What is Prayer?
Many people think of prayer mainly as asking God for things. But it is much more than that. Prayer is central to being a Christian. It opens us up to God’s presence. Whether we recognise it or not, we all have a need for contact with God. As St Augustine said, “God has made us for himself and our hearts are restless until they rest in him.” The impulse to pray is part of that longing. When we pray, whether alone or with others, we deliberately turn our attention to God, the One who is with us always.
Prayer includes expressing our needs to God and listening for God’s voice. That means we sometimes have just to be silent in God’s presence. The impulse to pray comes from God, so prayer is not only what we do but what God does in us. St Paul wrote, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Rom.8:26).
In prayer we can be totally open with God. We can’t hide anything from God, so we come as we are. We confess our needs and failings, make requests for ourselves and others, give thanks for our joys, and talk with God both as our Creator and as our friend. Just as friends don’t need to talk with each other all the time but can enjoy silent companionship, so we can sometimes rest in God’s presence without saying anything. Good friends can be completely open with each other. The Bible, especially in the Psalms, contains prayers of complaint to God. “Why, O LORD, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Psalm 10:1). Christ even used the psalmist’s prayer of complaint in his agony on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1; Mark 15:34).
Why do we pray?
We follow the example of Jesus, who needed to pray. His disciples, seeing him in prayer, asked him to teach them to pray. We pray because “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba! Father!’” (Gal. 4: 6). To pray, then, is to open ourselves to the Spirit of Jesus, be attentive to him, and so grow in spiritual maturity. In prayer we follow the example of the first Christians who “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). Our hope is that, if we are faithful in prayer, we will find our thoughts and desires gradually becoming more closely aligned with God’s loving purpose as seen in the life of Jesus.
In short, we pray in order to grow into that fullness of humanity which Jesus shows us: to come “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.” (Eph. 4: 13)
How do we pray?
There are as many ways to pray as there are people. Prayer involves the whole person, body, mind and spirit.
Setting aside time for prayer is basic, and many people find it helpful to pray at the same time each day. A traditional guideline for prayer is the acronym ACTS:
Adoration – We turn in wonder to God, our Creator and Redeemer, the loving power at the root of our lives;
Confession – we become aware of our own failures, and the damage or hurt we may have caused and seek forgiveness.;
Thanksgiving – we give thanks for all God’s gifts;
Supplication – we ask God to supply what we and those we pray for most need.
Many of us concentrate on supplication, whether we ask God for a deeper sense of his presence, for inspiration, guidance and courage, or for more tangible “things” – a job, a home, a healing, a windfall. But prayer is more than asking God for favours. The ultimate prayer is “Thy will be done,” offering ourselves as instruments of God’s will.
We may pray either in the words of set prayers, especially the Lord’s Prayer, or by simply talking to God of our concerns, asking for help and awaiting the response. We may also approach God through the silent attention of meditation, alone or with a group; or occasionally in the desperate plea of “Help me God!” Some people prefer to pray alone, maybe with a passage of scripture; some find prayer with others more helpful. We all need both. There are resources available to help us in prayer such as books, websites, prayer groups, experienced people we respect, and so on.
What happens when we pray?
Prayer is not an attempt to change God’s will but to align our wills with his.
Sometimes our prayer can seem rather like battering down the gates of heaven, badgering God to change things to suit us. This may actually happen (see Genesis 18:22– 33, Luke 18:1–5), but we also need to be ready for God’s answer to disappoint or surprise us.
Whatever the outcome of our prayers, a change may take place within us. By taking time to pray, we invite God to enter more deeply both into our lives and into the situations for which we pray. Prayer changes the way we relate to God and to other people; it also changes the way we regard ourselves. It offers us a new perspective and a new sensitivity, even when we do not receive the answer we wanted.
The usual ending, at least of prayer in church, is “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” By offering our prayers through Jesus Christ, we are allowing him the last word. And that changes everything.
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