Prayer is a mighty instrument, not for getting man’s will done in Heaven, but
for getting God’s will done on earth.—Robert Law
Prayer is intrinsic to the Christian life. It revives and invigorates. It is central to bringing to fruition many of the mighty works of God. It is a key link in the idea of partnership with God. It is central in the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believer, and is present at the point of a person’s justification.
In sprite of its paramount role the vast majority of Christians remain prayer illiterate. Many believers struggle to understand what prayer is. Many of them are slack in their approach to and practice of prayer. Whilst much of this has to do with our fallen nature and a lack of understanding of our new status in Christ, some of the reasons may lie in our misunderstanding of the nature of prayer itself.
This essay begins by exploring what makes Christian prayer different from other prayer. We see firstly that God is the focus of Christian prayer. Next we examine the role faith plays in Christian prayer. We conclude the first part of this essay by looking at the dialogical nature of Christian prayer.
Secondly we examine what the Bible says about when prayer fails. We explore some of the reasons for prayer failing, including wrong motives, lack of faith, and empty religiosity.
We look at how these had an impact on the ministry of Christ and how the early church struggled with these same issues.
This essay concludes with a picture of what the Christian prayer life looks like. In this we look at the role discipline plays in the prayer life of a believer. We contrast this with the pervading post-modernist culture. Following on from this we look at the journey towards maturity in the Christian life. This essay concludes with an exhortation to explore the territory of prayer further.
All biblical quotations are taken from the Holy Bible, New International version unless otherwise indicated.
Christian prayer is distinctive
"When it comes to knowing God, we are a culture of the spiritually stunted"
What makes Christian prayer distinct from that of pagans?
Frederiech Heiler’s work Das Gebed is widely recognised for its significance in dealing with the phenomenon of prayer. He draws out six distinctive types of prayer; primitive, ritual, Greek cultural, philosophical, mystical and prophetic. Heiler’s primitive prayers are characterised by self-centred requests, promises for prosperity, good rain for crops and the like. For the vast majority of people this would sum up their understanding of prayer. God however created prayer to be an active and vibrant part of our Christian walk. A means of his grace. A measure of his steadfast love to us. How does Christian prayer differ from this? What makes Christian prayer distinctive. Firstly…
Christian prayer is God focussed
D.A. Carson in his book A call to spiritual reformation, which looks at priorities in the prayers of Paul, states that the number one need of the church today is a greater knowledge of God.
In Christian prayer God is the focus. This may seem like an obvious statement. Isn’t all prayer God focussed? Not according to the Bible. There is frequent mention in scripture of those who seek to impress others by their pomposity and long praying. (Matt 6:7) By contrast Robert Faricy writes;
"True prayer is simple, childlike, uncluttered by a lot of thoughts and ideas.There is a petitioning nature in prayer. "Prayer begins by asking." God loves us to bring our requests to him, to share our lives, our concerns and struggles with him. We should do this both individually and corporately. (Eph 6:18) (1 Tim 2:1)
Real prayer speaks straight from the heart. It says simply ""I love you
"thank you for loving me."
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition,This is at the heart of simple prayer – it is a crying out to God.
with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Phil 4:6
Much of the book of Psalms is an example of such simple prayer. Cries of the heart.
Psalm 4:1 reads:
Answer me when I call to you,We see this petitioning prayer throughout the Old Testament. We have an example in Exodus 17:4.
O my righteous God.
Give me relief from
be merciful to me and hear my prayer. PS 4:1
Then Moses cried out to the LORD, "What am I to do with these people? They
are almost ready to stone me." EX 17:4
Hebrews 5:7 testifies that this was indeed the case in the life of Christ.
During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions
with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was
heard because of his reverent submission. HEB 5:7
Christian Prayer is Characterised by Faith
As Christians we have the promise of being heard. This gives us great boldness to come into the presence of God and to petition him, trusting that he will hear us, and answer us according to his nature. Christians have the gift of faith to empower their prayers.
"Faith is by nature a gift of God. All faith begins as an expression of
intellectual assent. These two statements appear contradictory at first glance.
However it is impossible to believe in God unless he gives one the ability to,
and in order to believe we must chose to believe in the invisible, the unseen.
This is the primary grounding faith has, the fertile soil in which it grows."
According to Ken Chant it is impossible to believe what ones rational mind rejects. With the rational mind we choose to believe what God has said to be true."
From the above statements we see that the prayer of faith is based on Gods word, his promises and faithfulness in fulfilling those promises. When we pray with faith we appropriate these same precious promises and manifest the purposes and kingdom of God on the earth.
In 2 Peter 1:3&4 we read;
His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness
through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4
Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that
through them you may participate in the divine nature and escape the corruption
in the world caused by evil desires. 2PE 1:3&4
Prayers for blessing and protection are perfectly acceptable in the Christian vocabulary, but we are all called to come up to a higher plane, a better place. The place we are called to is to manifest Christ and his glory to the world, through "acknowledging him in all our ways". In this context prayer is more akin to worship. (Rom 12:1)
Christian prayer is Dialogic
One way in which Christian prayer differs and goes beyond mere prayer is that it has more to do with Gods nature than our own. True Christian prayer is a partnership between heaven and earth. It is relational. It is dialogic in nature. We not only speak to God but he speaks to us and through us.
In 1 Corinthians 12: 2 &3 Paul writes:
"You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and
led astray to mute idols. 3 Therefore I tell you that no one who is speaking by
the Spirit of God says, "Jesus be cursed," and no one can say, "Jesus is Lord,"
except by the Holy Spirit." 1Cor 12:2&3
Paul goes to great pains to draw a distinction between the idols that were around the Corinthians at the time and the living God. Here God is described as the one who speaks. God is the one who reveals himself, and it is his pleasure to do so. It is relationship, and not empty religious ritual that God requires.
The Lord says:
"These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me
with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of
is made up only of rules taught by men.
Therefore once more I will
astound these people
with wonder upon wonder;
the wisdom of the wise will
the intelligence of the intelligent will vanish." ISA
Note in these verses how it is God who takes the initiative and the role which signs and wonders play. While God needs to give no proof of his existence, (Rom 1:20) signs are a way of God stirring up the faith of those who tend to rely on their own understanding.
The difference is connectedness / relationship. The God of heaven promises to hear our prayers.
God also reveals what we are to pray for. He sets the agenda. In essence we partner with God when we pray, but it is him who prays through us.
This is the context in which prayer is discussed in Romans 8:26& 27
to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that
words cannot express. 27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of
Spirit, becIn the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do
not know what we
ought ause the Spirit intercedes for the saints in
accordance with God's
will. RO 8:26
By contrast, the implication in 2 Peter 1:5-9 is that if we do not grow in our faith, if it is not evidenced by a growth in Godliness, then our Christianity is unproductive and useless. It is this unproductiveness in prayer that we examine in the section which now follows.
When prayer fails
How come are our prayers sometimes not answered?
This is a difficult question not easily answered, and one which requires both tact and grace.
The blessing of God is always upon the purposes of God. To be successful in the Godly sense, we need to be connected to the person and purposes of God. Praying with the carnal mind can impede the efficacy of our prayers. True prayer is not carnal, but seeks ultimately the will and purposes of God.
We read in James 4:1-3
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires
that battle within you? 2 You want something but don't get it. You kill and
covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not
have, because you do not ask God. 3 When you ask, you do not receive, because
you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.
Lack of Faith
We see that faith is essential for salvation in the life of a believer, (Heb 4:2) and in living in a vibrant, growing relationship with God. (Heb 11:6) Remarkably a lack of faith can constrain the power of God.
Matthew 13:53-58 gives us an example;
When Jesus had finished these parables, he moved on from there. 54 Coming to his
hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed.
"Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?" they asked. 55
"Isn't this the carpenter's son? Isn't his mother's name Mary, and aren't his
brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? 56 Aren't all his sisters with us?
Where then did this man get all these things?" 57 And they took offense at
But Jesus said to them, "Only in his hometown and in his own house is a
prophet without honor."
And he did not do many miracles there because of
their lack of faith. MT 13:53-58
Jesus, had been known to those of his home town as the son of Joseph. He is seen by the Nazarenes as a mere man. The townspeople could not reconcile what they had doubtlessly heard about with the reasoning of their carnal minds. In effect we see here a denial of the supernatural.
Faith, when not lived out in action is no faith at all. (James 2:18) When our lives are not characterised by the Godliness which God desires, this can have a profound effect on the fruitfulness of our prayers. We read in 1 Peter 3:7:
Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and
treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the
gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. 1PE
The prophet Isaiah wrote at a time of great prosperity for the people of God. Their opulence and extravagance extended to their religious life. We read in the first chapter of Isaiah however;
Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts
my soul hates.
have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread
out your hands in prayer,
I will hide my eyes from you;
even if you offer
I will not listen.
Your hands are full of blood;
and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds
out of my sight!
God is clearly not pleased with the religion practiced by the people the passage addresses. While they had an outward veneer of Godliness their hearts are said to be far from God.
It could be argued that Isaiah’s message is in the context of the old covenant, but Gods condemnation of empty religion extends throughout scripture.
Paul is quick to contrast knowing God with empty religious practice in his letter to the Galatians. The church at Galatia was going through an identity crisis. A group within the church advocated observance of the Mosaic Law, particularly circumcision. Paul writes in Galatians 4:9&10.
But now that you know God--or rather are known by God--how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? 10 You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! 11 I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you. Gal 4:9&10
One of the characteristics with religious people is that while they believe in God, they deny his supernatural power. How then if they do not believe he is able, can they boldly request Gods favour, coming to Him as they do without faith.
We are not all knowing and all seeing, like God. Our prayers at this stage cannot see the end from the beginning. I remember a Sunday school teacher saying God will always answer our prayers. He may say yes, He may say no, he may say wait a while. God is ultimately sovereign.
Our prayers are based on only partial understanding but they should always be combined with faith.(1Cor 13:9,13)
Conclusion: The way forward
"There is a difference between knowing the path and walking it."
The place of discipline
In order to pray we need to regularly be placing ourselves in the realm of prayer. That is to say, be approaching the throne of heaven with a humble and contrite heart. To seek God and to desire relationship with him we need to draw near to him.
In prayer, almost more than any other facet of life, the map is not the territory. Prayer cannot be understood only in the mind, in a dry, academic way. It must be experienced with the heart. It is frequently necessary to still the mind and to shut out the voices of ourselves, the pressures of life and other people. It is in the stillness of the garden of Getsemane that Jesus confronts possibly his darkest hour. We see many examples of this in the life of Jesus. (Matt 8:18)
In Luke 5:16 we read that Jesus’ made it his habit to pray in quiet places.
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
And another example, given by Jesus himself shortly before the teaching of the Lords prayer.
We read in Matthew 6:6
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your
who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret,
you.. Matt 6:6
The place of prayer is something which the Patriarchs knew – Abraham established altars of worship to God wherever he went, and Jacob dug wells. Jacob was also a man who knew the value of a place, and a time for prayer. According to Genesis 24:63;
"And Isaac went out to meditate in the field toward evening." Gen 24:63
The place of prayer is the marathon, not the sprint. We are called to a place of faithfulness in prayer.(Romans 12:12) Intimate relationship with God is a journey. While God is not distant, and all Christians have the promise of Gods abiding presence, the frequent tending of the garden of prayer and attention to the word leads down a path to intimacy and maturity in God.
God is interested in our character, long term, not our comfort, short term.
Just like Jacob, there is a great need to dig our wells deep into God.
In the same way water from the well sustains life, prayer brings life and nourishing to the soul. As we meet with the living God we are nourished and encouraged. We leave satisfied and hunger to be united with Him once again.
As water is a powerful agent for transformation, creating such wonders as the Grand Canyon, and smoothing river stones, so prayer can transform the spiritual landscape of cities, of families, of nations and of individuals.
Deep calls to deep
in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and
have swept over me.
By day the LORD directs his love,
his song is with me--
a prayer to the God of my life. PS 42:7&8
While there are many different types and practices in prayer, the path toward maturity in prayer has a number of milestones.
The path to mature prayer is grown through adversity.(John16:33) It will involve a crying out to God and a learning to rely on Him. Perhaps most importantly the number one need is to know God experientially.
We need to explore prayer actively, in a disciplined and biblical way, always relying on the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Lets walk the path.
Chant. K. Faith Dynamics. Vision Christian College. 1993. Sydney
D.A. Carson. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and his prayers. 1992. IVP. Nottingham
Dalrymple.J. Simple Prayer. 1984. Michael Glazier .Delaware
Elwell. W. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Second Edition. 2003. Baker Academic. Mich. (paraphrased)
Faircy.R. & Rooney. L. The Contemplative Way of Prayer.1986. E.J.Dwyer. Sydney
Morgan, R. J. 2000. Nelson's complete book of stories, illustrations, and quotes (electronic ed.) . Thomas Nelson Publishers: Nashville
Narraway. T. Right Faith and Wrong Faith in Contrast, Vision Christian College Assignment
The Holy Bible. New King James Version. 1982. Thomas Nelson. Nashville
The Matrix. Village Roadshow Pictures
The Zondervan NIV Bible Electronic Edition , Zondervan Reference Software, 1989
Warren.R. The Purpose Driven Life. Zondervan. 2002. Michigan (paraphrased)