Call & Response: What is Prayer?
Praying as a child
When I was a child, my mother dutifully kept me and my brother to a strict bedtime routine. As our favorite cartoon ended and 8:00 PM rolled around, we would shuffle off to bed. After tucking us in, my mom rounded off our sleepy procedures with a prayer. Though I was young, I was struck by her intimacy and familiarity with God; she talked to him like a loving father.
As I grew older, the memory of my parents’ prayer life would propel me to commit my own life to God. Both my mother and my father offered me a living example of what prayers looks like. While they taught me a robust theology of prayer (my dad’s a Calvinist—catechisms are always nearby), they wrapped that knowledge in authentic practice.
What is prayer?
Growing into my own faith, I still cling to the lessons and examples my parents imparted to me. Because of them, I know that prayer is persistent communication that allows us to know God.
Communication. Throughout the church’s history, prayer has taken many shapes. From high church liturgies to free-form invocations, both ends of the spectrum play a role in Christian life. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray (Matthew 6:5-15), he combined both approaches in the Our Father. The beauty of this prayer is that we can recite it exactly as Christ taught or we can use it as a pattern. One can easily spend hours untangling these beautiful intricacies, but prayer always reduces to one simple truth: it is simply speaking to God like a child talks to their father or mother.
Persistence. While prayer is communication, it is also persistent. Paul commands believers to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Some traditions interpret this by having adherents pray a certain amount of times each day. Other Christians will encourage a single daily quiet time of Bible reading and prayer. Embedded in both ideas, however, is the idea that prayer should be an ongoing habit.
Why does Paul suggest that prayer should be a constant conversation? As believers, we carry the burdens of a heavy life. Sin and suffering are harsh masters. Suffering limits our perspectives (click here to find out more). Prayer, however, reminds us that someone bigger than our trials is working for our good. If pain is a prison, prayer is a window to the outside.
In Luke 18-1-8, Jesus tells his disciples a story about an impoverished widow. Though this woman lacked wealth and social standing, she badgered the crooked judge until he finally granted her request. Jesus concludes the parable by teaching, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly” (vv. 6-8). Pray as much as you hurt because your pain matters to God.
Relationship. If prayer is ongoing communication, at what is it aiming? What should we expect to get when we pray? This act is defined by experiencing God and his goodness. When we talk to him, God invites us to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8). In undertaking this conversation, the Father promises to satisfy us.
A God who Stoops
Prayer is an intimate conversation with a transcendent God. As we attempt to speak to him, he stoops to hear. He gets down on his knees to be with his children. While the Lord may seem like a distant deity dwelling far beyond the Milky Way, his ears are ever attuned to us. Keep praying, and continue calling. His heart can’t help but respond.