Posted in theology

Back to Basics: What is prayer?

By Elizabeth Prata

Prayer is a privilege and a responsibility for every Christian. Why? It is the way Jesus taught us to communicate with Him.

Rather than the wrathful gods of the Aztec era of human sacrifice, or the ancient Middle East where child sacrifice was required, or the Muslim god who is demanding but mercurial and untrustworthy, the One True God creates us to have a love relationship with Him. He wants to redeem us from our sinful state to dwell with Him in heaven. His Holy Word tells us who He is and how to love Him back, and His promises never fold.

In His Bible, He explains how to communicate with Him. Unlike the gods of old, all other gods as a matter of fact, (who are no gods at all) we can speak with Him at any time. He has told us He listens. From Genesis to Isaiah to Philippians, we’re told to pray to God.

“And he removed from thence unto a mountain on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, having Bethel on the west, and Hai on the east: and there he builded an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD” (Genesis 12:8)

“Seek ye the LORD while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:” (Isaiah 55:6)

“Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God.” (Philippians 4:6)

So what IS prayer, exactly? Why do we pray? How do we pray?

As Christian Research and Apologetics Ministry (CARM) explains, “Prayer is the practice of the presence of God. It is the place where pride is abandoned, hope is lifted, and supplication is made. Prayer is the place of admitting our need, of adopting humility, and claiming dependence upon God. Prayer is the needful practice of the Christian. Prayer is the exercise of faith and hope. Prayer is the privilege of touching the heart of the Father through the Son of God, Jesus our Lord.”

Why pray? “For one thing, prayer is a form of serving God (Luke 2:36-38) and obeying Him. We pray because God commands us to pray (Philippians 4:6-7). Prayer is exemplified for us by Christ and the early church (Mark 1:35; Acts 1:14; 2:42; 3:1; 4:23-31; 6:4; 13:1-3). If Jesus thought it was worthwhile to pray, we should also. If He needed to pray to remain in the Father’s will, how much more do we need to pray?”

He has made Himself known in three Persons, God, Jesus the son, and Holy Spirit. We can pray to all three or to one or to two. He is all the same. Any or all are appropriate to pray to. However, the Triune God is the ONLY appropriate person to pray to. The first Commandment says that He is the one true God and we shall have no other gods before Him (Exodus 20:2-3). We do not pray to angels. (Revelation 22:8-9). We do not pray to saints such as the Catholic Church worships. (1 Timothy 2:5) We do not pray to Mary the mother of Jesus. (Luke 11:27-28). We do not pray to the dead, whose final condition is fixed. (Luke 16:19-31; Hebrews 9:27). We pray to God only.

How, then, shall we pray? Jesus answered this exact question in Matthew 6:9-13.

“Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
10 ‘Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
11 ‘Give us this day our daily bread.
12 ‘And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]”

It is not to say that unconscious repetition of this exact phraseology is the way to pray. Jesus pray ‘in this way‘. He began with a statement to whom He was addressing. He led with a praise. It is always proper to praise the Lord at any time but especially in prayer because it sets our heart condition rightly and reminds us of our position as submissive supplicants. This reminder helps us when the prayers are answered in a way we do not expect or in a timing we are uncomfortable with.

Give us this day our daily bread is a statement from Jesus telling us it is all right to ask for things to sustain us while we are living on earth. (Matthew 6:32-33). But you notice the prayer doesn’t say pray in a way where you ask for surplus, He is asking for daily bread. Not weekly bread. The manna that was given to the Hebrews in the desert was given daily. Asking for daily bread helps us not become greedy hoarders, too self-reliant, and it also is a way for the Lord to bless us daily!

Asking the Lord to forgive our sins is a way to remind us that before any prayer can be answered we need to ensure we are on the right side of God and not accumulating sins, and also that if we forgive others we are also on the right side of God. (Matthew 6:14-15; Mark 11:25). Why should He bless a bitter heart? He will not. (1 John 2:9).

“Lead us not into temptation” must be understood correctly. Barnes Notes: “God tempts no man. See James 1:13. This phrase, then, must be used in the sense of “permitting.” Do not “suffer” us, or “permit” us, to be tempted to sin. In this it is implied that God has such control over the tempter as to save us from his power if we call upon him.

 So don’t mindlessly repeat Jesus’ prayer exactly but let the power behind the concepts conform your heart to your own words. Know to Whom you are praying. Praise Him. Understand you position before Him as penitent, His kingdom within you and also your external destination someday. Ask for what earthly provision you need in humility, trusting Him to answer in faith.  Ask for unearthly provision such as release from temptation or protection from temptation.

Is there a proper bodily position in which we pray? Some prefer head bowed, others prefer to look up. Some pray with eyes closed, others keep them open. Still others pray silently, some prefer aloud. Standing, sitting, kneeling, walking,…all these postures are in the Bible. Here is a very short answer to the question of whether there is a commanded posture for prayer, at Grace to You.

The most important thing about prayer is that in order to communicate this way with God, you must be saved he does not listen to nor answer the prayers of the unsaved. (John 9:31; 1 Peter 3:12). The entire Christian faith is based on the fact that Adam’s sin separated us from our holy and righteous God. That separation includes communication and intimacy, including prayer. The most important utterance you will ever emit is the confession to Jesus, plea, or prayer for forgiveness of your sins God WILL hear that one.

that if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. (Romans 10:9)

If you are new to prayer, don’t worry about fancy words or proper phrases. That is the utter beauty of our God. He hears the heart cry, understands the motivation behind what we are asking. He listens to all words fancy or not, as long as they are sincere. Don’t worry, just pray! It is a way to talk with Him. He doesn’t change by your prayer, but you are changed by praying. So don’t put it off another minute!

Further Resources

Praying the Bible by Donald S. Whitney

The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions by Arthur Bennett (Editor)

Spurgeon Quotes on Prayer, selected quotes from his sermons


Christian writer and Georgia teacher's aide who loves Jesus, a quiet life, art, beauty, and children.