Don: There is a universal need to pray to a supernatural power, especially in times of need. And yet, when we analyze the concept of prayer, we find it hard to understand. It seems important to just about everyone, everywhere, at all times.
Jesus prayed often, and prayer was only thing the disciples asked Jesus to teach them. They did not ask to be taught to do miracles, or even how to preach or how to worship. This implies that there is some fundamental mystery to prayer. What were the disciples hoping to discover? What is it that we really need to learn about prayer?
Must our attitude be adjusted, in order to pray? May we pray when we are tired, depressed, or angry; or only when we are filled with joy and love and thanksgiving? Must we kneel, or may we stand, sit, or lie prostrate? Should we pray alone or with others? In the garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion, Jesus did not want to be alone when he went to pray, and took some disciples with him.
In some religions, the position, timing, and many other aspects of prayer are tightly choreographed, and deviation is not allowed. It can be very comforting not to have to worry about the details, since they have been prescribed. The Bible tells Christians simply to pray without ceasing—but what does that mean? Muslim prayer is very similar to the Lord’s Prayer in deferring to God’s will, asking for forgiveness, and giving thanks for sustenance. But unlike Christian prayer, there is very little supplication for relief, for security, for safety.
What outcome of prayer ought we to anticipate and prepare for through study? Most people think that God wants us to pray, hears our prayers, and answers them, provided that we have sufficient faith, belief, and sincerity—which we often do not. So, many think, if our prayers are not answered, it must be our fault, not God’s.
Several principles of prayer can be found in Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount, starting with the Lord’s Prayer:
“When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you.
“And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
“Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’]
For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.” (Matthew 6:5-14)
The principles of prayer that can be derived from all this are:
1. Do not put God on the spot, by praying openly in public, to answer our petitionary prayers, despite Scripture that appears to suggest otherwise:
Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
There is a strong sense that the power of prayer is realized through boldness, though it seems that this applies to prayer for grace rather (or more) than to petitionary prayer for miracles. A boldly-expressed petition amounts to a demand. We need to be reminded that God is not in our service—we are in His; that He does not answer questions—He poses them. Jesus made it very clear that we are not to make demands on God, certainly not publicly.
2. Prayer should be private and personal. God’s response to our prayer will not be in the form of a miracle ostentatiously wrapped in thunder and lightning. Rather, it will be delivered in the form of a question put to us in a still, small voice whispering in our ear.
3. Prayer should be brief, though constant. We tend to think prayer should be lengthy, which then requires much forethought into its construction and much memorization to be able to utter it. But, said Paul:
In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. (Romans 8:26-28)
4. The encounter itself is important, otherwise Scripture would not instruct us to pray. The value of Jacob’s wrestling with God’s angel was in the wrestling. Without it, there would have been no outcome.
5. Though conducted in private, prayer is communal in spirit and object. We pray not just for our selfish selves. In the Lord’s Prayer, all the pronouns are plural: “Our Father… Give us… Lead us… Deliver us…” etc.
6. Prayer calls for reciprocity. “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” For forgiveness, we must first forgive others. To me, it follows that to be blessed by God, we must bless others; to receive His gifts, we must give to others; and to be loved by Him, we must love others.
David: We know from Scripture that Jesus observed his own principles and prayed often. The few prayers of His that were recorded—I recall the Lord’s Prayer itself, and his prayer in the garden of Gethsemane—stress the supremacy of God’s will.
Don: Another major prayer of Jesus is the so-called High-Priestly Prayer (John 17) which is largely a prayer on behalf of His disciples and others who believe in Him.
Mikiko: James wrote:
Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. (James 4:8)
Prayer draws us nearer to God. I think the key requests in the Lord’s Prayer are “Hallowed be Thy name” and “Thy kingdom come.”
Donald: Prayer also serves as a time marker, a division between different parts of a church service.
Anonymous: Muslims pray constantly not only through their five daily ritual prayers but also through their common phrases “insh’Allah” (“God willing”, “if God wills”) and “alḥamdulillāh” (“Praise God” or “Thank God”).
Donald: So private and public prayer may serve different purposes. Ritual public prayer has a timing attached to it, so might not be sincere if the timing is bad for the person praying. We often ask others to pray for us: “I seek your prayer on my behalf.” Is it just to comfort ourselves, or do we think that prayers said on our behalf improves the chances of their being granted?
John: If a communal prayer leader prays a wrong prayer, does that reflect upon the whole community? Prayer is situational: In a dangerous situation, we pray for safety; in a joyous situation, we pray to share our joy with others. A ritual, mantra-like, prayer may not serve in all situations. If personal prayer is needed to connect us personally to God, there can be no value in having a middleman pray on our behalf. God does not want mantras—he wants us to reveal what is formed in our own individual minds. A mantra can be repeated mindlessly—the thoughts of the utterer might be totally different from the contents of the mantra.
Aishwarya: Hindu culture recognizes certain days for certain gods. Monday is Shiva’s day, Tuesday is Ganesha’s, and so on. Hindu children are taught to pray to the specific gods on their specific days and in their specific temples. This results in long lines at some temples while others are empty. I wondered as a child why other cultures were able to pray to one god, in one temple, every day. I eventually decided that it didn’t matter where or when or even how we prayed.
John: If a prayer is based on a situation, time may be a factor, so having to wait in line to pray at a temple is not going to work. Why not just pray in place, personally?
Kiran: Hindus can and do pray personal prayers at any time and place. But ritual prayer is time-bound.
Jay: Ritual prayer seems to emerge from a belief structure—a religion. We tend to believe that our religion strengthens our prayers. Catholicism has its Hail Marys and rosaries, which are absent in Protestant prayer rituals. Jesus was talking about prayer that is universal, that goes beyond belief systems; but it is very difficult for us to step outside our religions.
Chris: Prayer is either ritualistic, based on religion, and spoken at specific times; or is bounded not by time or tradition but by a personal relationship with God. Is there—can there be—a balance between the two?
David: We often talk about the Bible as a book of questions, not of answers. Aishwarya’s comment about Hindu prayer practice, which (in her) prompted questions rather than provided answers, suggests that this may be characteristic of the Scriptures of all religions, not just of Christian Scripture. The questions arose out of her (Hindu) Scripturally-ordained practice, but the answers came from inside her. To me, this suggests that religions do not need to abandon their Scriptures but they do need to allow their Scriptures to be treated as books of questions, not as answers. In my reading, it appears to me that some religions and sects actively discourage and even prohibit any suggestion that their Scripture is anything but The Answer to all questions.
Kiran: I have prayed personal prayers both as a Christian and as a Hindu, and can attest that there is no difference. There is the same feeling of the existence and nearness of a higher power. Personal prayer transcends religion.
John: To get to the top of a mountain, I had to pass a cave where a bear lived. I prayed for safe passage, and continued up the mountain. Higher up, I reached a “No Trespassing” sign. I ignored it and went to the top of the hill. Coming down by a different trail, I discovered that the area was a wildlife sanctuary, and was able to observe deer and other beautiful animals. It was hard getting to the top of the hill—there were obstacles in the way—but the effort was rewarded, and the prayer helped.
Donald: Public prayer seems to be patterned, ritualistic. Personal prayer is conversational dialog with a higher power. Can someone lacking in personal prayer be sincere in corporate prayer?
Jay: The key question still centers on the purpose of prayer. Religion says it is (1) to petition God for things we need and (2) to build a relationship with God. The latter seems to be the most commonly perceived purpose. But while we may know what we want out of that relationship, do we ever stop to consider what God might want out of it? God wants us to come to him as a child, not as an adult; but we tend to want an adult relationship with Him.
Robin: We are fooling ourselves.
Michael: We don’t usually interpret the Lord’s Prayer as a call to action, but it seems to me it is: “Forgive us as we forgive others” calls upon us to take action to forgive others. If we make all of the requests in the Lord’s Prayer reciprocal (“Give us our daily bread as we give others their daily bread”, “Let Thy will be done as we help it be done”, etc.) then the whole prayer springs to life. Most interesting of all, “Let Thy kingdom come” depends upon our working to make the kingdom come right now, right here. As Jesus said: His kingdom is at hand.
David: It seems hard on a child to expect it to develop a relationship with a seemingly unresponsive father. In the Old Testament, God talks to everybody. But in the New Testament, the Father does not even talk to his own Son, at least not in my limited reading of Scripture.
Owen: The men who lowered the paralyzed man through the roof so Jesus could heal him were, by their action, praying for their friend.
Donald: It is reassuring to be prayed for, to be thought about.
Kiran: My 3 year old niece pesters her Mom in order to test the limits—to find out her Mom’s will so that she can align with it.
John: We need to be wary of the limits, of the extremes. Entering the temple of another religion to pray is one thing, but what if it is a temple that worships the devil? Stalin went to the extreme of killing religious people en masse because he found the theory of evolution more believable than Creationism.
Chris: In building a relationship with a child, the first thing we do is see to its needs. A newborn does not engage its parents in conversation. It takes; the parent gives. That is how the child–parent relationship is built.
Jay: Is it given what it wants, or what it needs? The Lord’s Prayer meets our needs, not our wants.
David: A newborn’s wants are its needs. Wants arise only as the child acquires knowledge.
Mikiko: We call Him the Heavenly Father. When Jesus was baptized in 29CE at the River Jordan,…
…a voice out of the heavens said, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well-pleased.” (Matthew 3:17)
Spoken by Jehovah Himself, those tender words tell us much about what kind of a Father He is.
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