What, exactly, is prayer?

woman praying_0

There are plenty of sermons preached and books written on “How to Pray”. I have a brilliant one with this title by nineteenth-century evangelist RA Torrey. His passion for constant, agonised and fervent intercession is a little daunting (I’d like to think prayer is about joy and thanksgiving too) but it is full of “how to pray” and “what to pray about” advice.

But there are few books on Christian shelves which start with the vital prior question: what is prayer? Surely, I would argue, we must ask this first, not only to be clear what we are doing when we “pray” but to make our expectations of what happens when we pray both realistic, and sufficiently high. We need to know what prayer really is if we are to gain confidence in experiencing the real thing.

O Hallesby’s classic, entitled “Prayer“, spends a brief chapter on this question but only really comes up with this definition: it is opening the door to God, or it is telling God how helpless we are. I can’t argue with either idea, but somehow I feel these are experiential definitions (what we do when we pray) and not theological ones (what prayer is).

Prayer is  not a general sense of the “spiritual”, of the kind which people describe when enjoying the peace of a garden or the beauty of a sunset – although these things may prompt prayers of praise and thanks to the Creator.

Prayer is not saying religious words. Jesus criticised those who thought that the more words they used, and the longer they went on speaking, the more likely God was to hear them. God knows what we need before we ask1.

Prayer is not an undirected cry to an unknown deity – or at least, Christian prayer is not that. All the prayers of the Bible are spoken in response to the God who has revealed Himself. Revelation from God leads to communication with God.

Moses prays to the LORD who caught his attention with a burning bush and then declared himself holy, the God of Moses’ fathers, compassionate, and named “I Am/I will be” or “The One Who is ” (Hebrew Yahweh or LORD)2. The Psalms cry out in praise, or desperation, to the God of Israel who created the earth, called His people, and redeemed them from slavery in Egypt. Paul prays to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus prays “Our Father in heaven”, a response both to the intimacy (“Abba” is a respectful word used by a child) and the majesty (“in heaven” means “in the high, infinite and eternal place where God is”) of God.

Prayer is therefore Trinitarian. We pray as Christians to the Father, through the atoning sacrifice and intercession of the Son, in the power of the Spirit within us by faith.

People often ask me two questions about prayer. First, which member of the Trinity do we pray to? The answer is in the above statement. Just as faith is coming to the Father through Jesus, and united by His Spirit, so is prayer. Second, what about praying to the saints? The Biblical pattern, again, is that through Christ, unworthy though we feel, we have the extraordinary privilege of direct access to “the throne of grace” (God) along with, not through, the great Christians who have lived before us.

Prayer is intelligent response to God as He has revealed Himself in the Bible.

John Calvin did believe that all of us have a sense of God’s presence (sensus divinatis) but he also taught that we need our image of God shaped all the time by the Bible’s picture of Who He is, or we create a false one. Of course, we may pray about matters not directly mentioned in the Bible, whether confessing sin, seeking guidance or interceding for the sick. Prayer is not limited to using or responding to words in the Bible. But it is only when we pray in response to God in the Bible that we know our prayers are God-centred, just as it is only when we read the Scriptures that we can be sure God is speaking to us.

In his book “Prayer“, which I am enjoying reading this Lent, Tim Keller uses this definition of prayer: a personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God. Comments?

Prayer for this week

Read Psalm 66 slowly, repeating each phrase in praise of God for the ways in which he has revealed himself.

1 Matthew 6:7-8

2 Exodus 3:1-15


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Rector of Holy Trinity, Norwich, since Sept 2017, writing on pastoring, preaching, resourcing discipleship, and apologetics/philosophy.

One thought on “What, exactly, is prayer?”

  1. Prayer, to me, is the perfect practice of hypnosis. It is the one activity by which the Christian is disposed to change or renew his/her mind.
    The practice of prayer affords God the opportunity to change both your mind and life. By letting God give us a new mind (on the matters we raise in prayer) we get to know the good and pleasing and perfect things God wants us to do. (Romans12.2)


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