept bitterly. Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: "Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, 'This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the LORD. I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.'" -- 2 Kings 20:1-6What this tells us is that prayer can have an influence on God's actions. Such a fact is both glorious and terrifying, and it should make us careful about how we pray. In other words, be careful what you pray for because God just might give it to you. Remember that movie where someone said, "I want the truth," and the other guy said, "You can't handle the truth"? Well, the same is true with prayer.
The LORD said to him [Solomon], "I have heard your prayer and your supplication, which you have made before Me; I have consecrated this house which you have built by putting My name there forever, and My eyes and My heart will be there perpetually. --1Kings 9:3
7. To seek guidance and direction.
We need help in our lives and in our decision making. We need to seek God's will and his approval for our plans. The ever increasing pace of life is largely constituted in an increase in the number of decisions we need to make. So we need God's help more than ever. Prayer allows us to submit our thinking to God and to allow his direction to steer us. The saying is, "We can see only in a straight line, but God can see around corners."
Then they prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen. --Acts 1:24
8. To show God and ourselves (and emphasize) what we really care about.
We need to pray to show what really matters to us. Clarify our
This is an answer to those who ask, "Since God knows not only what we
already, but even all our thoughts, why should we pray at all?" Prayer
forces us to sort out our real priorities and concerns; it shows God
fervent we are about the things around us. As our priorities change,
our prayers may change. Are we truly committed to asking for help for
someone? Or do we soon forget about a significant need? How strong are
we at perseverance? To help us remember what we really care about, a
prayer list is a good idea. To help us remember what we have been
praying about, a prayer journal (or entries on your day calendar) is a
"Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up." --Luke 18:1
Prayer often serves to remind us that we have an ally, a friend, a helper, when we are in danger of forgetting. God won't forget our needs, but we may forget God's deliverance, unless we pray.
9. For spiritual renewal.
We pray for comfort and for emotional cleansing. Simply communing with God refreshes us as we remember the purpose and goal of our existence and as we remember that there is something-and someone-greater than our current difficulties. It is said that you can walk up to any stranger on the street and say, "I heard about your problem," and the stranger will reply with either, "Who told you?" or "Which one?" Perhaps all of us have unsolvable problems in our lives or problems that appear to be hopeless. We are powerless in the face of many events. Only God can either conquer for us or enable us to endure the things we cannot change. There is another saying that we often pray, "God, remove this mountain from in front of me," when we ought to be praying, "God, teach me to climb mountains." Prayer is refreshing just as talking with a friend about a problem is refreshing, even if the problem is not resolved.
10. To ask for God's will.
As short as the Lord's prayer is (see below), Jesus included this reason for prayer in it. We need to remember who runs the show because he can see the future, he can see all hearts, he can see around corners, he made the diorama called life on earth. Events we call chance he probably calls cause and effect. At any rate, Father knows best.
Epaphras, who is one of your number, a bondslave of Jesus Christ,
sends you his greetings, always laboring earnestly for you in his
prayers, that you may stand perfect and fully assured in all the will
of God. --Colossians 4:12
11. To listen.
Sometimes we should begin or end our prayer time with silence before
the Lord, listening for his voice. Not an audible voice, but the
internal whisper of the Holy Spirit directing us along the right path.
As in our interactions with other people, so with our communicating
with God: We shouldn't do all the talking.
Be still, and know that I am God: I will be exalted among the
heathen, I will be exalted in the earth. --Psalm 46:10 (KJV)
12. To confess sin.
Sometimes it is necessary for us to admit to God that we have been foolish, disobedient, downright bad. He knows it, but we are to confess it. Compare Daniel 9:4-19.
I prayed to the LORD my God and confessed: "O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands, we have sinned and done wrong. We have been wicked and have rebelled; we have turned away from your commands and laws. . . . we have not obeyed the LORD our God or kept the laws he gave us through his servants the prophets. All Israel has transgressed your law and turned away, refusing to obey you. . . . O Lord, in keeping with all your righteous acts, turn away your anger and your wrath from Jerusalem, your city, your holy hill. Our sins and the iniquities of our fathers have made Jerusalem and your people an object of scorn to all those around us. "Now, our God, hear the prayers and petitions of your servant.. We do not make requests of you because we are righteous, but because of your great mercy. . . . O Lord, listen! O Lord, forgive! O Lord, hear and act! For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your city and your people bear your Name." -- Daniel 9:4-19
Should we pray aloud or silently?
Is there a best or required time to pray? A position?
Are there different prayer positions for different moods?
How long to come to God, to be in his presence?
Do you have to feel you're in God's presence to be in his presence? Do we expect too much in "feeling" his presence? Do we let God get too far away between explicit worship experiences?
Prayer style is not important. You don't have to be formal, loud,
soft, emotional, or intellectual. Prayer
is communication, a personal relationship with God. Thus, by
analogy, since you customize and vary your communication style with a
you love (mom, beloved, friends, etc.) so you should with your prayer
style. Just remember that you are talking with a friend who loves you
(so it's okay to be informal), and that he is God (so show due respect).
The difference is in how you receive the return channel. Do you need to feel something to believe that God hears or is talking back?
Some Thoughts on the Lord's Prayer
Our Father in heaven,
Recognize that God is above us. We are on earth and he is in heaven, with a heavenly perspective. Recognize that we are praying to an external, real person, not to ourselves, nor to an earthly father. God is our father--the author of our being who loves us as his children and wants to be our guide and helper.
hallowed be your name,
Open our prayers with praise to God just for being God. Recognize that he is a holy God, due respect and honor. We affirm that we want God to be respected and adored and exalted, and express the hope that he will be reverenced by all.
your kingdom come,
Our first petition is that God's plan for the universe will be established and that all things will work toward the advancement of his kingdom. Put the global view first. We affirm that we join with God about bringing his kingdom into being on earth. "Your kingdom" means not man's kingdom.
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
We affirm submitting to God's will and acknowledge that God is the ruler of heaven and earth. When we begin to ask for our own needs, we must remember to defer all specifics and outcomes to God's will, for he alone can see around corners. We don't want to be caught up in ourselves and our needs so much that we ask something contrary to God's will or plan for us and for others. Our focus should be on God, the creator and ruler of both heaven and earth.
Give us today our daily bread.
This is the first petition for personal, earthly needs. This petition reminds us to be thankful for the blessings we often take for granted, like our food, hot water, aspirin, clean towels, indoor plumbing. Seen rightly, the minute by minute sustenance God gives us amounts to more than many of the great but singular blessings we sometimes desire so ardently. This request reminds us not to allow the blessings of our lives to go unnoticed just because they are common. We need the supports of life daily, and we should not take them for granted just because in our extraordinary culture they have always been there.
On another level, this petition is a request for daily spiritual nourishment--the daily bread of life that we need to continue our sojourn here.
Forgive us our debts,
Even after we are saved we are creatures of sin and error, in need of forgiveness, and of recognition that we continue to need forgiveness. Salvation does not eradicate pride in everyone, or selfishness. The saved believer enters into a process of personal amendment that may take a lifetime. As the saying is, justification takes only a minute, but sanctification can take a lifetime.
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Moses permitted divorce, Jesus tells us, because the Israelites' hearts were hard. Our hearts are hard, too, and we need to be reminded that we must forgive those who offend us. In fact, this petition is the only one in the prayer that Jesus commented on to make clearer to the disciples: "For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." --Matthew 6:14-15
And lead us not into temptation,
"The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak," Jesus tells us in Matthew 26:41. This petition reminds us to pray for the desire to walk uprightly. It is an indirect and perhaps euphemistic reminder that we should not lead ourselves into temptation, which is the most common case. We want to keep from sin and even from the temptation to sin, for as one of Oscar Wilde's characters said, "I can resist everything except temptation."
but deliver us from the evil one.
The prayer closes with a request for protection from Satan and his devices. Deliverance is accomplished by our focusing on the source of deliverance, God himself, the very God in heaven whom we are addressing and who alone can keep us safe. Once again, we are reminded that we cannot rely on our own selves or our own devices. --Matthew 6:9-13 (NIV)
Other Biblical texts on prayer:
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. --Romans 12:12
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. --Philippians 4:6
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. --Colossians 4:2
Pray that the LORD your God will tell us where we should go and what we should do." --Jeremiah 42:3
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. --Romans 8:26
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective. --James 5:16
Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. --Romans 12:12
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints. --Ephesians 6:18
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. -- Colossians 4:2
Three times a day he [Daniel] got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before. --Daniel 6:10
Paul in prison, singing all night
And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. --Matthew 6:7
Pray continually. --1 Thessalonians 5:17
Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, in The Practice of the Presence of God, has the resolution of the seeming difficulty in these two verses. He says that we should "establish ourselves in the presence of God, talking always with him" to "give ourselves entirely to God, whether in temporal or spiritual concerns" (30). He says that we "ought to act very simply towards God, speaking frankly to Him, and asking His help in things as they occurred . . ." (36).
In other words, we should enter into God's presence and keep in it, as we would be in the presence of a friend at our side all day long, to whom we can talk in brief conversations throughout the day.
Brother Lawrence goes on to say, "We need only to realize that God is close to us and to turn to Him at every moment, to ask for His help to learn His will in doubtful things, and to do gladly those which we clearly perceive He requires of us, offering them to Him before we begin, and giving Him thanks when they have been finished for His honour" (47).
"You would think it rude to leave a friend, who came to visit you, alone; why then leave God alone?" (90).
I still remember a time in graduate school I had been hunting for a passage in a book while I was writing a research paper. I had paged through and through several times, but couldn't find it. So I prayed, "Lord, help me to find that passage," and then turned the page and there it was.
Jean Ingelow has said, "I have lived to thank God that all my
have not been answered." Sometimes it takes awhile, sometimes it's
soon, for us to say, "The answer to my prayer was no, thank God." In
frustrations, we sometimes try to teach God things: "God, don't you
that I need this job, person, car, opportunity?" We sometimes need to
back and realize that God knows more than we do. I often tell people
that God can see around corners, but we can see only in a
straight line. That confuses us. When we go eventually get around the
corner, we see what God saw and thank him for the No.
Most of the people I've talked to agree that one of the major
lessons of this life is patience. We seem to be always demanding that
God do things right now. Even when is comes to patience: "God, give me
patience, and give it to me immediately." So it should come as no
surprise that God often waits--for our own good--before he gives us
what we ask in prayer. Too much too soon creates self-centered, proud
brats with a sense of entitlement--not exactly your model Christian.
Having to wait builds character, patience, and quietness of mind and
Here's an answer completely different from what you expected
Someone has remarked that many prayers are answered in a way differently from what we have in mind. There is the story (true or urban legend, I do not know) of the atheist college professor who liked to erase his students' faith. Every semester he would bring a glass laboratory beaker to the lecture hall and begin by sneering at religion in general and prayer in particular. He would close by saying, "If anyone thinks prayer is real, let him pray that when I drop this beaker to the floor it won't break." Every semester it crashed to the floor in a thousand pieces. Well one semester just before the professor let go of the beaker, a student stood up and said, "Sir, I will pray that the beaker won't break. If you will allow me until Monday, I will get some friends to agree to pray with me." Well, the professor could hardly turn down this opportunity to humiliate a publicly professing believer, so he agreed. Now, I don't know exactly what these students were praying for, but it may be that they were asking God to abrogate the laws of physics in this one case. "Make the glass strong or the floor soft"-who knows. At any rate, on Monday, the professor asked the student if he was ready, and on hearing that he was, the professor held the beaker out with a dramatic flair and a smirk and dropped it. The beaker hit the professor's foot and rolled off.
Sooner than you think.
Sometimes prayers are answered even before they are made. "I would have prayed for that if I had thought of it."
For example, I once went to pick up a rental car. Rental Agent: "Do you want to upgrade from a subcompact to a compact, only $17 a day extra?" Me: "No. The Metro is okay." Rental Agent: "Well, there are no Metros left, so here's a free upgrade to a Tempo." Me: "Thanks."
For a more extensive study of the many possible answers God gives to
prayer, see "Does God Answer Prayer?"
My conclusion at this point about prayer is that we should pray more, but not necessarily two hours a day in our room, or systematically, but as Brother Lawrence teaches, by practicing the presence of God, engaging God in an ongoing conversation-a conversation of praise, worship, request, thanksgiving, question, and above all, of love.
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