What is Prayer?


Prayer is simply talking to God, and listening out for when He talks to us – (this second part is a little more complex to explain – more on it later!)

I’ve grown up in a Christian household where prayer was routine so it never occurred to me that people looking into the Christian faith from the outside might find it hard to understand this particular aspect of our faith.

It’s like this: because God is a person, and He is everywhere at once, then I can speak to Him from literally anywhere, and I can be confident that He will hear me. The most important aspects of this are that we believe that we are actually speaking to a real Person, and we believe that because He is everywhere, then He will hear us – even when we pray silently in our hearts, or in our minds.

Prayer is just talking to God:
Over the last week, I have been to a number of church services as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. (I now realise that many of these churches simply packaged up their usual weekly services as “Fringe performances”, thereby getting extra visitors through the door – honestly!!!)
Because I was going as a spectator and not as a worshipper, I have been to a number of services in a number of churches that I would not normally go to in observance of my faith (and I have also inhaled so much incense it’s unbelievable!)
For instance, I found myself in a Catholic church during the week. I always think that Catholicism is as distant from my experience of faith as is Islam (or Hinduism, or Buddhism..or…) – and I believe that I was proven to be right by the experience of going to this particular church. Firstly, it was a special Latin mass, so literally everything was said in Latin – (although they did admittedly provide programmes with translations). The priest would say things, and then the congregation would respond in special set ways. My body was in constant motion – standing, sitting back down, kneeling, sitting again, standing again – and I had to watch the rest of the congregation to know what to do at any point (it was actually written in the programme, in English – but no-one actually seemed to be following it!)

I am sure that God is big and open-minded enough to accept this (although I am suddenly reminded of a passage where Jesus said that we should not be like the Gentiles, who think that God will accept their prayers because of their many words – Matthew 6v7 – and Jesus specifically said we should not use meaningless or empty repetitions – what could be more meaningless than a language you don’t actually speak, or understand?)

My somewhat long-winded point in all of this is that all of it: the ceremony, the robes, the glittering gold, the incense, and most especially the use of an alien language – this is not and has never been what I think of as prayer. To me, taking my cue from Jesus Himself, prayer is simply me as a normal person, having a conversation with God. This is a real conversation, so I speak in my normal voice with normal language, and it is about being real and honest, both to myself and to God. On the whole, I don’t use “Thee”s and “Thou”s and old-fashioned language like that. Why would I? If I tried to pray like that, I know that I would quickly get bored, or fed up, and give up. So for instance, if I am feeling frustrated, I say “God, I’m feeling frustrated!” If I am feeling ecstatic, then I will say “Father, I thank You, I am feeling ecstatic!” Yes I do call God “Father”. This is about as formal as my prayers get! Sometimes I personally also refer to God as “Lord”.

Prayer is about inviting God, and all that He is, into different situations in my life:
In a way, God really does not need to be invited into different situations in the world or in my life, because He does after all own everything. However, by praying about something, I specifically hand over control of that issue to God. It’s like saying:
“God, I am not big enough to deal with this. However, I know that You are God – please do Your thing!”

Prayer is about seeking the power of God for positive outcomes in different issues in my life, and in the world:
Because God is a good God, and His plans for us and the world are good plans, then I can pray positive things and trust that God will want to answer these prayers. There are 2 parts to this:
Firstly, the Bible defines for us what God thinks of as being good and right. So if I pray for things to happen that are outside God’s standards, then surprise surprise, He will not answer those requests. For instance, if I were to pray for gold to rain down from the sky so that I could go out to buy as many clothes, bags and shoes as I want (and a house that is big enough to store all of them!) then I would be praying for a very long time, because that prayer would never be granted!
On the other hand, I might sincerely, but wrongly, believe that something is good and acceptable to God – and it will be in the process of praying about it that I realise that I am wrong.

Prayer is about bringing all that I am to God:
For me, it is about saying “God, this is where I am at”. Sometimes, that will be a great place, and I will be full of gratitude. Sometimes it will be a place of confusion, and I can only offer God ramblings and a chaotic mindset.
For me, honesty is vital in prayer. There have been countless times when I have expressed my anger or my disappointment at the way God has acted – or seemingly failed to act in my life. I will compare events or matters in my life to the glowing promises in the Bible, and I will say “God, I am frustrated and I am angry. I don’t understand why You didn’t do this!!!” or “God, I honestly don’t know how You could let this happen to me, to me Lord! I pursue You with everything that I have, my life is totally submitted to You…frankly Lord, I feel as if You have disappointed me here!”
These are not prayers to deliberately immerse ourselves in, but sometimes as Christians they will reflect our honest state of mind. If we are praying honestly, then in my experience God will work to grant us a more positive state of mind, or a positive perspective, even if He does not actually resolve the situation we are complaining about.

I personally think that determination to be honest with God in prayer is the difference between real strength and real perseverance as a Christian, and the kind of faith that does not actually make any difference at all. That is, have you ever read any of those comments from Christians where they are always smilingly bright and act as if life as a Christian is always perfect and free from challenges? Facebook is a great place for this! I know that it is important to be positive, but my secret confession – I usually dismiss comments like these and scarcely bother to read them. What I like to see is sincere acknowledgement of the challenges that we as Christians face, sometimes – that is many times! – brought on by our own predictable human weaknesses – and the way that God can act mightily through these to genuinely transform situations. Now those are the status updates that catch my eye, and which I like to ponder upon!

Prayer is also about bringing my own heart to be shaped by God and His Word.
Prayer is definitely about asking God for things, “God, please help my business to succeed!”…”Father, where is my husband?!!!! (That is, why have I not yet found a man that I can marry?!!!)” However, it is also about bringing my own self to God, so that He can shape me and mould me more into the kind of person that He wants me to be, so that I can be more like Christ. I can hasten the process by identifying aspects of my life that need work: “God please grant me love, grace, a forgiving heart, and the humility of Christ!” – Amen!

Prayer is about God talking to me:
Now this part is a little more complex to explain.
People will ask: “Does God talk to you audibly?”.
Answer: In the Bible, God called audibly to Samuel when He was a young boy serving in the Temple. Moreover Jesus obviously spoke audibly to His followers (ha ha!)
However, this seems to be the exception rather than the rule especially in our own lives post-Bible times. (In some churches it seems to be immensely controversial to suggest that God has spoken to you audibly).
However, God definitely does speak to us, audibly or otherwise.
The primary and most important way that God speaks to us is through the Bible. It is this that we use to weigh up other things, and discern whether they truly are, or could be, from God. That is, everything that God tells us will be in line with the Bible. If it contradicts Bible teaching then it is simply not from God. This is because God remains the same, as do His opinions. Unlike us He does not change back and forth. So the Bible remains as reliable a guide to the attitudes of God regarding various human issues as it was when it was first written, and as it will be a thousand years from now. Time does not change God, not least because He is outside time.
However, to use the Bible as a reliable guide to what God may or may not have said, does mean that we need to know the Bible – what it actually says, and what it actually means. Where other people – like other Christians, pastors or leaders, (or me, for instance) are telling us that God has told them something – sometimes this “something” might be about us; then it is knowledge of the Bible that will help us know whether what they say could actually be from God. The Bible makes it clear that we should never just accept anything from anyone as being from God, without checking it out in the Bible, and in prayer. This is because (apart from Jesus) we as human beings are all weak and frail and broken, only God is a perfectly reliable source. This is true even of the Christian leaders that we revere most highly. I could name names….

Besides the Bible, other ways that God can speak to us include impressions or ideas in our heart, often while praying. Sometimes, an idea will just occur to me, while I am praying about something completely unrelated, or sometimes when I am not praying at all. Everyone gets these “lightbulb” moments, not only Christians, but as a Christian I happily attribute them all to God! For instance, there was a time recently when I was really struggling with one aspect of a site that I was creating for a webdesign client, and wondering why it simply wasn’t working. It was literally while I was discussing the issue with a Christian friend in a Christian gathering, explaining my frustration, that the answer came to me, and I realised what the issue had been; when I got home, I fixed it, and instantly it worked. Hallelujah!

Sometimes, God will be speaking, but we have to be very very quiet, put aside issues that might be floating around in our mind, and listen with our hearts, to what the Bible calls “a still small voice”: 1 Kings 19:11-13 -(in this translation referred to as a soft whisper of a voice).* From experience, it can be so easy to think that God is saying x or y, when it is actually my own personal feelings that are speaking.

People also say that God speaks to us through other people, but I am naturally very distrustful, so I personally find it hard to trust whatever other people say, especially when they say “God has told me that…!” and then they expect me to simply accept whatever they say as being from God, just because of their status in some supposed church.

So these are some of the things that make up prayer. When I first started taking prayer seriously, I find it very difficult to “get into”, like a book. It can require a certain level of concentration and focus, which can be hard to find when our minds are filled with other things. However, I am glad that I persevered. God is the one Person with whom I can be perfectly honest – for instance about other people, and know that He will not tell anyone; even about Himself, and He will not display insecurity, or any passive-aggressive attitudes. I can also be honest about myself and know that He will not be intimidated by my dreams of greatness or disillusioned by the secret thoughts of my heart which I kid myself that I am successfully hiding from other people.
Obviously I would say this, but sincerely, it is completely worthwhile to be real with God! If you’ve never prayed before I would encourage you to try it out. If you are worried about feeling silly then you could always do it in secret where no-one else is going to find out. Just start by believing that God is real and that He cares about your life, then just tell Him a few issues that are on your mind!






*While doing some googling to find the exact reference for this passage, I found an article which questions the meaning of the Bible passage quoted, suggesting among other things that the passage does not actually mean that God speaks to us in a still small voice. However, in my personal experience God does often speak to me in this way, or I find that I can discern what God might be saying through tuning out mental issues and listening hard with my heart, so I believe it is still good and relevant to use these terms.

Photo of candle by Foulline on Pixabay
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