What is Prayer and Why Do We Do It?
It’s happened to me more times than I’d like to admit. Someone brings up a word or topic. I think I have a decent understanding of whatever it is. But when I’m asked to explain it or why it’s important, I quickly realize I know much less than I think!
My bet is that this happens a lot for things related to Christianity. For example, most of us wouldn’t think twice if we heard the word “prayer” in a church service or in a conversation about faith. But what if we had to define what prayer is, or why it’s important to following Jesus? That might be more challenging.
With that in mind, it’s worth thinking through some important truths about prayer from a biblical perspective.
What is prayer?
Prayer is simply talking with God. After all, God isn’t some mindless power. Nor is he so removed from our experience that he can’t hear us or wouldn’t care if he did.
Instead, God is a person who thinks, acts, and communicates. He’s intimately involved with every bit of his creation, including you and me. And he always hears when we speak to him.
What does prayer look like in practice?
In the Bible, we find prayers involving both groups and individuals. Sometimes the context is public (like in a worship service), and sometimes it’s private (like an individual or group praying in a house). Prayers can even be sung. In fact, the Psalms are songs which are predominantly prayers directed toward God.
Prayer isn’t supposed to be a means of impressing others (Mathew 6:5-6). And there is no prescribed length. In fact, Jesus warns against piling up empty words (Matthew 6:7). So you’ll find biblical prayers that include a single word or sentence (Mark 11:9, Luke 18:13), though many are much longer (I Kings 8, Psalm 119).
It might be more helpful to say that prayer should be a consistent practice in our lives, which is what the apostle Paul is likely getting at when he tells his readers to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
What are we supposed to pray?
The acronym A-C-T-S is a handy way to summarize much of what the Bible teaches about what to pray:
Why should we pray?
We should pray for lots of reasons, including:
- Prayer is humbling.
That’s because genuine prayer is God-centered rather that self-centered. It offers praise and thanks to the one who truly deserves it. It admits our own weakness and failures. It petitions the only one who can ultimately save and provide for us. You might even say that that true prayer is humility put into practice. And that’s something worth encouraging, because God responds to humility (Philippians 2:1-11, 1 Peter 5:6-10)!
- Prayer is powerful.
While prayer is sometimes mocked in our culture as useless, the Bible couldn’t disagree more. It repeatedly shows prayer being the catalyst that spurs the creator and ruler of the universe—the one with limitless power and wisdom—to act on behalf of his people (James 5:13-18).
- Prayer is necessary.
It’s worth noting just how often Jesus prayed. He certainly thought prayer was central to his own life and mission. And Jesus’s example is multiplied many times over by followers of God, both before and after him (Moses, David, Elijah, Daniel, Peter, Paul, and more). So, if we are going to trust and follow God as he calls us to, it makes sense that prayer needs to be an important part of the equation.
Where can we start?
If prayer is important as the Bible describes, then it makes sense for us to put it into practice. Here are two suggestions to encourage and shape your own prayers:
- The Psalms
This book is a masterclass in God teaching us how to talk to him. As you read them, think about how to pray the words of the psalms in light of your own situation. If you’re looking for a place to start, check out Psalm 25, 33, 34, 42, 86, and 103.
Additional Resource: The Psalms of Ascent: A Three-Week Email Devotional
- The Lord’s Prayer
Jesus gave his disciples a model prayer (Matthew 6:9-13). Each line can be a prompt for our own prayers. How do we want to see his will be done in our situation? In addition to our daily bread, what other needs do we have today? What do we need to forgive? Be forgiven for? And so on.
Additional Resource: A Training Program to Help You Pray Like Jesus