Jul 282016

tshirt_design_our_fatherIntroducing The Lord’s Prayer: 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.

  16 Responses to “Jean’s Gospel: What Is Prayer?”

  1. “Prayer is a conversation with God.”

    I wish this was more real, like God really talking. So many times it feels like I am taking to myself.

  2. conversation does imply give and take… perhaps, most prayers are akin to a letter or a tweet and most of God’s replies are in the Book that He’s supplied, where the Holy Spirit can bring the words to life (and it is the Holy Spirit that takes our messages to heaven also is it not?)… once in a great while God breaks the barrier and we know that He’s messaged us directly… but i’m a little cautious of folk who say God talks to them regularly – dunno

  3. When He speaks to us in the Word, we can have complete confidence that it is of God. And, yes, the Holy Spirit applies the Word to each of us according to our needs.

  4. Jean,

    I appreciate the note about “arrow” prayers…very grateful that Xenia introduced to this part of EO tradition…

  5. Michael,
    I agree. I am also grateful to the EO that they make a lot of resources available for free online translating the writings of the Church Fathers into English.

  6. Thank you Jean. I think about Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane when he asks the Father 3 times that this cup be taken from him. “Yet not as I will. But as you will.” An “arrow” prayer from Jesus.

  7. I think my most common phrase in prayer is “whoa! didn’t see that coming Lord.”

    I like written prayers, more to read than to actually pray – but that is my conversation with God – I read his scriptures to see what he had / has to say and then I read back my response.

    I definitely think pray can and should be brief – you know, those monks praying hours at a time – for what purpose? But I will say, I have a God conversation going on in my head all day long.

  8. MLD,

    The 3rd verse of A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (an awesome title and hymn by the way) contains the following sentence:

    “The Prince of Darkness grim,
    we tremble not for him;
    his rage we can endure,
    for lo, his doom is sure;
    one little word shall fell him.”

    The last line gives us a window into Luther’s thoughts about prayer and our greatest weapon in spiritual warfare. Praying God’s Word. Jesus did just that in the wilderness right after his baptism.

  9. Jean, thank you for this study. Nice to hear validation for different forms of prayer, I have often read/heard that “there is only one way to pray”, or “don’t expect to be heard by God if you’re doing it wrong.”

    Really enjoying this series.

  10. Owen,
    It would help with my research if you could share what you heard or read about that one way. What is the one way?

    Thank you for the constructive comments.

  11. Jean,

    One of the churches I attended when I was still a young Christian taught that prayer must be formal. One must speak to the Holy God in the same manner one would speak to a judge in a courtroom – the tone, the language, etc. I remember hearing the idea that since God gave us brains to think and reason with, He doesn’t want us to “lower our prayers” to just any words as this is disrespectful to God. It wasn’t about what was said, but how you said it. King James language. This was a Lutheran church, of the ELCIC. (They basically line up with the ELCA synod in the U.S.). I remember feeling quite inadequate approaching God, given these standards. It felt more like constructing a legal document than a conversation.
    I now wonder if it was just the teaching of that particular church, because that synod is fairly liberal and leans more towards “anything goes” these days, from what I have read. (I haven’t been a part of it for over 20 years now.)

    I will also add, I had occasion to visit a couple of different Foursquare churches with friends, and I got basically the same feeling from the way the prayers were presented. It was like they were scripted, yet they weren’t following an Order of Worship book. But everyone (except me) seemed to know the correct words to say.

    I still hear comments from a number of older people in my current church (LCC synod, basically lines up with Missouri synod in the U.S. ) that are along the same lines (that God prefers formality in prayer) – some who have been with our church for decades. Makes me wonder if perhaps a couple of the previous pastors were more fundamentalist-leaning. Our current pastor just past his 10th year serving with us, (and hopefully many more to come). His teachings about prayer, and his example, are in agreement with yours.

    Hope this is helpful.

  12. Owen,

    Thank you for taking the time to provide more color on your earlier comment. I will keep the concerns you expressed in mind as we continue the series. Let me bounce a few quick responsive thoughts off you, since you were kind enough to reply to my question::

    In private prayer, the words themselves are not the important thing. God reads our hearts. Our words either line up with what’s on our heart, or they don’t. If the words do not line up, then they are mere prattle. However, just because our words line up with our hearts isn’t the end of the issue, because we don’t know how to pray as we ought. For any number of reasons, e.g., we can’t collect, organize or discipline our thoughts (and emotions or affections). Maybe were stressed out, tired or depressed. In these cases, words can help a lot because they function to organize our thoughts. If you think about what you want to say to God, then your mind will follow the words. So, I think words can serve a helpful role, but not as some probably imagine (or denigrate). A Prayer such as The Lord’s Prayer gives the mind a structure, pattern and order of prayer that is very helpful in this regard.

    The other issue is praying with the wrong motivation, especially in a public setting like church. Jesus mentioned the hypocrites who prayed in public to be seen and admired. I have experienced a similar issue in churches where the pastor prays, but is motivated to promote his programs or ministry or vision. He disguises his lecture to the congregation in the form of a prayer. These prayers are typically long and I find them very annoying.

    In a church service, I do think that set prayers for the different parts of the service make a lot of sense. I see no value in the pastor winging it in the middle of the service. However, in private we have complete freedom to pray in our own words.

  13. In the church service the one thing I like about the set prayers (or appointed prayers) is that I kind of know what I am amening before hand. Some of these guys get up and in the spirit of their “ex corde” prayer just ramble on and parts of it your ears may perk up and you think, “what is he talking about?” or “where is he going with this?” and at the end you are debating “do I say amen?

    Has anyone here ever refused to amen the pray of another Christian?

  14. In today’s instant “Microwave oven” mentality and fast internet we expect instant results in most everything.

    Isaiah 40:31King James Version (KJV)

    31 But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.

    Most of us don’t have an understanding of the word “wait” in the above scripture.

    This is a common topic between myself and those who go out to the desert on retreats together.

    We discovered that it does take time and effort to connect with God on a tangible reciprocal level.

    There is no substitute for the “wait” ingredient in the above scripture.

    In our hectic world it is almost impossible to slow down and time ourselves with God’s timing and just simply wait.

    In my own experiments I did discover something wonderful!

    In the early 90’s I put together a cassette tape of worship that inspired me.

    In the evenings I put on my headphones and worshiped along with the tape.

    At first nothing much happened.

    But after quite a few evenings of this something wonderful happened.

    I started into my worship session like i had for quite a few nights.

    Suddenly the Holy Spirit manifested His presence to me in such a way that there was no doubt that he was present.

    Tears flowed as I worshiped in the tangible presence of Him.

    He was there the entire time but I wasn’t experiencing Him until He manifested His presence to me.

    It took persistent time and effort on my part to get to this point in my interaction with Him.

    I have done this over and over again with the exact same results over the years.

    Living fish swim upstream against the current while dead fish float freely downstream.

    In our instant gratification society the ways and means of God can be diametrically opposed to modern life habits.

    Waiting upon the Lord is exactly what it takes.

    The sacrifice of time spent with little initial results until suddenly you find yourself in the presence of the Lord.

    Hopes this helps a bit.

    However it is my own and a few others experience, your own may vary depending upon mileage etc… 🙂

  15. Jean,

    Thanks for your helpful thoughts. I’m thankful that it has been some time since I have felt bound by the previous teachings I discussed. I agree, words serve a very helpful purpose, it was the legalistic way we were told to use them that was harmful. It was “here are the sorts of words God finds acceptable – conform your prayers to these.”

    “In private prayer, the words themselves are not the important thing. God reads our hearts. Our words either line up with what’s on our heart, or they don’t.”

    See, and that was the thing. What was actually on my heart didn’t matter as much as using the approved language. Therefore, the words usually didn’t line up with my heart. Basically, there was no freedom in prayer. This was taught not just for corporate prayer, but private as well.

    I agree that having set prayers for parts of the service does make a lot of sense, and that works for me now because there isn’t any guilt attached to any non-conformity. The only time our pastor “wings it” is during the prayers for congregational members that have asked for specific prayer for something.

    I’m looking forward to your next installment in this series!

  16. MLD,

    I can relate to the rambling. The first church I mentioned in my #11 had two pastors who were quite skilled at going off on flowery tangents of oh-so-heavenly discourse, and I sat there thinking “uh, translation, please?” . So when it came time for the congregation to respond with “Amen”, I often would not because I had no idea what was just said.

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