Jean’s Gospel: What Is Prayer?
“But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:23)
In a fast-paced world filled with busyness and distractions, it can be tempting, outside of formal church services, to treat prayer as an optional spiritual practice. A Christian might be under the impression that other Christians – for example, pastors, devout friends or prayer groups (i.e., those supposedly with the “gift” for prayer) – can handle the praying for the needs of the church, community and other individuals. This temptation might coincide with other reasons a Christian might not pray regularly, often having to do with some basic question: Why should I pray? What is prayer? How should I pray? What should I pray for? Will God listen to me?
The concern is that if a Christian is not praying regularly outside of formal church services, then there is a spiritual problem that needs attention. The issue may be as simple (and correctable) as poor or incomplete teaching about prayer. Or the issue could be far more serious, as when an individual does not believe that God requires, hears or answers our prayers. God clearly enjoins intercessory prayer (see e.g., James 5:16), but never as a substitute or alternative to individual prayer. All Christians personally have the Holy Spirit, so all Christians personally are expected to worship the Father in Spirit and Truth.
When the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1), they wanted to know – now as disciples of Jesus – “what is prayer?” The disciples knew from watching Jesus that He was a man of prayer. They probably shared many of the same questions that Christians today have concerning prayer. Therefore, if we have questions regarding prayer, we are in good company. And when we turn to The Lord’s Prayer, we too will have the Lord as our Teacher.
“Hear, O Lord, when I cry aloud; be gracious to me and answer me! You have said, ‘Seek my face.’ My heart says to you, ‘Your face, Lord, do I seek.’” (Ps 27:7-8)
Prayer is a conversation with God. Prayer originates in the heart. Our conversations with God consist generally of thanksgiving and supplication. In The Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us about the things for which we are to praise and petition the Father. Conversing with God is intrinsic to the relationship between a Christian and God. Prayer is not a spiritual gift (see 1 Cor 12) or a vocation (see Eph 4:11), in the sense of being given only to some but not all Christians. Prayer is analogous to a heartbeat: Where there is physical life, there is a heartbeat; where there is a Christian, there is prayer.
When used in the context of prayer, the word “heart” symbolizes the seat of a Christian’s spiritual life: the will; the intellect; one’s feelings and affections; the conscience. The Holy Spirit dwells in the heart filling it with faith in Christ. Knowing that the heart is the source of prayer helps us to distinguish true prayer from false prayer. When we later examine Jesus’ warnings about the false prayers of the hypocrites (Matt 6:5) and the Gentiles (Matt 6:7), it will become apparent in both cases that the root of the problem was in the heart.
“Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.” (Rom 12:12)
Prayer may take any of the following three forms:
Non-Verbal Prayer. Prayer can be non-verbal conversation with God, as when our heart longs for or has a great need of God, but we are unable to express our longing or need in words. In the Psalms, David wrote of his non-verbal prayers: “O Lord, all my longing is before you; my sighing is not hidden from you” (Ps 38.9). In such a case, the Father nonetheless hears our prayer, because the Holy Spirit, who dwells in the Christian’s heart, intercedes for us (Rom 8:26-27), and Jesus, who is seated at the right hand of the Father in heaven, also intercedes for us.
Verbal Prayer. Prayer is most commonly thought of as verbal conversation with God, either silent or audible. Corporate or communal prayer usually is audible. When Paul and Silas were imprisoned in Philippi, they were overheard praying out loud together: “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them” (Acts 16:25). Verbal prayer may be spoken or sung, silently or aloud, privately or communally.
Arrow Prayer. Prayer which combines non-verbal and verbal conversation with God in a very short verbal prayer is known as an “arrow” prayer. One such arrow prayer, well known among Eastern Orthodox Christians, is the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The actual words of an arrow prayer can vary, for example: “Lord have mercy;” “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want;” “Praise God from whom all blessings flow”; etc. Arrow prayers have two important advantages: (1) they open our hearts to communion with God at moments when we are at a loss (or have no need) for additional words; and (2) they help us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).
The Lord’s Prayer probably is too long to be considered an arrow prayer. However, I often find myself praying bits of it during the day (e.g., “Lord, Hallowed be your name” or “Lord, Your will be done”). In any case, I heartily commend the use of arrow prayers, especially those which include a short text of Scripture.
“The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; he also hears their cry and saves them.” (Ps 145:18-19)
Although prayer may take the different forms described above, they all result in the same thing: conversation with God originating from the heart. Prayer does not depend on the words themselves, because God knows what we need before we ask Him (Matt 6:8). The only requisite for true prayer is Christian faith and a sincere thanksgiving or petition to God.
“Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving,
And perform your vows to the Most High,
and call upon me in the day of trouble;
I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” (Ps 50:14-15) Amen.
Next week, we will review the question: Why do Christians pray?
Copyright © 2016 Jean Dragon – All rights reserved.