Webster’s Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary tells us that prayer means, “to address God with adoration, confession, supplication, or thanksgiving.” Now that’s a correct definition as far as it goes, for it tells us that prayer is communication. And the fact that prayer is communication is an exceedingly important truth. But Webster’s definition is not adequate as a definition of Christian prayer. because the whole definition hinges on the idea of prayer as addressing God.
Of course much prayer is addressing God. That is not the problem. The problem is that this dictionary definition implies that there is nothing more to it, that addressing God is all there is. In other words, it implies that prayer is a one-way communication from humanity to God.
The mental picture that is projected by that definition is that God sits silently on his throne in heaven and listens carefully to all the prayers that are addressed to him. He solemnly evaluates each one and decides to accept or reject them on the basis of a fair and honest judgment of each individual situation.
Now there is truth in this picture. But it is totally inadequate. Unfortunately, it is the only picture many Christians have; and their spiritual lives suffer as a result. Christian prayer is much more complex than that.
First of all, prayer is a two-way communication between God and humanity, not a one-way communication from humanity to God. God is not simply sitting passively in the heavenly realm waiting for us to address him with our troubles. On the contrary, God actively seeks communion and fellowship with us through the Holy Spirit.
This is an act of God’s grace, which Many orthodox Christians call “common grace,” because it is given to all human beings. Wesleyans call it “prevenient” (from the Latin praevenire which means to go before.”) grace, because it is the grace that God extends to everyone before salvation That is, God initiates the relationship! He genuinely desires to bring all of us into close contact with himself in Christ.
To some people this seems too good to be true. But it is true! God loves us! God loves human beings, including ones like you and me, so much that he sent his son to die on the cross for our sins. That is the fundamental good news of the gospel!
God wants to forgive our sins. But that isn’t all he wants. He not only wants to wipe out our sinful past, he also wants to be in a loving fellowship with each one of us in the present. And prayer is the means whereby we enter into that relationship. It also is the means whereby we maintain it. So prayer definitely is a two way communication between God and human beings.
Second, prayer is very personal. The personal element in prayer becomes clear when we realize that our understanding of prayer depends on our understanding of God. This truth caught my attention in a particularly powerful way some years ago, when I saw the following statement in The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. It said, the “means and ends of prayer always depend upon how the nature of God is conceived.” In other words, our attitude towards prayer depends on our attitude towards God.
Of course this is true! For example, if we deny that God exists, prayer cannot be meaningful to us. Similarly, if we deny that God cares about individual people enough to take a personal interest in them, again we cannot find meaning in prayer. Moreover, if we deny that God gives us enough genuine freedom to choose to be in fellowship with him or not (which includes to pray or not), the meaningfulness of prayer obviously disappears.
So prayer is a two-way means of communication between humans and God, and it is a very personal means of beginning and maintaining a vital love relationship with God. Its meaning flows from a conviction that God exists, that God cares for individual people in a personal way, and that he has made our fellowship with him dependent upon our choice as well as his.
Now then, on the basis of what we have said thus far, I would like to give you a working definition of Christian prayer. Christian prayer is a two-way communication, and personal communion, between free human beings and the loving, interested God.
At this point, I want us to look at some biblical teaching on prayer. We will begin with the so-called Lord’s Prayer, as recorded in Mt. 6:7-13. Notice that Jesus began this prayer with an exhortation not to pray like the Gentiles. That is, we are not to heap up empty phrases. Why? Because God already knows our needs. Then he gave us an example of how to pray correctly.
The message is clear. It is not how much we say to God that is important. Furthermore it is not our telling God our needs that is the important thing. No, the importance of prayer lies elsewhere; and the Lord’s prayer shows where that is. But before we analyze the prayer, I want to comment on the use of it. Many of us are most familiar with the Lord’s Prayer as part of a ritual. For example, many congregations repeat the Lord’s Prayer in unison every Sunday.
Many argue that using the Lord’s prayer in a ritual way benefits the community of faith. And I would agree that it does. But Jesus did not give the disciples this prayer for that purpose. He was not saying, this is a prayer I want you to pray every Sunday as a community. No, Jesus gave them the prayer as a model. He was saying, this is the kind of prayer you should pray. This is the basic model you should follow.
The Lord’s Prayer has six specific petitions. And the six petitions clearly separate themselves into two distinct groups. The first three petitions all are in the second person and have to do with God’s desires.
–Hallowed be thy name.
—Thy kingdom come.
—Thy will be done.
In other words, concern for God and what he wants are top priority. Notice that Jesus tells us to concern ourselves with God’s name, that is, his glory. Jesus tells us to pray for God’s kingdom to come, that is, his lordship. And Jesus instructs us to pursue God’s will.
It is clear. God comes first! It is what God wants that counts. Thus the primary purpose of prayer is not to enable us to get what we want from God; but rather the purpose of prayer is to enable God to get what he wants from and for us, and for others.
Now notice the second group of three petitions. Here the emphasis shifts from the second person to the third person. In his model prayer Jesus teaches us that after we pray for God’s concerns, we are to pray for our own. But again the importance of this prayer as a model comes into view. Notice the kind of concerns Jesus suggests we pray for as personal concerns.
–Give us our daily bread.
–Forgive us our debts (or sins).
–Deliver us from evil (or the evil one).
Again we have clarity. Notice what the petitions are! The only material thing that Jesus suggests we ask for is daily bread. Of course “daily bread” bread represents our daily necessities. Jesus suggests we pray for what we need from day to day. nothing more. There is no American dream here, no beautiful home, no Rolls Royce or Mercedes, not even a Ford or Chevy.
The other two personal petitions that Jesus suggests as models are spiritual in nature. He advises us to pray for forgiveness and deliverance from evil. What could be more important than those? Note that only one of the petitions is underlined, so to speak. Verses 14-15 underline the petition for forgiveness. They read: “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Many people never understand this principle. But it is a plain spiritual truth that Jesus clearly sets forth. We must be willing to forgive, if we wish to be forgiven.
With the last petition Jesus takes us directly into life’s spiritual conflicts. We are to pray for deliverance from evil or from the evil one. Of course the evil with which we wrestle daily ultimately originates with the evil one. He has been God’s enemy since before the creation of humanity; and since our creation, he has been our enemy. Since we do not have the power to overcome evil in our own strength, we must pray for God’s help.
In summary, according to this model that Jesus gave us, the important aspects of prayer are: concern for God’s glory, lordship and will, and concern with our essential needs, forgiveness and deliverance. These things are exactly what we identified earlier in our definition.
Now then, I want to discus one other aspect of prayer, namely, intercessory prayer. Maintaining fellowship and communication with God is one thing, but prayer on behalf of others is another matter altogether. The natural question regarding intercessory prayer is, Can my prayers affect the life of another human being?
Years ago when I was beginning my ministry, I went to Duke Divinity School for a summer course. I shall never forget what a professor there said about intercessory prayer. He told us about the occasion of his second child’s birth. He was in the hospital waiting room praying. We husbands always were banished to the waiting room in those days. He was praying the usual things—that his wife and baby would come through the delivery well, that the baby would be healthy, etc.
Suddenly, he said, it occurred to him that the child was going to be born as it was going to be born regardless of his prayers. His wife was going to get fine treatment from the hospital staff, whether or not he was praying. And the percentages for or against the possibility of complications were the same, whether or not he was praying. He concluded by saying that he never had prayed an intercessory prayer since that day. It was clear to me that day that the professor’s understanding of God was too small.
The testimony of the Duke professor brings several related subjects to my mind. In earlier essays we studied the concept of miracles and the problem of evil. When thinking through the matter of intercessory prayer, these subjects suddenly become relevant.
Why? Because many times when we pray for others, we literally are asking for a miracle to overcome an apparent evil. For example, many intercessory prayers are prayers for physical healing. Therefore they frequently are prayers for miracles, whether expressed as such or not. Some people seem to believe that God should miraculously intervene every time they pray for someone who is in a difficult situation. But God has not promised to work a miracle every time we think someone we love needs one. Indeed as we have seen in the essay on miracles, God normally does not intervene miraculously.
And when we pray for persons who are not Christians, we must take into account that they are free moral agents, who may not be open to the influences that we are seeking to bring to bear upon them. God does not force himself, or his will, on anyone. In other words, you cannot pray someone into the kingdom of heaven against their will.