What is Prayer? (Part 1)

What is Prayer? (Part 1)

The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks and answers the question, “What is prayer?” in Q. 98. “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.” (See Ps. 10:17; 62:8; Matt. 7:7-8; 1 Jn. 5:14; Jn. 16:23-24; Ps. 32:5-6; Dan. 9:4-19; 1 Jn. 1:9; Ps. 103:1-5; Ps. 136; Phil. 4:6-7).

Prayer is the active response of the believing heart to all that God is and to all that He has said in His Word. Prayer is at the very heart of what it means to offer oneself as a living sacrifice to God (Rom. 12:1, 12). 

One of my favorite books on prayer is Eric Alexander’s short little volume, Prayer: A Biblical Perspective, published by The Banner of Truth and available here.

Alexander takes a slightly different approach to answering the question, “What is prayer?” than that of the Shorter Catechism. Rather than defining what prayer is, he first calls attention to what it is isn’t. This is helpful because it clears away some of the misunderstandings we might have about prayer. So, what are some common ways we might think about prayer that actually lead us away from understanding what true prayer is?

1. Prayer is NOT an excuse for doing nothing. This is important, especially when the world around us has “just do something disease.” For many, prayer is the same thing as inactivity, and for the unbeliever, it is the epitome of irresponsibility in times of crisis and distress. “Why are you praying when you should be doing something?” asks the world, in shock and outraged contempt. Alexander points out that prayer is not the same thing as doing nothing. In fact, it is the most important activity and the most noble form of labor we can exert ourselves in. It is also an expression of our need, our utter helplessness, and our dependence on Almighty God, our Father.

2. Prayer is NOT just “asking God for what we need.” The purpose of prayer is not seeking to gain favor with God. The believer approaches God as one who already HAS favor with Him, and therefore, who can know that God will hear and answer the cries of His children because He loves them. This is why Jesus teaches us to begin our prayers with the words, “Our Father in heaven…” (Matt. 6:9). God deals with us as children, not as enemies. That is the heart of the Gospel. We deserve to be treated as enemies, but God instead graciously treats us as sons and daughters in Jesus Christ. It is on this basis alone that we can ask the Father for what we need and kn ow that He will give us what is necessary for our lives and service to Him in this world (Matt. 7:7-11). As Alexander says, prayer “is primarily worship and adoration of God for His greatness and grace” (p. 5).

3. Prayer is NOT the robotic recitation of remembered words. It is not wrong for us to memorize forms of prayer, such as the Lord’s Prayer. In fact, I believe we should teach such words to our children even before they are able to talk. This is how we teach children to do almost everything else we teach them to do. We supply them with the answers until they are better equipped to understand what those answers mean. But our use of forms in prayer should never become formalism in prayer. Formalism is the externalization of religion so that it becomes “the form of godliness without the power thereof.” Formalism is one of the greatest enemies of true biblical Christianity, which is a religion of the whole person–heart, mind, soul, and strength (Mk. 12:29-30).

4. Prayer is NOT just for super-spiritual “saints” or for those who have achieved some special experience reserved only for a few. The New Testament teaches that every believer is a saint, a “holy one,” in the sight of God. Even the weakest child of God has both the spiritual resources and the spiritual status required to approach the Father, through His Son Jesus Christ, in prayer. This is precisely what it means to call upon God in the “name” of Jesus Christ. It means far more than simply saying the words, “in the name of Jesus, amen.” It means praying on the basis of all that Jesus is for you as your Savior. You come, not in your own name, and not on the basis of your own righteousness. You come in the strong name of Jesus, who is in Himself all the righteousness you will ever need.

5. Prayer is NOT an activity reserved only for certain times and places. This should be especially comforting to us as I write this during a time when we are largely unable to “go to church.” Jesus makes this very point when He tells the woman of Samaria, “Woman, believe Me, the hour is coming when you will neither on this mountain, or in Jerusalem, worship the Father…But the hour is coming, and now is, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth; for the Father is seeking such to worship Him. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth” (Jn. 4:20-24). As Alexander points out, “Christians do not need to make pilgrimage to special places to pray. God is omnipresent in the universe, and every place can be holy ground” (p. 6).

So much for what prayer is NOT. Next time, Lord willing, I will offer a few thoughts (with Alexander’s help) on what prayer actually is. In the meantime, let us pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

P.S. I recently preached a series in our evening worship services on Christian Prayer. That series may be accessed here. 



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