Prayer - What is it

(A summary of the teaching at the recent (2020) TCFNSW Getaway by Harley Mills, President, TCFNSW)

A dictionary definition of prayer is: intercession, supplication (petition and request), worship, a contemplation. It can be an utterance, complaint, a hymn, an oratory.

My, off-the-top-of my-head, explanation to someone would be that it is “speaking to God”. A more biblical New Testament assessment would be that it is asking God for something or to do something, which is a bit of a surprise since we are often challenged over our self-centred prayers.

The two Greek words translated as ‘prayer’ or ‘to pray,’ proseuche and proseuchomai, (used 121 times in the New Testament) always refers to the act of asking or requesting or seeking something from God. The other two Greek words that are sometimes translated ‘to pray’ are the everyday words aitew (‘to ask, ask for, demand’) and deomai (‘to ask, request, beseech, beg’).

In asking God for something or to do something, our prayers are directed to a person not an inanimate or unknown thing. Prayer is a relational activity using words and is therefore often verbal.

Our whole approach to prayer needs to be shaped by knowing who we pray to. What is the God of the Bible like?

Firstly, we know that he is the capable and able Lord of the universe able to speak and bring the world into existence. (Psalm 33:6-9) He also continues to sustain the world, keeping it going and in doing so, allows us to live and rejoice. (Psalm 104:10-15) He is also the listening and speaking God, not like idols of silver and gold made by human hands. (Psalm 115:5-7)

He is the real God who made the world and acts, helps, remembers and blesses. He has both a voice and ear, able to speak and listen to our words. Words are part of the very nature of God and the people he has made. (John 1:1). In creating people, God made us creatures who also could speak, using words to form and express our thoughts to each other and him.

He is the holy God, too pure for us to meet. (1 Timothy 6:15-16) (Habakkuk 1:13) (Romans 3:10-11) Incredibly, He is the merciful God. In the old covenant we see this in God‘s gracious and constant rescued of his stubborn, sinful people. He dwells in their midst, listens to their prayers, and provides a means for them to approach him and then find forgiveness through the sacrificial system. (Psalm 65:1-4) And in the New Testament the repeated ceremony of the Old Testament sacrifices is replaced by the reality of the eternal sacrifice of the Son of God in our place. (Hebrews 9:11-14)

Why should we pray?

We should pray because the great all-powerful God who made the world, instead of eliminating us as his enemies, has instead rescued us from our rebellion and adopted us as his children. Through Jesus actions, God has become our Father. We first repent in words, seeking His forgiveness, and continue the Christian life in faith seeking on-going forgiveness as we struggle with our continual rebellion. (Matthew 6:12-13)

As children of the Father, our relationship with him demands continued, constant prayer. We are no longer pagans who run after food, entertainment and clothes as if our lives are controlled by chance or our own hands. Nor do we live as if things are all that matter in life.

We are now dependent children who need to talk to our Father expressing our gratefulness to him for rescuing us from eternal damnation and providing every good thing we need. We seek to give him honour and glory in all that we do. God is never more honoured and glorified than when we humbly ask him for things, when he grants them to us in his mighty power and generosity, and when we pour out our thanks to him for his kindness. This is an incredible change in our lives that will be reflected in our prayers.

We also pray because God commands us to do so. In his kindness he reminds and exhorts us to pray. (Deuteronomy 8:11-17; Ephesians 6:17-18; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18; Romans 12:12; Colossians 4:2; 1 Samuel 12:23

We can pray because God promises to hear our prayers. (Matthew 7:7-11) ##Why then, don’t we pray? The obvious answer is: Because we are sinful, hard-hearted fools, which is true but not a very helpful statement. One of the main reasons we don’t pray is that we have distorted views of God, harbouring misunderstandings about him, sometimes without even realizing it.

We may doubt that God is able to act in this world in answer to our prayers. For instance, we believe he is limited in his actions by the natural laws he has put in place to direct our world. We think that he will not intervene to over-rule these laws but the Bible shows us many instances where he has done so. If we don’t think God can intervene in our lives to change things, then you have an inadequate view of God’s power. We stop trusting him to do things and rely only on your own resources to handle life’s issues. Prayer isn’t needed because we think it is ineffective. For many of us, our lives are easy, filled with material blessings and entertaining distractions. We are not forced to rely upon God and call on him in prayer until illness or death threaten our continued existence. Our implied belief is that God doesn’t intervene and actually do anything significant now in the world.

Sometimes, we think God has the power to step directly into the world to alter events and believe he won’t because he has an unalterable plan. God will do what God will do, whether we pray for something or not. This view of God and prayer is directly contradicted by Scripture. James 4:2 says You do not have, because you do not ask. What does that mean if God does not respond to our prayers by giving us things? In the Old Testament there are a number of incidents which speak of God ‘relenting’ in response to heartfelt prayers, and not visiting upon people the wrath and destruction he had intended (e.g. Exodus 32:9-14; Jeremiah 26:19; Joel 2:13). Why also would God promise us that we could *call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you *(Ps 50:15) if our calling upon him had no effect, that is, if the outcome of the day of trouble would have been precisely the same, according to God’s eternal will, whether we had prayed or not? And what do these words about Elijah mean if not that God acts in response to human prayers? (James 5:16b-18)

Scripture assumes that God will graciously hear and respond to our prayers, that they do have an effect on what happens, which must encourage us to pray. Even if we accept that God can act in response to our prayers, we still doubt that he will because in the past he has not acted in the way we wanted. He has not answered our prayers as we wished. For example, we still have an illness. The pandemic has broken out again. My child died.

In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prayed: Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will (Mark 14:36). The Father, in answer, did not send his angelic “cavalry” to rescue his only son from a cruel, unjust death. God achieved his plans, not in spite of sin and evil, but through them. (Acts 2:23). Unless Jesus had died, the innocent for the guilty, we could not have been reconciled to the Father. We still would be his enemies condemned to hell.

Sin and evil, misfortune and natural disasters do not thwart God’s plans. He is able to work even through these things to achieve his good will as Joseph told his lying, treacherous brothers when talking of his slavery in Egypt: (Gen 50:20). Whether we can catch a glimpse of the good that God is bringing out of the evil or not, the godly response is exemplified by Jesus: Yet not what I will, but what you will. Obedience and faith must be our response to God’s answers to our prayers. Sometimes we will see and understand his answer but other times we may not. At these times we need to remind ourselves of God’s goodness and love for us, after all: He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things. Romans 8:32

Prayer is a verbal expression of our trust in God.

As we ask God for things, we are giving voice to our dependence on him for everything. But trust in God includes trusting his words and commands and instructions for our lives. It means hearing God say, “Do not lie”, and believing him when he tells us that we must not do this, both for our good and for the good of others. This is why the opposite of faith in the Bible is not simply unbelief or faithlessness, but disobedience. (Hebrews 3:15-19) Why then, is it hard to pray? We fail to pray, primarily, because of our sin and because the enemy does not want us to pray.

Prayer, at its heart, is an acknowledgment of need. It expresses our frailty and dependence, and our desire for help. This acknowledgment is hard for sinful human beings to accept. It forces us to admit that we are not independent or self-sufficient creatures and Satan, the Father of Lies, wants us to keep believing them. He wants us to stand tall and go it alone, not humbly kneel and express our dependence on God for everything. (James 4:4-10; 1 Peter 5:6 & 7)

How then should we pray?

Prayer is verbal, made up of words spoken by us to God. Prayer is responding to God by presenting our requests to him. We can do this only because of what he has done for us, through Jesus, in initiating a relationship with us. We pray as dependent sons and daughters of our loving heavenly Father. He has commanded us to pray, and promised to hear us and give us every good gift. *If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him! *(Matthew 7:11)

We only pray because God enables us to, by his Spirit. Left to ourselves, we couldn’t pray. After all, by nature we are rebels against God. By nature, we are spiritually dead as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:2.

It is only by the secret operation of God’s Spirit stirring and reviving our dead hearts that we turn to him in the first place and put our trust in Christ. In giving us his Spirit, God himself comes to dwell with us and in us. (John 14:15-17, 23)

He is the Spirit of the Father and of the Son. So, when the Spirit is poured out richly upon us, the Father and the Son come to make their home with us. Because of the work of this same Spirit, we call out to God as our Father in prayer. (Romans 8:14-16)

We pray through the Son.

Christian prayer can only take place through the Lord Jesus Christ. (I Timothy 2:5 & 6) There are two parties. The one and only God and humanity, between which, bringing the two together, is Jesus. There is only one go-between, the man Christ Jesus, who is both God and man, and who gave himself as a ransom for all. God provided his own Son as the mediator—the one who would reconcile a hostile and sinful humanity to himself. The point is that there is no other person, living or dead, that can act on our behalf as mediator between us and God, not priest, saint, Mary nor bishop. We must only pray then, through the Son, and only Him.

We pray to the Father.

Prayer is directed to God the Father. In the New Testament, the characteristic form of prayer, beginning with the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9) and Jesus’ own prayers, is to pray to the Father. Of course, it is not wrong, to pray to the Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, there are a couple of examples in the New Testament of people calling out to the risen Jesus. As he is about to die, Stephen cries out, *Lord Jesus, receive my spirit *(Acts 7:59) and at the very end of 1 Corinthians, Paul begs Jesus, Our Lord, come! (1 Cor 16:22; cf. Rev 22:20). Neither would it be wrong to pray to the Holy Spirit, since he is God—although there is no reference in the Bible to anyone praying to the Spirit. However, the biblical pattern is to pray to the Father, through the Son, by the Spirit.

When should we pray?

Now. The best time to pray is any time and at all times. The length is irrelevant. He hears us and answers because of his goodness and not because he is impressed with the quality or length of our prayers.

We should pray constantly. We are commanded to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and to be constant in prayer (Rom 12:12). What is important is that we constantly and continually express our trust and confidence in God by calling upon him in prayer.

What should we pray for?

When teaching his disciples to pray, Jesus didn’t give instruction on posture or style, or exercises to get in the mood; he taught the disciples six things to pray for:

  1. The Father’s reputation: Hallowed be your name.
  2. The Father’s reign: Your kingdom come.
  3. The Father’s rule: Your will be done.
  4. Our provision: Give us today our daily bread.
  5. Our pardon: Forgive us our debts.
  6. Our protection: Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.

What blessings does God long to send down? What are his desires for us—his wishes, plans, priorities and aspirations for us? What does God want for us? (Psalms 37:4)

As we delight ourselves in the Lord, our thinking and wishes and aspirations will become more like his. We will want what God himself wants. The desires of our hearts will become the desires of God and he will surely give them to us.

What is God’s purpose for each one of us? That we be conformed to the image of his Son; that we become part of a new people who are purified from their sin and zealous for good works; and that we stand firm and live in holiness, and finally obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ; people who produce the fruit of the Spirit – Galatians 5:22-23

What is prayer? It is a work of God’s Spirit within us so that we approach our heavenly Father in faith, through the merits and death of our Lord Jesus, to ask him for things. It’s our relationship of dependence upon God, expressed in words. Prayer is audible faith.

Further reading: “Prayer and the Voice of God.” by Phillip D. Jensen (Matthias Media 2019)

Harley Mills