What is Prayer?

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One of the things which is often discussed in the Christian faith is the ways in which God makes Himself known to us. If one wants to understand who God is or what His character is like, there is a variety of ways in which He makes this known. God reveals Himself through the Bible, the person of Jesus Christ, nature, and our conscience. One way which God is not revealed to us however, is through prayer. But if prayer is not revelatory, then what exactly is it?

At its most basic level, prayer is the way that may people communicate and come into contact with God and forge a deeper relationship in their spiritual lives. Throughout history, prayer has been explained through several congruous or complementary images: prayer is the soul’s breath, humans’ dialogue with God, the divine helpline, the way humans communicate with God, our heart’s confession to God—all these metaphors emphasize the relational nature of prayer.

To understand prayer, it is most natural to look at the prayers and prayer life of Biblical heroes in God’s Word. In their prayers we identify elements such as adoration (Psalm 115:1), praise (Psalm 71:6), requests (Philippians 4:6, Ephesians 6:18), thanksgiving (Colossians 4:2, 2 Corinthians 2:14), mediation (Psalm 119:27), confession (Ezra 10:11, James 5:16), silence (Zechariah 2:13, Habakkuk 2:20), petition and intercessions (1 Timothy 2:1, Genesis 18:23-33).

Types of biblical prayers

The prayer of thanksgiving is the human soul’s reaction that, following its encounter with God, manages to comprehend His kindness and love, and is grateful. The prayer of thanksgiving must not be regarded as a duty, nor can it exist outside of man’s encounter with God through revelation. This is why the lack of gratitude in our prayers points to a problem that can only be solved by a deeper knowledge of God.

This pattern is also found in the prayer of praise, which is naturally determined by the understanding of love which which accompanies an understanding of God’s majesty and greatness.

Another type of prayer is that which expresses human commitments to God. This type of prayer is usually a follow-up or an extension of the prayer of confession and repentance. Sometimes it can be our answer to the awareness of the blessings we have received. After the dream in which he is promised a great number of heirs, and repossession of the promised land, Jacob promises God the tenth part of all he has: “…and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth” (Genesis 28:22).

There is also the prayer of repentance and confession, when humans have lived contrary to their conscience. As a consequence of the work of the Holy Spirit who touches their hearts by providence and revelation, when they understand God’s goodness and great power, then repentance from wicked ways arises in their hearts, which is expressed through confession and contrition.

The prayer of petition is the most common form of prayer and it is understandable why that is so, because our needs and inabilities naturally cause us to ask for what we need.

Would humans be more blessed if they did not ask anything of God? “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). The evil receive rain without asking for it. Does this reality justify cancelling our prayers of petition? By no means. By praying such prayers, we recognise our dependence on God, the need for divine intervention, our admiration and gratefulness towards our Heavenly Father, and our humility and worship are refined. Thus humans’ closeness to God is transformational. Humans become the reflection of the Being they adore and worship.

The prayer of petition: faith or presumption?

The model of the prayer of petition of the great Biblical heroes, as well as that of Jesus, emphasises humility and trust. Prayer requires us to accept that God may give a negative answer to a petition, but this is not proof he does not listen or care—we believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love, even an answer to prayer we do not want (see Romans 8:35) and that His plans for us can be different at some point, but that they are still nothing short of excellent (see Jeremiah 29:11).

This prayer of petition or request has many facets: prayer for the forgiveness of sins, prayer of intercession, and the prayer of blessing are the most common.

The prayer for the forgiveness of sins is proof of the first step being taken in the direction of one’s transformation. Acknowledging a mistake and feeling sorry for it always leads to asking for forgiveness. Contrition, therefore, precedes forgiveness. At the same time, there is no forgiveness without transformation. Forgiveness is not the opposite of sorrow. Instead, it has a saving character. Forgiveness refers to salvation, and salvation represents humans’ salvation from sin—that is, their transformation. In this way, forgiveness occurs when humans, as a result of their acknowledgement of sin, accept God’s transforming power.

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The prayer of blessing can be considered a form of intercessory prayer, prayer of petition, or the ritual prayer of sanctification, dedication, marriage, or ordination.

Intercessory prayer is born out of love and compassion. In the wisdom of His providence, God has ways in which He accommodates our intercessory prayer in His plans (without this meaning that it takes Him by surprise or that it changes His mind, softening up the only One who is good). Furthermore, intercessory prayer, as a representation of love, embellishes the soul of the one who practices it, makes God happy, leads to unity among men, and supports the one who is lifted up in prayer.

Prayer is a spiritual reality

Paul’s words, “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), point to a prayer that transcends words, forms, and rituals, and one which has a continuous and indispensable character. At the same time, forms or rituals are instruments for communion with God, and we can see the ways Paul’s prayers fit many of the types discussed previously in his writings contained in the New Testament.

The model of the prayer of petition of the great biblical heroes, as well as that of Jesus, emphasises humility and trust.

Depending on the type of prayer, culture, state of mind, and the context in which one finds oneself, a prayer can be uttered in different positions and can take various forms. The Bible recounts the prayer experiences of many heroes, in different postures: kneeling (Daniel 6:10), standing (2 Chronicles 20:5), bowing down (1 Kings 1:31), sitting (2 Samuel 7:15), lying down (1 Kings 1:47), or with hands raised towards heaven (1 Timothy 2:8). At the same time, we identify prayers uttered with open eyes (Mark 7:34), in secret Matthew 6:6, in public 1 Kings 8:22, 23, expressed through free speech John 17, in song Exodus 15:1, and so on. All these different forms of prayer are valid. While some may prefer to partake in personal prayer time in a solitary place, others find more comfort in praying with others. Similarly, while some prayers may be brief, others may be quite lengthy. Despite the many different forms and positions, they can all represent the exterior expression of inner reverence: respect, contrition, humility, submission, dependence, surrender, and gratefulness.

Communion with God

Prayer is the way to experience communion with God. It is a spiritual tradition through which human beings speak, are silent, sing, and admire their Creator. Prayer represents the communication of one who wishes to align his thoughts with divine reason. It is the substance of a relationship which can determine a profound act: humans’ meditation in God’s presence, harmonising their thoughts with those of God. This is the communion which enables the human mind to be transformed according to the mind of the Face it represents. Prayer’s great benefit is that it does not lower God to our level, but lifts us up into His presence. It may seem like one of those intimidating spiritual traditions with dozens of rules and guidelines, but at its core, it’s all about forming a relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ. Thankfully, if you’re still unsure on how to go about it Jesus Himself provided us an example of how to pray in what is known as the Lord’s Prayer:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,[a]
but deliver us from the evil one.[b]’ (Matthew 6:9-13)

Curious about some of the key beliefs of Christianity? Check out the other articles in our Fundamentals series to see if you can find the answers you need. Want something more? Get in touch with our help team with your questions or requests and we’ll do our best to help you.

Ștefăniţă Poenariu is the president of the Holistic Christian Education Association, which operates Transylvania International School.

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