What is prayer? It’s been said that “definitions must always be the starting point for…two people entering into meaningful discussion.” We know that prayer is necessary; we know it doesn’t come naturally to us. Like the disciples, we need to be taught how to pray. But it does us no good to talk about prayer and how it shapes the church if we can’t first agree on what prayer is.
You may be saying, “This seems like a waste of time. Everybody knows what prayer is. You don’t even have to be Christian to know what prayer is.” Not so fast. Sometimes the most common words are the hardest to define.
How often have you used the word so? No one ever stops you midsentence to ask you to clarify your use of so. It seems like a word that doesn’t need to be defined. But go ahead, define it (without a dictionary or Google).
You see what I mean? It’s a word that’s easier to use than to define. Sometimes, the most common words cause the most confusion, and prayer isn’t exempt.
LAYING A FOUNDATION: WHAT IS PRAYER?
Definitions for prayer abound. Here are a few:
What is prayer? Prayer is talking to God. Just talk to God like you would talk to your best friend. You don’t need to learn to talk to God. Just do it.
What is prayer? Prayer is demanding something from God. Prayer is our decreeing and demanding that God would do what we want him to do. It’s wrestling with him until he gives us what we want. God plays hard to get in order to see just how much we want what we pray for. We have to demand what we want from him. We need to name it and claim it.
What is prayer? Prayer is aligning our will with God’s. Prayer isn’t about getting anything from God or causing him to act. He knows what you need and has already determined if he’s going to give it to you. Prayer is really all about aligning your will to his. Prayer is more for you than it is for God.
What is prayer? Prayer is wishful thinking aimed in God’s direction. Prayer is nothing more than well wishes when you hear about a tragedy, or wishful thinking when you hear someone is hopeful about an outcome.
Prayer is some combination of all of these things.
Who’s right? We can’t just settle for any definition. We need the right one. Why? Because misinterpretation leads to misapplication.
Did you ever hear the story about the guy who got his mom an expensive parrot for Mother’s Day? He paid $10,000 for a parrot that could speak 40 languages and sing a few hymns. He sent the bird to his mom and didn’t hear back for a few days. Nervous that she didn’t like the bird, he called his mom and asked her, “How’d you like the bird?” to which she replied, “It was great!” Filled with pride, the son asked, “What was your favorite part?” She answered, “The thighs. They were delicious.” Wrong interpretation, wrong application.
WHAT PRAYER IS NOT
Time won’t allow us to address each of the definitions, but let’s talk briefly about a few common ways people think about prayer.
Exodus 33:11 tells us that Moses talked with God face-to-face as a man talks to a friend. I think it’s possible to build a faulty theology of prayer based on a misapplication of this verse. While part of prayer is talking to God as you would a friend, this definition by itself is an oversimplification.
Jesus was God in the flesh. So every time the disciples had a conversation with Jesus, they were talking to God just as they would talk to anyone else. If prayer meant merely talking to God, and Jesus was God, then shouldn’t we see every conversation someone had with Jesus as prayer? I don’t think Jesus saw it that way.
When Philip asks Jesus to show them the Father, Jesus replies, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Jesus seems to say, “Look no further. If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen God” (see Heb. 1:3). When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, however, he doesn’t respond in the same way. He doesn’t say, “Well, if you’ve talked to me, you’ve talked to the Father.” Instead, he gives them instructions. He gives them a template on how to address someone other than the person standing right in front of them: “Our Father” (Matt. 6:9–15; see also Luke 11:1–4).
While prayer is more than casual conversation with our Creator, it’s far from twisting God’s arm to get what we want. God is all-powerful. We can’t twist his arm. He’s too strong. We can’t barter with him any more than my infant daughter can barter with me—she doesn’t own anything I need or want. We can’t demand anything from God because it’s impossible for someone without needs to be coerced.
See what I mean by the difficulty of understanding what prayer is? It’s not as cut-and-dried as the definitions we may have grown up with and taken for granted.
WHAT IS PRAYER? GOD’S PRESCRIPTION FOR LIFE IN A FALLEN WORLD
Think of prayer as God’s prescription for life in a fallen world. This prescription works like any other. Imagine being prescribed a medication for an ailment that’s been bothering you. You may leave the doctor’s office with nothing but a sheet of paper, but something changes. What causes you to smile even when your present sickness is severe and your circumstances haven’t changed? One word: hope. A prescription isn’t the medication itself. It merely connects you to the medicine. Your illness may still be bothering you, but the prescription reminds you that your sickness is temporary because you’ve found a solution.
Like a prescription, prayer eases our concerns before repairing our circumstances. Take Psalm 13. We’re unsure of the exact circumstance that led David to pen this psalm, but everyone who reads it has had similar experiences.
Psalm 13 begins with David’s depression: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (v. 1). But by the end, David is celebrating deliverance: “I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me” (v. 6). The psalm is only six verses long. How did David go from depression to deliverance that quickly? Not by his circumstances changing, but by taking his concerns to God, asking him to do what he said he would do, and being confident that he would do it.
David learns that prayer is more about “Will you? Won’t you?” than it is about “When will you?” Though he starts out concerned with the timing of God, he resolves by the end of the psalm to rejoice in the God who loves him and will deliver him. God’s character and promises preserved David’s joy, even when his circumstance hadn’t yet changed. Like a prescription, prayer provided the hope that David needed to persevere: God has made a promise, and he always makes good on his promises.
 James R. Estep Jr., Michael J. Anthony, and Gregg R. Allison, A Theology for Christian Education (Nashville: B&H, 2008), 6.
Content taken from Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes the Church by John Onwuchekwa, ©2018. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.