What is Prayer?

First published 5 May 2010

“Do not be anxious about anything,” says Paul, “but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6) James writes, “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray.” (James 5:13)

If we turn to Matthew 26, when Jesus was “sorrowful and troubled” (v37) in Gethsemane, we find that his response was earnest prayer. “Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed…” (v39). If the Son of God felt the need to pray in his darkest hour, then we should too. In fact, in that very hour Jesus told his disciples to do just that. He had asked his disciples to keep watch with him, but they feel asleep. When he rose from praying and found them sleeping, he said to Peter, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation.” (v41)

Prayer is one of those typically religious things. Most religions have prayer as one of their core ingredients. Muslims pray, Jews pray, Hindus pray, Sikhs pray, even the Roman pagans used to pray. But that can lead to confusion. I didn’t even understand the definition given in Wikipedia: “Prayer is a form of religious practice that seeks to activate a volitional connection to some greater power in the universe through deliberate practice.” The fact is that the concept of prayer is different – sometimes subtly, sometimes drastically – in different religions. That is not a surprise, since every religion differs in its view of God, mankind and the relationship between God and mankind. Since prayer is, at the very least, about communication by human beings, different religions will have different views and practices when it comes to prayer, depending on, a) who or what that religion says we must communicate with, and b) how said entity/entities prefer or demand to be communicated with according to that religion.

So we must beware of having a view of prayer that is a kind of eclectic mishmash gleaned from the pluralistic culture of our day. As Christians we must let the Bible guide us when it comes to prayer. And since when tough times come prayer feels most necessary and natural, we need to know what to pray in those times and what to expect.

For Christians prayer could simply be defined as the way that we speak to God. Let’s not confuse things by talking about listening to God in prayer! God’s communication to us might come while we are praying. But it isn’t prayer. God speaking to us comes through much more diverse means. Mainly God speaks through His prophets and apostles, and therefore through the Bible. But we may also refer to the inner promptings of the Holy Spirit, for example, as “the Lord told me”. But when the direction of communication is from us to God there is only one way of describing it – prayer.

It’s also worth pointing out that prayer is communication between persons. Our God is a “personal” God. That doesn’t mean that we each have our own individual God! I don’t mean “personal” in the same sense someone might have a “personal shopper” or a “personal identification number” – i.e. an individual thing that can only relate to one individual person. God is personal in the sense that he exists in a way that relates to us as persons. Human beings were the only creatures made “in the image of God” (Genesis 1:27). And so He does not have the same relationship with animals and trees as He does with human beings. Because we are made in the image of God, we are wired to specially relate to Him. The communication between God and human beings is person to person. And therefore the way that we communicate with God will be very similar to the way that we communicate with other human persons.

I make that last point because there are other religions that see prayer as simply connecting to a higher power. Their concept of god is simply a powerful being or a mystical concept or such like. Therefore, their gods cannot be communicated with on the same level. For them, prayer is something different than talking. When I visited Bangalore in India on business once, I had the opportunity to visit the ISKCON temple on the Saturday and to go to the local Anglican church on the Sunday. It struck me that one of the main differences between the Hinduism practised by ISKCON and true Biblical Christianity is visible in worship and prayer. Hindus say mindless mantras, in this particular case the Hare Krishna. Christians use intelligible, propositional, linguistically rational, communication. The Hindu aim is to use the mere sound waves from the Hare Krishna mantra, said over and over for hours on end, to revive a state of Krishna consciousness. The Christian aim is to communicate in words that people understand, an intelligible message from God and an intelligible prayer to God.

We speak to God, he hears, he understands and he answers.

But to say that prayer is “speaking to God” is to state only a very basic truth. When human beings speak to their creator it is a very special form of communication. Because God infinitely transcends us, the communication with him will naturally transcend any other person-to-person communication. Think about the most obvious differences. We are limited by space, time and by physical and mental capacities. We will only be heard by other people if we speak out loud (telepaths are extremely rare, if they exist at all in reality) or write or make signals. We can only be “heard” by people within an audible or visual range, or by those who are able to receive our written communication. The audible or visual range of our communication can be extended by technology (printed books, the postal system, telephones, video, internet, etc.), but not infinitely. There will never be any way for a human being to communicate with everyone on the planet. God, on the other hand, can hear the thoughts of our hearts, so that we can think our prayers quietly and he hears them. We can only concentrate on receiving communication from a limited number of sources. God hears all the prayers that are directed to him, and can in the same instant take in prayers from an infinite number of sources. He sees and hears everything in the whole universe all the time. We are limited to communicating in languages that we understand. God is not limited by language. Prayer may be “speaking to God”, but God’s transcendence means that speaking to him is something very special.

But we should push further. When human beings speak to God it is not just the transcendence of his nature that we need to consider. In other words it’s not just the fact that he is an infinitely greater being that makes speaking with him special. He is our creator. He made us. He made the animals, birds, fish, mountains and flowers too. So we are not just lesser beings, we are subordinate beings. Being lesser or greater does not imply any rights or responsibilities to each other. I am a lesser footballer than Wayne Rooney, but that does not create any relationship between him and me, and there are neither of us has automatic rights or responsibilities towards each other arising from his greater athletic abilities. However, my children are subordinate to me, owing to the fact that Heidi and I brought them into the world. They owe their existence to us, and therefore that creates rights and responsibilities within the family. Hence, in the same way God’s creation of the universe puts the universe under God – subordinate to God. Hence, in prayer we speak not only to a greater being, but to the one who gives us the breath to pray, the strength to live, the environment to survive within, and the mind to understand our needs, our environment and our responsibilities.

Furthermore, he didn’t make animals, birds, fish, stars, galaxies, atoms, etc. to relate to him in the same way as human beings. Men and women were made “in his image” and were given authority over the rest of creation (Genesis 1:27-28). So not only are we beings that are subordinate to God, we are subordinate with specific delegated responsibilities. God has given us an active role and purpose within his creation.

It’s worth pausing to take note that the recognition of this relationship between human beings and God, our creator, who is the source and ruler of everything, is absolutely fundamental to understanding the meaning of life, the universe and everything. At the very least, it is something you need to understand if you want to understand Christianity. In this age of postmodernism people tend to look at Christianity from the outside with a kind of watered down caricature of God. If you look at the cartoons and the satires of Christianity you would tend to find God pictured as a man with a white beard sitting on a cloud. In one classic episode of The Simpsons, God comes to sit down next to Homer beside the swimming pool in heaven! He is that great being who sometimes does things in the world and sometimes chooses not to, who has a place called “heaven” for people who choose to honour him before they die. We are lesser beings than God, but in no way subordinate to him, and certainly with no responsibility to him. It’s like me and Wayne Rooney: greater than me, but not in any way implying any responsibility. By contrast, the Christian view of God and man, which we take as being revealed by God himself in the Bible, is that he created us to have delegated authority in the universe, and therefore he has a right to demand our service, our allegiance, and we have a responsibility to live the lives he has given us in a way that honours him.

So when we pray we are speaking to the one who has created us and given us a role of great responsibility within his creation. This should fill us with awe.

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