Prayer is an essential part of both the private Christian life and the church’s corporate worship. In this interview series, RTB editor Maureen Moser and I discuss the ins and outs of prayer.
How does Scripture define prayer?
I think the general answer to your broad question is that prayer is a line of communication between our Lord and us. Typically, communication should involve both listening and talking. He is the Shepherd and we are the sheep. He is the great King and we are the people who are dependent upon Him.
Yet there is a great variation in prayer style and substance. Sometimes prayer is a time of meditation or reflection. A lot of people enjoy reading Scripture and then pondering it. Many times, prayer involves being thankful and grateful. Then, of course, another part of the communication is supplication where we ask the Lord for our needs and for others’ needs.
What’s interesting is that Paul talks about praying without ceasing. That doesn’t mean spending 24/7 on our knees. It means that we live with an attitude of prayer. We live with a regular time of communicating with the Lord.
I sometimes wonder if it’s easy for people to develop a fixed idea of what prayer is supposed to “look like.” How important are things like fervency, tone of voice, vocabulary, and so on?
Scripture is very clear that the condition of a person’s heart is an important factor. You can have all the right words and a particular demeanor, but the Lord is looking for contrite hearts. He’s looking for hearts that are grateful, thankful, and joyful.
Now, having said all of that, I think Christian history has produced many formal prayers that believers have memorized, recited, and passed along from generation to generation. The Lord’s Prayer comes to mind. I would imagine most Christian churches have a place for the Lord’s Prayer either in service or incorporated into private time.
Some people have other regular prayers. I remember growing up reciting a particular prayer before meals that we had learned in the Catholic Church. And so, some groups give a greater place to formal prayer and the theological language that goes into it. Other groups, usually those that are more contemporary, are more spontaneous, conversational, and casual in prayer.
And certainly there are differences between public and private prayer. Personally, I like to read formal prayers. It helps me in my private life when I see how these prayers are structured and what they emphasize. It helps me when I’m alone to organize my own prayers. It helps me consider what to be thankful for and how to structure the concerns I have. But, then, I’m a bit formal; I like liturgy, I like formality. However, there is certainly a very powerful place for spontaneity.
At the end of the day, the condition of a person’s heart is the primary concern.
I grew up largely with casual prayers, but my husband and I recite the Lord’s Prayer with our daughter at nap and bedtimes. She can recite most of it herself and seems to like particular parts of the prayer. And yet because of my own childhood experience with prayer, I’ve struggled to adjust to recitation. As you said, you value the formal approach. What would you say are the pros and cons of both casual and formal prayer?
The pro of being casual is that people feel at home with God. They can talk with Him. He’s not only their Lord and Creator and Sovereign King, but also someone they can have a relationship of friendliness with, one that reflects personal connection. I think that’s very positive. There is the potential for some people to always have formal prayers to God, but to never talk to God from their heart.
The con might be that too casual a prayer style does not necessarily recognize the appropriate form of prayer. As I said, I like to read formal prayers. It helps me to think about what goes into a good prayer. Believers need to consider what kinds of things should be part of our prayer life, beyond just our own personal issues and needs. We need to also be praying in a broader way about things that are important to the church and to the Triune God.
I think formal prayer’s positive is that it often has a theological sophistication to it. There’s recognition of biblical categories. It can involve a doxology and various other structures. Of course, these shouldn’t be just other people’s words. They should be words that we embrace.
I think you can have all of it, the best of both worlds. There are times when I have very candid, private, casual discussions with God. There are other times I try to model prayer. For example, I like to encourage people to prayer to the Trinity: to the Father, in the name of the Son, and through the Holy Spirit. I hope that when I model that it encourages others to try doing the same in their own prayer time.
Come back to Reflections next week for more thoughts and comments on prayer.