October 10, 2013 in Bible Study
Some months ago I had the occasion to author a brief summary of my views on prayer. For those who would be interested in reading those thoughts, here is the text of that paper in its entirety.
The Nature of Prayer
Prayer is a revealed action. One must be taught how to pray. The disciples understood their need to be instructed in this manner: “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1). Paul expressed this same concept to the Romans: “. . . . For we do not know what to pray for as we ought . . .” (Romans 8:26). This means that the nature of prayer is a manner that is revealed in scripture.
Jesus’ answer to his disciples’ question provides a functional summary of the characteristics that define the prayer of his followers. The Model Prayer contains at least six features which should characterize our prayers as a whole:
- “Our Father. . .” – Prayer is to be addressed to the Father. In the functioning of the Godhead, the Father is the member that is revealed as the authority behind its actions (1 Cor. 15:27-28). As such, he is the only member of the Godhead that is spoken of as seeking the worship of man: “. . . for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23). It is certainly true that the Jesus and the Holy Spirit are worthy of worship and its further true that Jesus accepted worship that was offered to Him. However, it is equally true that there is no equivalent statement to John 4:23 about the second and third persons of the Godhead. Being worthy of an action and actively seeking to encourage the action are two separate concepts. As such, prayer’s normative state is that it is addressed to the Father.
- “Hallowed be your name” – A leading characteristic of prayer is praise of God. Space does not permit a listing of the prayers in the Bible containing praise of God. However, the reader is encouraged to spend some time examining the book of Psalms. Many of the psalms take the form of prayer. Most every one of those psalms begins with strong statements of praise to God. Every child of God should seek to praise God in prayer.
- “Your kingdom come, your will be done” – As will be discussed in the next section, prayer should have a strong focus on the fulfillment of God’s will. As structured in the Model Prayer, this statement is an acknowledgement of one’s submission to the work of God in the world and among his people. In the age in which Jesus delivers this message to his disciples the kingdom is in the process of being set up in the world. That process would lead to Jesus’ own personal suffering to which he would be called to submit. However, the kingdom’s coming would also bring in at least a generation of turmoil the nation of Israel as a whole. These words express a commitment to follow God’s will no matter the cost.
- “Give us each day our daily bread” – Prayer is also a time of petition for the care of God to be extended to his people. From God’s care for the cry of Abel’s righteously shed blood until now, God has been jealous for his saints. Because of that care, prayers that call upon God to act upon the promises he has extended to his people are both appropriate and impactful.
- “Forgive us our sins” – Prayer is also an appropriate path to maintain one’s relationship to God. Once in covenant with God, a Christian can approach God in prayer to ask for forgiveness of wrong doing.
- “Lead us not into temptation” – Lastly, Jesus speaks of a spiritual protection in prayer. This goes beyond just the forgiveness of sin, but it touches on the idea of spiritual growth and triumphant over the evil that threatens us.
While these six points are not exhaustive of all of the characteristics that define the nature of prayer for the child of God, they do provide a solid framework around which that nature can be defined.
The Purpose of Prayer
Giving prayer a singular purpose is challenging. Stated most broadly prayer’s intention is to connect the heart/mind of the child of God with the will of God. In some cases that means that the Christian is involved in praise of that will. In others he is petitioning God to act upon his will. In other cases he may even be questioning God’s actions or expressing his hurt or confusion of the state of God’s will in his life. But all cases the purpose of prayer is first focused of God’s actions and then secondly on man’s needs.
In scripture, these differing manifestations of that purpose are described in prayers of a specific nature:
- Thanksgiving – In some cases prayers are said to be offered “with thanksgiving” (Php. 4:6). In other cases prayer is spoken of as thanksgiving (1 Thess. 3:9). In either case, one manifestation of prayer’s purpose is an expression of thanks to God for the accomplishment of his will and the blessings that have come upon his people as a result of his work.
- Supplications – In about five places in the New Testament a form of prayer known as “supplication” is referenced (Eph. 5:18; Php. 4:6; 1 Tim. 2:1, 5:5; Heb. 5:7). These are prayers of request. God’s covenant and promises to man are impactful. He has obligated himself to mankind and especially to his saints. Prayer is the means by which the child of God petitions God to act upon those promises.
- Intercession – 1 Timothy 2:1 speaks of prayers of intercession. These prayers are similar to supplication in that they are petitions to God for action. However, they are prayers which are focused on God’s treatment of others more so than self. This action is best seen in the work of the Christ. In his role of high priest, he has grounds upon which to plead the case of those for whom he has made his sacrifice (Isa. 53:12; Heb. 7:25). Perhaps, it is best to understand our ability to intercede for others through that connection. We are a priesthood before God and serve under the administration of the great High Priest (1 Pet. 2:5). As such we are empowered to petition God to act on the behalf of others.
- Prayers – In 1 Timothy 2:1 “prayers” are distinguished from supplications, intercessions, and thanksgivings. However, in other scriptures those distinctions are less pronounced. When we speak of our speech directed to God, we almost always use the word “prayer.” It seems the Greek word used in this context has the same function in the Bible. It is the broadest word used to describe communication to God. Its root word in the Greek simply means “to wish.” In its most common form the prefix “pros” which means “before” is added to it. Taken together the idea is simply “to wish before.” The idea is expressed in 1 Peter 5:7: “Casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” As we will discuss in the last section, God has said some things about the manner in which he will or will not respond to prayer, but the concept expressed in the Bible word “prayer” means that no wish of the heart of the child of God is outside of the scope of prayer’s purpose.
Prayer has an expansive purpose which is difficult to express in succinct terms. For the child of God it is appropriate in most every setting to express most every need of his heart. However, 1 John 5:14 makes it clear that it is best to understand the purpose of prayer in connection to God’s will: “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” When our wishes, petitions, and intercessions to God find themselves in harmony with the will of God, prayer’s purpose finds its most powerful expression.
The Power of Prayer
The prayer of prayer is as limitless as the power of God. James makes this point in the life of Elijah, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit” (James 5:16-18). His point is that Elijah’s faith was not special – he was a man with a “nature like ours.” Nor was his prayer special – it was simply fervent. God’s response was not based on some grand action from Elijah. His action can be (and should be) our action.
However it must be noted of all the people who have ever lived only for Elijah has the rain ever been stopped for three and half years. Why do not the prayers of God’s people always impact the weather? If the prayers of God’s people can impact the climate, why do droughts linger and storms grow strong? If Elijah’s prayer can be our prayer, should not his answer be our answer?
The answer is found in understanding not the potential of prayer’s power, but in the statements from God about how he has promised to exercise that power. Scripture does give us some indication about what limits God has placed on the limitless power of prayer:
- Prayer’s Power is not for Personal Gain – “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). Prayer offered for the enrichment of God’s people for the simple and individual benefit of the petitioner lies outside the scope of prayer’s purpose and so outside of the manner in which its power is expressed.
- Prayer’s Power Does not Fix Problems for Which We are Responsible – God’s response to Joshua’s prayer after Israel’s defeat at Ai is illustrative of this point: “The LORD said to Joshua, ‘Get up! Why have you fallen on your face?’” (Joshua 7:10). In response to the defeat Joshua had turned to prayer. God had already told Israel that destruction and trouble would come to them if they disobeyed in their actions regarding Jericho (Joshua 6:18). When that destruction came upon them, Joshua should have known that sin was in Israel’s camp. Prayer (“Falling on His Face”) was not the proper response. He was told to quit praying and fix Israel’s problem with sin. Far too often, Christians turn to prayer to petition God over things about which they must first bear an individual responsibility. While, as stated above, God cares about every care of the hearts of his children, prayer is not a vehicle to absolve us of the responsibility that we have to obey his commands.
- Prayer’s Power Will not Change the Hearts of Men – “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life–to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that” (1 John 5:16). Immediately after saying that we have the petitions that we ask of God, John states that there is one petition that should not be made to God. Prayers for the brother that commits the “sin that leads to death” (which I personally believe to be the sin that he will not confess) should not be offered. Simply stated, those prayers have no power. As just mentioned above, God has already stated the terms under which a brother can find forgiveness for sin. Peter expressed them to Simon in Acts 8:20-22. If a brother will not submit to those terms, prayer’s limitless power cannot help him at all.
- Prayer Does not Remove Christians from the Physical World – Even for the Christian, “it is appointed for man to die once . . .” (Heb. 9:27). Time and chance happens to all men (Ecc. 9:11). The rain falls on the just and the unjust (Matt. 5:45). Prayer’s power does not prevent us from falling ill, or suffering in storms, or missing the other calamities of life. The laws of cause and effect and reaping and sowing apply equally to the Christian and the non-Christian.
Beyond those few limitations (perhaps other verses could be added to the list with minimal impact on the conclusion), God’s power is limitless to respond in prayer. However, it should be noted the limiting verses in the bullets above emphasize that prayer is not focused on correcting all of our physical problems or even spiritual problems that reside within our control. The limitations God specifically reminded us about should keep our focus in prayer on him and his work. Our confidence is in knowing that our petitions for God to act in the accomplishment of his will are always answered with a divinely authored, “yes” (1 John 5:14-16).