The Doctrine of Prayer: What Is Prayer?

What is prayer? What does it mean to pray? Is there any value in this practice? While most people probably have some kind of an answer to these questions, this post will look at what I understand the Bible has to say about the doctrine of prayer.

What Is Prayer?

There are two related words here. The first is the noun ‘prayer’. This consists of the actual words, or thoughts, that are expressed. An example of this is the Model Prayer, or Lord’s Prayer, found in Matthew 6:9-13. And the second is ‘pray’. This is a verb, expressing an activity. Prayer is what is produced when I pray. 2 Samuel 7:27 expresses this well when Solomon prays to God “So your servant has found courage to pray this prayer to you.” That being said, when we talk about prayer, we are most commonly referring to the act of praying. The doctrine of prayer is about prayer as a verb rather than as a noun.

You will find the word ‘pray’, ‘praying’, or ‘prayed’ used often in the Bible, almost exclusively directed toward God. There are a handful of passages in Isaiah (Isa. 16:12) and Daniel where prayer relates to an idol. And a single instance in Daniel (Dan. 6:7) where it could be directed to a human. But overwhelmingly in the Bible, prayer is an activity that is directed toward God.

So, what does it mean to pray? In the Scripture it is used whenever a person is talking with God. They may be making a request for themselves or others. It may be that they are expressing thanksgiving for what God has done. They might be making intercession for another person, or a nation. Or they might just be expressing praise to God for who he is. But whatever the purpose, praying is verbal communication with God.

Public Verses Private Prayer

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray (Matt. 6:5-15) he told them to pray privately, in their closet. So, does this mean that there is no place for public prayer? I don’t believe so. Most of the occasions when people pray in the Scripture are public. And even Jesus prays with his disciples while in the upper room (John 17:1).

Private Prayer

Clearly there is a place for private prayer. Not only did Jesus instruct his disciples in private prayer, he practiced it himself. After Jesus feeds the 5000, he goes up on the mountain side to pray alone (Matt. 14:23). Before Jesus selects the twelve, he spends the night alone in prayer (Lk. 6:12). When Jesus is in the garden on the night of his betrayal, he gets off by himself to pray (Matt. 26:36). Mark and Luke both record Jesus going into solitary places to pray (Mk. 1:35, Lk. 5:16).

Private prayer is important in the life of the believer. It is a time to connect with God. To pour out your heart without concern about what others might think. A time to make confession of sin. To work through tough decisions. The occasions for private prayer are many and varied. It is an important practice for the believer. Without spending time alone with God, you will never really get to know him.

Public Prayer

But there are also many occasions recorded in the Scripture where the prayer is very public. Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple is an example. Jesus’ prayer with his disciples in the upper room is another. Paul’s prayers for the churches may have been uttered privately, but were shared publicly in his writings.

Public prayer is really a corporate affair. When I pray publicly, I am expressing prayer on behalf of those assembled together with me. My prayer is their prayer. Public prayer within the body of Christ is important. It unites us together as we approach God. And it enables others who may not have the words to express what they feel.

Public prayer in community or political gatherings is different than public prayer within the church. Within the church we are united in our relationship to God. But that is not true in other gatherings. On those occasions we might ask God’s blessing on, and guidance in, our meeting. But it would be inappropriate to do much more than that.

Types of Prayer

Prayer is a somewhat generic word for talking with God. But just like there are different ways that I will talk to another person, so there are different ways that I might talk to God. I might come to God with a request for something. I might be looking for help with a problem I am having. Maybe I come to intercede on behalf of another person. I could be thanking him for something. Or I could just be chatting, sharing my day.

In 1 Timothy 2:1-2 Paul instructs Timothy “that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.” Petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving. While the distinction between these types of prayer is not always clear, it is obvious that not all prayer is the same.

And there are times when we don’t have the words to express what is on our hearts. And in those times the Holy Spirit will help us. In Romans 8:26-27 we read that “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.

Whatever the occasion. Whatever the need. Even if there is no need or special occasion. Come before God and talk with him. Share your heart and mind with him. And listen for his response. He is our Father and wants to hear from us.

The Frequency of Prayer

How often should you pray? Occasionally? When the need arises? Daily? More frequently? In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Paul instructs the Thessalonian believers to “pray continually.” While we may vocalize prayer less frequently, we should alway be in communication with the Father. Talk to him throughout your day; not just at specific times.

The Effectiveness of Prayer

Does prayer work? Does anything happen when I pray? Or is it just something that makes me feel better, thinking that there is someone listening to what I have to say?

The Promise

The Bible is clear that prayer is a meaningful activity and believers should be active in prayer. In James 5:16 we are told that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” In Matthew 21:22 and Mark 11:24, Jesus tells us that if we believe, we will receive whatever we ask for in prayer. Jesus also tells us, in John 13:14, that we will receive whatever we ask for in his name. And in 1 John 5:14-15 we are told that if we ask according to the will of the Father, we will be heard, and will receive what we asked for.

It is clear from the New Testament record that prayer is encouraged. And that if we pray correctly we will be heard and will receive what we ask for. To pray correctly would seem to include: believing that we will be answered; that we ask in Christ’s name; and that we pray according to God’s will. If we do that, we will be answered.

The Biblical Record

In addition to the admonition to pray, along with the promise of answered prayer, the Bible includes examples of answered prayer. Throughout the biblical record God’s people talk to God, and he responds.

At Mt. Sinai the Jews build a golden calf to worship. God told Moses he was going to destroy them and make a new people of Moses. But Moses plead with God to reconsider, and he did.

David frequently inquires of God, especially concerning strategies for fighting his enemies. And each time he did, God told him what to do. Jehoshaphat, when faced with an overwhelming army, prays, and God delivered in a mighty way.

In the New Testament we find the early disciples praying for boldness to continue their witness. And the room was shaken and they were enabled to speak with boldness. Paul prays for those on the doomed ship. And God grants him his prayer and are are saved during the shipwreck.

There are many more examples throughout the Bible of answered prayer. But what is clear is that the biblical authors clearly believed that prayer was effective.

But, Does it Actually Accomplish Anything?

While prayer may have worked for Jesus as well as for the prophets and apostles, does it, or will it, work for me? I know that this is a question that many people struggle with. While they may intellectually believe that it does, they don’t really expect that God will really answer them.

But I believe that prayer is just as applicable in the life of today’s believer as it was during biblical times. I believe that God still expects us to pray. And I believe that he still responds to our prayer. At least to prayer offered in faith and that is in alignment with his will.

The problem is that all too often we don’t really expect him to answer us. And too much of the time we are asking for the wrong reasons. I can’t personally say that every person I pray for is healed, or that needs are instantly met. But I have experienced answers that clearly seem to be from God. Changes in my own life, and in others lives, that come in response to prayer. I don’t know of any other way to explain some of them. God is at work in his people. And one of the ways he does that is through my prayer.

A Magic Formula?

But prayer is not a magic incantation. If you say the right words, in the right way, at the right time, God will magically respond to you. Skeptics frequently seem to take this approach to prayer. Wanting to see miracles happen in response to their prayer. And when nothing happens, it simply justifies their skepticism.

There have been a number of tests conducted in recent years to gauge the effectiveness of prayer. And almost universally they show that prayer does nothing. But is that really all that surprising? We cannot put God, or his activity, into a scientific experiment. He responds to our faith. Not to a demand for proof.

God is not like a big vending machine in the sky. And our prayers are not the coinage that is necessary to purchase something from him. Rather God is our loving heavenly Father who cares about us. And prayer is a privilege he gives us to come before him and share our hearts and burdens.

The Reason for Prayer

When asked why we pray, most will likely respond that it is to talk with God, to make our needs known to him, and to intercede for others. And that is clearly a primary purpose for prayer. But it seems to me that there is another reason as well.

God does not really need to have me pray. He knows what my needs are, as well as the needs of those I prayer for. He could well take care of them without me ever saying a single thing. But he does not. At least not all of the time. Instead he expects me to bring them before him in prayer. But why?

I believe it has to do with his larger purpose for us. I do not believe that God created us just so that we could sit on a cloud playing a harp and eating bon bons throughout eternity. He has made us for a greater purpose than that. And I believe that he is molding us for that purpose now. And prayer is a part of that.

Think about what prayer is. When I pray, and God answers, the course of the whole universe changes. Maybe just a tiny bit. But in prayer, God allows me to participate in the management of the creation. Very much like parents allow their young children to “help” them. Their help is not needed. But it is beneficial for the child’s development and helps them to mature.

And I believe that is what God is doing in encouraging us to pray. When we pray, when we “help” him manage his creation, we are being prepared for something greater in the future. What we experience now is just a foretaste of what lies ahead. Being faithful in prayer now, as in the other gifts he gives us, will prepare us for that future of service to him.

The views expressed here are solely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of any other person, group, or organization. While I believe they reflect the teachings of the Bible, I am a fallible human and subject to misunderstanding. Please feel free to leave any comments or questions about this post in the comments section below. I am always interested in your feedback.

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