What is prayer?

What is Prayer Top image
Prayer is a vital part of Christian spirituality and church life.

Jesus taught and modelled it, the early church practiced it, and every major theologian or Christian leader over the past two millennia has given it prominence.

On the 22nd April, 2017 hundreds of thousands of Christians converged on a farm just outside Bloemfontein to pray for the nation of South Africa. I wrote and spoke about this at the time, so if you are interested in reading about it click HERE, or listening to it, HERE, but in essense I believe that this was a pivotal moment, but why do I believe this? An estimated one million people attended this epic prayer meeting, but why did they go?

Does prayer release some unseen power when we pray, a power that is amplified by mass prayer?

It seems to me that a good number of Christians believe this otherwise why would they try to get so many people praying for their sick loved ones, as happens regularly through social media and prayer chains.

On the other hand, it seems that an equal number of Christians place little importance on prayer and almost none on corporate (group) prayer. How many people regularly attend the weekly prayer meeting at your church? Oh, your church does not have a weekly prayer meeting?

I want to briefly examine what I think are the underlying causes for these two opposite approaches to prayer and then sketch out what prayer is and why we should pray.

Prayerlessness

Firstly, I hold that we should lay much of the prayerlessness of today’s Christians at the feet of Reformed theology. Ouch! Let me explain why I think this before you bend to pick up a stone to throw at me. Oh, and I must explain why I use the word ‘Reformed’. Hyper-Calvinism is the real culprit, but so many of today’s resurgent Calvinists label themselves as ‘Reformed’ that I am choosing to use that label to describe the problem group. (You can read about Calvanism and Reformed theology HERE or listen to the TruthTalk on them HERE).

Here are quotes from three reasonably representative Reformed sources. I am aware that several major Reformed theologians, such as Wynne Grudem, would not fully endorse these views, yet I do think that they represent the problematic core teaching.

The first quote is from an article titled ‘A theology of biblical prayer’ appearing on ‘The Reformed Collective’ site: ‘Prayer is a means through which God acts. It has been established in Scripture that prayers, which conform to the will of God, are used by God to accomplish the most important thing all creation serves –– the will of God’.

The second quote presents this idea in a similar fashion. It is from an article on the ‘Desiring God’ site under the heading of ‘God Uses Means’. John Piper writes; ‘ In other words, just as God will see to it that his Word is proclaimed as a means to saving the elect, so he will see to it that all those prayers are prayed which he has promised to respond to’.

Let me quote a third source and then I will unpack what lies behind these beliefs and the effect they have on Christians today. Millard Erikson, the well-respected Reformed theologian writes in his ‘Christian Theology’; ‘When God wills the end (in these cases, healing), he also wills the means (which includes a request to be healed, which in turn presupposes faith). That is, God wills the healing in part by willing that those in need should bring their entreaties. Thus, prayer does not change what he has purposed to do. It is the means by which he accomplishes his end. It is vital, then, that a prayer be uttered, for without it the desired result will not come to pass’.

These strange circular formulations stem from the underlying conviction that God has predetermined everything that happens, be it salvation or healing, or even the words I think I am choosing to write at this very moment. Prayer poses a particular problem for anyone who believes in ‘meticulous determinism’. Why is it then necessary, and more particularly, why does God instruct us to pray? They have no coherent answer to this and have to resort to teaching that prayer is simply a means God uses to achieve His predetermined purposes. This all dissolves into a muddy puddle of confusion when men like Dr Erikson resort to statements like, ‘It is vital, then, that a prayer be uttered, for without it the desired result will not come to pass’. How contradictory is that!?

Now, despite the many protestations by Reformed folk, it is hard to believe that, on this basis, prayer is important. In terms of Reformed teaching, God will assure that His will be done whether I like it or not and if I don’t pray as ‘a means’ to His goal achievement, then it simply means that He has ordained someone else to pray.

The power of pray

In diametric opposition to the Reformed view is the belief that our prayers have the power to achieve results. In this camp, the focus is usually on how our prayers either release a spiritual power that changes things in the material realm, or manipulate God to our ends.

Here are two quotes from a book called Unleashing the Power of Prayer, which contains 30 addresses to The International Prayer Assembly for World Evangelism that met in Seoul in 1984. I have used them in my book ‘Prayer, Power, and Proclamation (which you can download for free HERE if you would like to), but they are worth repeating here.

“Praying is how you get things done. It’s not what you do, or your preparation; it is prayer itself that is God’s method of getting things done.”,and “Prayer releases the power and the authority of God. The Bible tells us ‘whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” [Matthew 18:18]. We see that we have the capacity literally to reach into the realms of heaven and touch the very hand of God Himself.”

If this is indeed true then the more we pray, and the more people we agree with in prayer, the more we can achieve… with or without God’s help.

The true nature of prayer

I believe that both of the views I have presented here are flawed and result in either prayerlessness or blasphemous egocentricity. Jesus did not pray as a means of getting things done, or of releasing power to heal, but rather as a way of communing with His Father. I use the word ‘communing’ purposefully because prayer is more than communication, it is intimate dialogue with and experience of the Almighty.

We pray because we have a relationship with the triune God. We pray because we want to be in close contact with Him, to tell Him how we feel and think, and to hear from Him. We pray in order to express our belief in Him and our dependence upon Him. We pray because we love Him and know that He loves us.

I have written quite a lot on this in the past, supporting my views with scripture and reason, so I won’t repeat it all here. You can read an edited version of some of my work HERE, HERE, and HERE.

God instructs us to pray to Him because He loves to commune with us, wants us to participate with Him in the affairs of His Kingdom, and because it is good for us to realise our dependence upon Him.

Prayer is a privilege we have as sons and daughters of the Most High. When we pray individually, we express ourselves personally and when we pray as part of a group, we express ourselves corporately. We also pray in order to hear and we pray in order to align ourselves with God’s heart and mind.

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