Chapter 1 What Prayer Is

Most people think of prayer as a way to contact God. Consequently they practice prayer more or less frequently regardless of the religious label they attach to themselves. In a cartoon I saw some time ago, a little boy asked his atheist parents, “Do you think God knows we don’t believe in Him?” Instinctively people believe in God. They have to convince themselves that He does not exist. Instinctively people pray to God too. Paul Harvey, the news commentator, reported that when Madeline Murray O’Hare heard that someone had tried to assassinate Pope John Paul II in May of 1981, she exclaimed, “Oh, God!”

Christians have a special interest in prayer. We believe it is a way to contact the true God who has revealed Himself in love and who has spoken to us already in His Word, the Bible. The two biblical characters who had most to say on the subject of prayer were Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul, the two foremost Christian leaders.

The volume of literature available on the subject of prayer testifies to the popularity of this practice. On the average, about two new books on prayer appear each month on the shelves of bookstores in America. Some of these are scientific studies that investigate prayer philosophically or psychologically. The largest group consists of devotional books that urge us to pray more. Comparatively few books, like this one, deal with the subject theologically. That is, they seek to set forth what the Bible teaches about prayer.

Prayers and references to prayer appear in sixty-two of the sixty-six books of the Bible, all except the Song of Solomon, Obadiah, Haggai, and 2 John. Several Bible books give considerable attention to prayer: Genesis, Numbers, Judges, Matthew, Luke, Acts, 2 Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, James, and 1 Peter. The Book of Psalms stands in a class by itself since it is a book of prayers.

Generally speaking the Old Testament contains more information about prayer, and the New Testament stresses the importance of prayer.

The Bible presents God as a person who has communicated with us and who invites us to communicate with Him. Since God is the sovereign Creator and we are finite creatures, we need to know what He has revealed about how we can and should communicate with Him. The Christian’s relationship to his or her heavenly Father is by definition the most important one that we enjoy. Therefore it is essential that we know how to communicate with God acceptably and effectively.

There is no verse in the Bible that gives us a definition of prayer per se. Consequently we must discover what it is by examining the prayers and references to prayer in the Bible if we want a biblical definition. Essentially prayer is talking to God. It is expressing our thoughts and feelings to deity.

In almost every prayer recorded or referred to in the Bible, the true God is the person addressed in prayer (2 Chron. 6:14; Eph. 3:14). In a few instances, a person prayed to a false god, an idol (Isa. 45:20). So the word “prayer” refers specifically to speech addressed to a being regarded as deity by the person praying. Moreover the Bible limits prayer to human speech godward. There is no indication in Scripture that animals pray to God. The biblical writers did not describe angelic speech to God as prayer, though it may be. Furthermore the word always refers to our words to God and never to His words to us. The Bible does not use the term “prayer” to describe divine human dialogue either. It uses it specifically to refer to our words to God. His words to us are something other than prayer: revelation, answer, response, etc.

Several different Hebrew and Greek words, from the oldest Old and New Testament documents, translate as “prayer” in our English versions. They refer to general or specific types of speech directed to God. Generally “prayer” refers to any and every expression of our thoughts and feelings to God, audible or inaudible. Specifically the word refers to petitions or requests of God (James 5:13-18). We find both uses of the word in Scripture.

From this brief introduction to prayer, we will move into a more detailed study of the different types of prayer that the Bible presents.