One of my favorite Biblical examinations of Christian prayer that I’ve read I’ve re-printed below. It comes from Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology and gives us a detailed understanding of prayer:
“An examination of the Old and New Testaments and of the early Church Fathers reveals certain “minimal” beliefs or assumptions that underlie the practice of Christian praying. This is not to deny that there was a development in the conception of prayer, though this development is more pronounced in the Old Testament than it is in the New Testament and early church. The consistency in the latter case is seen in the close correspondence between Jesus’ prayer life and the prayer life of the New Testament church. This consistency extended into the patristic period, for the early Father’s understanding of prayer was thoroughly shaped and limited by the Lord’s Prayer, particularly through mutually influencing exegetical literature on it, devotional and liturgical use of it, and the catechetical tradition that employed it.
Though prayer also includes adoration (e.g., Pss. 144-150 Luke 1:46-55 ), confession (e.g., Psalm 51 ; Luke 18:13 ), and thanksgiving (e.g., Psalm 75 ; 1 Thess 1:2 ), Christian prayer has always been essentially petitionary. Indeed, the simple and almost naive petitioning that marks New Testament prayer is reflected in all its humanness in the psalms — the liturgical inheritance of the early Christians as well as in the rest of the early church’s Scriptures. Petitions are made for rain and fire, relief from famine and plague, resurrections from the dead, and so forth (e.g., see 1 Kings 8:35-40 ; 17:20-22 ; 18:26-39 ). In fact, most Hebrew terms used in the Old Testament for prayer refer in some sense to petition; prayer in the Old Testament more frequently expressed supplication than anything else.
Christian prayer, then, shared a simple belief that God could be petitioned to intervene and effect changes in nature and in the course of world events. The immediate source of this confidence came from the teachings and examples of Jesus himself, such as the model prayer he offered ( Matt 6:9-13 ; Luke 11:2-4 ) and his assurance that one had only to ask the Father in order to receive what was needed ( Matt 7:7 ; Luke 11:9 ). We can readily document that Jesus’ instructions were taken to heart by his early followers: there were prayers for the selection of leaders, for deliverances from prisons, for the spread of the gospel, for healings, and so on (e.g., see Acts 1:24 ; 12:5 ; 13:3 ). Indeed, Paul’s teaching in Philippians 4:6 echoes Jesus’ own. Thus, prayer was unquestioningly believed to be an effective cause of God’s actions such that a difference resulted in human events.
Such petitions were, in part, motivated by the need of the moment. In fact, a notable characteristic of New Testament prayer (and its predecessor) was its spontaneity. Prayer was to be placed in the midst of everyday life, not just reserved for liturgical contexts. Accordingly, petitions were to cover the entire gamut of one’s life, including material and spiritual needs, though by the time we reach the New Testament period the former has been subordinated to the latter, as the pattern of the Lord’s Prayer suggested. The pray-er should feel free to make requests of God, which, according to biblical material is equivalent to letting God know the desires of one’s heart (see Job 6:8 ; Psalm 21:2 ; Php 4:6 ).
At this point we must guard against equating Christian belief in the efficacy of prayer and magic. Magic attempts to control or manipulate the divine will in order to induce it to grant one’s wishes, especially through the use of techniques such as charms, spells, rituals, or ceremonies. Christian prayer involves a struggle of wills in which the pray-er attempts to persuade God, all the time seeing prayer as a divinely given means whereby the pray-er can participate in God’s agenda.
One’s understanding of prayer varies in accordance with one’s conception of the two parties involved namely, the divine and the human and their relation to each other. We turn then to the biblical conception of the first party God. The view of prayer found in the Old Testament, the soil for that in the New Testament, was founded on the Hebraic conception of God as both immanent and transcendent.
The prayers of Israel reveal their fundamental belief that they were talking to a God who, though mysterious, was immediately and actively present.
This immanent God of Israel was addressed as “you who hear prayer” ( Psalm 65:2 ). That is to say, from the beginning of the Old Testament traditions, God and humans engaged in dialogue in conversation made possible by the ascription of personhood to God. Thus, Elohim was a God who listened and answered ( Gen 21:16-18 ; 22:11-12 ). The Divine shares his intentions ( Gen 18:17 ; Exod 3 ). The human questions ( Genesis 15:2 Genesis 15:8 ), requests guidance ( Exod 5:22-23 ; 32:11-13 ), complains ( Num 11:1-15 ), reasons ( Gen 18:23 ), and bargains ( Gen 28:20-22 ). This personal relationship established in prayer recurs in almost every book of the Old Testament (especially in Jeremiah). This understanding of prayer as personal confrontation with a responsive objective referent continues into the New Testament and makes Christian prayer distinctive from merely reverencing an impersonal sacred object that can never be prayed to, petitioned, or thanked. Personhood includes mutuality, rapprochement, and reciprocity addressing and being addressed. Christian prayer is possible only if it is an event between two persons in an essential reciprocal relationship. This sense of reciprocity, which is found in the Judeo-Christian concept but is lost in a monistic understanding of prayer, allows us to speak of prayer as talking to God.
The essence of Judeo-Christian prayer conceives of this fellowship between God and humans as a communion reflecting the forms of the social relations of humanity (friendship, master-servant, groom-bride, father-child). (One implication is that anyone capable of conventional interhuman discourse is capable of praying.) It is the last relationship that is most important as we move from the Old Testament’s conception of God to the New Testament’s. In fact, it has been suggested that the outstanding idea of Christ’s teaching was the fatherhood of God.
The notion of God as father is not absent from the Old Testament, though it appears only fifteen times. Still, nothing in all the extant literature of ancient Palestinian Judaism indicates that “my Father” was used as a personal address to God. The community did pray to God as Father, and the individual occasionally spoke of God as his heavenly Father; but this was rare before the diaspora, and other titles for God were far more frequent in Jewish prayers. Instead, “my Father” is characteristic of the ipsissima vox Jesu. (Jesus always addresses God in prayer as “Father” except for the “cry of dereliction” on the cross.) With the word “abba” Jesus introduced a new way of praying talking to God as naturally, intimately, and sincerely as a child talks to his or her father. “Abba” reveals the heart of Jesus’ relationship with God, marking his complete obedient surrender to the Father ( Mark 14:36 ) and his authority as the one to whom God reveals his thoughts ( Matt 11:27 ). The early church used this same address and thereby appropriated the central element of Jesus’ understanding of God (see Rom 8:15 ; Gal 4:6 ). Indeed, by giving the disciples the paradigm prayer with the address “Our Father, ” Jesus invited his followers to share in the same relationship with God he had, for it was customary in the Judaism of that time for individual religious groups to be united and characterized by a particular prayer (hence the disciples’ request in Luke 11:1 ).
The Christian tradition also conceives of God as susceptible to human influence by means of prayer. The conception of a real influence of humans on God lies at the root of the prophetic belief that God hears or answers prayer. God can let himself be determined by the pray-er and grant what is asked for or, because God is Person, he can refuse the petitioner and deny the request. (The very notion of “petition” or “request” implies this.) Certainly this is true of the Old Testament. For example, one thinks of Abraham’s intercession for Sodom ( Gen 18:22-23 ), Moses’ intercession for his people ( Num 14:12-20 ), or Israel’s desire to have a king against God’s wishes ( 1 Sam 8:19-22 ). But while this belief is presupposed by those who pray and teach about prayer in the Gospels and the New Testament church, in two prominent cases God’s will is precisely not changed by human petitioning: in Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer and in Paul’s thrice-prayed request to have his “thorn in the flesh” removed. (Again, though, even in these cases pray-ers must have presupposed that God’s will could be influenced in order to pray such prayers.) In fact, the New Testament emphasis seems not to be on changing God’s will through prayer, but on changing the human’s will. Nonetheless, in Christian prayer the human response to the Word of God has an effect on God. These words constitute part of the history between God and humans, and thus become part of God’s history as well.
While the immanence of God formed much of the basis for prayer in the Judeo-Christian tradition, God’s transcendence is important as well. We have already implied it by noting that God maintains the prerogative of denying the pray-er’s request. God’s hand cannot be forced. In fact, even the intimacy of the “abba” in the Lord’s Prayer is mitigated by the following phrase, “who are in heaven, ” to insure that petitioners remember that they and the addressee are not on a par with each other. God is the Supreme Being or reality, both omnipresent and omnipotent. He can perform what is asked, but he stands over against the pray-er and, as such, he is sovereign over the petitioner, in providential control of the universe, and the source and bestower of all that we receive.
If God is the sovereign Lord of the universe from whom we should seek and receive the provision of spiritual and physical necessities, then we are reminded of our utter creaturely dependence on God. The divine-human relationship is understood to have its origin and the determination of its character entirely from the divine side, so that prayer is but a trusting response in a relationship that has been initiated by God. Prayer’s form, content, and efficacy belong to the divine economy of human salvation.
Christian prayer has traditionally also expressed the human’s freedom to play its essential role in prayer. Prayer in the Old Testament often pictures the pray-er as an active cooperator. Such prayer is a dynamic dialogue that expresses the history Immanuel wills to have with humans. Prayer thus becomes one of the ways in which the creature cooperates with God in order to bring about God’s plan. This is evident in God’s history of salvation when many significant events include the prayers of mediators such as Abraham, Moses, Samuel, David, and others. In fact, it sometimes even seems in the Old Testament that God so desires obedience and cooperation that he is unwilling to carry out his purposes until men and women have recognized the divine summons and answered it (e.g., see Exod 4:10-17 ).
This Old Testament emphasis is not as clearly set forth in the New Testament, which may account, for example, for some disagreements about the intention of the first three petitions in the Lord’s Prayer whether they are a call for God to act alone (Lohmeyer, for example) or a call to God for help (Augustine, Luther). If the latter is the case (as the majority think), then why ask God to do for us what should be our duty? It is certainly not to escape our responsibility for action, but to enter into this human-divine partnership in which we offer ourselves at God’s disposal, expecting and seeking him to be at work to make our efforts effective. This raises two important Judeo-Christian themes regarding prayer.
First, while prayer is a kind of work, the corollary is not necessarily (nor even usually) true. We must guard against the reductionistic motto “To work is to pray.” It should be obvious that work cannot be a substitute for prayer, for no matter how faithful one has been in planning and toil, the harvest ultimately depends on factors outside of human control. The reduction of work to prayer may even be a manifestation of the human proclivity toward self-justification.
Second, both Testaments insist that while prayer and service are not to be equated with each other, they are also not to be separated from each other. With this insistence goes the belief that only the prayer of the righteous is efficacious ( Prov 15:29 ). This set of convictions is particularly a prophetic emphasis in the Old Testament, beginning as early as Samuel’s intercession for Saul, which leads to the conclusion that prayer must result in obedience ( 1 Samuel 7:12 1 Samuel 7:15 ; 15:22-23 ). It was especially the eighth-century prophets who emphasized the necessity for moral goodness of the one who prayed. Prayer was not to be substituted for righteousness. Jahweh wanted more than mere ritual and ceremony, notwithstanding Israel’s elected status. There can only be true prayer if one is simultaneously actively seeking good; insincere prayer cannot be a substitute for justice and responsible action.
These twin virtues of service and prayer were also inseparably linked in the New Testament. Prayer in the early church is depicted as producing encouragement ( Acts 18:9-10 ; 23:11 ), guidance ( Acts 8:26-40 ; 10-11; 13:1-3 ), and power ( Acts 16:25-26 ) in one’s work. And again, effective prayer in such cases is not to be disassociated from righteousness (e.g., see James 5:15-16 ).
The Basis of Prayer
The true basis of prayer in the Judeo-Christian tradition is the recollection of God’s acts in history. Such remembrances establish the ground on which a request can be made and guide the petitioner to make appropriate requests. This is especially seen in Deuteronomy where appropriate prayer is prompted by the recollection of God’s mighty deeds ( Deuteronomy 4:9 Deuteronomy 4:32-39 ; 9:25-29 ; 32:1-43 ). The memory of God’s lovingkindness often becomes the preamble and ground for the petition ( Gen 32:10-13 ; 1 Kings 3:3-14 ). In fact, failure to recall God’s past Acts might prevent a favorable response to prayer ( Jer 2:5-13 ). Thus, prayer in the Old Testament must be discussed in the light of God’s covenantal relationship with Israel. This is quite noticeable in the psalms, which recapitulate the great events of salvation history. The grounding of prayer in the recollection of God’s nature and deeds contains the seeds of New Testament liturgical practice and teaching (e.g., see 2 Kings 19:14-19 ; Matt 6:5-8 ).
If prayer is based on God’s Acts, then prayer is ultimately a response to the prior activity of God. In Christianprayer, the primary divine act is God’s new revelation in Jesus Christ, in whom all the promises of God find their “yes.” Christian prayer is, thus, a sequel in a relationship that begins before the idea of praying even occurs to us. One is summoned to continue the dialogue by the God who offers the gift of prayer, who guarantees its reality, and who calls on men and women to pray through the instrumentality of human speech. Thus, Christian prayer is not conceived of as the natural human’s own achievement. Though our own endeavors are not precluded, ultimately the believer is impelled to pray by the indwelling God at work in the deepest places of his or her soul. In the New Testament, this understanding of prayer as God’s work focuses on the roles of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
First, Christian prayer is to be prayed “in the name of Christ” ( John 14:13-14 ; 16:23-28 ). This is not some magical formula. It signifies that the suppliant takes the posture and attitude of Christ toward God and toward the world. To pray “in his name” is therefore to pray in a manner consistent with our new identity effected by the reconciliation of God and humans in Jesus Christ. That is to say, the use of Jesus’ name in prayer is effective not as some sort of password that can be used indiscriminately by every petitioner. It is only effective to pray “in Jesus’ name” if we are truly living in the name of Jesus. This phrase, then, has more to do with the identification of the person who prays than it does with right methods or conditions of prayer (e.g., see Acts 19:13-16 ). Such prayer guards against a misreading of God’s nature and will, and saves prayer from human selfishness and presumption.
Prayer “in Christ’s name” is usually associated with prayer that is in keeping with God’s will. Indeed, the patristic exegesis of the third petition of the Lord’s Prayer insisted that God’s will is expressed by the divine economy in Christ. In the third petition we ask not only for God’s will to be done; we pray that it may be done among and through us that we may become obedient participants in its accomplishments. By so praying, we also guard against the self-centered request for personal gain, away from which biblical prayer seems to move, at least in the New Testament.
Second, Christian prayer is mediated by Christ, a theme that is particularly found in John’s Gospel and the letter to the Hebrews. This role of Christ began with his ascension to the Father and is made possible, in part, by his experiences whereby he empathizes with our condition ( Heb 4:14-16 ). The role of mediator in prayer was prevalent in the Old Testament (as in Abraham, Moses, David, Samuel, Amos, Solomon, Hezekiah, Elijah, Elisha, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Israel). But Christ is pictured in the New Testament as the ultimate intercessor, and, because of this, all Christian prayer becomes intercession since it is presented through and by Christ to God. In fact, Calvin insisted that without Christ’s intercession we are cut off from the benefits of prayer, for the only hope that our prayers are heard lies in the fact that Christ causes them to be heard in his mediatorial role.
Third, Christian prayer is prompted and guided by the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament the Spirit is that which makes possible even the address of God as “abba” ( Rom 8:15-16 ; Gal 4:6 ). The precise meaning of the Spirit’s role in Romans 8:26-27 is variously interpreted, though it is usually associated with the regulation and purification of our requests as the interpreter of the mind of God. Thus, the Holy Spirit is the arbiter, director, and interpreter of all our wishes. Accordingly, God may answer our petitions in his own way (see 2 Cor 12:7-9 ).
Wrestling in Prayer
We have established that prayer is a dialogue between two distinct partners. In fact, prayer in the Judeo-Christian tradition is often a struggle between two wills between two covenant partners. And though the two partners are not equal, the human agent is not precluded from the complaining, questioning, and passionate vehemence that characterize true dialogues.
The psalms offer some of the best examples of this. We must not overlook or censor the humanness of the psalmist just so that our modern “piety” will not be disturbed.
The prototype of this wrestling or conflict with God is the story of Jacob in Genesis 32:22-32. Jacob engages God with a perseverance that refuses to let go until Jacob’s desire is met. In this case, the struggle results in a character change and marks the petitioner for life. Other outstanding Old Testament examples of contention with God in prayer include the prophets Jeremiah (see Jer 12:1 ) and Habakkuk (see Hab 1:2-4 ). In these cases, the arguments result in assurances that all is in God’s control and a deepened understanding of God’s purposes; however, while Habakkuk finally takes delight in God’s providence, Jeremiah never seems to be sure whether he should delight in or despair over such divine government (compare Hab 3:17-19 ; with Jer 20:7-18 ). Somewhat paralleling these prophets, especially with regard to the subsequent submission of the suppliant, the exemplary New Testament models of the engagement of two wills in prayer are Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer ( Matt 26:36-46, ; par.) and Paul’s “thorn-in-the-flesh” prayer ( 2 Cor 12:7-10 ).
The New Testament passages that are more difficult to explain include those that seem to teach importunity in prayer (e.g., Luke 11:5-13 ; 18:1-8 ). Some argue that these parables teach perseverance in a request until either our wills or the circumstances of our lives are altered. Others argue that the original design of these stories may not have been to teach importunity. In Luke 11 and 18, for instance, Jesus is telling his hearers that if humans are like this, how much more readily will God respond to petitions. In Luke 11, then, Jesus was concerned to teach that the needy may always resort to God without hesitation. Luke added his application in verse 8 (“I tell you “). In Luke 18 the parable is placed in an eschatological setting regarding the vindication of sufferers, and verse 1 does not specify persistence with respect to the same request. Even if this latter interpretation is correct regarding the original intention of these parables, one must still deal with the way they were understood and applied by the early church. And we are still left with the examples of persistent storming of heaven in the Old Testament examples in which the petitioners sometimes get their way (e.g., refer to Israel’s request for a king in 1 Sam. 8).
In the Bible there seem to be what C. S. Lewis calls two “patterns” of petitionary prayer. On the one hand, there is the wrestling that strives with God to change God’s will and/or the circumstances. On the other hand, there is the resignation to God’s will and to the circumstances.
If God is to be thought of in the Judeo-Christian tradition as a personal being with whom one wrestles in prayer, it is not surprising to find that within this tradition God is sometimes conceived of as not“hearing” or “answering” prayer. In fact, if petitionary prayer is request, it follows that it may or may not be granted, since that is the nature of requests over against compulsion. Just as God cannot be bound by human wishes nor induced to carry out the petitioner’s will just because the prayer is long or eloquent or the pray-er is pious, so there are no automatic guarantees that God will hear our prayers.
There is certainly an expressed confidence that God will answer prayer ( Psalm 3:4 ; 6:9 ; 17:6 ; 138:3 ; Matt 7:7-11 ). But God sometimes seems far off or silent (see Psalm 10:1 ; 13:1-2 ; 77:5-9 ; 89:46 ). In fact, there are times when God does not answer or hear prayer. There is no formal treatment of this phenomenon in the Bible, though recurrent episodes suggest reasons why God does not hear some prayers. Such reasons include broken taboos ( 1 Sam 14:36-42 ), divine displeasure with a people’s behavior ( Deut 3:23-27 ), sins of various sorts ( Psalm 66:18 ; Isa 1:15 ; 59:1-3 ), selfish ends ( James 4:3 ), and so forth. At times, the silence of God is simply inexplicable (as in Job).
But to be fair to the Judeo-Christian tradition more needs to be said. First, it is assumed that prayers that will be answered in due time (that is, in God’s time) are prayers prayed in accord with God’s will, particularly as that is expressed in Christ. This is especially the New Testament answer to the “problem of unanswered prayer.” Thus, such silences are only temporary; for example, the silence of God experienced and expressed by the psalmist is not typically isolated in the biblical accounts but is set in the context of God’s answering (e.g., see Psalm 22 and 28 ). Second, prayers that are answered in a way that we do not expect give us the appearance of God’s silence only because we do not hear the response we want to hear; such “unanswered” prayer may really uncover a moral problem on the petitioner’s part. Third, in refusing the specific answer requested, God may truly be hearing and answering our prayers if our intention is to seek God’s will, because God sometimes wrathfully gives exactly what the wicked seek to their own damnation (see Rom 1 ).
A caution is in order here. The suggestion is often made that prayer is “unanswered” because one does not pray “in Christ’s name” nor “according to God’s will.” Not only does such a way out of the problem raise some interesting questions regarding Jesus’ Gethsemane prayer, but it ignores the times when one seems to pray in Christ’s name or according to God’s will and does not receive an answer. Any solution must being with the reminder that answers to prayer are grounded in God’s graciousness and faithfulness to his promises, not in the petitioner’s rights.”
Dennis L. Okholm
Bibliography. K. Barth, The Christian Life; D. G. Bloesch, The Struggle of Prayer; G. A. Buttrick, Prayer; J. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion; A. Cunningham, Prayer: Personal and Liturgical; G. Ebeling, On Prayer: Nine Sermons; J. Ellul, Prayer and Modern Man; F. L. Fischer, Prayer in the New Testament; R. J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home; M. Greenberg, Biblical Prose Prayer: A Window to the Popular Religion of Ancient Israel; F. Heiler, Prayer: A Study in the History and Psychology of Religion; H. T. Hughes, Prophetic Prayer: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Prayer to the Reformation; J. Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus; P. LeFevre, Understandings of Prayer; C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer; R. L. Simpson, The Interpretation of Prayer in the Early Church; Tertullian’s Tract on the Prayer; H. Thielicke, Our Heavenly Father: Sermons on the Lord’s Prayer; E. D. Willis, Daring Prayer.
Dr. Conners graduated with his doctorate from Northwestern Health Sciences University in 1986 and has been studying alternative cancer care for over 20 years. He holds AMA Fellowships in Regenerative & Functional Medicine and Integrative Cancer Therapy.
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