What is prayer?

Although (as I do below) I can describe forms and aspects of prayer, I find it hard to describe what prayer actually is... here follows an attempt. (I've also written about what prayer is not.)

I consider actual prayer to be contact with Deity (I am a Christian, but will try to write this in general terms). I do not believe it is possible for us to make contact by force, by our choice ab initio but I believe that deity is always listening, and when we speak, deity hears. Therefore, taking Deity to be omniscient and omnipresent, we need only intend our thoughts for divine hearing for them to be heard as prayer.

Prayer and prophecy -- a twofold calling

I believe that the people of God are called by God to be in two-way communication with him, and that this happens through prayer and prophecy (as well as by other means). Let's look at those in more detail:


Prophecy is God's speaking to us, and our listening to Him. Prophecy is not a foretelling of the future (although it may sometimes include this, perhaps to point out that there is truth in prophecy). Prophecy may take several forms:

Inspired speech and writing
Here, the prophet receives God's ideas in a form which, at some level, they can understand themselves, perhaps in words of their own native language. The full meaning, however, may not be apparent to them -- what, for example, did the Servant Songs mean to Isaiah when he wrote them down?
Interpreted ecstatic utterance
Here, the person who submits their mouth for God's use cannot understand the message at any level, but another person is able to interpret the utterances. This way, the prophecy is made through members of the Church jointly rather than through one person.


Prayer is our speaking to God, and our listening to Him.

Forms of prayer

Prayer may be described as being in several forms, and while they cannot be classified rigidly, there are some useful frameworks for describing them.

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication

One such framework that I find useful (as a practical checklist) gives us the acronym ACTS:

This part of prayer is the enlivening of our relationship with God, that we re-affirm each time we start to pray. It's more than just opening a channel of communication; it's reminding ourselves that God is God, and we are ourselves his people and the sheep of his pasture.

There are several forms of adoring prayer; some of them (described in more detail below) are sometimes called:

This is the regretful acknowledgement of our imperfections, and of our tendency to stray from what is better to what is easier; but not just an acknowledgement, but also both the acceptance that we should try to do better, and the reception of God's forgiveness for past errors.
This is focusing on our understanding that things are never entirely in our control, and that much of what we appear to achieve is achieved not by our own abilities, but is given by God.
This is our asking for God's help; and at the same time our hope of of aligning our wills with God's will.

Intercession, meditation, contemplation, union

Another way in which kinds of prayer are described is as follows:

Superficially, this takes the form of us asking God for unmerited favours. For many people, it is a kind of ``twisting God's arm''; these people will quote Bible passages such as ``if two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of my Father which is in heaven.'' [Matthew 18:19] and ``And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father'' John 14:13 as if to try to force God to do their will.

Another thing that I think prayer is not is ritualized behaviour trying to get something to happen. I think this comes from fears deep within us, connected with our feelings of powerlessness against distance and scale, which can drive us into awe or into neurosis.

Although I believe that intercession is effective as a means for asking God's necessary help in our lives, (although not all intercessory prayers will be answered with ``yes''), I consider it is more important in some other ways:

  1. reminding us that all we have (including our existence) comes from God, and not from ourselves
  2. pushing us towards evaluating whether we are aligning ourselves with the will of God, and reminding us when we need to look at this (although many will ignore such a hint much of the time)

I'm not really happy about led intercessions, such as those incorporated into the service books of churches; they do have their points:

but still I'm often uncomfortable with them (quite apart from they way that they are commandeered as series of mini-sermons by some leaders).

Another misuse of public intercession slots is when people ask for prayer for their situations really as a way of telling others how bad they feel and hoping for sympathy.

Suggestions for helping with intercession:

To be written
Contemplative union
To be written

I don't think of prayer as a mental activity in isolation; for prayer to mean something, it must be part of a life in which you repeatedly turn again towards God after mistake -- a process of growing repentance, sometimes called metanoia. And so, when I pray for something, I am reminded of the purity of God, and that as a disciple, I should aim for purity of life too, hoping to set myself loose from any malice that I have.

Prayer and silence

Silence in prayer is often important to many people (it usually is for me); but the silence that is important is the stillness within rather than the lack of sound around you.

Some churches do not value silence at all! They even use loudspeakers, so that you can hear the preacher more easily than you can hear God! That's not entirely a flippant comment; the onslaught of the easy-listening culture is likely to spoil a church in more ways than one.

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John C. G. Sturdy

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