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
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
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
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
- 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
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.''
and ``And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so
that the Son may bring glory to the Father''
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
- reminding us that all we have (including our
existence) comes from God, and not from ourselves
- 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
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).
- reminding us to pray for particular people and causes
- reminding us that we pray as a church as well as
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
Suggestions for helping with intercession:
- If you don't find that an intercession list suits
your way of praying,
try a photo album or noticeboard with pictures of
those for whom you intend to pray.
- Write down when you pray for something, and cross
it off when the prayer is answered (I haven't
tried this myself, but I'm told it's very
convincing about how God does answer prayers).
- Ask for the help of the Holy Spirit in your
prayers [Romans 8:26]
(perhaps praying in tongues, if you have
been given this gift). This often seems to be the
last resort of an intercessor, when it should be
the daily pattern!
- Pray without ceasing [1 Thessalonians 5:17].
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.
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.
John C. G. Sturdy
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Last modified: Sun Jun 10 22:27:50 GMT Daylight Time 2007