What is Prayer? (Part 2)

What is Prayer? (Part 2)

In a previous post, I mentioned that one of my favorite books on prayer is Eric Alexander’s, Prayer: A Biblical Perspective. You can find that little volume at The Banner of Truth here.

After offering a few thoughts about what prayer is NOT, he goes on to address what prayer actually is. He begins by insisting that prayer is very hard to define. While the Bible has a great deal to say about prayer, and sets it before us as the most important thing we can ever do, nowhere in God’s Word do we find an exhaustive definition of prayer. Alexander is probably correct when he says, “I suggest that this is because prayer defies definition.” Prayer is something that must be learned in the school of the Holy Spirit, a school from which we will never graduate in this life. “But if you insist on a definition,” Alexander says, “let me refer you to the words of John Calvin, who in his commentary on Isaiah says, ‘Prayer is nothing else than the opening up of our heart before God.'”

So, what does it mean to open up our heart before God in a biblical way? Alexander suggests the following positive principles:

1. Prayer is entering God’s presence through a Mediator. This is a foundational principle of prayer, one of which many are utterly ignorant. Prayer is approaching a holy God for communion and fellowship in His presence. But sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2). “All mankind, by their fall, lost communion with God” (WSC Q. 19). The only way for us to have communion with God is through the “new and living way” opened up for us by Jesus (Heb. 10:19-23). By His death at the cross, Jesus has purchased for us the access to God that we lost in Adam when he fell. Thus, God only hears the prayers of those who approach Him through the mediation of His Son. There is no direct approach to God. (Incidentally, the error of believing we can approach God directly is at the heart of nearly ever false form of spirituality!)

2. Prayer is worshipping and adoring God for all that He is. Jonathan Edwards, in his book, Charity and its Fruitshas a chapter title that perfectly describes the atmosphere of heaven: “Heaven is a World of Love.” And how does the love of the people of God come to its ultimate expression in heaven? In a word, worship. “This is the constant activity of the redeemed people of God in heaven,” writes Alexander. That is what we find the souls of the saints doing around the throne of God as they await the resurrection of their bodies (Rev. 4, 5). But the delight of the saints in heaven is also the greatest delight of the saints on earth, despite our continual warfare with the world, the flesh, and the devil. Our first concern in prayer, as articulated by Jesus in the first petition of the Lord’s Prayer, is the hallowing (revering) of God’s name. God is holy, and those who approach Him must approach Him in the reverential love (or godly fear) that is due to His name. This is where true prayer must begin.

3. Prayer is praising and thanking God for all that He does. I write this at a time when many are wondering what God is doing as governments around the world have shut down entire countries and the world economy seems on the verge of collapse. What could God possibly be doing in all of this? He is glorifying His Son, who is building His church! Our calling is not to understand all that God is doing. Our calling is to trust and to praise Him for all He is and all He does. As Alexander notes, “Praise is of the essence of prayer, and yet we find that the psalmist has to call upon his soul to remember and not forget the benefits the Lord has bestowed on him” (Ps. 103). A continual spirit of praise draws us out of ourselves, out of the misery of self-pity, and upward to God, who is seated on his throne, and smiling down upon His children with the most Fatherly of expressions. An ungrateful heart is a mark of ungodliness (1 Tim. 3:2). “The regular reading of Scripture is the best way to fuel a spirit of thankfulness” (p. 7).

4. Prayer is humbling ourselves before God and confessing our sin. We are creatures, and therefore infinitely unworthy to be in God’s presence before we ever consider what we are as fallen sinners in Adam. Even the angels in heaven cover their eyes and feet with their wings in the presence of God (Isa. 6)! Confessing our sin is not merely telling God what we have done wrong. That is important, but God certainly knows the content and the context of our sin better than we ever will. The word confess in Greek means “to say the same thing.” The discipline of regular confession of sin involves confessing not only what we have done, but confessing from our hearts that we see our sin as heinous and grotesque in the sight of God. We are learning more and more to see our sin as God sees it, and to see ourselves in sin as God sees us. But confession doesn’t remain there–confession is not wallowing in our sin, or succumbing to the spiritual paralysis of morbid introspection. Confession of sin takes us to our Savior, who is infinitely greater than our sin and has dealt with it finally and forever at the cross. We take our sin to God, through His Son Jesus Christ, and we leave it there, confessing that He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from ALL unrighteousness (1 Jn. 1:9).

5. Prayer is acknowledging our dependence on God and asking Him for what we need. Jesus teaches us to ask for the things we need in His name and to trust that God will give us every good gift necessary for life in this world in service to Him (Matt. 7:7-11). This does not mean that God will give us everything we want. It means that God (who is perfectly wise and good) will give us what we need in order to glorify Him body and soul all the days of our lives. But if we are to receive, we must ask. Prayer is the means God has given us to express our constant awareness of our dependence on Him. How do we know the will of God? Alexander answers this question with a quote from John Newton, author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace”:

In general, He guides and directs His people, by affording them, in answer to their prayer, the light of His Holy Spirit, which enables them to understand and to love the Scriptures…By treasuring up the doctrines, precepts, promises, examples and exhortations of Scripture in their minds and daily comparing themselves with the rule by which they walk, they grow into an habitual frame of spiritual wisdom, and acquire a gracious taste, which enables them to judge of right and wrong with a degree of readiness and certainty, as a musical ear judges of sounds.

6. Finally, prayer is interceding for others. This is what comes to mind for Paul, writing to the young church planter, Timothy (1 Tim. 2:1). One of the marks of a Christian is that he or she is busy in this work of intercessory prayer. This is one of the most productive ways we can use our time, or “use our quarantine” (as the phrase goes nowadays). It is one of the most loving and profitable activities we can ever engage ourselves in. It returns dividends far more valuable than even the best stock portfolio or Roth IRA. It gives a satisfaction greater than anything this world has to offer. But it also requires getting to know the needs of real people around us. It will never do for us to intercede in a general way, perhaps as our children do at bedtime, “Lord, please bless everyone in the whole wide world–and all the horses, too!” No, intercessory prayer involves knowing the people God has brought into our lives, inquiring diligently into their needs, their cares, and their concerns, and spreading these matters before the Lord as an act of brotherly and neighborly love. This is why we cannot remain “socially distant” from one another forever. We were made to be in communion with one another and to express our love for one another in our prayers to God. This will keep us looking again and again to our great High Priest, the Lord Jesus Christ, who ever lives to intercede for us at the right hand of God. An example of Jesus’s own intercessory prayer may be found in Jn. 17. I recently preached on that passage in a sermon entitled, “Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.” You may access that sermon online here.

So, what is prayer? As I wrote last time:

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).



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