Means of Growth: Prayer

By James M. Rochford

Prayer is communication with God. We cannot refer to a “personal relationship” with God that is devoid of communication. Prayer in the new covenant shouldn’t be repetitious or formulaic. Jesus commanded, “When you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Mt. 6:7). Yet there are many different types of prayer that believers should be familiar with.

1. Adoration

Adoration focuses on who God is, as opposed to what He does (see the Psalms; Rom. 11:33). This form of prayer is important because it reminds us of the Being we are relating to. The times that I feel love for my wife the most is when I sit down to write a love letter to her. Why is this? Something about spending the time to reflect on her leads to me to remember my feelings for her. Of course, our feelings for our spouses are romantic which is not analogous to God. But similarly, when we reflect on the “beauty” of the Lord (Ps. 27:4), we experience faith and trust at a new level—not experienced before.

God doesn’t call on us to adore him for his benefit—but for ours. He doesn’t need our adoration, because he’s self-existent and perfectly content in his identity and nature. Instead, when we spend time adoring God, it has a change in our lives, getting us focused on him—not ourselves or the crises that surround us. As fallen human beings, we’re all wired to worship or adore something, and if it isn’t God, it leaves us unsatisfied.

2. Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving involves expressing gratitude for what God has done (1 Thess. 5:18). This is emphasized heavily in the New Testament, because a thankful attitude is an indicator of faith in God. Paul always seemed to accompany his prayers with much thanksgiving.

(Eph. 5:20-21) Always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; 21 and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ.

(Col. 4:2) Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving.

(Phil. 4:6) Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

(1 Thess. 5:17) Pray without ceasing; 18 in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

We aren’t supposed to give thanks for everything, but in everything. Paul teaches that those who refuse to give thanks have their “hearts darkened” (Rom. 1:21). A refusal to give thanks to God has a poisoning effect on the mind. Secular psychologists Wehrenberg and Prinz write, “People who have difficulty recognizing positives are more prone to anxiety, depression, and addiction.”[1] Likewise, psychologist Robert Emmons (professor of psychology at the University of California) has found that giving thanks results in a number of positive “side-effects” in his subjects:[2]

-more positive and optimistic appraisals of one’s life

-more time spent exercising

-fewer reported physical symptoms

-more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support to another

-more sleep

-better sleep quality

-a sense of connectedness to others

Thus even these secular researchers have corroborated this core biblical teaching. We find that just after five or ten minutes of giving thanks in prayer, our entire demeanor has changed. Our spirit is lifted.

Again, God doesn’t need our thanks. In giving thanks, we change our own spoiled and narcissistic attitude. Like a spoiled rich child, we can receive blessing after blessing without being satisfied. When we learn to thank God for the blessings he’s already given us, we find peace and contentment in what we don’t have.

3. Petition

Petition means asking God to meet our own needs (Phil. 4:6).

4. Intercession

Intercession involves asking God to meet the needs of others (Eph. 6:18). This is prayer as ministry, which can alter the history of another person’s life (Acts 12:5; 1 Jn. 5:16; Col. 4:2-4).

After surveying explosive church planting movements across the world, David Garrison notes certain features of each movement that are common. At the top of the list in every case, he notes that prayer is the reoccurring feature of church planting movements across the globe. He writes, “Prayer has become the first priority of every Church Planting Movement strategist.”[3] Likewise, Chuck Smith was not as well-known as Billy Graham or other evangelical ministers in the United States. Yet his church Calvary Chapel was filled with 50% converts to Christ, and his church also planted 1,500 other Calvary Chapels across the world. Interestingly, Smith attributed the fruit of his church to prayer. He himself prayed and studied Scripture for three hours a day.

Of course, this shouldn’t surprise us. The early church reached hundreds of thousands of people by meeting daily in homes with a focus on prayer and Bible study (Acts 2:42). If we want to see a movement for God, we should not reinvent the wheel, but instead, focus on what God uses most effectively.

Many wonder why we should pray, if God is omniscient and sovereign. If God is really in control of all things, then why should we pray for anything. Atheistic comedian George Carlin explains it this way:

I say, ‘Fine, pray for anything you want… But, what about the divine plan? A long time ago, God made a divine plan. He gave it a lot of thought, decided it was a good plan, and put it into practice. And for billions and billions of years, the divine plan has been doing just fine. Now, you come along and pray for something. Well, suppose the thing you want isn’t in God’s divine plan? What do you want him to do? Change his plan? Just for you? Doesn’t it seem a little arrogant? It’s a divine plan? What’s the use in being God if every run down schmuck with a two dollar prayer book can come along and [email protected]#! up your plan? And here’s something else—another problem you might have: suppose your prayers aren’t answered. What do you say? ‘Well, it’s God’s will. Thy will be done.’ Fine, but if it’s God’s will and he’s going to do what he wants to anyway, why the [email protected]#! bother praying in the first place? Seems like a big waste of time to me. Couldn’t you just skip the praying part and go right to his will?[4]

Yet God clearly commands us to pray, and our prayers will affect God’s blessing in our lives. In James 4:2, we read, “You do not have because you do not ask.” Therefore, it is clear that God will refrain from giving us certain blessings if we neglect to pray. But how does this square with God’s sovereignty? A number of observations can be made in this regard:

First, the real issue is not with affecting God’s will through prayer, but through any action. When we think about this, it’s odd that God would allow us to have any impact on his will. Yet the Bible clearly teaches human agency (Mt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Cor. 3:9; 2 Cor. 5:20; Rom. 10:14). It is certainly a mystery that God allows us to play a role in his plan. But once we concede this point, it shouldn’t surprise us that he has allowed us to play a role through the agency of prayer. C.S. Lewis explains,

In every action, just as in every prayer, you are trying to bring about a certain result; and this result must be good or bad. Why, then, do we not argue as the opponents of prayer argue, and say that if the intended result is good God will bring it to pass without your interference, and that if it is bad He will prevent it happening whatever you do? Why wash your hands? If God intends them to be clean, they’ll come clean without your washing them. If he doesn’t, they’ll remain dirty… however much soap you use. Why ask for the salt? Why put on your boots? Why do anything? We know that we can act and that our actions produce results… It may be a mystery why He should have allowed us to cause real events at all; but it is no odder that He should allow us to cause them by praying than by any other method.[5]

Second, prayer reinforces dependency, faith, and humility. By constantly having to return to God in prayer, we are repeatedly reminded that God is the one who is ultimately doing the work in our ministry—not us. Therefore, prayer isn’t for God’s sake; it’s very often for our sake. God knows that if he didn’t withhold blessing from us, we would never talk to him. In fact, we barely talk to him as it is!

Third, by praying, we are surrendering our freewill to God. We know that God respects us as persons, and he typically isn’t in the business of overriding our freewill. Thus when we pray, we are encouraging God to act, and we’re consciously getting on board with his will (Lk. 22:42). Theologian D.A. Carson wisely concludes,

We must remember that the Bible simultaneously pictures God as utterly sovereign, and as a prayer-hearing and prayer-answering God. Unless we perceive this, and learn how to act on these simul­taneous truths, not only will our views of God be distorted, but our praying is likely to wobble back and forth between a resigned fatalism that asks for nothing and a badgering desperation that exhibits little real trust.[6]

5. Warfare

Warfare means opposing the devil through anticipating his “schemes” (2 Cor. 2:11) and using the authority of Christ to confound him. This can be done for one’s self or on behalf of others (Eph. 6:18; 2 Thess. 3:2-3; Mt. 12:20; 1 Pet. 5:1-10). Pastor Chuck Smith writes,

Intercessory prayer is a real labor. It’s a real conflict in the battle against Satan. It’s the deciding factor, and that’s why Satan fights it so hard. Suppose that someone attacked you on a dark street and started wrestling with you. If he were to pull a knife, the whole battle would suddenly be centered on one thing—control of the knife. All of a sudden, you’d forget about punching him in the nose. You’d be grabbing for his wrist and trying to knock that knife out of his hand for you realize that it is the deciding factor in this battle. Satan knows that prayer brings you victory and spells his defeat. He knows it’s the deciding factor in this spiritual warfare. That’s why he concentrates all his efforts against prayer. He’ll do all he can to upset your prayer time, and keep you from praying.[7]

Scripture indicates that in some cases, God will not act if we do not pray (Jas. 4:2; see our earlier article “God’s Sovereignty”). Also, it should be noted that corporate prayer can be more effective than individual prayer (Mt. 18:19).

(Lk. 18:1-8) Now He was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart, 2 saying, “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and did not respect man. 3 There was a widow in that city, and she kept coming to him, saying, ‘Give me legal protection from my opponent.’ 4 For a while he was unwilling; but afterward he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow bothers me, I will give her legal protection, otherwise by continually coming she will wear me out.’” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge said; 7 now, will not God bring about justice for His elect who cry to Him day and night, and will He delay long over them? 8 I tell you that He will bring about justice for them quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on the earth?”

At first reading, this passage looks like we just pester God until he finally gives us what he wants. But this is an a fortiori argument: If an evil judge will answer petitions, how much more will a loving father?

(Rom. 15:30) Now I urge you, brethren, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to strive together with me in your prayers to God for me.

(Rom. 12:12) Rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer.

(Eph. 6:18) With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints.

(Jas. 5:17) Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly [lit. “with prayer”] that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months.

Prayer is an active ministry. This does not mean that we should strive to get God’s approval or answer. It must mean to strive with the flesh or with Satan.

(Acts 12:5) So Peter was kept in the prison, but prayer for him was being made fervently (or “constantly”) by the church to God.

This emphasizes persistent prayer, rather than coercive prayer. They must not have had too much faith, because when Peter shows up, they think that he’s a ghost (v.15)! They didn’t believe that it was him.

Goals for Prayer

Daily prayer. It would be ideal to have time every single day where we are praying to God.

Answered prayers. While we do not have control over answers to prayer, if we are talking with God daily, we will quickly see answers to prayer.

Long times of prayer and short prayer. A good relationship will have long time together and text messages throughout the day. Even quick prayers are effective and biblical (Neh. 2:4).

Necessary attitudes for effective prayer

Praying in faith. Believers should approach God with expectant confidence that He is able to act and that He wants to. However, it is possible to pray in faith only when we know God’s will. Unless Scripture speaks to your request in precept or principle, you are free to make your request, but it will not necessarily be granted. Prayers which are not according to God’s will won’t be granted, no matter how much persistence or faith is exercised (see 2 Cor. 12:8-10; Jas. 4:3; 1 Jn. 5:14-15). Praying “in the name of Jesus” means that we pray according to his Word (see Jn. 15:7; 1 Jn. 5:14-15). Hallesby writes, “This weapon is the more valuable to the friends of Jesus, because it is not possible for the enemies of Jesus to make use of it. True, His enemies can lay hands on the weapon; but the moment they grasp it in earnest they are transformed from enemies to friends of Jesus.”[8]

(Mk. 11:22-24) “Have faith in God. Truly I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says is going to happen, it will be granted him. Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you.”

(Jn. 15:7) If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.

(Jn. 14:13-14) “Whatever you ask in My name, that will I do, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it.”

(Jn. 16:23-24) “Truly, truly, I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you. Until now you have asked for nothing in My name; ask [the Greek is intensive—“please ask”] and you will receive, so that your joy may be made full.”

(1 Jn. 5:14-15) This is the confidence which we have before Him, that, if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. 15 And if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.

If we are praying according to the will of God, we can exert tremendous confidence that it will be answered. For example, we can pray with confidence that God will transform us in our sanctification (1 Thess. 4:3).

Understanding when God says, No. God doesn’t always answer our prayers. He will either say, “Yes,” “No,” or “Not yet.” If he says, “No,” we need to trust that this was for our own good. Hallesby explains it this way:

We can tell them, for instance, that we have read in the papers every now and then about children who have accidentally shot themselves either with an air rifle or an ordinary gun and have become cripples for life, and that sometimes children have even been killed in that way. How did this happen? Because they had asked their fathers and mothers for air rifles and because they were so unfortunate as to receive what they asked for. If only their fathers and mothers had had sense enough not to give them such dangerous weapons, they would have been spared the terrible misfortune.[9]

Chuck Smith adds,

Actually, I am the one often changed by prayer. Many times as I am praying God will speak to me. He will show me His way and His plan, which is always so much better than what I had in mind. While in prayer, God deals with me and shows me the folly of certain things that I have been insisting, and practically demanding, from Him. I respond, “Thank you, Lord, for not answering me during the last five years.” He knew what was best for me all the time! At this point in my life, as I look back, I am as thankful for the prayers He did not answer as those He did.[10]

Honest and simple. Elaborate, showy, or memorized prayers are to be avoided, since they are impersonal and tend to make ourselves the center of attention, rather than God (Mt. 6:5-7). Jesus was not against corporate prayer (Mt. 18:19). Instead, he was against legalistic prayer.

Alert. If you are alert, you will be sensitive to God’s conviction and illumination, and so that you will be vigilant against the schemes of the devil (Eph. 6:18).

Christ’s prohibition against “meaningless repetition” should be understood in the sense of chanting—not persistence. Persistence in prayer is commanded elsewhere (Lk 11:5-10; 18:1-8; Col. 4:2). Both Paul and Jesus pray the same prayer three times (Mt. 26:39; 2 Cor. 12:8).

Practical suggestions

Modeling. When the disciples listened to Jesus pray, they wanted to learn how to do the same. Luke records, “It happened that while Jesus was praying in a certain place, after He had finished, one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples’” (Lk. 11:1). Find someone who is good at prayer and ask them to pray with you to teach you. Younger Christians learn how to pray and develop a love for prayer by listening to older believers praying (1 Cor. 11:1).

Record answered prayers. Create a Word Document with all of the answered prayers in your life. Over the years, this grows to multiple pages long. It is powerful and faith-building to read through once in a while to be reminded about the raw power of prayer (Remember in Luke 17:11-17 only one of ten healed lepers turns back to thank God for the answered prayer).

Find others to pray with. Make a goal to pray with a roommate or spouse every day. This isn’t that difficult. If you have a mindset to turn with someone in prayer, you’ll end up doing it more than once a day.

Prayer lists. Create a list of the names of the people in your life that you are serving and investing in. It is important to update this list every week to see how God is moving. At the top of the list, write something like this, “God, every one of these people needs help from you. I am unable to help these people the way that they need it, so I’m asking that you would come into their lives to help them the way that they need it.”

Conclusion

Before ending, we need to remember that the only person satisfied with their prayer life is the Pharisee! If you don’t feel that your prayer life is where it should be, you’re in good company. But learn to build the love of prayer, connecting with God, and petitioning for others.

Further Reading

Smith, Chuck. Effective Prayer Life. Costa Mesa, CA: Word For Today, 1980.

Hallesby, Ole. Prayer. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1994.

Hybels, Bill. Too Busy Not to Pray: Slowing down to Be with God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998.

Carson, D. A. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992.

[1] Wehrenberg, Margaret, Psy.D. Steven Prinz, M.D. The Anxious Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2007. 45.

[2] Robert A. Emmons “Counting Blessings Versus Burdens: An Experimental Investigation of Gratitude and Subjective Well-Being in Daily Life.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 2003, Vol. 84, No. 2, 377–389.

[3] Garrison, David. Church Planting Movements: How God Is Redeeming a Lost World. Midlothian, VA: WIGTake Resources, 2004. 173.

[4] George Carlin, “You are All Diseased.” 1999. “There is No God.” Track 17.

[5] Lewis, C. S. God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970. 105-106.

[6] Carson, D. A. A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1992. 31.

[7] Smith, Chuck. Effective Prayer Life. Costa Mesa, CA: Word For Today, 1980. 14.

[8] Hallesby, Ole. Prayer. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1994. 65.

[9] Hallesby, Ole. Prayer. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Press, 1994. 133-134.

[10] Smith, Chuck. Effective Prayer Life. Costa Mesa, CA: Word For Today, 1980. 32.