The nature of prayer

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Series: An edited adaptation of the book Prayer, Power, and Proclamation by C.L.Peppler published by Chrispy Publications in 2009 (ISBN 978-0-620-43583-3). Chap 2; part 2: 


The Bible records how the Lord Jesus prayed for his disciples, how he prayed alone, and what he taught concerning prayer. As usual, he is the first we go to in determining doctrine and practice. The most well-known, and often repeated, prayer formulation is that which he articulated in response to his disciples’ request to teach them how to pray – we call it ‘The Lord’s Prayer’.

The Lord’s Prayer

The prayer that Jesus formulated for his disciples defines several aspects of communicating with God the Father.

This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’
Matthew 6:9-13  

The prayer is like that of a child to a father. The first concern of the one praying is the Father’s honour and purposes. The second concern is petition for provision, forgiveness, and protection. It is very simply like a child honouring the Father and expressing dependence. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could scrap all that stuff about how we must follow praise with thanksgiving, followed by intercession, followed by petition, and so on? When did praying stop being a simple heartfelt communication, and start becoming a series of formulas?

I church services we often recite this prayer as a sort of verbal punctuation mark to a time of led prayer. I have heard it spoken so rapidly and monotonously that I have to question its value as a valid form of communication with God. Did Jesus give this prayer to us to use as part of a religious liturgy? I really do not think that this was his intention. Certainly, his own prayers give no indication of this.


Jesus’ prayers

The Gospels record several of Jesus’ own prayers. John 17 records his comprehensive prayers concerning his disciples and all future Christians. He prayed when his disciples returned from their field trips (Luke 10:21). He prayed in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42). The commonality in these prayers is that they are all genuinely intimate communications between Jesus and his Father. There is no hint of the release of power in these prayers, or of the prayers themselves being the means of effecting results.

If we defined prayer purely from observing Jesus’ practice of prayer, we would include words such as intimate, heartfelt, and interactive, and we would have to exclude the concepts of control, power, and coercion.

Perhaps the actual words in the original biblical Greek will give us further clarity on the nature and purpose of prayer.

Words translated as ‘prayer’

The three main Greek words translated as ‘prayer’ in the New Testament are: Proseuche, signifying prayer in general; Deesis, referring to prayer for particular benefits; and Enteuxis (1 Timothy 4:5), meaning confiding access to God.

The word Proseuche is an expression of devotion. Deesis is an expression of personal need. Enteuxis is an expression of childlike confidence in heartfelt communication with the Father. These words used by the authors of the New Testament writings carry through the tone and purpose of Jesus’ prayers.

It is clear that we are to pray, not only concerning ourselves, but also for others. For instance, 1 Timothy 2:1-2 reads, “I urge that petitions, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all those who are in authority” It is also obvious from the scripture cited, that there are several acceptable forms of prayer such as petition, intercession, and thanksgiving. However, despite the form of prayer, or the length of prayer, or the frequency of prayer, all scriptural references to prayer have one thing in common; prayer is to God. Prayer is a way of communicating with God. 

In itself, prayer does not constitute the release of spiritual power. Nor is it a liturgical exercise performed in the absence of a sense of the communing presence of God.



What then is prayer?

There is no power in prayer. Prayer precedes power, but in itself, prayer is simply intimate communion with God. Prayer is the communication component of our relationship with God. More broadly speaking, prayer is bi-directional and includes both our communications with God and his communications with us. I have defined it this way, because communication is essentially an exchange of heart and information. A one-directional data-flow falls short of true communication and does not constitute ‘communion’. Strictly speaking, the word ‘prayer’ describes our end of the communication process. I have included God’s communications to us within the subject of prayer to allow for the immediacy of much of the intimate communication between God and us. God is not limited by temporal time, and sometimes his responses to our communications occur ‘later’ on our time-line. He also often initiates communication. Prophecy, visions, dreams, angelic appearances, and even preaching, are all ways in which God communicates with us.

Communion is intimate and involves heart as well as information. Prayer makes known the innermost thoughts and emotions. When we pray, we express to our Father God that which is ‘inside’ of us. However, prayer also includes listening, because God also is prepared to share his heart and mind with us.

We commune with God verbally through spoken and ‘thought’ language, and through tongues. My understanding of tongues is that they are ostensibly unintelligible utterances from a believer to God (1 Corinthians 14:2). It is for this reason that tongues spoken within a congregation need to be interpreted so that others will understand the prayer and thus be able to concur and say “amen” to it.

Tongues express what we cannot express with our normal mental faculties; tongues communicate the deeper things of the spirit. We also communicate with God nonverbally through such things as dance, art, and sacraments.

Within the context of the immediacy of prayer, God communicates with us through the Bible, through the inner witness of our spirit, through visions, and even through the agency of other believers.

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