PRAYER (תְּפִלָּה, H9525, prayer; פָּלַל, H7137, to intervene, interpose, arbitrate, mediate, intercede, pray; προσευχή, G4666, prayer, place for prayer, chapel; προσεύχομαι, G4667, to pray).
In the Bible prayer is the spiritual response (spoken and unspoken) to God, who has invited his creature|creatures into communion with himself. Prayer covers a wide spectrum of addressing and hearing God, Intercession|interceding with and waiting for the Lord, and contemplating and petitioning our Father in heaven. The doctrine of prayer is central to Christianity.
Prayer in the Bible
What prayer is may best be seen in the example and teaching of Jesus. This information can then be supplemented by the apostolic practice of, and teaching on, prayer; as well as examples of prayer from the Old Testament.
In the Old Testament
When God approached men in Old Testament times, they conversed with Him, confession|confessed their sins, gave Him adoration and thanks, and asked things for themselves and others. Prayer is this conversation with God which arises out of communion with Him. Prayer has many elements. It can be a sacrifice of thanksgiving and adoration (e.g., Ps. 50:14,23; 107:22). It often begins with confession (e.g., Ps. 51), but it is essentially the element of asking-petition, supplication, and intercession-which constitutes prayer as prayer.
This asking arises out of the depths of human need. Prayer is a pouring out of the heart to God (1 Sam. 1:15) in all its moods and in the needs of the concrete human situation (Exod. 17:8ff.; 1 Chron. 5:20; Luke 22:44; Phil. 4:6). But prayer should arise more out of the promise and challenge of God's Word than out of the urgency of human need. Though the Word has its own power to go forth and fulfill itself, its fulfillment can be facilitated and hastened by such prayer as “Your kingdom come.” Prayer is therefore an asking directed by the Word of God. The Lord's Prayer, moreover, teaches that the first concern to be expressed in prayer should be for the hallowing of God's name. If prayer is thus directed by the Word, it is saved from triviality and self- centeredness (John 15:7).
Prayer is inspired by man's confidence that God has already drawn near to hear before men are there to speak (Ps. 27:8; 139:1- 6). In the Old Testament it is inspired by complete confidence in the faithfulness and power of God, man's Rock and Stronghold (Deut. 33:29; 2 Sam. 23:3; Ps. 46:1), who is appealed to in His omnipotence and eternity (Ps. 124:8). It is significant that in nearly all the prayers of Jesus, God is addressed as “Father.” Paul's prayers are inspired by a filial trust in God's fatherhood (Rom. 8:15; Eph. 3:14). The presence and Word of God can arouse in men such boldness in prayer that it can take the form of importunate argument (Gen. 18:22-33; Exod. 32:11; Luke 18:1-7), or of an entreating of favor (1 Sam. 13:14; Ps. 119:58). Prayer can indeed be a striving with God, as Jacob strove with the angel (Hos. 12:3,4).
In the New Testament
In the New Testament, prayer is in the name of Christ. This means prayer in union with the Christ who at the right hand of God continually makes intercession. Since prayer takes place in Christ and in the Spirit, the individual even though alone is praying in and with the community and is encouraged to say “our Father.” True prayer thus tends to become communal (cf. Matt. 18:19,20; Acts 2:1, etc.), though it can nevertheless remain intensely private (Matt. 6:5,6). It is noteworthy that in the Psalms and the great prophetic writings the liturgy|liturgical community prayer can perfectly express the personal needs and longings of the solitary individual also.
The most striking thing about New Testament prayer is its connection with the Spirit. It has become a spiritual gift (1Co 14:14-16); and even those who don't possess this gift in the exceptional charismatic sense may "pray in the Spirit" whenever they come to the throne of grace (Eph 6:18; Jude 1:20). The gift of the Spirit, promised by Christ (Joh 14:16 ff, etc.), secures divine cooperation (Ro 8:15,26; Ga 4:6). Thus Christian prayer in its full New Testament meaning is prayer addressed to God as Father, in the name of Christ as Mediator, and through the enabling grace of the indwelling Spirit.
In the Gospel|Gospels there are seventeen references to Jesus at prayer. These may be divided into four groupings.
We are to understand these as pointing to a rich prayer life rather than considering them the only times when Jesus prayed. As the letter to the Hebrews put it, “In the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears... and he was heard because of his reverent submission” (Heb.5.7).
Jesus’ teaching on prayer
It was seeing the prayer life of Jesus (so different from the usual way of prayer in Judaism) that led the disciples to say, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke.11.1). In response, Jesus provided them with what we now call the Lord’s Prayer (Luke.11.2-Luke.11.4; Matt.6.9-Matt.6.13). This prayer has three parts:
Jesus also indicated some of the themes for intercession in prayer:
A major new departure in the method of prayer introduced by Jesus was that disciples should ask the Father in the name of Jesus (John.14.13; John.16.23-John.16.24). To pray in this manner is not to use a magic formula but rather represents the new ground on which the worshiper stands, a new plea for the success of his petitions, and a new mind within which the prayer is conceived. Thus the aim of prayer is not to make God change his will but to enable disciples of Jesus to change their minds and dispositions as they are molded by his Holy Spirit|Spirit.
The apostles’ teaching on prayer
The letters of Paul are saturated with references to prayer; these range from praise to petition, from celebration of God’s grace and benevolence to urgent requests for the needs of the churches. Conscious at all times that the exalted Jesus is making intercession for his church (Rom.8.34), Paul saw prayer as arising through the presence and activity of the Spirit (sent from Christ) within the body of Christ and within the individual believer (Rom.8.15-Rom.8.16), and being offered to the Father in and through the Lord Jesus.
The most obvious feature of Paul’s prayers and references to prayer is that they arise within and are motivated by the gospel concerning.
James also saw the Christian life as a life of prayer. “Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him... and pray for each other...” (Jas.5.13-Jas.5.16). Then James pointed to the example of Elijah, “who prayed earnestly...” (Jas.5.17-Jas.5.18). He was well aware that the Hebrew Scriptures supply many examples of prayer and provide guidelines (especially in the Psalms) on the content and nature of prayer.
A variety of verbs are used to cover the spectrum of prayer:
Examples of prayer
As reflection and action
In Honest to God, Bishop John A. T. Robinson dismissed belief in a personal God who was “up there” or “out there” as Lord of history. God, for Robinson and many contemporaries, is not another being distinct from the world. Rather, God is the infinite, inexhaustible ground of all that is, and all that happens in history. Robinson’s Exploration into God (1967) ends with a quest for an indescribable God beyond the personal God of theism. This God who was in Christ is similarly said to be in all things. Like Hegel long ago, Robinson says God is incarnate not at one point in time and space, but everywhere. Peter Munz contrasted this with belief in a distinct, personal God who answers prayer.
In the theology of dualism a prayer is a form of talk to the Being on the other side; an act of faith—a belief that certain statements about the character and nature of the other side are true.... Faith, on the other hand, is a form of trust. It is not a kind of belief, for there are, in the theology of transfiguration, no propositions about the other world or about Being or beings. Faith is trust, directly generated by the moment of self-surrender (Problems of Religious Knowledge, 215).
Belief in an invisible, personal Deity who hears and answers prayer, by these men, is considered meaningless. Paul M. Van Buren applies the test of meaning in radical empiricism to theology. Accordingly, “unless or until a theological statement can be submitted in some way to verification, it cannot be said to have a meaning” (The Secular Meaning of the Gospel, p. 105). Unable to observe with the physical senses an invisible Lord of history, Van Buren cannot meaningfully assert His existence. He cannot address prayer to “someone” in control. The causal efficacy of prayer, Paul F. Schmidt maintains, is formulated in such a way that “positive falsification is not possible and positive confirmation is indistinguishable from alternative accounts of the same events” (Religious Knowledge, 109). Since he thinks the causal efficacy of prayer can be neither proved nor disproved, Schmidt considers it simply a way of reinforcing certain attitudes toward the world.
Attitudes occasioned by prayer are traced by James A. Kirk in an article on “Prayer and Personality.” Thinking of God as indistinguishable from a “process-relationship,” the devout in prayer sense their identification with the process that determines destiny, unifies their motives, develops confidence, contentment, and wisdom, and invests their energies in that which is greater and more lasting than themselves (Iliff Review, XIX, 2 [Spring 1962], 23-27). Paul M. Van Buren adds thankfulness for what the world is, and that we are, and that by the historical perspective we gain understanding of ourselves and the world. But primarily, prayer is reflection upon a given situation in a “Christian” perspective leading to appropriate action.
In prayer we do not withdraw from the world to commune with a personal God, Robinson says, but open ourselves to the claim of the unconditional as it meets us in, through, and under the finite relationships of life. Prayer is a way of life characterizing Bonhoeffer’s “man for others.” Leslie Newbigin suggests that prayer is faithfulness before God in life. All our acts are to be acted prayers. We look for answers, not in miracles, not when we come to the end of ourselves, but in the affairs of the secular world (Honest Religion for Secular Man, 98). Prayer does not draw us away from the world, but characterizes the whole business of living. We know God, not through scripturally revealed information, but in what He does. The life of prayer is one of “total commitment to the will of God disclosed in circumstances.” So for many, prayer is simply an attitude toward events and a dedicated participation in them.
The view of prayer as dedicated reflection and action surely has captured something of the practical significance of Christian prayer. But it can hardly be considered a fully adequate Christian doctrine of prayer. Surely the world stands in dire need of reflective commitment, but activism needs to be guided by revealed truth. Truth from beyond the world is the key to authentic experience and meaningful action in the world. Important as the insights of these men are, we must look further for a distinctively Christian view of prayer.
As ecstatic experience of the “ground of being”
Within the realm of human experience, Tillich recognized a power of self-transcendence, an ability of men directly to participate in the Reality permeating every particular being. In the consummation of prayer, he said, we do not stand as distinct persons over against a personal God. Then God and man would remain as distinct as the subject and object on either side of a verb in a sentence. Spirit, he thinks, transcends personal distinctions. “Spirit is ecstatic, and so are contemplation, prayer and worship in general. The response to the impact of the Spirit must itself be spiritual, and that means transcending in ecstasy the subject-object scheme of ordinary experience” (
The experience of oneness with God is impossible to human beings alone. God “Himself” (sic) prays through us, bridging the gap between us (finite beings) and God (infinite Being itself). So God “intercedes” for us before “Himself.” Tillich employs Romans 8:26, 27, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is in the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” This passage is used sometimes to support the personality of the and ecstatic tonguespeaking. “But this is absurd if taken literally,” Tillich says. “Symbolically it means that God knows more about us than that of which we are conscious.” It also means that spiritual prayer is “elevation to God in the power of God” (The New Being, 135-138). As he puts it in The Eternal Now, “A power works through us which is not of us” (82).
The divine power can never be identified in human words or concepts. Only in an experience of ecstasy beyond all human conception can we find God. In all our ordinary consciousness God is absent. What is the cause of His absence? “We may answer—our resistance, our indifference, our lack of seriousness, our honest or dishonest questioning, our genuine or cynical doubt. All these answers have some truth, but they are not final. The final answer to the question as to who makes God absent is God Himself!” (87, 88). Nels Ferré, in a very irenic article about Tillich, nevertheless says, “No wonder that Professors Altizer and Hamilton dedicated
Whoever would make the essence of prayer an ecstatic experience paves the way for the non-ecstatic to declare the death of God. With mystics, Tillich negated every theological proposition one could assert of God. The God who cannot disclose Himself in truths meaningful to men created in His image and renewed in knowledge after that image (Col 4:24), is not the Christian God.
Whoever, furthermore, would make Christian prayer the equivalent of mystical “trips” away from the world of urgent need and the Biblically revealed truths, has abandoned Christian prayer. God is not fully comprehended by our minds, but our minds do contribute to Christian prayer as it ought to be. The Spirit would have men pray with the spirit, yes, “but with the mind also.” “Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; be babes in evil, but in thinking be mature” (1 Cor 14:15, 20).
Tillich’s view leaves no place for intercessory prayer. John Burnaby, writing on “Christian Prayer” said,
The argument for the truth of religion so often drawn from the close similarity of mystical experience in widely differing religious traditions cannot take us far towards faith in the God and Father of
As communion with the God revealed in Christ
The God of Christianity, Emil Brunner explains, is portrayed in vividly personal and anthropomorphic terms. At the same time, however, God is always clearly differentiated from His creatures. He is no part of the changing historical process, nor its underlying, abstract ground of being. In Christian prayer, Brunner insists, “we turn to the God who has communicated Himself to us, and thereby we withdraw from the world” (The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and Consummation, 324).
Christian prayer is not “silent reverence before the Ineffable” (326). Neither is Christian prayer an ecstatic experience of the unknowable depths of human experience. Even in its simplest and most direct forms, the most immediately personal response of prayer has its conceptual content: “Our Father who art in heaven.” In prayer we do not completely transcend the subject, verb, object distinctions in our minds. Such doctrinal statements may be “related instrumentally to the Word of God as token and framework” (Truth As Encounter, 133).
We may communicate with the living God, finite and sinful though we are, because He has reached out through Jesus Christ to redeem us. “To answer to the creative and loving call of God with responsive love; this is the destiny for which man was created, and this call is the foundation of his being.” The words, “in the name of Jesus” are therefore no mere formula. “They are, on the contrary, the recapitulation of the whole of saving history” (The Christian Doctrine of the Church, Faith, and Consummation, 328). Prayer, then, “is the expression of the complete fellowship between Him (God) and man ‘in Christ.’”
Prayer discloses our faith in the greatness of the God revealed in Him. “God is so great that He is even able and willing to hear the prayers of His children.” His omnipotence, furthermore, enables Him to answer those prayers. Wisely He does not answer every prayer in the way it is spoken. He answers every prayer genuinely spoken in the name of Jesus. “Indeed, the belief in the answering of prayer is victory over the abstract impersonal concept of God even within Christian theology” (ibid. 335).
All this does not mean, however, that Brunner thinks our prayer influences the will of God. Such talk, he argues, turns God who always acts as subject of human knowledge, into a passive, impersonal object of our bidding. The prayers of the NT, Brunner thinks, lie in a totally different dimension from that in which cause and effect are to be found. The prayer of faith is simply the expression of the complete fellowship between Him and men “in Christ.”
Brunner may be commended for doing greater justice to the Biblical God as a Person, and to prayer as person-to-person fellowship with God. But his view fails to account for the Biblical teaching and experiential data in support of intercessory prayer. Professor Burnaby brings out the importance of petition in answer to the hypothesis of some attributing it to mental telepathy.
But even if it should prove that the faculty for “para-normal communication” between persons is after all a common capacity of the human mind, the Christian intercessor will insist that he is not trying to “get in touch” with the person for whom he intercedes, but asking God to act for that person’s good. We cannot “explain” intercession by telepathy, any more than we can “explain” prayer for ourselves by autosuggestion; for the heart of all Christian prayer is faith in God (Soundings, 227).
The unique stress upon prayer through
Prayer is the initial expression of loving obedience when one experientially knows the God of grace. To know God as the One who acts through Christ in the world, “means to become obedient to Him.” Prayerful response to the God who acts involves commitment of the whole man. Barth prays:
Lead us not into the temptation of the false opinion that Thou art an object like other objects which we can undertake to know or not just as we wish....Lead us not into the temptation of wanting to know Thee in Thy objectivity as if we were spectators, as if we could know, speak or hear about Thee in the slightest degree without at once taking part, without at once making that correspondence actual, without at once beginning with obedience (CD, II/1, 26).
The establishment of divine sovereignty over our wills means a fundamentally new direction for us. Now we pray, “Thy will be done.”
If God has elected us, why pray? From the experience of Christ, Barth argues there is no synergism, no cooperation of man, no reciprocal action of any kind. Prayer does not cause God to elect us; prayer is the “confirmation of His election.” Men have not ordained themselves to communion with God, He foreordained it (CD, II/2, 194). Not even the man of prayer has any basis for self-justification.
Whenever we become conscious of God’s grace to us, we pray. Finding our justification not in ourselves, but God, we realize we are only at the beginning. Although called to unconditional certainty, we have an unconditional humility and penitence. So the justified pray, “Forgive us our trespasses,” and “God be merciful to me a sinner” (CD, IV/1, 576, 577). Our doctrine of reconciliation must keep continually before us that the hearing, receiving, and understanding of the verdict pronounced by God comes in answer to prayer (CD, IV/1, 355).
The church, made up of those who have asked forgiveness, is called “a fellowship of prayer” (CD, IV/2, 643). The church has no reason for security. It is “always compromising, and obscuring and denying its spiritual nature. It acts like the sleeping disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is like Peter who at first was so self-confident, and then struck so recklessly, and finally denied so blatantly. It is even like
Even the committed student of Scripture must study Christian doctrine “with the teaching church in the fellowship of prayers, out of the past, through the present and into the future.” He must thank and praise God for the benefits of His revelation and atonement and do penance before God for all the failings of which the whole Church is constantly guilty in face of these benefits. He will pray as well for a new and more decisive hearing and consequent proclamation of the Word (CD, I/2, 22). Prayer takes precedence over exegesis as the decisive activity each new day (CD, I/2, 695).
Theology is no substitute for prayer. However earnestly theology may struggle to achieve breadth and profundity, it is always impotent until it transcends itself, until it becomes the theology of the resurrection, which means concretely, until it becomes prayer. In prayer the work of the Holy Spirit, who is the secret of Easter Day, is done in those who pray. In prayer this secret is disclosed to them. In prayer they live as those who are risen with Jesus Christ. One cannot expect the actual disclosure of the secret of the risen Christ, or the effective dissolution of resistance to the doctrine of justification of the sinner, or the removal of the possibility of misunderstanding it, merely from a broadening or deepening—however serious—in the understanding of doctrine as such. To the impure all things are impure. These things can be expected only when the doctrine itself is made a matter for prayer....In prayer no one has ever found any contradiction in the justification of the sinner, or its presuppositions with regard to God and man. As we really pray we are freed from all contradiction and live in the truth that sinful man may stand before his Father as God’s dear child, and may have familiar intercourse with Him....When we pray, we are engaged in a decision for the truth, not of a doctrine of justification, but of justification itself (CD II/2 763).
Commendably, Barth considers prayer in relation to other Christian doctrines. Throughout his theology discussions of prayer appear. Commendable also is his emphasis upon grace as the ground of man’s communion with God. This emphasis in addition to Brunner’s stress on prayer as personal fellowship incorporates more of the relevant Biblical data. Other significant Biblical teachings, unfortunately, do not receive sufficient attention in Barth’s teaching on prayer. Barth rightly opposes all creaturely self-justification, but he seriously undermines at the same time divine justification. The believer need not begin each new day fearing condemnation and seeking justification again. The insecurity characteristic of Barthian and existentialist teaching is a valuable corrective against placing ultimate trust in man. But it fails to do justice to the Biblical promises assuring the faithful that they have passed from death into life and shall never come into condemnation. Each new day begins with prayer enriched as well by confidence in God’s written Word and a commitment to live like an authentic son of God. Like Brunner, Barth also fails to endorse an intercessory prayer that can make a difference in the observable world of human experience.
As response and request to God
Having seen the relevance for prayer of God’s grace disclosed in Christ, it remains to formulate a full-orbed perspective of prayer as response to God’s written Word and in obedience to it, prayer as request to the Lord of all.
Prayer as response to God
Man’s prayerful response to the living God includes: faith (in his deed/word revelation), worship, confession, adoration, praise, thanksgiving, and dedicated action.
All the above views, in spite of their differences, agree that in the Bible are no true propositions about “the other side.” Prayer, if not mere human reflection and action, is thought to be an ecstatic experience of the ineffable, or a personal communion with a dumb God. In contrast, the Biblical view affirms that God not only acted awesomely in history, but also spoke truthfully through prophets and apostles. God inspired the inscripturation of their words to inform us about Himself, His redemptive plans, and the place of prayer in them. The Bible is not merely the testimony of prayerful men to God, but God’s gracious disclosure of Himself to men. The most meaningful prayer comes from a heart of trust in the God who has spoken.
Since Barth and Brunner, it has been common to say that God reveals Himself—not information about Himself. This artificial bifurcation overlooks the intimate relationship between a person’s words and himself.
In a man’s words he reveals himself. In his promises he gives himself away, he binds himself to the one who receives his promise. In his commands he sets forth his will, seeks to make himself master of him whose obedience he claims, to guide and use him as if he were a part of himself. It is through our words that spirit holds fellowship with spirit, and the spirit of one man passes over and transfers itself to another.
Our words in prayer commit us personally to God.
Analogously, Murray held:
...when God speaks forth Himself in His words, He does indeed give Himself, His Love and His Life, His Will and His Power, to those who receive these words, in a reality passing comprehension. In every promise He puts Himself in our power to lay hold of and possess; in every command He puts Himself in our power for us to share with Him His Will, His Holiness, His Perfection. In God’s Word is nothing less than the Eternal Son, Christ Jesus. And so all Christ’s words are God’s words, full of a Divine quickening life and power. “The words that I speak unto you, they are spirit and they are life.”
Because of the inseparability of words from the one who utters them, Jesus said men would be judged for their words (Matt 12:33-37). Words disclose both what is good or evil in man.
God’s words through His spokesmen indicate His innermost nature. One who trusts Scripture has true information that God is love (1 John 4:8), that God is holy (1 Pet 1:15, 16; 1 John 1:5), and that God never lies (Titus 1:2). Believers know that God is loving, holy, and faithful in Himself. With the psalmist they can confidently address the Lord, “O thou who hearest prayer!” (Ps 65:2).
The Bible, therefore, is the major stimulus to Christian prayer. Through it God Himself speaks to us; in turn we speak to Him in prayer. Jean Daujat in the volume on Prayer in the Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Catholicism says,
The best spiritual reading, which takes prime place over all others, is holy Scripture: because it is the very word of God, no other reading can compare with it in its power to inspire prayer, firstly because it operates directly within our souls, moving them interiorly by the action of grace, and secondly because, since it is God Himself who speaks in its pages, it unites us to him in a true dialogue, a dialogue in which our souls respond in faith, hope, love, adoration, praise, thanksgiving and petition to what God himself is telling us in the sacred text (136).
The Holy Spirit inspired the Bible to be received with faith in it as the Word of a personal God to men as persons. Genuine encounter with God does not exalt some interpretation of religious experience above God’s own written Word. Prayer is response to the God who has acted in history and who has spoken truth. Since the completion of the canon, the Bible has been the primary bearer of divine revelation.
The Holy Spirit also illumines those who believingly read the Scripture. Of course, there can be a mechanical use of the Bible that kills the life of prayer. Andrew Murray said:
But there is also a reading of the Word, in the very presence of the Father, and under the leading of the Spirit, in which the Word comes to us in living power from God Himself; it is to us the very voice of the Father, a real personal fellowship with Himself. It is the living voice of God that enters the heart, that brings blessing and strength, and awakens the response of a living faith that reaches the heart of God again (With Christ in the School of Prayer, 173).
Because the Holy Spirit has chosen to work in conjunction with the living and written Word, prayer is often associated with the Word in the NT. The apostles devoted themselves to prayer and the ministry of the Word (Acts 6:4). Doors would open to the ministry of the Word as Christians prayed (Col 4:3; 2 Thess 3:1). Everything in God’s creation received with thanksgiving can be consecrated “by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim 4:5). Those who would secularize everything sacred might listen to E. M. Bounds’ comment, “Prayer joined to the Word of God, hallows and makes sacred all God’s gifts....Prayer makes common things holy and secular things sacred” (The Necessity of Prayer, 127).
Very pointedly, the Holy Spirit has chosen to evoke the response of faith in God through the message of Scripture. The prayer uttered during Christ’s ministry, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) has been in great measure answered through the writing of the NT. The gospel of John, for example, employs the verb “to believe” over ninety times. The book was written “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the , and that believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:31). Without offense to the context one may say that this Biblical book was written that men may have a life of prayerful fellowship with the Father through faith in the Son.
So long as Christians are double-minded about the response to God’s revelation, they will be unstable in all their ways of prayer. If they would have wisdom, for instance, they must ask in faith with no doubting (James 1:5-8). Jesus explained,
If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you....If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full (John 15:7-11).
A confident prayer life is built upon the chief cornerstone of Christ’s work and words as attested by prophets and apostles in the Spirit-inspired and Spirit-illumined writings.
Spirit-born response to the God of the Bible issues not only in faith, but also in authentic worship. In worship, narrowly conceived, men recognize that God Himself is of highest worth. They give to Him their highest respect. With the teaching of Scripture as a guide they set their scale of values in accord with reality. The Biblically revealed God is the Almighty Creator of everything that is. He is so exalted that the heaven of heavens cannot contain Him. Yet He is not far from any one of us. In Him we live and move and have our being. Although incomprehensible, God is distinguishable from all His creatures. In His presence the angels hide their faces and cry, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts” (Isa 6:1-3). Before God believers must recognize the comparative insignificance of all other persons and things. Because others are creatures of God they will give them respect. Because they are not God they will not give them their highest respect. Their ultimate affection is focused on God Himself.
Awareness of God’s holiness leads to a consciousness of sinfulness. After seeing God high and lifted up in the Temple Isaiah said, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa 6:5). As David felt after he committed adultery and murder, all sin is ultimately against God. Through Christ the believer has an advocate to plead his case on the ground of Christ’s own death in his place (1 John 2:1). Confession is made directly to the great high priest who freely forgives those who trust Him (1 John 1:9).
The Biblical disclosure of God does not stop with His power and holiness, but adds His unmerited love. God is love and He has demonstrated His love in the gift of His Son. “Adoration of God may include, or even begin with reverence and awe and humility before him, and with an undefined longing, but it must include or grow into love for him. Adoration without love would be fear” (Constance Garrett, Growth in Prayer, 39). A supreme requirement from God is that each of His own love Him with his whole being (Matt 22:37). Man’s love should find expression as God’s love has done, in both acts and words. Words in prayer without deeds are hollow; deeds without words in prayer are discrepant. Prayer is an occasion for expressing genuine love for God. Prayer is more than reflection and action in time and space; it is communion with God. “Without adoration, thanksgiving may become miserliness, petition a selfish clamor, intercession a currying of special favors for our friends, and even contemplation may turn into refined indulgence” (George A. Buttrick, Prayer, 224).
The natural outgrowth of worship, confession, and adoration is praise. A person naturally speaks well of someone he highly esteems and loves. The one respected and loved above all others naturally receives the highest acclaim. Enthusiastic word and song expresses admiration for God. He is praised “for his mighty deeds,” according to His exceeding greatness (Ps 150:2), and He is praised for His “righteous ordinances” (119:164). For God Himself, and for His works and words, His people give authentic praise.
Praise to God leads directly to thanksgiving for His goodness to man. Previously, His children had no spiritual identity as His people. Now through Christ believers are the people of the living God Himself. Christ came into the world in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy. “...Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people” (Rom 15:10). The joy of sonship in God’s moral and spiritual family helps overcome self-centeredness, immaturity, covetousness, cynicism, and self-justification. Are any unthankful because they do not think they have received what they deserve? In God’s justice all men merit condemnation. None has claim upon God’s grace. Nevertheless, in mercy He forgives iniquities, and in grace bestows temporal and eternal blessings. Ingratitude marks the ungodly (1:21). Believers, on the other hand, live doxologically. God has been at work in their behalf. They also live hopefully, confident of God’s scripturally revealed triumph over all evil. In everything they give thanks (Col 3:17; 1 Thess 5:18).
When the above attitudes are present, they find expression not only in words but also in deeds. Prayer is withdrawal from the world as Jesus did, but prayer results in renewed strength to minister in the world. There was never more dedicated activity that counted for good than that of Jesus’ life on earth. Yet He had times of renewal away from the crowds with their excruciating needs. Christ’s example clearly does not motivate monastic withdrawal from society, but rather service to the needy in a spirit of prayer. He who wept in compassionate prayer for Jerusalem went into the city to give His life a ransom for many. Those who minister to the cities today could well follow Christ’s example of prayer. Authentic prayer in the presence of the transcendent God of the prophets and apostles does not lead to inactivity but is the springboard for involvement. It is the source of courage and productivity. Paul sought with everything within him to preach the Gospel of deliverance to the 1st-cent. world, but his activism was directed by fervent prayer.
Response to the God of the Bible involves the whole man—mind and heart. It is not an ecstatic rapture that leaves the mind empty. Neither is it a personal encounter without content. It requires the alert attention of the mind. In The Meaning of Worship Douglas Horton explained that attention is:
a rhythmic activity of the mind. It is not the ability “to look at the point of a cambric needle for one-half hour without winking.” Such a feat would show a remarkable power of concentration but would not be attention. It would not produce the enlightenment which is the end of attention but would only bring about a state of hypnosis. Singleeyed attention can be sustained for only a few moments at a time and therefore keeps returning rhythmically to its object.
A man attends to his hand best, using Horton’s illustration, not when he repeats “Hand...hand...hand,” but when he relates the hand to his wrist and arm, as well as to its varied characteristics and functions. Worship of God is paying attention to God (39, 40). The best worship is response to God that does not focus alone upon His incomprehensibility, nor the fact that He is personal, but in addition moves from faith to confession, adoration, praise, thanksgiving, and commitment. All these responses are aided by reflection upon varied passages of Scripture.
Prayer as a request to God
Just as prayers of response spring from love for God, prayers of request arise from love for men.
Prayer not motivated by love is “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Cor 13:1, 2). In The Passion for Souls, said, “The gospel of a broken heart demands the ministry of bleeding hearts.” Again, “As soon as we cease to bleed we cease to bless. When our sympathy loses its pang we can no longer be the servants of the passion.” Without love, prayer is empty; without prayer, love is unfulfilled.
In love Christians should pray for the most urgent needs of men and nations. Compassion for the lost led Paul to write, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them [Israel] is that they may be saved” (Rom 10:1). A similar compassion leads believers to plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into His harvest (Matt 9:36, 37). In love, prayer is offered, as Jesus did, for children (19:13). Even in the midst of social injustice, these are the Savior’s words, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt 5:44, KJV). Alert to the need for people in all nations to live “a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way,” Christians pray for all who are in high positions (1 Tim 2:1, 2).
Rather than tearing down the reputation of a brother thought to be behind in knowledge, fruitbearing, or strength, Christians pray as Paul did for the Colossians, “that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Col 1:9-11).
Jesus interceded for His friends, His enemies, His disciples, and for those who would become disciples through them. He prayed that those who had received His words would be sanctified by the truth, kept from the evil one in the world, consecrated in truth, be at one with each other, love one another, that the world may know that God sent Christ and loved them as He loved the disciples (John 17). The Lord taught His followers to pray for the fulfillment of the heavenly Father’s will on earth as it is in heaven, for the establishment of His kingdom, the supply of necessary daily food, the forgiveness of sins that stand in the way of realization of His purposes, deliverance from further temptations, and the final triumph of God over all evil (Matt 6:7-15).
At times Christians hesitate to bring requests to God because they think He is preoccupied with greater concerns. This difficulty, however, comes from a confusion in the human mind of size and significance. Although God sustains the galaxies, He considers each person of great value. The commander of a huge aircraft carrier is not less concerned about his infant son because his child is smaller than his ship. God who sees the sparrow fall hears the requests of His children. He neither slumbers nor sleeps. Jesus said, “what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him?” (Matt 7:9-11).
Prayer is not a means of compelling greater powers to do our bidding. It does not have invariable “success” in the observable world. Attempts to discover a causal relationship between words uttered in prayer and immediate, verifiable results misinterpret the nature of prayer. Prayer is communication between persons, involving all the variables of personal wishes, commitments, integrity, understanding, and will. Prayer is not a relationship between impersonal objects such as heat and steel. Because prayer is addressed to God, it is not subject to scientific prediction and control. Neither magician nor scientist can manipulate the powers of the Almighty by virtue of a command.
To say that prayer may not be verified in the impersonal causal order, is not to say that it makes no difference in the observable world. That would be to infer that all uniquely personal acts, because unpredictable, are nonexistent. Causes in the world are often personal rather than automatic. Requests of persons may or may not be granted. The failure to receive the desired answer at the desired time is no argument against the meaningfulness of the personal relationship. People, like God, often say “No” or “Not yet” as well as “Yes.” What sort of evidence can verify the efficacy of requests? Certainly not an invariable causal efficacy.
C. S. Lewis has suggested some helpful illustrations. Ask a neighbor to feed the cat while you are away, an employer for a raise, or a woman to marry you. What is the connection between the asking and the receiving? C. S. Lewis wrote:
Your neighbor may be a humane person who would not have let your cat starve even if you had forgotten to make arrangements. Your employer is never so likely to grant your request for a raise as when he is aware that you could get better money from a rival firm, and he is quite possibly intending to secure you by a raise in any case. As for the lady who consents to marry you—are you sure she had not decided to do so already? Your proposal, you know, might have been the result, not the cause, of her decision. A certain important conversation might never have taken place unless she had intended that it should (“The Efficacy of Prayer” in His [May, 1959], 7).
What confirmation have Christians that their requests have been significant? Assurance arises, not from the manipulation of circumstances, but from knowing the persons involved. Those who best know an individual know whether their request to him was answered by coincidence or because they asked. Those who best know the God of the Bible can assess the efficacy of prayer as request to Him.
Jesus said, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8). If God knows all about these needs, then why pray? Clearly the purpose of prayer is not to inform God of things He has not known. Unlike others to whom you bring requests, God is omniscient. Beyond that, God desires to give good gifts. Then why must a Christian earnestly plead with Him? Henry Bett writing on The Reality of the Religious Life answered,
however willing God is to give His best gifts, it is simply true to say that they cannot be given to the unwilling and unreceptive. The rain and the sunshine are indeed sent upon the righteous and unrighteous alike, in the bounty of God; but the higher gifts of grace are never forced upon a reluctant or indifferent soul. There is always a deep sense of need and a strong desire lying at the heart of real supplication, and it is these which make it possible for God to bestow His best gifts upon us, and for us to receive them (158, 159).
An omnipotent God can do whatever He wills in the way He chooses. He has chosen to do certain things irrespective of human conditions. Other things, however, He has determined to bestow only in answer to sincere and sometimes importunate requests. In these cases, His purpose remains unchanged, but man’s relationship to that purpose changes. God’s action seems to change because a person who formerly was impenitent and self-sufficient has become repentant and full of faith.
In numerous Biblical cases intercessory prayer made a significant difference. The faithless Israelites were to be disinherited, but Moses prayed, “Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray thee, according to the greatness of thy steadfast love, and according as thou hast forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word.” Although the adults did not enter the Promised Land, the nation was not put aside for another (Num 14:11-19). Later, the wayward Israelites suffered at the hands of the Philistines, and Samuel summoned them to repent and put away foreign gods. When they destroyed the Baals and the Ashtaroth, Samuel prayed for them. The Philistines again started to attack, and the prophet offered a sacrifice and “cried to the Lord for Israel, and the Lord answered him...the Lord thundered with a mighty voice that day against the Philistines and threw them into confusion; and they were routed before Israel” (1 Sam 7:3-11). Clearly God chose to work in these cases, not apart from prayer, but in answer to prayer. Later, He was displeased for there was no one to intervene or intercede (Isa 59:16).
Does the fact that God knew from before the foundation of the world when men would pray render prayer meaningless? The husband’s foreknowledge that upon returning home from military service overseas he will be kissed by his devoted wife in no way detracts from the excitement of the occasion or renders it unnecessary. The God who took the sins of His people into account before creation and planned the cross, also took the requests of His people into account and prepared the answers.
Professor J. Oliver Buswell helpfully illustrated the relation between God’s foreknowledge and the spontaneity of our praying.
We parents know how to answer the petitions of our children in anticipation. With our limited knowledge we can know something of the future. Take the instance of a mother caring for the fevered body of a sick child. Before the sun goes down the mother provides the medicine, the drink of water, and other comforts, knowing that there will be a cry in the night. When the little one cries the mother does not change her mind. She has already planned the answer. Similarly, God has anticipated our prayers before the foundation of the world. He has built the answer to our prayers into the very structure of the universe. He knows that we will pray and that we will pray in a spontaneous manner as a child cries to his father. God has put the universe together on a principle of personal relationships in which He answers prayer, and we can, in a measure understand His loving provision only on the basis of His omniscience (Systematic Theology of the Christian Religion, I, 60).
Although to their own knowledge some have met the conditions of answered prayer they ought never seek to compel God to act in a certain way. Surely Jesus met every condition of answered prayer, but in Gethsemane He concluded, “not as I will, but as thou wilt” (Matt 26:36-44). If any Christian was qualified to pray expecting his request to be answered, it was Paul. But God did not remove his “thorn in the flesh.” Paul’s greatest desire was answered, although his request was not. He was given the grace to live with his “thorn...in the flesh” and minister effectively (2 Cor 12:7-9). When the unworthy Israelites insisted upon their way, finally God gave what they asked, but also “sent a wasting disease among them” (Ps 106:15). Prayer ought never to be turned into magical compulsion, but must always remain request to a wiser, personal God.
Some think prayer can affect only the one who prays, as a kind of psychological therapeutic. Others consider it merely communion with God. Another position finds prayer of significance not only to the person who prays, but also through spiritual influences in the lives of others. The Biblical data shows that prayer is considered effective for the one who prays and others for whom he prays, as well as for the general world. Prayer has power in all that is within God’s power. God may, in answer to prayer, direct any circumstance in the world, which He controls and sustains.
In evangelical perspective, then, prayer is response and request to the Lord of all, who is revealed primarily in the Christ of history and the truths of Scripture. In our troubled world, men need to make this response to God; believing men need to make request as never before.