by Hennie Swart
Prayer is the universal language. Everyone admits to praying sometimes, even those who don’t intend to or don’t even believe in God. It is near impossible for dependent human beings who cannot control everything to consistently “suppress the truth” about God, which “God has shown… to them” (Rom 1.18-19). Even devoted atheists sometimes (in a moment of weakness) allow a “God help us,” or a “thank God” to slip out. But those of us who are Christians usually have the opposite problem – we have the same human instinct to pray, but in our weakness we often pray less than we’d like to. I’ve never had a Christian tell me, “I pray too much, this year I’d like to pray less.”
So what is prayer?
I like this definition by Timothy Keller from his book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God: “Prayer is the continuation of a conversation started by God.”
This means, firstly, that prayer is a conversation between God and us. It’s dialogue, not just monologue. Secondly, it means prayer is never us taking the initiative, but always us responding to God’s initiative, the conversation started by God, whether in the so-called General Revelation of creation or the Special Revelation of the Bible. So obviously the better we hear and understand what God has said through life and Scripture, the better we can respond, so that good prayer is both listening and speaking. This also means we should not just try to develop a so-called “prayer life,” but rather a life of prayer, in which we constantly respond to everything that happens to us with prayer, until we learn to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).
In his book on prayer, Keller mentions four things he did in order to learn how to pray:
1. He went through the Psalms, summarized each one, and prayed through them. How wonderfully simple and yet profoundly impactful. As St Athanasius wrote: “Most of the Scriptures speak to us, but the Psalms [also] speak for us.” Eugene Peterson notes in Eat the Book: “Using the Psalms as a school of prayer… we get a feel for what is appropriate to say. As we do this, the first thing we realize is that in prayer, anything goes. Virtually everything human is appropriate as material for prayer: reflections and observations, fear and anger, guilt and sin, questions and doubts, needs and desires, praise and gratitude, suffering and death. Nothing human is excluded. The Psalms are an extended rejection [of the belief] that prayer is “being nice” before God. No—prayer is an offering of ourselves, just as we are.
2. He inserted a time of meditation as a transition between his Bible reading and praying. This is great advice because it links our Bible-reading and prayer, God’s speaking to us and our speaking to Him. It also allows us to effectively do what Bible teacher PT Forsyth suggests: “What we receive from God in the Bible’s message we return to Him with interest in prayer.”
3. Third, he did all he could to pray morning and evening, not just in the morning. The more regularly and consistently we do something, the more quickly it becomes an established habit in our lives.
4. Fourth, he began praying with greater expectation, with greater faith. Not only does Jesus command us to pray with faith and expectation, but if we do we are much more likely to notice when He answers that prayer and thank Him for doing so.
Some more encouragements
It is a truly awesome thought that Almighty God wants to communicate with us. That He initiated the conversation and that He always listens, even when we don’t. It is true that prayer is a duty commanded in Scripture, but prayer can also become a sweet delight, something we do because we want to, not just because we have to. This however requires that we sometimes “pray through the duty into the delight” as JI Packer puts it. Such a life of prayer is a habit that needs to be cultivated and takes time. Nothing of eternal significance is accomplished apart from believing prayer.
1. For wise guidance on how to grow in a life of prayer see The Praying Life by Paul Miller and The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence.
2. I’ve also found Answers to Prayer by George Mueller very helpful in encouraging my faith in prayer. This classic book contains some powerful testimonies of answered prayers by George Mueller who started multiple orphanages in England and never asked anyone for money, but just brought their needs before God in believing prayer.