God reveals Himself through the Bible, the person of Jesus Christ, nature, and our conscience. Prayer is not revelatory. If it is neither revelatory for humans nor for God, what is prayer then?
Throughout history, prayer has been explained through several congruous or complementary images: prayer is the soul’s breath, humans’ dialogue with God, the divine helpline, the way humans communicate with God, our heart’s confession to God—all these metaphors emphasize the possibility that humans can come in contact with God.
To understand prayer, it is most natural to look at the prayers of Biblical heroes. In their prayers we identify elements such as adoration (Psalm 115:1), praise (Psalm 71:6), requests (Philippians 4:6, Ephesians 6:18), thanksgiving (Colossians 4:2, 2 Corinthians 2:14), mediation (Psalm 119:27), confession (Ezra 10:11, James 5:16), silence (Zechariah 2:13, Habakkuk 2:20), petition and intercessions (1 Timothy 2:1, Genesis 18:23-33).
Types of biblical prayers
The prayer of thanksgiving is the human soul’s reaction that, following its encounter with God, manages to comprehend His kindness and love, and is grateful. The prayer of thanksgiving must not be regarded as a duty, nor can it exist outside of man’s encounter with God through revelation. This is why the lack of gratitude in our prayers points to a problem that can only be solved by a deeper knowledge of God.
This pattern is also found in the prayer of praise, which is naturally determined by the understanding of love which which accompanies an understanding of God’s majesty and greatness.
Another type of prayer is that which expresses human commitments to God. This type of prayer is usually a follow-up or an extension of the prayer of confession and repentance. Sometimes it can be our answer to the awareness of the blessings we have received. After the dream in which he is promised a great number of heirs, and repossession of the promised land, Jacob promises God the tenth part of all he has: “…and this stone that I have set up as a pillar will be God’s house, and of all that you give me I will give you a tenth” (Genesis 28:22).
There is also the prayer of repentance and confession, when humans have lived contrary to their conscience. As a consequence of the work of the Holy Spirit who touches their hearts by providence and revelation, when they understand God’s goodness and power, then repentance arises in their hearts, which is expressed through confession and contrition.
The prayer of petition is the most common form of prayer and it is understandable why that is so, because our needs and inabilities naturally cause us to ask for what we need.
Would humans be more blessed if they did not ask anything of God? “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). The evil receive rain without asking for it. Does this reality justify cancelling our prayers of petition? By no means. By praying such prayers, we recognise our dependence on God, the need for divine intervention, our admiration and gratefulness towards our Heavenly Father, and our humility and worship are refined. Thus humans’ closeness to God is transformational. Humans become the reflection of the Being they adore and worship.
The prayer of petition: faith or presumption?
The model of the prayer of petition of the great Biblical heroes, as well as that of Jesus, emphasises humility and trust. These attitudes are identified by the words “Your will be done.” Any prayer of petition that is not based on a promise from God revealed in Scripture and that is not accompanied by humans’ belief that they are heard and will receive an answer is presumptuous. We can be sure that God will give us the things He has promised, and when we request things that God has already promised and that we can be sure He will offer, the declaration “Your will be done” can be proof of shallowness or estrangement from God or unbelief. When we ask for something according to His will, we believe that we have already received it (see Mark 11:24), this being the natural consequence of knowing God. Regardless of all this, accepting that even under these circumstances God may give a negative answer is proof of faith that goes even further—we believe that nothing can separate us from God’s love (see Romans 8:35) and that His plans for us can be different at some point, but that they are still nothing short of excellent (see Jeremiah 29:11).
The prayer of request has many facets: prayer for the forgiveness of sins, prayer of intercession, and the prayer of blessing are the most common.
The prayer for the forgiveness of sins is proof of the first step being taken in the direction of one’s transformation. Acknowledging a mistake and feeling sorry for it always leads to asking for forgiveness. Contrition, therefore, precedes forgiveness. At the same time, there is no forgiveness without transformation. Forgiveness is not the opposite of sorrow. Instead, it has a soteriological character. Forgiveness refers to salvation, and salvation represents humans’ salvation from sin—that is, their transformation. In this way, forgiveness occurs when humans, as a result of their acknowledgement of sin, accept God’s transforming power.
The prayer of blessing can be considered a form of intercessory prayer, prayer of petition, or the ritual prayer of sanctification, dedication, marriage, or ordination.
Intercessory prayer is born out of love and compassion. In the wisdom of His providence, God has ways in which He accommodates our intercessory prayer in His plans (without this meaning that it takes Him by surprise or that it changes His mind, softening up the only One who is good). Furthermore, intercessory prayer, as a representation of love, embellishes the soul of the one who practices it, makes God happy, leads to unity among men, and supports the one who is lifted up in prayer.
Prayer is a spiritual reality
Paul’s words, “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17), point to a prayer that transcends words, forms, and rituals, and one which has a continuous and indispensable character. At the same time, forms or rituals are instruments for communion with God.
The model of the prayer of petition of the great biblical heroes, as well as that of Jesus, emphasises humility and trust.
Depending on the type of prayer, culture, state of mind, and the context in which one finds oneself, a prayer can be uttered in different positions and can take various forms. The Bible recounts the prayer experiences of many heroes, in different postures: kneeling, standing, bowing down, sitting, lying down, or with hands raised towards heaven. At the same time, we identify prayers uttered with open eyes, in secret, in public, expressed through free speech, in song, and so on. Despite the many different forms and positions, depending on the situation in which believers found themselves, they represent the exterior expression of inner reverence: respect, contrition, humility, submission, dependence, surrender, and gratefulness.
Communion with God
Prayer is the way to experience communion with God. It is the means of communication through which human beings speak, are silent, sing, and admire their Creator. Prayer represents the communication of one who wishes to align his thoughts with divine reason. It is the substance of a relationship which can determine a profound act: humans’ meditation in God’s presence, harmonising their thoughts with those of God. This is the communion which enables the human mind to be transformed according to the mind of the Face it represents. Prayer’s great benefit is that it does not lower God to our level, but lifts us up into His presence.
Ștefăniţă Poenariu is the president of the Holistic Christian Education Association, which operates Transylvania International School.