WHAT IS PRAYER?
Written by Doug Ponder on July 14, 2013
I Want to Know What Prayer Is
The Scriptures are filled with hundreds of references to prayer. Clearly, God must think prayer is of great importance. But what is prayer? What does it mean to pray?
Some say that prayer is “talking to God,” and they’re right in a sense. But prayer is not talking to God in the same way that you might chat with your pals. Prayer involves acknowledging our dependence upon God, which we may express through words, thoughts, or even a disposition of the heart (Rom. 8:26).
I Want You to Show Me
Jesus gave his followers an example of what prayer looks like “in action,” so to speak. Jesus said,
When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. So this is how you should pray:
Our Father in heaven,
May your name be honored.
May your kingdom come,
May your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.
In one sense, Jesus really was teaching his disciples how to pray. But in another sense, Jesus was teaching them what prayer actually is: acknowledging our dependence upon God for all things. In fact, the sheer act of addressing God in prayer acknowledges that we have some need that we can’t satisfy, some problem we can’t fix, some task that we need help with, and so on. In other words, by nature prayer acknowledges our dependence upon God for all things.
Depending on God Our Father
As the creator who existed from eternity past, God is the one who gives us “life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). Without his decision to create, there would be no universe, no life, no you or me. In this way, God is the “Father” of all that is. He brought all things into existence, creating life where there was no life, just as parents begetting a child brings a life into the world where formerly there was no life.
Because God is the Father of creation, we can’t claim any good deed as something that we have done on our own ability or creativity. It’s works kind of like this. When I was a child, my parents would give us ten dollars to buy them presents for Christmas. Imagine if after giving them the gift that I bought with their money, I then bragged about what I bought them! It’s like telling God, “Look at what I did all by myself!” Only, we didn’t do it by ourselves. We were given life. We were given the gifts and talents we have. We were given the ability to do what we have done. We depend on God for all things, and prayer is an acknowledgment of this reality.
In another way, however, God is our Father because he has adopted us into his family through faith in his Son, Jesus. He has welcomed us into his family, making us heirs to life and all that belongs to his kingdom (Gal. 4:4-6). Thus God is the ultimate Father, better than any earthly father we might have had. His love for us and protection of us are perfect and unfailing. He has raised Jesus from the dead as proof of both: he loves us, and he will keep us safe. Our sin has been forgiven, and death, our great enemy, has been defeated for good. We are safe in our Father’s arms, and we depend upon him for all these things.
Directly or indirectly, God gives us what we need to live each day (“our daily bread”), and in every way he gives us better than we deserve. For example, in Christ we have forgiveness and freedom from the penalty and power of sin, all of which has been given to us through the work of the Holy Spirit. As we go to God in prayer, we acknowledge our need for him to give us these realities and to grant us all that we need for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3).
Acknowledging Our Dependence
So, we depend upon God whether we are aware of this or not, just as babies depend upon their parents, even if they are unable to understand how much they need them. This is a big part of why God calls us to pray. It is good for us to acknowledge our dependence upon him, so that we learn to live in reliance upon his grace, his wisdom, and his love. We cannot change ourselves; we need his gracious help. We cannot earn forgiveness; we need his grace. We cannot defeat sin or temptation in our own strength; we need God’s sanctifying grace. We cannot raise ourselves from the dead; we need the power of Jesus’ resurrection.
Not only is prayer an acknowledgement of our dependence upon God, it is also an expression of our need for him. In prayer we bring our requests to our heavenly Father, who tells us to ask him for what we need. As we go to him in prayer, we are reinforcing and expressing anew our dependence upon him for all that he provides. In fact, Jesus says that there are many things that we don’t have because we refuse to ask God for them (Matt. 7:7; James 4:2). This is not God’s way of being cruel, nor is it a sign of his ignorance. (Jesus says that God knows what we need before we ask him—see Matt. 6:7-8). Rather, God tells us to ask him for things because, above all, prayer will remind us of how much we need him.
What about Unanswered Prayers?
Sometimes people feel like God doesn’t answer their prayers, or perhaps they feel like he isn’t listening at all. There are two main reasons why some of our prayers go unanswered. First, some of may ask for things that directly contradict God’s revealed will in Scripture. John the apostle says, “This is the confidence that we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us” (1 John 5:14). God has no intention of listening to prayers to contradict his will in Scripture, for he has already told us what is good, and what we ought to seek for, so to contradict that would be to go against our own good.
The second reason some prayers go ‘unanswered’ (technically, the actual answer is “No”) is because we ask God for things with the wrong heart. As James the apostle says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. When you ask, you still do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:3). Like spoiled children, some of us ask God for things to ‘spend’ them on our selfish pursuits. We want more money, a bigger house, an easier job, etc., not so that the name of Jesus will be magnified, but so that our lives would be more comfortable. But God is not in the idol-giving business. He has no intentions of giving us what will actually keep our souls away from him (Mark 8:36). Instead, God refuses to grant us the requests in many of our prayers out of love for us, so that we do not further destroy ourselves upon obtaining the object of our selfish desires.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.