What is prayer?

Dutch Reformed Church, Somerset East

Image by Kleinz1 via Flickr

Crystal Rodli asked the title question on her blog recently.  

Let’s be clear from the outset.  I do not presume here to add one iota to the vast body of literature on prayer, but simply to put into words something of my very limited understanding.

Prayer is, I believe primarily about relationship.  It is conversation with one who loves us enough to share deeply with us; one who cares enough to listen intensely to our ramblings, our love songs, our breathing, and our ranting.  I don’t think any of this is in dispute.

What tends to be under the spotlight is prayer as intercession.   That is what we have difficulty with.  The Witness this week reported on a local Dutch Reformed Church minister who stated that “Praying in terms of requests to God doesn’t work.”  God doesn’t interfere in his creation so there is no point in praying for the weather or for protection on the roads.  He says that, “If you go on the road you have to be alert.  That is why you must pray that the Lord will make you more careful.”

Sounds good, but it fails to acknowledge God’s deep love for his people, foolish and simplistic as that may sound.   I agree with the good Dominee in that intercession is not a simplistic shopping list for God to ‘sort out’ while I get on with my life.  But there is a mystery about intercession that is beyond our understanding—God does interfere in his creation.  It is also beyond any manipulation.  When we try to fit prayer into our logic patterns and make sense of it, we can’t, and we tend to reject it as this minister has done.

David, of course has much to teach us about prayer, largely through the Psalms.  It is there that we learn to rant, if we need to.  But rant to God, not to those around us (even our enemies).  God can handle it and we can learn from it.  Our enemies can’t and we will learn nothing in the process.  But I was thinking about another prayer of David’s.  David’s plunge into disgrace through his infatuation with Bathsheba is well known.  After the murder of Bathsheba’s husband and David’s marriage to her, David was told by Nathan the Prophet that the child of the union would die.  When the child became gravely ill David refused to eat or to sleep.  He wrestled with God, pleading for the child’s life (2 Samuel 12:15-23).

When the child died David’s staff were fearful to tell him but, to their surprise, when they did break the news, David got up, bathed, dressed and ate.  “Yes,” David answered, “I did fast and weep while he was still alive.  I thought the Lord might be merciful to me and not let the child die.  But now that he is dead, why should I fast?  Could I bring the child back to life?”  David’s prayer was an intense grappling with God but, in the end, he found peace. 

Abraham challenged God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 18:16-33).  He begged forgiveness for presuming to change God’s mind about the matter, but he continued anyway.  And indeed God changed his mind: “I will not destroy the cities if there are ten righteous people there.”

These two stories by no means tell us all there is to know about prayer but in both of these we find intense engagement with God.  I’m not suggesting that my prayers come even close, but this is what intercession could be.  Engaging with God; not letting go “until you bless me” (Genesis 32:22-32).

I don’t know how, or why, or what the mechanics are, or the logic.  It is, I believe, the deepest mystery about prayer, that God welcomes and invites our participation in creation and in salvation, not only through our actions but also through our prayers.  And sometimes, because we pray, God acts.  I would go so far as to say that, in some mysterious way well beyond understanding (and certainly beyond our manipulation), because of our prayers sometimes God is able to act.  Our prayers in some mysterious way, open doors for the Spirit to do his work.

After the flood (“Never again”), beginning with Abraham, God entered into a covenant relationship with his creation.  He said to Abraham, in effect, “From now on, I will not intervene in creation without your participation, and you will not find your purpose and fulfilment outside of a relationship with me.”  Our prayer relationship with God is part of that participation.  Not intercession alone, of course but intercession is an important part of it.

Some pray for parking bays (some pray for their sports teams).  Trivial?  Yes, of course.  Serious  intercession?  Of course not.  But don’t trash such prayers too quickly.  There are those for whom these are the only expressions of prayer they engage in.  Perhaps, just perhaps, God will open their eyes to greater things because of this small chink in their armour.

There are others whose relationship with God is so close and so dear that they share everything with God, including their drive to the shops and their search for a parking bay.  They don’t for a moment think that God has deserted them if the bays are all taken.  Well, OK, there are some who do need help here.  But for the rest, full bays will just be something else to engage their Friend and their Lord about.  Because, for them, prayer is an ongoing conversation.


Filed under Meditation & Prayer

13 responses to “What is prayer?

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  5. Crystal Rodli

    Very good stuff, my friend.

    “I would go so far as to say that, in some mysterious way well beyond understanding (and certainly beyond our manipulation), because of our prayers sometimes God is able to act.”

    I love that line. I’m not sure I think it is so mysterious, though. It makes quite a bit of sense that God would choose to (in this sense) respect the human will, since he designed us with one. He is sovereign (reserving the right and ability to respond in whichever manner is in accordance with his wisdom), but he does choose to respond to the expression of human will through prayer.

    In other words…actual relationship. 🙂


    • Absolutely true, Crystal. The mystery is not that God wants to. It is as you say entirely in line with his desire to relate (WHY he loves us is a mystery of his grace, of course).
      The mystery is why is God able to work in this case and not in that case? The ancient question of why some suffer more than others; why some prayers “work” as we want them to and not others. There are many suggestions out there; I’m not convinced we have any answers. For me, it’s a mystery that I am content to leave with God–and keep on praying.
      Thanks for the idea.


  6. “But rant to God, not to those around us (even our enemies). God can handle it and we can learn from it. Our enemies can’t and we will learn nothing in the process.”

    This is such a great way to say it. I never thought about the fact that we won’t learn anything in the process of ranting at our enemies. That the more powerful option is to just take it to Him. (I always just figured taking it to Him was just diffusing the situation.)

    I, too, see prayer as an ongoing relationship factor with Him, and I find it sad for the minister that you mentioned, because he doesn’t realize how much he is missing out on, and how much burden he is putting on himself.

    I don’t know, maybe telling Him everything comes a little easier to me because I was the baby of the family in my house, and I needed help with everything!

    Thanks for the great post!


  7. Lyndt? Dream on my friend. You may and I stress may get a single polo mint


  8. Pingback: World Spinner

  9. Thanks Ray. I appreciate having you looking over my shoulder and your encouraging words.
    That’s great if it’s useful. Just send the royalties. Cadbury’s will do; Lindt if you must! 🙂


  10. Fantastic well balanced article. Just what I needed this morning. I will be making and distributing copies to a few people. Thank you.


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