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what is prayer

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Prayer: what is it, how is it done, and what does it do? These are all questions that pose themselves when we begin to examine this aspect of Christian life. We shall begin our study by attempting to grasp the fundamental nature of prayer itself, searching scripture for answers, direct or indirect, to our questions.

The first of these queries is designed to distance us from the preconceived notions we may have about the subject. As is the case with all humanity, we have acquired certain ideas, phrases, and perspectives on prayer which have been imparted from teachers, books, conversations, and perhaps even private readings. If we are to approach this subject wholeheartedly, we must be willing to shed such pieces of intellectual baggage as we may find that they do not wholly conform to a biblical understanding of this practice.

Firstly, what is prayer not?

Prayer is not communication. This is crucial to our study, for it is the most common of misconceptions regarding prayer. Communication is the transfer of information from one being to another. God, being omniscient actually has all information, including what will be prayed to him, therefore the word “communication” is inappropriate by definition. Additionally it is absurd to suppose that sound waves generated from human lips or “brain waves” from ones mind have some sort of divine pipeline to the deity of the Godhead, whereby God can “hear” those who call on His name.

Prayer is not entering into the presence of the Most High. All Christians are continually in the presence of God, a reality that Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians 2:10 and the prophet Zechariah in Zechariah 2:12. All mankind stands (sits, or sleeps) in the omnipresence of the Lord. One may flee from His theophany, but Psalm 139 is very clear that none can escape from the sight of God. He is all-knowing and all-seeing, therefore all men exist within the realm of His non-physical (non-theophanic) presence. It is impossible to “come before the Lord,” therefore, unless a specific manifestation of His presence can be located, in which case this terminology could be used in reference to the approaching of this unique expression of the Godhead.

Prayer is not a forum for asking God to do your bidding. Though the OT word for prayer, “palal” means “to entreat” and “to intercede,” among other things, Habakkuk 3 is an example of prayer containing no form of supplication at all. Other psalm-prayers follow this same pattern, indicating that prayer is not merely God’s chosen means whereby men can entreat His favour. Also, it may be noted that nearly all biblically recorded prayers, including Christ’s own, begin with or heavily focus on God’s glory and divine attributes; Habakkuk’s prayer speaks of nothing else.

What prayer is.

This is no simple question. Though human words are often limited in their ability to convey inhuman things, a word exists which may capture a portion of prayer’s essential nature. This word is communion; not the “communion” which is taken to be the second sacrament, but rather that which is an expression of deep and powerful emotion, an intimate sharing of thought and feeling. This word is imperfect as well, for it connotes a mutual exchange of these things, yet its other connotations allow its meaning to conform with some accuracy to our purpose and therefore will be adequate for this study.

But why the word communion? Because of the way in which we can use the word! It allows us to take a more complex definition, which we will shortly discover, abridge it, and associate it with a word we can better understand. This serves as a familiar anchor for our understanding of prayer by which we can reference its more complicated nuances. It is likely that the word, “prayer” was once better understood in itself and would have been sufficient to serve as this anchor, but this is no longer the case, necessitating another anchor, one less cluttered by the preconceptions and presuppositions bred by a lifetime’s exposure to incomplete or inaccurate teaching on the topic.

So, at length, what is prayer?

Prayer is (1) the means of grace (2) God has chosen (3) whereby mankind may relate to his God and (4) express his thoughts, (5) emotions, and (6) needs via the medium of (7) language, spoken or unspoken. Each portion of this definition is essential to a deeper understanding of prayer. Because of this and the complexity of this definition, we have numbered each statement and will now evaluate each in order, examining its reasoning and biblical support.

(1) Prayer is a means of grace. Before we can affirm or deny this, we must understand what grace is. In its simplest form, it may be understood to be favour, typically unmerited favour. It is God looking or acting with favour upon an individual or group. Prayer is one of many ways in which God has chosen to favour mankind in general and His chosen in specific. We must understand it to be both a common and specific grace if we are to remain faithful to the scriptures. How so?

In Acts 10:1-4 we find a Gentile, Cornelius, and devout man, praying continually to God. We find in the same passage that these same prayers had ascended as a memorial to God. Both of these indicate that the man was genuinely praying to God, yet Cornelius was, at this point unsaved. His salvation is recorded, to the amazement of the believing Jews (including Peter) in verses 44-47. There is also the matter of the repentant man’s prayer, which is heard despite such an individual’s unregenerate state. Romans 10:13 records that “whoever” shall call upon the name of the Lord (calling on the name of the Lord is synonymous with prayer) will be saved. This, in turn, indicates that, before salvation, God will hear man’s cries for help and will save them.

But what of Psalm 66:18:

“If I regard iniquity in my heart, God will not hear me” and Isaiah 59:2: “But your iniquities have separated you from your God And your sins have hidden His face from you, So that He will not hear.” Also, we read in John 9:31: “Now we know that God does not hear sinners; but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does His will, He hears him.”

Do such passages as these not indicate that God is deaf to the prayers of the ungodly and consequently eliminate the possibility of any unsaved man engaging in true prayer?

To answer this question we must understand the use of the word, “hear” in scripture. Once this is accomplished we can apply our newfound understanding to the above passages and extract a clearer meaning. Firstly, the word “hear” has nothing to do with the reception of vibrations interpreted by the human brain as sound. God has no physical body (John 4:24) so this is an impossible meaning. Rather, when the Bible speaks of God “hearing” it infers his action upon a matter either with favour or disfavour.

In 2 Kings 19:4 king Hezekiah entreats Isaiah the prophet to call upon his Lord that He might “hear” the defaming words of an enemy which slandered the name of the Lord and return a rebuke to him. God, being omniscient, would already be aware of the Rabshakeh’s words, yet he would not act upon this knowledge save if Isaiah, His chosen prophet and medium of grace to Israel, called upon Him. 2 Chronicles 7:14 records God’s words to Israel: “if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” In this passage, Jehovah’s “hearing” is both accompanied by his response and preceded by repentance. It was not in ignorance of the people’s cries for help that the Most High stood, for here he predicts it, but in anticipation of that which He already knows.

When the Lord speaks of His “hearing,” then, we must understand it to be more of an addressal, that is, a matter to which He gives attention. This is much the same terminology that we use in the judicial system. For a judge to “hear” a case is for him to hear the facts of the case presented, examine the case from all angles, and render a judgment and conclusive verdict. He turns his attention to the issue at hand and addresses it with all the faculties and facilities available to him. Likewise, God’s “hearing” includes his attentive addressal, this being supremely sovereign in nature and complete in scope.

With this knowledge and definition, let us return our attention to such passages as John 9:31, Psalm 66:18, and Isaiah 59:2. With regard to God’s deafness to sinners (as in the John passage) it must be noted that God has only promised His attention and action to those who are righteous (Job 22:23-27). In other words, God has chosen to incline his ear with favour to those who delight in Him. It is not too difficult to understand, therefore, that those who delight in God’s opposite will suffer from His disfavour in the form of inattention to offered prayer.

In the gospel of John, we are told that God does not hear sinners, this said by one whose eyes had recently been opened by our Lord. The logic being used was: if God is acting attentively, addressing the requests of this man, he must be a righteous man from God rather than the blasphemer the ruling Jews reported Him to be. This passage does not address God’s reception of prayer, but His favourable action upon it, this being generally reserved for those who accurately reflect His own nature (the godly).

Additionally, it is evidenced by such passages as Isaiah 1:15 and Jeremiah 11:14 that this indifference to offered prayer is volitional; that is, God may choose to refrain from acting upon the prayers of the ungodly. 2 Kings 3 illustrates this point well, for here we find king Jehoram, a wicked ruler of Israel. Through the righteous prophet Elisha, aid is given to the Jews, aid that would not have come but for the inquiry of righteous Jehoshaphat through God’s prophet. The desires of a wicked king were granted only when presented to the Lord by a righteous man. In 1 Kings 22, the opposite response, lack of aid, is recorded despite a nearly identical scenario. God is cognizant of all offered prayer, just as He is of all things. His response, however, may vary greatly depending who is offering it and in what manner it is being offered.

In the case of those repenting from their sins to turn with wholly submissive hearts to serve and trust their newfound God, the Most High is gracious and very merciful. Any who pray in such a spirit will receive, in return, the faithful and abundant favour of God in the form of justification and regeneration. In the case of Cornelius, though born in sin, His desire for godliness and honor of the one true God, pleased the Lord who looked upon his prayers with favour. “What favour?” you might ask. The grace which sent Peter to him as tonic for his ignorance! Saving grace was then extended once that which was necessary for belief had been imparted to Cornelius and his household.

Can God choose restraint and inaction with regard to the prayers of the righteous? Most certainly, as evidenced by Paul’s explicit statement with regard to his own prayer in 2 Corinthians 12:7-10. Just as God can choose to act upon the prayer of an unrighteous man, He can choose inaction with respect to the prayer of a righteous man. He is God, after all, and has the right to act as He pleases with regard to all creatures.

What advantage then has the child of God over the pagan in prayer, if the Father may act upon the prayers of the ungodly as well as the godly? We have already discovered that the Lord God is disinclined to act upon the prayers of the ungodly, thus it is understandably rare when this occurs. By contrast, our Father in heaven is inclined to hear His own children and look upon them with favour. Proverbs 10:24 declares that the righteous shall receive their wants, while the Lord Jesus spoke thus in Matthew 7:12:

“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!”

Psalm 5:12 declares:

“For You, O Lord, will bless the righteous; With favor You will surround him as with a shield.”

Psalm 34:15:

“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, And His ears are open to their cry.”

God’s favour rests perpetually upon His sons and daughters. Whereas his action upon the prayers of the ungodly is rare, it is common on those of His saints. He delights in those who delight in Him and is moved by the expression of such souls who have in heart and mind an insatiable longing to please Him. It is to these that the Lord of creation regularly opens the treasure store of His grace and blessing. Common grace is shared by pagan and saint alike, and individual graces may be granted to the unbeliever at Jehovah’s discretion, but to the elect He offers specific, abundant, and continual blessing, the measure of which is beyond reckoning.

Additionally, we must understand that the inaction of God with regard to one of His child’s prayers is, in truth, action on behalf of that one. Romans 8:28 and Philippians 2:13 assure us in tandem that God is active in the life and events of His children, working not only for His own glory, but for their good. When the Father does not act favourably upon His children’s prayers by granting specific requests, it is because He has already acted with greater favour by denying these, promoting a greater good for his loved ones and greater glory for His own holy name.

Is not Christ’s prayer, “let this cup pass from me” an illustration of this very truth? The Father, with whom Christ knew an intimacy of communion that mankind has not known since the dawn of the world, received this request only to deny it. How unthinkable, that a loving Father, all-powerful as He is, would refuse to save His most beloved child from an hour of anguish that causes all other sufferings to pale by comparison!? Nay, rather how unthinkable, that such a truly loving Father would withhold from His own Son the transcendent glory which was wrought through such unspeakable suffering on Calvary! Christ’s grandest exaltation was purchased by the cross, (Philippians 2:9-11) and for that act He will be lauded for all eternity. His greatest good was not to forego the crucifixion’s pain, but to endure it and thus acquire for himself a redeemed bride, an adornment and prize that will ever serve and honour Him. In this same stroke, the glory of God, both in Christ and in the Father, was exhibited by the perfect demonstration of God’s manifold attributes. It is only when these two conditions exist apart from the granting of a request: a greater good for the child and a more abundant glory for the Father, that our high King will act with inaction.

We see then, that, as a means of grace, prayer is both common and specific. While all men may pray to God, this being a common grace, the Lord will not always act with favour upon these prayers. His promise abides, however, to act with favour upon the prayers of the repentant as well as the righteous, though that action may take many forms, including, in the case of His children, inaction.

(2) God has chosen prayer. He is the sovereign elector and selector. There is nothing which exists to any purpose that has not derived this purpose from its creator. Purpose is inseparably linked to origin and origin to the originator. Prayer is not a choice or design of man, nor is it the natural outlet by which he might choose to express himself. It is a God-appointed and orchestrated means of grace, chosen distinctly for specific reasons.

What reasons? Do not the secret things belong to the Lord (Deuteronomy 29:29)? Yet that which is secret is chosen to be secret as well and that which may be known is chosen for that revelation. It is not for man to determine what is chosen but to seek and discover what choice has already been made. If this were not so, mankind would have no intellect, no ability to reason, to understand, to seek. Yet these gifts, of which other creatures are bereft, are ours in great measure and we must assume that God gave them with the intention that they be exercised. It is with this in mind that we shall look upon God’s choice of prayer, inspect the thought, delve into its hidden recesses and furrows, and attempt to understand it in greater measure than perhaps we have before.

God has chosen prayer because it pleased Him to do so. Job 23:13 and Psalm 115:3 attest to the fact that God moves and affects all things to His good pleasure. It is a step of application then which allows us to say God has chosen prayer because it was pleasing in His sight. Just as before the sin of our first parents God chose, created, and declared all things to be good and pleasing, so He established also established prayer as an expression of His favour to mankind. But how do we know that prayer was not a post-fall establishment?

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