What Is Prayer?
Mr. Moody was once addressing a crowded meeting of children in Edinburgh. In order to get their attention he began by asking the question, “What is prayer?”—expecting to give the answer himself.
To his amazement, scores of little hands shot up all over the hall. He asked one lad to reply, and the answer came at once, clear and correct, “ ‘Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to His will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.’1” Mr. Moody’s delighted comment was, “Thank God, my boy, that you were born in Scotland.”
[Westminster Shorter Catechism]
But that was half a century ago. What sort of answer would he get today? How many English children could give a definition of prayer? Think for a moment and decide what answer you yourself would give.
What do we mean by prayer? I believe the vast majority of Christians would say that prayer is asking things from God. But surely prayer is much more than merely “getting God to run our errands for us,” something higher than the beggar knocking at the rich man’s door.
The word prayer really means “a wish directed towards,” that is, towards God. All that true prayer seeks is God Himself, for with Him we get all we need. Prayer is simply “the turning of the soul to God.”2 David describes it as the lifting up of the living soul to the living God: “Unto thee, O Lord, do I lift up my soul.” (Psalm 25:1) What a beautiful description of prayer that is! When we desire the Lord Jesus to behold our souls, we also desire that the beauty of holiness may be upon us.
[Octavius Winslow; The Work of the Holy Spirit, “The Spirit, the Author of Prayer”]
When we lift up our souls to God in prayer it gives God an opportunity to do what He wills in us and with us. It is putting ourselves at God’s disposal. God is always on our side, but we are not always on His side. When man prays, it is God’s opportunity. The poet says:
“Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Unuttered or expressed;
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.”*
“Prayer,” says an old Jewish mystic, “is the moment when heaven and earth kiss each other.”
Prayer, then, is certainly not persuading God to do what we want God to do. It is not bending the will of a reluctant God to our will. It does not change His purpose, although it may release His power. “We must not conceive of prayer as overcoming God’s reluctance,” says Archbishop Trench, “but as laying hold of His highest willingness.”
For God always purposes our greatest good. Even the prayer offered in ignorance and blindness cannot swerve Him from that, although, when we persistently pray for some harmful thing, our willfulness may bring it about, and we suffer accordingly. “He gave them their request,” says the Psalmist, “but sent leanness into their soul.” (Psalm 106:15) They brought this “leanness” upon themselves. They were “cursed with the burden of a granted prayer.”
Prayer, in the minds of some people, is only for emergencies. Danger threatens, sickness comes, things are lacking, difficulties arise—then they pray! Like the infidel down a coal mine: when the roof began to fall he began to pray. An old Christian standing by quietly remarked, “Aye, there’s nowt like cobs of coal to make a man pray.”
Prayer is, however, much more than merely asking God for something, although that is a very valuable part of prayer, if only because it reminds us of our utter dependence upon God. It is also communion with God—talking with, not only to, Him. We get to know people by talking with them. We get to know God in like manner. The highest result of prayer is not deliverance from evil, or the securing of some coveted thing, but knowledge of God. “This is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God.” (John 17:3) Yes, prayer discovers more of God, and that is the soul’s greatest discovery. Men still cry out, “Oh that I knew where I might find him! that I might come even to his seat!” (Job 23:3)
The kneeling Christian always finds Him, and is found of Him. The heavenly vision of the Lord Jesus blinded the eyes of Saul of Tarsus on his downward course, but later on he tells us that when he was praying in the temple at Jerusalem, he fell into a trance and saw Jesus: “I… saw him.” (Acts 22:17-18) Then it was that Christ gave him his great commission to go to the Gentiles. Vision is always a precursor of vocation and venture. It was so with Isaiah, when he was evidently praying in the sactuary: “I saw… the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple.” () This vision also was a prelude to a call to service, “Go….” (Isaiah 6:9) We cannot get a vision of God unless we pray. And where there is no vision the soul perishes (Proverbs 29:18).
A vision of God! Brother Lawrence said that prayer is nothing else than “a sense of God’s Presence”—and that is just the practice of the presence of God.
A friend of Horace Bushnell was present when that man of God prayed. There came over him a wonderful sense of God’s nearness. He says that Bushnell “poured out his heart until… ‘I was afraid to stretch out my hand in the darkness lest I should touch God.’ ”3 Was the Psalmist of old conscious of such a thought when he cried, “My soul, wait thou only upon God” (Psalm 62:5)?
[Edward M. Bounds; Purpose in Prayer]
I believe that much of our failure in prayer is due to the fact that we have not looked into this question, “What is prayer?” It is good to be conscious that we are always in the presence of God. It is better to gaze upon Him in adoration. But it is best of all to commune with Him as a Friend—and that is prayer.
Real prayer at its highest and best reveals a soul athirst for God—just for God alone. Real prayer comes from the lips of those whose affection is set on things above. What a man of prayer Nicolaus Zinzendorf was. Why? He sought the Giver rather than His gifts. He said: “I have one passion: it is He, He alone.” Even the Muslim seems to have got hold of this thought. He says that there are three degrees in prayer. The lowest is that spoken only by the lips. The next is when, by a resolute effort, we succeed in fixing our thoughts on Divine things. The third is when the soul finds it hard to turn away from God. Of course, we know that God bids us “ask” of Him. We all obey Him so far; and we may rest well assured that prayer both pleases God and supplies all our need. But he would be a strange child who only sought his father’s presence when he desired some gift from him! And do we not all yearn to rise to a higher level of prayer than mere petition? How is it to be done?
It seems to me that only two steps are necessary—or shall we say two thoughts? There must be, first of all, a realization of God’s glory, and then of God’s grace. We sometimes sing:
“Grace and glory flow from Thee;
Shower, oh, shower them, Lord, on me!”*
Nor is such a desire fanciful, although some may ask what God’s glory has to do with prayer. But ought we not to remind ourselves Who He is to Whom we pray? There is logic in the couplet:
“Thou art coming to a King,
Large petitions with thee bring.”*
Do you think that any one of us spends enough time in pondering over, yes, and marveling over, God’s exceeding great glory? And do you suppose that any one of us has grasped the full meaning of the word grace? Are not our prayers so often ineffective and powerless—and sometimes even prayerless—because we rush unthinkingly and unpreparedly into God’s presence, without realizing the majesty and glory of the God Whom we are approaching, and without reflecting upon the exceeding great riches of His glory in Christ Jesus, which we hope to draw upon? We must “think magnificently of God.”
May we then suggest that before we lay our petitions before God we first dwell in meditation upon His glory and then upon His grace—for He offers us both. We must lift up the soul to God. Let us place ourselves, as it were, in the presence of God and direct our prayer to the King of kings, and Lord of lords, “who only hath immortality, dwelling in light unapproachable… to whom be honour and power eternal.” (1 Timothy 6:16)RV Let us then give Him adoration and praise because of His exceeding great glory. Consecration is not enough. There must be adoration.
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts,” cry the seraphim; “the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3) “Glory to God in the highest,” cries “a multitude of the heavenly host.” (Luke 2:13-14) Yet some of us try to commune with God without stopping to “put off [our] shoes from off [our] feet.” (Exodus 3:5)
“Lips cry ‘God be merciful’
That ne’er said ‘God be praised.’ ”
“Oh, come, let us adore Him”!*
And we may approach His glory with boldness. Did not our Lord pray that His disciples might behold His glory (John 17:24)? Why? And why is “the whole earth… full of his glory”? The telescope reveals His infinite glory. The microscope reveals His uttermost glory. Even the unaided eye sees surpassing glory in landscape, sunshine, sea, and sky. What does it all mean? These things are but a partial revelation of God’s glory. It was not a desire for self-display that led our Lord to pray, “Father… glorify thy Son…. O Father, glorify thou me.” (John 17:1,3) Our dear Lord wants us to realize His infinite trustworthiness and unlimited power, so that we can approach Him in simple faith and trust.
In heralding the coming of Christ, the prophet declared that “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” (Isaiah 40:5) Now we must get a glimpse of that glory before we can pray aright. So our Lord said, “When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven [the realm of glory], Hallowed be thy name.” (Luke 11:2) There is nothing like a glimpse of glory to banish fear and doubt.
Before we offer up our petitions, may it not help us to offer up our adoration in the words of praise used by some of the saints of old? Some devout souls may not need such help. We are told that Francis of Assisi would frequently spend an hour or two in prayer on the top of Mount Alverno, while the only word which escaped his lips would be “God!” repeated at intervals. He began with adoration—and often stopped there!
But most of us need some help to realize the glory of the invisible God before we can adequately praise and adore Him. Old William Law said, “When you begin to pray, use such expressions of the attributes of God as will make you sensible of His greatness and power.”
This point is of such tremendous importance that we venture to remind our readers of helpful words. Some of us begin every day with a glance heavenwards while saying, “Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost.” The prayer, “O Lord God most holy, O Lord most mighty, O holy and merciful Savior!”4 is often enough to bring a solemn awe and a spirit of holy adoration upon the soul. The “Gloria in excelsis Deo” of the communion service is most uplifting:
[The Book of Common Prayer]
“Glory be to God on high,
And in earth peace…
We praise Thee, we bless Thee,
We worship Thee, we glorify Thee,
We give thanks to Thee for Thy great glory,
O Lord God, heavenly King,
God the Father Almighty.”5
[The Book of Common Prayer]
Which of us can from the heart utter praise like that and remain unmoved, unconscious of the very presence and wondrous majesty of the Lord God Almighty? A verse of a hymn may serve the same purpose:
“My God, how wonderful Thou art,
Thy majesty how bright,
How beautiful Thy mercy seat,
In depths of burning light!
“How wonderful, how beautiful
The sight of Thee must be,
Thine endless wisdom, boundless pow’r,
And awsome purity!”*
This carries us into the very heavenlies, as do also the words:
“Holy, holy, holy! Lord God Almighty!
All Thy works shall praise Thy name, in earth, and sky, and sea.”*
We need to cry out, and to cry often, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” (Luke 1:46-47) Can we catch the spirit of the Psalmist and sing, “Bless the Lord, O my soul: and all that is within me, bless his holy name” (Psalm 103:1)? “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art very great; thou art clothed with honour and majesty.” (Psalm 104:1) When shall we learn that “in his temple every thing saith, Glory” (Psalm 29:9)RV? Let us, too, cry, “Glory!”
Such worship of God, such adoration and praise and thanksgiving, not only put us into the spirit of prayer, but in some mysterious way they help God to work on our behalf. Do you remember those wonderful words, “Whoever offers the sacrifice of thanksgiving glorifies me, and prepares his way so that I will show God’s salvation to him.” (Psalm 50:23)WEB? Praise and thanksgiving not only open the gates of heaven for me to approach God, but also prepare a way for God to bless me. Paul cries, “Rejoice evermore,” before he says, “Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-17) So then our praise, as well as our prayers, is to be without ceasing.
At the raising of Lazarus, our Lord’s prayer had as its first utterance a note of thanksgiving. “Father, I thank thee that thou hast heard me.” (John 11:41) He said it for those around to hear. Yes, and for us to hear.
You may perhaps be wondering why it is that we should specially give thanks to God for His great glory when we kneel in prayer; why we should spend time in thinking of and gazing upon that glory. But is He not the “King of glory” (Psalm 24:10)? All He is and all He does is glory. His holiness is glorious (Exodus 15:11). His name is glorious (Deuteronomy 28:58). His work is glorious (Psalm 111:3). His power is glorious (Colossians 1:11). His voice is glorious (Isaiah 30:30).
“All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful,
The Lord God made them all”*—
for His glory. “For of him, and through him, and to him, are all things: to whom be glory for ever.” (Romans 11:36) And this is the God who bids us come to Him in prayer. “This God is our God,” (Psalm 48:14) and He has “gifts for men.” (Psalm 68:18) God says that everyone that is called by His name has been created for His glory (Isaiah 43:7). His Church is to be “a glorious church… holy and without blemish.” (Ehpesians 5:27) Have you ever fully realized that the Lord Jesus desires to share with us the glory we see in Him? This is His great gift to you and me, His redeemed ones. Believe me, the more we have of God’s glory, the less shall we seek His gifts. Not only in that day “When he shall come to be glorified in his saints” (2 Thessalonians 1:10) is there glory for us, but here and now, today. He wishes us to be partakers of His glory. Did not our Lord Himself say so? “The glory which thou gavest me I have given them,” (John 17:22) He declares. What is God’s command? “Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee.” Nay, more than this: “His glory shall be seen upon thee,” (Isaiah 60:1-2) says the inspired prophet.
God would have people say of us, as Peter said of the disciples of old, “The spirit of glory and of God resteth upon you.” (1 Peter 4:14) Would not that be an answer to the prayers of most of us? Could we ask for anything better? How can we get this glory? How are we to reflect it? Only as the result of prayer. It is when we pray that the Holy Spirit reveals the things of Christ to us (John 16:15). It was when Moses prayed, “I beseech thee, shew me thy glory,” (Exodus 33:18) that he not only saw somewhat of it, but shared something of that glory, and his own face shone with the light of it (Exodus 34:29). And when we, too, gaze upon “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ,” (2 Corinthians 4:6) we shall see not only a glimpse of that glory, but we shall gain something of it ourselves.
Now, that is prayer, and the highest result of prayer. Nor is there any other way of securing that glory, that God may be glorified in us (Isaiah 60:21).
Let us often meditate upon Christ’s glory: gaze upon it, and so reflect it and receive it. This is what happened to our Lord’s first disciples. They said in awed tones, “We beheld his glory” (John 1:14)! Yes, but what followed? A few plain, unlettered, obscure fishermen companied with Christ a little while, seeing His glory; and lo! they themselves caught something of that glory. And then others marveled and “took knowledge of them, that they had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13) And when we can declare with John, “Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ,” (1 John 1:3) people will say the same of us: “They have been with Jesus!”
As we lift up our soul in prayer to the living God, we gain the “beauty of holiness” (1 Chronicles 16:29) as surely as a flower becomes beautiful by living in the sunlight. Was not our Lord Himself transfigured when He prayed? And the very “fashion of [our] countenance” (Luke 9:29) will change, and we shall have our Mount of Transfiguration, when prayer has its rightful place in our lives. And men will see in our faces “the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.”6 Our value to God and to man is in exact proportion to the extent in which we reveal the glory of God to others.
[The Book of Common Prayer]
We have dwelt so much upon the glory of Him to Whom we pray, that we must not now speak of His grace.
What is prayer? It is a sign of spiritual life. I should as soon expect life in a dead man as spiritual life in a prayerless soul! Our spirituality and our fruitfulness are always in proportion to the reality of our prayers. If, then, we have at all wandered away from home in the matter of prayer, let us today resolve, “I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father—” (Luke 15:18)
At this point I laid down my pen, and on the page of the first paper I picked up were these words: “The secret of failure is that we see men rather than God. Romanism trembled when Martin Luther saw God. The ‘great awakening’ sprang into being when Jonathan Edwards saw God. The world became the parish of one man when John Wesley saw God. Multitudes were saved when Whitfield saw God. Thousands of orphans were fed when George Müller saw God. And He is ‘the same yesterday, and to day, and for ever.’ (Hebrews 13:8)”
Is it not time that we get a new vision of God—of God in all His glory? Who can say what will happen when the Church sees God? But let us not wait for others. Let us, each one for himself, with unveiled face and unsullied heart, get this vision of the glory of the Lord. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” (Matthew 5:8)
No missionary whom it has been my joy to meet ever impressed me quite as much as Wilbur Chapman. He wrote to a friend: “I have learned some great lessons concerning prayer. At one of our missions in England the audiences were exceedingly small. But I received a note saying that an American missionary… was going to pray God’s blessing down upon our work. He was known as ‘Praying Hyde.’ Almost instantly the tide turned. The hall became packed, and at my first invitation fifty men accepted Christ as their Savior. As we were leaving I said, ‘Mr. Hyde, I want you to pray for me.’ He came to my room, turned the key in the door, and dropped on his knees, and waited five minutes without a single syllable coming from his lips. I could hear my own heart thumping and his beating. I felt the hot tears running down my face. I knew I was with God. Then, with upturned face, down which the tears were streaming, he said ‘O God!’ Then for five minutes at least he was still again; and then, when he knew that he was talking with God… there came up from the depth of his heart such petitions for men as I had never heard before. I rose from my knees to know what real prayer was. We believe that prayer is mighty, and we believe it as we never did before.”
Chapman used to say, “It was a season of prayer with John Hyde that made me realize what real prayer was. I owe to him more than I owe to any man for showing me what a prayer-life is, and what a real consecrated life is…. Jesus Christ became a new Ideal to me, and I had a glimpse of His prayer-life; and I had a longing which has remained to this day to be a real praying man.” And God the Holy Spirit can so teach us.
“Oh, ye who sigh and languish
And mourn your lack of pow’r,
Heed ye this gentle whisper,
‘Could ye not watch one hour?’
For fruitfulness and blessing
There is no ‘royal road’;
The pow’r for holy service
Is intercourse with God!”7
[Lucy A. Bennett]