What's prayer all about?
From Prayer - a beginner's guide by Jane Holloway
Prayer is relationship
Prayer is essentially relationship with God, and it is this relationship that is at the heart of the Christian faith. It is amazing to realize that the God who created all that we see around us in the universe wants you and me to be in regular touch with him.
All relationships have to be worked at in order to survive. What holds people together is love built on friendship, daily contact, honest talking and shared lives. It is the same in our relationship with God. We can think of prayer as a conversation between us and God. He wants us to talk and listen, and to allow our lives to touch his. We can talk to God just as we talk with each other - using words. We can 'talk' with him in silence. Just as we communicate with another person with a look, a smile, a hug or a kiss, we can also learn to relate to God by using our bodies (which we will explore further in Chapter 11).
But if prayer is a conversation with God, and God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, which part of God are we talking to? And does it matter?
Praying to God as Father
If you find it difficult to grasp the idea of God wanting us to pray, you are not alone. Jesus' disciples took a while to get the idea. As Jews they were used to praying, but as they watched Jesus they realized that they were missing something. As they heard him pray they recognized that Jesus had a very close relationship with God, something that they had not experienced. So they asked him to teach them to pray. Jesus told them that they could come to God in prayer as if he was their father (Matthew 6:9). They were amazed! He said they were to use the word Abba, which in their language meant 'Daddy' or 'dear father'. It was the word commonly used by younger children speaking to their earthly fathers.
Prayer is not something we 'say' to a distant God; when we pray, we come as God's children to our Father in heaven. A friend of mine, John, tells this story about one of his grandsons. When Andrew was six years old, he spent a week in the summer staying with his other grandparents on their farm. They loved having him and told him many times just how invaluable he was in helping them. When Andrew went home, he enjoyed telling everyone that his grandparents were having trouble running the farm without him. As John was laughing over this, God nudged him. 'John, you've been like little Andrew with me! You've treated me like a helper in the sky.' John felt God tell him that the image of Andrew going off on the tractor and sitting on his other grandfather's lap was actually a picture of how prayer should be. The moments of greatest delight in God's relationship with us are when we, in childlike dependence and faith, climb on to his lap in prayer, put our hand on his hand and pour out our hearts to him. He is simply waiting for us to get on board.
I remember when, a few years ago, a small group of us met in our church to pray for our vicar, who was going to teach in Nigeria for two weeks. As we prayed, it became very evident that we were praying to our heavenly Father who knew everything about the trip. We all left with a profound sense of peace that he would take care of it all. And God did! Our vicar was kept safe and well and was able to offer some very relevant teaching to the churches he visited.
Praying through Jesus
We pray to our heavenly Father through Jesus, 'for through him we... have access to the Father by one Spirit' (Ephesians 2:18). Jesus taught the disciples that they should pray to the Father in his name (John 14:13–14; 15:16). To pray in his name does not simply mean that we use his name as a formula, but rather that when we do so we confess his name and acknowledge that he is the only way to the Father.
As we pray, we direct our minds and thoughts in faith towards God and then share with him what is
on our hearts. Praying is as simple as making a phone call. Before the days of direct dialling, everyone had to find a telephone, ring up an operator and ask to be put through to the number wanted. Today, with mobile phone technology, we can dial anyone, anywhere in the world, wherever we are. Through his death on the cross and his resurrection, Jesus makes it possible for our prayers always to get through to our Father in heaven. We will never get the 'engaged' or 'number unobtainable' tones. We will never be put through to an answering service that asks us to 'hold until…'. All our prayers go to the same person at the same place - 'Our Father in heaven' - when we pray in the name of Jesus.
Praying with the Holy Spirit
We pray to God the Father through Jesus and with the help of the Holy Spirit. God knows us through and through. He knew that we would never be able to have the strength to love him 'with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind' (Luke 10:27) without help, so Jesus left his Holy Spirit to help us. This unseen Spirit of Jesus is our helper, guide and comforter. He is the one who enables us to say that Jesus is Lord (1 Corinthians 12:3).
The Holy Spirit is essential for our praying. He prompts us when to pray. He helps us know how to pray, and, when we are stuck and don't know what to pray for, he steps in (Romans 8:26–27). The Holy Spirit provides different gifts to help each Christian follow Jesus. One of these is a new heavenly language (also known as 'speaking in tongues'), which we can use to pray when ordinary words run out (1 Corinthians 14). One of my favourite descriptions of this says, 'Praying in tongues is what sometimes happens when God's love takes your breath away, and you're left with God's breath instead.' This gift is widely used in some parts of the Church. Paul Yonggi Cho, a Korean pastor who for many years led one of the largest churches in the world, has often spoken of his reliance on the Holy Spirit, whom he calls his 'Senior Partner', and whom he consults before praying and making any sort of decision.
Prayer is a key
Prayer is also a key to understanding God's heart. Richard Foster movingly describes how God is longing to welcome us 'home'.
He invites us into the living room of his heart where we can put on old slippers and share freely. He invites us into the kitchen of his friendship where chatter and batter mix in good fun. He invites us into the dining room of his strength, where we can feast to our heart's delight. He invites us into the study of his wisdom where we can learn… and the workshop of his creativity… He invites us into the bedroom of rest where new peace is found, and where we can be naked and vulnerable and free.
The key to this home - which is the heart of God - is prayer. Prayer not only enables us to talk to God about the things that concern us, but it also helps us to understand God better. One of the most famous prayers, used in every denomination and across the world, is the Lord's Prayer, so called because Jesus taught it to his disciples when they asked him to teach them how to pray:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours,
now and for ever.
The Lord's Prayer covers all the aspects of prayer that we will explore in this book. It starts with praising God for who he is and what he wants to do. Then we are told to ask for our own needs and the needs of others. Next we are challenged to confess our sins and whatever we may be holding against others and to ask for the strength to stand against temptation. And it ends as it starts, with praise and worship to God. It is a prayer that invites us to talk to God about the important things of life.
The more we discover about who God is and what he longs to see happen in his world, the better we are able to pray, as we shall explore in the following chapters.
- Prayer is not something we have dreamed up: we are created to be in touch with God. God invented prayer.
- Prayer is not simply saying the words or prayers at a set time, although having regular times of prayer, using written prayers, is one of the many ways we can pray.
- Prayer is not about trying to change God's mind. It is actually about us coming into line with his mind.
- Prayer is not a matter of reeling off a list of requests, although asking does form a very important part of prayer (see Chapter 7).
Instead, as some well-known practitioners of prayer have explained:
- Prayer is keeping company with God.
- Prayer is to the spiritual life what the beating of the pulse and the drawing of the breath are to the life of the body.
- Prayer is me being me in the presence of God being God.
As we continue in our exploration of prayer, we need to look at an important question: why do we need to bother if God knows everything anyway?
Father God, there is much about you I don't understand. Please help me to get to know you better. Amen
- Take a few moments to stop.
- Pause and stop what you are doing. Relax. Make room for God.
- Presence: know that he is with you.
- Ponder Psalm 42:1–2: 'As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.'
- Picture the scene: think about the dry areas in your life. See yourself seeking and finding him. Speak to him in your heart.
- Promise: hold on to his promise as you reach out to him, remembering the words of the psalmist: 'Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge' (Psalm 62:8).
Taken from Prayer - a beginner's guide by Jane Holloway