Prayer is an English word. In the Bible it translates a goodly number of Hebrew and Greek words. And these original words convey many differing meanings, such as ask, beseech, call upon, appeal to, request, exhort, entreat, vow, supplicate, intercede, as well as praise, give thanks, and worship.
Apart from the concept of praise and worship, all the rest are words that we use in everyday life in social intercourse. They form the basis of human conversation. Here then is our answer to the question, What is Prayer? It is that special word we reserve for conversation, not with our friends, but with God.
Now we may take this one step further. In human conversation, it is always a dialogue (unless we find ourselves trapped by someone who won’t allow us a word in edgeways!) Both parties speak, and exchange thoughts and information. However, one is brought up to think about prayer as a monologue. Why is this? Simply because we have trained ourselves to believe that God doesn’t speak to us directly today, as He did to the Old Testament prophets. We have grown used to the idea that we must speak to God (in other words pray) but must not expect to enter into dialogue, because it simply does not happen. In fact if many of us were to actually hear the Divine Voice responding to our requests, we should be frightened out of our wits. And there would be nowhere to run to, because of God’s omnipresence. But if we were to stop and think about it, and focus our minds on the list of words above, we should soon begin to ask why it is that we do not expect God to speak to us. What is it that stops the dialogue from operating? Is it that God doesn’t want to talk to us, direct us, guide us, instruct us, and help us in times of adversity? And if not, then why? All this has to do with our traditions. As I said before, we have been brought up not to expect direct answers to our prayers.
In a recent article by Chuck Colson, I found the following sentence. Our aversion and resistance to truth is so strong that God often finds it necessary to employ extreme measures to get us to see past the lies we have embraced. I have quoted it out of context, but in fact it is a good way of referring to the present impasse about the prayer-dialogue. Traditions are so strong, that often we can be very lazy when it comes to challenging them. We find it far easier just to accept the status quo, and go along with the crowd. Furthermore, we don’t like standing out from the crowd like a sore thumb, but would rather go along with the rest. But the Lord has other ideas for His children, and we must attend to a few of His sayings in the New Testament, to find out what He really expects of our prayer times. Having been advised of a few new things, we may then find, as Colson declared, that the Lord will take strong measures to bring us into the ground of revealed truth, rather than tradition.
In Old Testament days things were different. Certain men were selected to become prophets. Not everyone had this ability to hear God speak. What did Moses say on the occasion of the choosing of 70 elders? “Would to God thatALL the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put His Spirit upon them!” (Numb.11:29) But on the Day of Pentecost a whole new administration began. Peter declared that the power of God’s Holy Spirit had been poured out upon all flesh, so that “Your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams, yes, and on my menservants and maidservants I will pour out my spirit, and they shall prophesy.” (Acts 2:17-18)
Take note of what Peter was saying. He was careful, in quoting this Old Testament prophecy, to include all different types of people. He mentions sons and daughters, which suggests no distinction between the sexes. He speaks about young men and old men, showing that age didn’t come into the equation, and the servant class, to prove that God is indeed going to cut across all social boundaries. There should be no problem in a young girl telling her mother that the Lord had whispered in her ear. There should be no censure placed upon the man who received a vision or a dream, neither should there be any trouble because Joe Bloggs, the road sweeper, shared his prophecy with those who were more educated in the assembly. Or so it was meant to be. One can imagine all manner of difficulties arising because of human reactions, but that is quite a different matter. From God’s point of view, He was opening the heavens to all, with the one proviso, that they had received “the power of the Holy Spirit.” That was to be the means by which the Heavenly Voice was to be conveyed. There was no other way in which man could receive words or visions from God. Moses declared this truth, as quoted above, and Peter gave the same word at Pentecost.
At this juncture, we must stop for a moment, because the word “prophecy” can cause confusion. Here again, it is largely because of lack of use, and lack of understanding. The word “prophecy” is a Greek word, and literally it meansthat which is spoken forth. And the verbal form, “prophesy” means to speak forth, and clearly it suggests a sharing of the very things that God has conveyed. Remember the child Samuel, who began to hear God speak to him, and didn’t understand what was happening? He went to Eli, and eventually Eli became aware of what it was all about, and instructed Samuel accordingly. It was then that Samuel shared with Eli the content of the Lord’s message to him. In the same way, God speaks today, and He expects us to share His word with others, thereby fulfilling the meaning of the word “prophesy”.
Thus far we have only emphasised the dialogue aspect of prayer, and this has been because of the great lack of understanding of this great truth. But now we shall concentrate more on our need to speak to God. First and foremost, our prayers should be the outpouring of our own hearts, telling God what we feel, what we desire from Him, how we appreciate His love, and how we worship Him in our hearts. This is the stuff of true conversation, and is the parallel with all human conversation. When we talk with a friend, we always address him or her from our own present standpoint, sharing our feelings and thoughts. So it should be with our speaking to the Lord. The more simple and straightforward our time with the Lord, the better it is.
But some people like to repeat other people’s prayers in their quiet times. There is nothing basically wrong with this, as long as the prayer is also one’s own expression of need. Sometimes, to read another’s prayer is a great help, because the wording helps us to formulate our own desire in a more excellent fashion. We may lack the vocabulary needed to express ourselves to God, and to find a prayer that meets our heart-felt need, using language we may not possess, is just right for us. There are books of prayers, offered to God by certain people in the past, and sometimes these can be very helpful to our own prayer times.
Having said that, there is a word of caution. Jesus said, “In praying, do not heap up empty phrases, as the Gentiles do, thinking they will be heard by their multitude of words. Be not like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” (Matt.6:7-8) Empty phrases, or “vain repetitions” as the Authorised Version puts it, can account for many church prayers, which are rushed through in services with little or no thought by either priest or parishioner. However, we are in this article, interested in private prayer, rather than corporate prayer. Let our requests be made with few words, and said in a form that is fully agreeable to our own way of speaking, and not in some “special voice”. “God is in heaven, you are upon earth, therefore let your words be few.” (Eccles.5:2)
What is the purpose of Prayer? I don’t think anyone can formulate a definitive answer to that question, but our own understanding, that has grown over many years, is that apart from the necessity of making known our requests, God uses this sacred contact to change us. In some strange way that is difficult to comprehend, the deeper our prayer life, the more we become aware of what God is doing to re-make us in His image. We may start off by thinking that prayer is more akin to a child approaching his parents when he has some need or want. And of course it is like that, so very much like a child-parent relationship. But just as the father sometimes says “yes” and sometimes says “no”, and yet again may say “wait”, so it is with God. And does not the child grow up to learn more about life through his father’s responses? So also we find our knowledge of God growing in proportion to the way in which our prayers are answered. Sometimes God grants our requests, sometimes He denies them, by which we learn that we have asked amiss, and that helps us to know more of what God likes, and what He dislikes, or that “the times are in His hands.”
Jesus said, “Ask and it shall be given you; seek and you shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you.” (Matt.7:7) Later on in His ministry, He said to His disciples, “All things, whatsoever you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive.” (Matt.21:22) Over the centuries these precious words have been a comfort to many, and have helped to increase the faith of God’s own. But at the same time, experience has shown that things do not always work out quite as expected by the simplicity of the Master’s words. Why is this? An examination will not be out of place.
James has a cautionary word that is helpful. “You ask and receive not, because you ask amiss, that you may consume it on your own desires.” (James 4:3) In the early days of Christian living, one’s thoughts have not had a chance of developing along lines of holiness and sanctification, and therefore it is possible to ask God for things that would bring personal pleasure, but not accord with the divine will. Gradually, this changes as one grows in the faith and knowledge of God. Young saints have to learn that God is not a “sugar daddy” to use a vulgar modern expression. So this is just one reason why requests can be denied.
Peter has this advice for married couples. “Husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honour on the woman as the weaker sex, since you are joint heirs of the grace of life, in order that your prayers may not be hindered.” (1 Pet.3:7) The Lord loves to see a truly happy and functioning marriage, and He tells us through Peter that this is a great help in the prayer times enjoyed by husband and wife.
The Psalmist has this to say. “If I had regarded iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have heard me. But truly God has listened, and has given heed to the voice of my prayer.” (Ps.66:18-19) A clean conscience is of great importance. If we try to hide from God what we are so easily able to hide from man, it will not work in our prayer times. Confession of faults, sins, and weaknesses is necessary, so that the Lord will see a clean vessel. A similar message comes from the writer of the Proverbs, “The Lord is far from the lawless, but hears the prayer of the righteous,” (Prov.15:29) which is emphasised again later, “He who turns his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be an abomination.” (Prov.28:9) Not only hidden sins, but also reluctance to be obedient to the divine code of conduct, can cause our prayers to bounce back on our heads and achieve nothing save heartache.
But then there is the positive side. Let’s have a look at that. The Lord has this to say through Jeremiah. “You shall seek me, and you shall find me, when you search for me with all your heart.” (Jer.29:13) Heart-searching is to be contrasted with mere mind-searching. The mind may want to be enlightened, and use its facility to study and research, but that is not in question here. The heart is an important spiritual organ. “With the heart man believes unto righteousness,” Paul tell us in Romans 10:10. One may search for God on one’s knees in prayer, in fact this might be the best place for a search, rather than reading books.
Paul tells us that “We do not know what to ask for as we ought, but the Spirit helps our infirmities.” (Rom.8:26) Thankfully we are not left to our own devices when it comes to prayer. The Holy Spirit, who is imparted to us when we believe, is constantly watching and helping us, usually without us even appreciating it. He who is able to say, “I had no idea what to ask for, but suddenly the answer came to mind,” has been in receipt of the gracious work of God’s Holy Spirit, whose presence is never announced, but whose work is to glorify the Lord Jesus. Yes, “The Father knows what we need before we ask.” (Matt.6:8) and the Holy Spirit helps our minds to think along those very lines.
The Lord encourages us to “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness,” (Matt.6:33) before attending to our own needs and desires. He tells us when we pray to say “Our Father . . . Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” This is because our own needs must be sublimated into the greater need of the whole world, that finally“The earth shall be filled with the glory of God, as the waters cover the sea.” (Hab.2:14) “If then we shall askanything according to His will, it shall be done.” (1 John 5:14-15)
These are a few of the Biblical answers to the question, What is Prayer? As we said before, it would be very difficult to give a definitive answer to this question, but that which has been said is surely a good beginning, and will be helpful to those who are now beginning on their spiritual pilgrimage. Prayer is not an easy subject, and that is why the disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” How much more should we ask the Lord for His enablement in these days.