What is prayer?
Prayer isn’t a magical formula for getting what we want, and it isn’t reserved for ‘holy’ people, or for special times or places.
Prayer is talking to God.
Christians believe that God created everyone to be in relationship with him, and that he loves to hear from each one of us as often as possible. Just like you might talk to a close family member, so we have the privilege of talking to God. You don’t even need to be a Christian. God has made himself known to many who have reached out to him with an open heart.
But why pray?
In the Bible book Psalms, the writer says, ‘You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.’ (The Message Bible). If God knows what we are going to say, then why say it at all?
‘You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.’
There are several reasons why we might pray. These can include thanking God for what he has given us, praising God for who he is, asking God for help or telling him that we’re sorry and asking for forgiveness. Or we might simply want to tell God what’s on our hearts.
In the Bible book Philippians, the writer Paul encourages us to ‘Let your requests be made known to God’. And Jesus himself prayed often. As followers of Jesus, Christians also believe it is important to pray often.
What should we pray?
Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray. So he taught them this prayer as an example - The Lord’s Prayer - which is said by Christians around the world in their own languages and versions:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power,
and the glory are yours
now and for ever.
This famous prayer shows us that prayer is relational - in it we’re talking to God, our Father. We pray not that we get what we want, but that God’s will is done and that we get what we need.
It also addresses the problem of our sin, asking in confidence that God will forgive our sins, but reminding ourselves that we too need to have an attitude of forgiveness towards others.
And it is a prayer of praise - restating who God is. As a lover may write to a loved one telling them all the good things about them, so we are not telling God anything new, but rather establishing our relationship with him.
Prayers often end with ‘amen’. It means ‘so be it’ or ‘I agree’ and can be said by anyone who approves of what has been prayed.
Who are we praying to?
Christians believe that God is Trinity - that means he is three persons - God the father, God the son (Jesus) and God the Holy Spirit. Because the three persons are one, Christians might pray to any person of the Trinity at any given time.
However, the usual way to pray, as modelled frequently in the New Testament part of the Bible, is to address our prayers to God the father, in the name of Jesus (acknowledging that it is because of Jesus’ sacrifice for us that we can come before God), and in the power of the Holy Spirit. That is why so many prayers, like the Lord’s Prayer, start by addressing God as father.
But it isn’t important if you forget. God just loves to hear from us, however we come to him.
In some Christian traditions, such as Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity, prayers can be addressed to Mary, the mother of Jesus, or to saints who have died. There is some dispute as to whether such prayers are praying to them or simply asking them to pray on our behalf to God. Some find such prayers helpful, but others point to the fact that Jesus’ death on the cross meant that the way became open once again for humanity to speak directly to God.
How should we pray?
There is no set way to pray. But we can look to Jesus for helpful clues.
Jesus often took himself away to a quiet place to pray. Many people find it helpful at times to go to a church or room on their own, or to take a walk. Some like to look at a picture of Jesus, or to light a candle. Others close their eyes or put their hands together to remove themselves from any distractions.
‘For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’
Some people prefer to pray formal pre-written prayers, of which there are many. Formal prayers, such as The Lord’s Prayer, are often used for special ceremonies such as baptism, weddings, funerals and the sharing of bread and wine. These differ between denominations, but often share common themes.
Generally Christians use a mixture of these and informal ‘chatty’ prayers. Christians often refer to ‘arrow prayers’, which are quick prayers to God in specific circumstances, such as ‘Help me say the right thing to this person’.
In group settings, prayers are often said out loud, so that everyone can benefit and sometimes join in. But Christians often say prayers silently, believing that God hears our thoughts. In the Bible book 1 Samuel it says, ‘For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.’
Answers to prayer
It can be easy when praying to imagine that God will give us all we ask for, especially if it is a seemingly good thing. So it is frustrating when God appears to say no, or not to answer. We need to remember that God isn’t a computer, he is our Father who wants the best for us. However, knowing this doesn’t always make it easier. We will look at this and about praying in difficult situations in a forthcoming article.
What we do know is that God does hear our prayers. In the Bible book of 1 John we are told, ‘This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us.’
So we can approach God with confidence, knowing that he is our Father who loves to hear from us. In the Bible book of Matthew Jesus put it this way, ‘Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!’