Spiritual Disciplines: What is Prayer?
In the beginning of creation, God directly interacted with man. Genesis paints a picture of God and Man in close communion. The picture then shifts after man rebels against God in disobedience. God in his mercy continues to love and provide for man, but sin affects their relationship. Where once there was communion between God and man, now there is separation. God remains faithful to his nature and gives man a way to continue having connection with Him, but now this relationship must be bridged through a mediator such as a priest. Connection through a priest is the model we see throughout the Old Testament. This way of connecting or communicating with God through a mediator is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. Through Christ, we have been reconciled to God. We long for paradise restored when there will not be anything between us and God. Until then one of the ways we can connect with and communicate to God is through the avenue of prayer. Prayer is an amazing gift from a merciful God who desires reconciliation to a rebellious people. We access this direct line to God through audible words, internal thoughts as well as groanings that rise from within us.
There are many recorded prayers throughout the Bible. From David’s prayers in the Psalms to Paul’s sharing of prayers for his reader and so on. Just looking at the different examples and descriptions of prayer in the Bible we quickly realize prayer can take many different forms and emphases. Some are questions while others are statements. Some are focused on personal desires/frustrations while others are focused on God. Each of the following is either a prayer or a description of prayer, but each has a different level of emotional intensity and focuses on different topics:
“Hear me when I call” Psalm 4:1
“Lord, how long shall the wicked, how long shall the wicked triumph?” Psalm 94:15
“I praise thee because of thy righteous judgments” Psalm 119:164
“I beseech thee, O Lord God of heaven” Nehemiah 1:5
“I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” Ephesians 3:14
“For we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” Romans 8:26.
Three fundamental aspects of prayer are 1) Our perception of God 2) The intentionality of the message and 3) The spiritual condition of the individual/s praying.
Our Perception of God
Our tendency is to view God through the relationships we have experienced. In some ways this is helpful for us and in other ways, it hinders our view of God. When we recognize the best of a relationship as a small reflection of the glory of God it is helpful. It hinders our view of God when we connect the weakness of an individual or relationship to God. For example, we might view our relationship with God as a friendship. This is partly true yet when we think of talking to a friend, we might wonder why a friend would care about something they might already know. This is exactly what we do in praying to God. (Matthew 6:8) Or maybe we view our relationship with God as King of Kings. This is also certainly true yet when we think of God as a King, we may wrongly conclude he is distant and uninterested. Human language and analogies all fall short of fully describing or showing God, but they give us helpful glimpses. God is better than the best parts of a friendship and God is better than the very best of a great king. Prayer is coming before the Creator God and speaking to him; he who is the One who can soften the hardest heart; the One who can turn the heart of a king easier than you can flip a light switch; or the One who calms the wind with a word. The God who is infinitely powerful yet cares for you and the things you care about. (1 Peter 5:7) He invites us into His presence where we find a faithful King and Friend. This God, the God of the Bible, has tethered himself to the prayers of his people. Prayer is an invitation to come before almighty God in faith that he is able and willing to bring about his purposes through the prayer of his people.
Intentionality of the Message
The intentional aspect of prayer is a way to distinguish prayer from random thoughts, ponderings, and other mental activity that are not intentionally directed toward God. God knows these thoughts, but they are not prayer. Prayer is an intentional expression directed to God. This intentional expression may not always be coherent words or thoughts. The soul that is in deep pain, confused or overwhelmed may not have words or coherent thoughts to express to God. Yet this soul can intentionally come before the throne of God and trust the Lord understands their groanings. Not only does God understand these groanings, he deeply cares and is present with them in their pain. The soul who intentionally postures themselves before God may be praying audible or silent words, thoughts, or groanings.
Spiritual Condition of the Individual/s Praying
Prayer is a very common practice for both the converted and unconverted. However, the reasons for praying and what is meant by the practice are vastly different. Typically, the unconverted prays for two main reasons: 1) to connect with the spiritual realm or 2) they desire something. For the converted, prayer is a way to communicate to God. Not just any god but the God of the universe as he is described in the Bible. Our relational standing (child or rebel) before God will affect how we approach God and how he hears us. This is not meant to be a scary thing that leads to a constant re-evaluation of our relationship with Christ; Nor is it meant to convey the idea that God puts everyone on a continuum of righteousness and only hears the most righteous. God loves and delights to hear from the strongest and weakest of his children. He also delights to hear the rebel cry out to him in repentance. Our relationship with God affects prayer. If we are directly disobeying God’s Word and turning from him, our prayers will be hindered. (1 John 3:22) The Child of God, no matter how strong or weak, can rejoice in being invited to open their heart before God. One of the many exciting things about being a part of the New Testament church (i.e., after Christ’s death and resurrection) is our direct access to God through faith in Christ. As children of light who have been redeemed, we are to see ourselves as slaves who have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of Christ. While we have been given access to boldly approach the throne of grace, we are to be humble and thankful servants.
- How would you describe what prayer is to someone who is not familiar with Christianity?
- Describe how prayer is different from thinking.
- What thoughts do you have about the three fundamental components of prayer identified above (Perception, Intentionality, Spiritual condition)? What other components of prayer would you add?
- How is prayer similar to and different from communicating with a friend?
- How is prayer the same and different since the death and resurrection of Jesus?
- What does it mean to come both boldly and humbly before God in prayer?
- List some things that hinder prayer.
- Scriptures to Consider: Matthew 6:5-13, Colossians 1:9-12, Ephesians 1:15-23, 1 Kings 3:5-15
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For Further Information:
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life
Author: Donald Whitney
This 352-page book drawn from a rich heritage will guide you through a carefully selected array of disciplines. By illustrating why the disciplines are important, showing how each one will help you grow in godliness, and offering practical suggestions for cultivating them.
Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life: Workbook
Author: Donald Whitney
This companion guide to Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life takes you through a carefully selected array of disciplines that will help you grow in godliness. Ideal for personal or small-group use.