Kevin is searching for a job. He needs to provide for his family, but he also wants to find work that makes a positive difference in his community. Before each interview he asks God to help him favorably impress the interviewer with his skills and experience.
Elise is the mother of three young children, and they are all with her on a rushed trip to the grocery store. Her youngest is hungry and crying, and her two toddlers are removing items from the lowest shelves and playing a spirited game of “football” with them while other shoppers stare disapprovingly. “Help me keep it together, Jesus,” she whispers under her breath.
Ty always keeps a list of names with him. Each time he sees it, he selects one friend and briefly asks God to watch over them. He considers how he might encourage or support them that day and asks for insight into their unique needs.
Sasha sits at the highest point on a familiar trail just after sunrise. The view is spectacular and fills her with joy. Without thinking or even realizing what she’s doing, she begins to hum a familiar song from childhood: “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder, consider all the worlds Thy hands have made.”1
Are Kevin’s deliberate requests prayers? What about Elise’s quiet plea on aisle seven? Would Mark’s “go-down-the-list” remembrance of friends be considered prayer? Could Sasha’s spontaneous song?
What is prayer, anyway?
Prayer Is Communication
Ask a dozen people, “What is prayer?” and you will likely receive a dozen different answers. “It’s talking to God,” one person might say. Another might respond: “It’s saying the Our Father or the Hail Mary.” Some might say prayer is asking a higher power for what you want or need.
For our purposes, let’s consider prayer to be “intentionally conveying a message to God.”2 And not just a message to any God, but to the God Christians call “the Almighty One,” the God whose history with his people is recorded in the pages of the Bible.
God encourages his people—those who believe in him and follow him—to pray to him.3 The Bible is filled with the prayers of ordinary men and women who intentionally conveyed their messages to God. Many of those were messages of petition, but others were words of praise and adoration; expressions of joy and wonder; confessions of doubt, fear, and anxiety; and statements of hope.
Prayer can take many forms, but deliberate communication directed to God is the heart of prayer.
More than Words
Many people learn to pray by listening to the prayers of others. Maybe as a child you heard prayers repeated in church or you remember the words of The Lord’s Prayer, and you use them when you want to pray.
This can be a great place to start, but simply mouthing words is not prayer. “Otherwise,” wrote theologian C. S. Lewis, “a team of properly trained parrots would serve as well as men.”4
The heart is involved in prayer as well. Prayer and relationship are inextricably intertwined. They belong together.
Francis Chan, a pastor, author, and philanthropist, has described prayer as “a way of walking in love.”5 Certainly that “way” involves more than repeating words and phrases and hoping that those rote words will magically connect us with God.
More than Petition
While petition (asking for our needs or desires) is a legitimate and well-known part of prayer, prayer involves more than just asking God for things. If we never move beyond “I want” or “give me,” then our prayers—and the relationship flowing out of them—will be stunted and unsatisfying.
Imagine a friendship or a marriage in which nothing but requests or demands were communicated. No words of affection. No thanks or compliments or appreciation. No sharing of hopes or dreams or even sorrows. Just “I need this,” or “give me that.”
Would you ever want a relationship like that? Could you run away from it fast enough?
A Growing Relationship
“Prayer,” says author and theologian Richard Foster, “is nothing more than an ongoing and growing love relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”6 Just as we grow close to the people with whom we spend quality time, we grow closer to God by spending time in his presence—praising, thanking, seeking wisdom, making petitions, meditating on his words, listening for his commands.
Prayer is not meant to be a magic remedy for supplying wants and needs—at least not exclusively. The point of prayer is relationship. Therefore, prayer “works” if it builds, enhances, solidifies, or deepens the relationship between the one who prays and the one to whom those prayers are directed.
“We ask in prayer,” writes author and theologian Mark Roberts, “because we want God’s answers. But more profoundly, we ask because asking brings us near to God. When we approach the throne of grace boldly, seeking mercy and grace in our time of need, we get more than what we came for. We receive both God’s help and God’s presence. We ask in prayer because we need answers. But we ask because, most of all, we need God. Supplication opens the doors to deeper relationship with the Lord.”7
Over time, our prayers become less about us and the “things” we bring before God and become more about him. “In the beginning,” states Richard Foster, “we are indeed the subject and the center of our prayers. But in God’s time and in God’s way a . . . revolution takes place in our heart. We pass from thinking of God as a part of our life to the realization that we are part of his life.”8
When this happens, the real adventure of divine love begins.
- “How Great Thou Art,” words adapted into English by Stuart K. Hine, sung to a Swedish melody. First verse and chorus: “O Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder consider all the worlds thy hands have made, I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder, Thy power throughout the universe displayed: Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: How great thou art! How great thou art! Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to thee: How great thou art! How great thou art!”
- John Piper, “Pray Like This: Hallowed be Thy Name” (sermon on Matthew 6:5–18, December 30, 2007). Available at http://www.desiringgod.org/resource-library/sermons/pray-like-this-hallowed-be-your-name, accessed February 27, 2013.
- See The Holy Bible, New International Version © 2011, Jeremiah 29: 7, 11–12; 2 Chronicles 7:14; Psalm 122:6; Matthew 5:44; Luke 6:28; Philippians 4:6–7; 1 Timothy 2:1–2; John 14:12–14; John 15:7; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; James 1:5–8, 5:13-16.
- C. S. Lewis, The World’s Last Night and Other Essays, (San Diego, CA: Harvest/HBJ, 1960), 6.
- Francis Chan, “Prayer as a Way of Walking in Love: A Personal Journey.” Paper presented at the Desiring God 2011 Conference for Pastors. (Notes taken by author during the presentation).
- Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco, 1992), 13.
- Mark Roberts, No Holds Barred, (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press, 2005), 28.
- Foster, Prayer, 15.
- Photo Credit: Zurijeta / Shutterstock.com.