What is Prayer?
According to the Bible, prayer is the act of communicating with God.
Prayer can take on different forms such as verbal, written, or silent communication. It can consist of petition, confession, lamentation, and other expressions of faith. The subject of prayer permeates the Old and New Testaments.
Prayer in the Old Testament
The Old Testament places prayer in connection with other religious acts, such as sacrifices, vows, fasts, and mourning ceremonies. "To pray" is expressed in Hebrew by ‘athar or he‘ethir, a verb which in Arabic means "to sacrifice," and thus had a cultic meaning from the beginning. This word is found in the older sources of the Pentateuch and in Judges xiii. 8; Job xxii. 27, xxxiii. 26. More frequently hith pallel is used, from a root palal to which Wellhausen, with reference to I Kings xviii. 28, assigns the original meaning "to make incisions." Like the corresponding noun tephillah, it is found in older and later books of the Old Testament.
The Old Testament prescribes no such external ceremonies or postures in prayer as occur among the later Jews and the Mohammedans. The petitioner stood or prostrated himself as did the subject before the king. The hands were extended to express purity, and were lifted up to heaven or toward the sanctuary in intercession. Prayer as the freest expression of religious life could be performed in any place, although the sanctuary was considered the most appropriate. In early times prayer accompanied the offer of sacrifice; later it is mentioned expressly as an integral part of daily service, partly as a function of the Levites in which the people joined.
It is nowhere directed in the Old Testament because it was regarded as the natural expression of religious life. No definite form is prescribed; the mode of expression was left to the inspiration of the moment; but the prayers contained in the Psalter naturally gained lasting importance as hymns of the congregation. Prayer was called forth by the most varying sentiments; it was an expression of gratitude for gifts, but more frequently it expressed supplication for external well-being, for deliverance from distress, for forgiveness of sins, or for wisdom.
It had reference at times to the salvation of the whole people, at other times to purely personal relations. Great importance was attached to the prayer of a prophet if it had reference to the fulfilment of the divine word and the manifestations of the true God. In this respect, Jeremiah was the great example and was imitated by the psalmists; for the Psalms are mostly entreaties for a decisive self-manifestation of God.
There occurs frequently in the Old Testament also the intercessory prayer of men who stood in nearer relation to God and were especially heard. It was only in post Exilic times that prayer was regarded as a meritorious service and practise, a conception which further developed under Pharisaism (see Pharisses and Sadducees).
Prayer in the New Testament
Sources and characteristics of prayer
The reader of the New Testament, in the course of a rapid reading, might receive a very strong impression that as compared with other sacred books, including the Old Testament, there is an almost complete absence of the sacerdotal sacrificial elements. The main cause is the revival of prophetism, begun by John the Baptist, embodied in Christ and giving distinctive quality to the Christianity of the Apostolic Age.
A secondary cause is found in the history of Judaism. The bankruptcy of the Jewish state, the development of the Jewish Church, the shifting of the center of gravity from the nation to the individual, the irresistible though unconscious forces whereby the synagogal system ousted the Temple from the center of consciousness,—it was along this road that prayer came to take the place of sacrifice. The immense outflow of spiritual power and moral energy that founded the Christian Church made prayer its spring and soul.
Necessarily Christian prayer was strongly corporate. Such was the tendency in Jewish prayer. Even stronger was the tendency in Christian prayer. And this because of the psychology of prayer. For prayer is yearning and desire fed on hope and grounded in faith. The reason for the Apostolic Church's existence was her belief in the kingdom of God. The power that grouped chosen individuals together and built them into congregational units was an impassioned confidence in the reality and immanence of that divine order.
Consequently, prayer was the soul of the Christian community, and this prayer, by its constitution, was intensely corporate. The Lord's Prayer clearly shows this. Jesus put it forth not to serve as a specific prayer but to manifest the perspective and the proportion of prayer. It gives the framework and the constitution of prayer as Christians learned it from their master. The heart of it is a profound sense of solidarity between the followers of Jesus. Its fundamental quality is a corporate desire and will bent upon the kingdom of God.
Prayer in James and Paul
Healing in the Apostolic Church was inseparable from prayer. The only deliberate testimony on this point is found in the epistle of James (v. 14–15). But the necessity of the connection is everywhere taken for granted. The personal practise of the Savior is clear. The incidental allusions of the New Testament are conclusive. There is no present need of arguing for the healing value of prayer when prayer, rightly framed, has control of consciousness both personal and corporate. Its therapeutic power can not be doubted; the question is how to use it wisely.
The deep consciousness of salvation that pervades the New Testament makes joy the keynote of prayer as of life. In Paul, the supreme individual of the Apostolic Age; and at the same time its master-worker, this is strikingly true. Prayer is the atmosphere of life. It should be unceasing (I Thess. v. 17). It is the voice of the creative spirit in the soul of redeemed people (Rom. viii. 15). And because it is the deepest reach of experience, it is the final mystery. The redeemed man learns that his prayers by themselves are incompetent (Rom. viii. 26–27), but within the spirit of prayer in his breast he finds the Holy Spirit yearning. It is this discovery that gives him indestructible confidence.
Prayer and Christ
The nature of prayer in the New Testament accounts for and explains the relation of prayer to the person of Christ. The fact that prayer is essentially corporate being clearly in mind, it follows forthwith that prayer must be in the name of the Savior. The new community was inseparable from its founder and head. Baptism, the rite of entrance into Christian fellowship, was in his name (Acts ii. 38). The working creed was the conviction that he was master of the world's fortunes, this conviction taking the form of an impassioned belief in his speedy second coming.
The deepening thought of the Church was Christologic (e.g., II Cor., as a model of pastoral theology). The miracles of healing were wrought in his name (Acts iii. 6). His name was taken to be the only name given under heaven among men whereby they must be saved (Acts iv. 12). Hence the person of Christ becomes inseparable from the idea of God (John xiv. 9). Consequently prayer is necessarily related to Christ.
In Paul this is particularly clear. The mystical immanence of the risen Savior is the center of the inner life (Gal. ii. 20); all things which it becomes a Christian to do must be done in his name (Col. iii. 17). Therefore it follows that thanksgiving and prayer, the upgoing and outgoing of the soul to the source of life, while it goes direct to God, may, without detriment to the vital strength of monotheism, pass through the mind and person of Christ. In the ripest form of New-Testament thought, the Johannine theology, this becomes even clearer than in Paul. The mature Christian is to ask all things of God in his son's name (John xv. 16, xvi. 23).
The necessary recasting of trinitarian doctrine in the light of historical knowledge of the New Testament, the more vital pressure of the divine unity upon Christian consciousness brought about by the social problem, the deepening sense of the divine immanence-these forces in course of time will enable Christians to put aside those imperfect conceptions of the mediatorhood of Christ which led the Church to underweigh the humanity of the Savior. While praying to Jesus they will not forget that Jesus prayed.
Prayer in the Church
The definition of prayer
Prayer purports to be communication with God. Friends as well as opponents of prayer regard it as an attempt to gain in time of need the aid of a power supramundane. On this ground prayer might be defended as an expression of human impotence. Prayer in its essence, however, is quite other than a cry of distress to an indefinite power or object; it is communion with God. Necessity is a stimulus to prayer, but the capacity for real prayer does not originate in need.
The Element of Experience
Prayer, as an address to God, implies that God is near to man, it involves certainty of the reality of God. One who had received no revelation of God would not be able to pray, while consciousness of such an experience brings ability to pray aright and inspires devotion. Such devotion expands spiritual power, and at the same time continues the experience through which is realized consciousness of God's interposition in life. Absorption in such consciousness affords confidence that God is present to us.
None can pray if by his own fault the recollection that God once called him is obscured. However urgently Jesus enjoined prayer, he surely did not believe that man should pray without regard to his present condition; he did not desire prayer in which the heart is removed from God. Each individual must feel the revelation of God to be his personal experience. God is found in that life in which he reveals himself as personal life in Jesus Christ, so that in addressing him man addresses the Father.
The ability to commune with God is for man an introduction into a new reality and a foreglimpse of an infinite future. Nothing can give deeper joy than these drafts of breath in a new life. Consequently Luther asserted correctly that the Lord's Prayer, and indeed every right Christian prayer, begins with thanksgiving and praise. But after the address to God has unfolded as an invocation of the Father in heaven, prayer becomes necessarily an entreaty. With the Christian supplication originates in God's revelation of himself.
To possess God means to seek God. He who does not find the desire for God repressing every other desire has not found the God who reveals himself in Christ. This desire should be the starting-point of the Christian's unceasing prayer. This thought is expressed in the opening petitions of the Lord's Prayer. They are not a declaration that the Christian wishes to consider God's affairs more important than his own; they express rather the most urgent concern of the Christian himself. Those men are not children of God who do not desire above all to be near the Father; and for this knowledge of God is necessary.
While Jesus directed to urgent and trustful prayer, without reservation and limitation, his directions presupposed that independence which was to grow up under his influence; they imply a disposition consciously ready to utter such petitions. They might be interpreted as though God would grant every self-indulgent Seeking and selfish wish of his children. Indeed, they must be so understood if followed by one who knows no desire for God. One whose heart is filled with earthly care can utter only this in his prayer.
Such a man, therefore, dares not pray as others pray, but is intent upon his own needs. This was doubtless the meaning of Jesus. He must have hated supremely insincere prayer. But is that prayer sincere which expresses only burning desire for some worldly concern under the idea, upheld by an energetic will, that a power exists which by continual supplication may be moved to grant some definite petition? It is evident that such a prayer is only seeming; for while the petitioner pretends to address God, his representation of God is only an amplification of his wish.
That prayer is not real in which effort is needed to follow the words of Jesus in which he limits the confidence of supplication. One not in the proper inner condition can not understand how a man can pray in earnest realizing that the Father in heaven knows and considers his needs without his asking or expressing with his supplication the willingness to renounce it. He who takes these words of Jesus as precepts that may be followed, is left without a motive; he can not realize that they are the expression of experiences gained in the exercise of prayer.
All these difficulties disappear for those to whom Jesus spoke these words. If the eye has been opened to the fact that the efficient cause in all reality is a personal life that surrounds man with fatherly love, longing for God results. This longing is real life, and to develop it is the one in exhaustible task. Only when God is known from personal experience will it be possible to discern the relation of other forms of prayer. It can then be understood how a petition for external things, permeated by full assurance of being heard, may harmonize with a willingness to renounce it.
Prayer in the Modern Age
In modern times the question has been raised whether God for the sake of prayer causes to occur what otherwise would not have come to pass. In the last three centuries a clearer consciousness of the demonstrable reality in which men exist has severely shaken faith in the possibility of such a prayer receiving its answer. The two men who in the nineteenth century in their sermons represented Christian life in its fullest content, Schleiermacher and F. W. Robertson (qq.v.), always clung to the belief that reality was conditioned by the laws of nature, and that the course of the world could not be changed simply because a man was not resigned to his lot.
What they say concerning the possibility of answer to prayer shows how difficult it has become for Christian faith to hold its own in the spiritual conditions produced by the progress of science. If it is held that prayer might change the petitioner while all else continues its course, the energy of faith in prayer must necessarily be paralyzed. Faith has the power to elevate to a higher stage of life only when it develops the confidence that communication with the God of the other world is a power over against that reality which is to be experienced.
If a personal life which has revealed itself has brought about a trust and confidence that it possesses power over all, there has been produced a personal conviction of a reality distinct from nature. Expectation is raised of finding an entrance to this reality. Access is had to it in a moral activity and a spirit of prayer which seeks God himself. But this very idea in which the life of faith progresses, the conception that God opens to those who knock, is destroyed if it is considered impossible for God to grant a prayer that will change a situation in order to remove a barrier between man and God; in that case God is no more the personal spirit who answers, but the unchangeable power of order.
Many believe that God shows himself as personal life only in the inner development while the course of life is the unchangeable result of natural law. But it is not right to place psychical events in such contrast with nature, and that result of prayer which is limited to the inner life will not appear as a work of God through which he answers supplication, but as the direct effect of prayer in connection with inner conditions.
The conception of nature will always be able to shake confidence in that petition which is a mere expression of human desires; but it can have no power over prayer which is the outgrowth of personal acquaintance with God and of longing for him. For in such prayer there is always room for the thought of cause and effect in empirical nature. It must be emphasized that this thought does not represent the whole reality, but only that part of it grasped by the senses. Moreover, nature as unlimited in space and time, is the creation of a God whose reality can not be proved but is experienced by those to whom he reveals himself.
It need not be proved that he who stands on such a basis can believe in answer to prayer, and that in full recognition of the conception of nature. Such faith is possible since man, on the basis of the revelation which he. has personally experienced, may he convinced that God is inclined toward him in fatherly love; for then he must say to himself that the environment in which he exists is for him a stepping-stone to a more intimate union with God, whom yet it lies within his power to deny. Then the thought becomes possible for him that events in the world of sense may happen in virtue of his supplication, as God's answer of his prayer.
In this confidence disturbance need not follow the recollection of the limitless conditionality of all empirical events, since that points rather to the fact that God as the Almighty performs each of his miracles through the world which for him is a totality while to man it is a limitless entity. Science can therefore not restrain from prayer. Man can pray when the God of heaven has revealed himself in individual experience.
He really prays who addresses God in order to come nearer to him. To this real prayer, in which is expressed the tendency of all moral striving, God has given the power to shape the future for man and the world. The prayer of power is never the desire to accomplish material changes, but is a longing after God. If such longing is sincere, supplications concerning earthly matters will always be interwoven with it; for the more man becomes self-conscious in the thought of God, the more evident will it be that many cares so claim him that he feels momentarily separated from God.
Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge" (in the public domain), "Prayer" with minor edits.