I am going to write about prayer. I need to make two disclaimers.
First, by writing about prayer, I am not claiming to be a prayer warrior, or saying that I am faithfully exhibiting each facet of prayer that I will address here. In other words, I am telling you up front that I do not practice what I am about to preach. That fact does not negate the truth of what I have to say, but it does point to my own failure in this regard and my awareness of my own failures. Perhaps in the writing of this brief piece I will change my own habits. I hope so.
Second, what I will be saying below will sound like a “rant” about modern prayer practices. That is not what this is. I would (almost) never be critical of the another’s prayer practices. I would not be critical first of all because of what I just said above–that my own practice is likely not much better than the one of whom I might be critical. Also, I would not be critical of another’s practice because praying is better than not praying. I merely want to make some observations about our prayer practices that might help our thoughtfulness in prayer. I do not want someone to read this and walk away thinking, “I’ve been praying wrong all this time.” Rather, I want for that person to walk away being attentive to the way that they pray.
What is Prayer?
People may understand prayer in very different ways depending on their faith background, or the practices of their own particular faith community. People may understand prayer differently based on how prayer is talked about in the world apart from the community of faith. Prayer might be seen very broadly as one’s communion and conversation with God. Seen this way, there is a tremendous variety to the forms and content of prayer.
I would like to address one particular facet of prayer, however, and that is the idea of petition. Petition can be on our own behalf. It can be on behalf of another, in which case we can call it intercession. When we are performing this kind of prayer we are asking God to do something on our behalf or on behalf of someone else. The prayer can sometimes take on a more forceful character when we cease asking and simply tell God what we want him to do.
Examples of Prayer in the Bible
Abraham. Abraham’s prayer on behalf of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah stands as the earliest clear example of intercession. Genesis 18:23-25 contains the first part of Abraham’s conversation with the Lord and has the basic elements of the prayer:
Abraham stepped forward and said, “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it way instead of sparing the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people who are in it? You could not possibly do such a thing: to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike. You could not possibly do that! Won’t the Judge of the whole earth do what is just?”Genesis 18:23-25 CSB
There is a whole host of issues related to this scene showing Abraham’s interaction with God concerning the fate of the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. I only want to look at one aspect of it, however, and that is the form and the content of his prayer. Notice that Abraham’s prayer really consists of a series of questions he asked of God. He only made one declarative statement in the prayer and that was to answer his own questions concerning God’s character. “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” And the answer Abraham gave to his own question was “No.” God will not do so. And the reason that Abraham could answer that way was because of his knowledge of God’s character. God’s own sense of justice would not allow him to destroy the righteous indiscriminately along with the wicked. What a bold prayer this is! In a very real sense, Abraham was reminding God of his own character and did so through a series of rhetorical questions.
Can we pray in this manner? To do so would require a level of confidence and boldness with God with which many of us may be uncomfortable. But it also requires a firm and deep knowledge of who God is so that we can pray accurately. How did Abraham acquire this knowledge? Perhaps our next example of prayer will show us.
Moses. When Israel camped at Mount Sinai after leaving Egypt, Moses ascended to the top of the mountain while Israel remained down below. While Moses was with God, Israel fell into idolatry and debauchery. God decided he would destroy the people of Israel and start his plan over with Moses as the father of a new nation. We read Moses’s response in the following passage.
But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God: “Lord, why does your anger burn against your people you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and a strong hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘He brought them out with an evil intent to kill them in the mountains and eliminate them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce anger and relent concerning this disaster planned for your people. Remember you servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel–you swore to them by yourself and declared, ‘I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of the sky and will give your offspring all this land that I have promised, and they will inherit it forever.'” So the Lord relented concerning the disaster he had said he would bring on this people.Exodus 32:11-14 CSB
In a separate situation, Moses prayed a similar prayer:
But Moses replied to the Lord, “The Egyptians will hear about it, for by your strength you brought up this people from them. They will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that you, Lord, are among these people, how you, Lord, are seen face to face, how your cloud stands over them, and how you go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. If you kill this people with a single blow, the nations that have heard of your fame will declare, ‘Since the Lord wasn’t able to bring this people into the land he swore to give them, he has slaughtered them in the wilderness.’ So now, may my Lord’s power be magnified just as you have spoken: The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in faithful love, forgiving iniquity and rebellion. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children to the third and fourth generation. Please pardon the iniquity of this people, in keeping with the greatness of your faithful love, just as you have forgiven them from Egypt until now.Numbers 14:13-19 CSB
With the two prayers we see a pattern for Moses’s prayer. He based his request of God on two basic factors. First, Moses appealed to God’s reputation among the nations. In this particular case, the problem was in two directions. The Egyptians behind them would hear what God was doing with Israel, but also the nations inhabiting the promised land would hear what God had done. In both cases, God’s reputation would be questioned by the nations. Second, Moses made his appeal based on God’s promises to Israel, and he specifically appealed to God’s own words in this regard. In the Exodus passage, Moses quoted, or very closely paraphrased, what God had said in Genesis 15:5, 18; and 17:8. The prayer in Numbers quoted from Exodus 34:6-7. Moses did not have to guess about God’s character because he had God’s own words on which to appeal.
Note also the change from the indirect nature of Abraham’s appeals, made with rhetorical questions, to Moses’s direct appeals, “Turn from your fierce anger and relent concerning this disaster planned for your people,” and “Please pardon the iniquity of this people, in keeping with the greatness of your faithful love.” Moses used imperative verbs to give instruction to God.
Paul. I am passing over many great prayers of the Bible to get to Paul. Nehemiah 9, Ezra 9, and Daniel 9 (how convenient is that!) contain prayers of intercession on behalf of the nation of Israel that should be studied on their own for their teaching on prayer and corporate guilt. But since this piece has already gone on much longer than I intended, I am going to pass on to a prayer of Paul on behalf of the Ephesian church.
I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, would give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you may know what is the hope of his calling, what is the wealth of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the mighty working of his strength.Ephesians 1:17-19 CSB
This passage contains not the prayer itself, but Paul’s report of what he has been praying on behalf of the Ephesians. We see none of the form of Moses’s prayer here. There is no appeal to God’s reputation among the nations. There is an appeal to God’s promises to his people, in a sense, but there is not as clear a reference to a past scriptural reference as there was with Moses’s prayers.
Notice the change in grammar here, however. Abraham prayed with indirect rhetorical questions, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked?” Moses prayed with imperatives, “Turn!” “Relent!” “Forgive!” Paul begins each appeal with, “I pray that . . .” Now, it may well be that when Paul was actually praying, he might have used a more direct appeal similar to Moses. But we have to go with what he has given us to work with.
While I find the form of his prayer interesting, what I find of much more interest is the content of these prayers. Paul made two requests, each beginning with “I pray that . . .” His requests are as follows: “that . . . God . . . would give you the Spirit of wisdom . . .” and “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.” Each of these requests is more complex than what I have recorded here, but I have simplified them in order to see the basic content of the prayers.
The first prayer is clear enough. Paul asked God to give to the Ephesian believers the Spirit of wisdom. The second prayer is a bit more difficult, however, because he is using a passive verb and there is no clear reference to God. He prayed that the eyes of their hearts would be enlightened. When we have a passive verb, we are told who is being acted upon, but we are not told who is doing the acting. The eyes of their hearts are being enlightened, but who is enlightening the eyes of their hearts? That question may sound silly. Of course, it is God who is enlightening their hearts. Perhaps that goes without saying, but it is important to acknowledge that truth. The reason it is important to acknowledge is because of what we see in the next prayer.
Jesus. There are a number of prayers we could look at when we study the prayers of Jesus. Jesus taught us a model prayer that we commonly call the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught through parables concerning our persistence in prayer and in our need to believe when we pray. But I want here to look at Luke 22:40.
When he reached the place, he told them, “Pray that you may not fall into temptation.”Luke 22:40 CSB
This verse has at least two possible meanings. Jesus could have meant that his disciples should pray in order that they not fall into temptation. In other words, we are not being told the content of their prayer, but that if they do enter into prayer, they will avoid temptation. The second possible meaning is that Jesus is telling them the content of the prayer, namely that they not enter into temptation. For two reasons, I believe that Jesus is telling them the content of their prayer. First, in the Greek of this verse there is nothing coming in between the command “pray” and the object “you not fall into temptation.” We might translate it roughly, “Pray you don’t fall into temptation.”
One problem arises when we look at Luke 22:46.
“Why are you sleeping?” he asked them. “Get up and pray, so that you won’t fall into temptation.”Luke 22:46 CSB
I believe this verse should have been translated the same way as the previous verse, without the word so. There is a difference in the Greek text in that this verse includes a word that can be translated as showing purpose or intention. It is translated here as “pray, so that you won’t fall into temptation.” The phrase so that is indicating purpose. But it does not need to mean that, and it could simply be indicating the content of what they are to pray. Why do I say that? Because in our earlier passage of Ephesians 1:17-19, Paul used the same construction when he obviously meant the content of the prayer. “I pray that . . . God . . . would give you the Spirit of wisdom.”
Now why am I going into all of this? Because Jesus told them to pray that they not fall into temptation. An important question becomes, what is it that God is supposed to do? There is no passive verb as in the Paul passage about the heart being enlightened. The disciples’ prayer would appear to be that they would do something, and not God.
But it gets interesting at this point, because Jesus himself instructed the disciples to pray that God not lead them into temptation. This part of the Lord’s Prayer has always been problematic for interpreters and I will not attempt to solve those problems here, but my point is to say that at the point where a prayer seems to involve the action of the one praying rather than the action of God, Scripture actually shows us that what appears to be the work of the one praying is actually the work of God on behalf of believers.
So . . . What?
So what does this discussion of biblical models of prayer mean? Why spend all this time discussing grammar and prayer? I have started something of a habit when listening to prayer requests of people at church. I am sure this habit is somewhat irritating to others. I will sometimes hear a prayer request and I will respond to the person with a question. “What is it that you want God to do?” If this person has never heard my question before, I am usually answered with a blank stare. “What do you mean? I don’t understand your question.” I often encounter people who express prayer requests and will sometimes go through their prayers without mentioning God as the recipient of their prayer and as the one who would act in response to their prayer.
Sometimes the answer to the question is easy. The requester says, “Please pray for my Uncle Joe. He’s in the hospital and will have surgery next Wednesday. Please pray that the surgery goes well and that he comes home soon.”
I ask, “What is it that you want God to do?”
They respond, “I want for God to help the doctors and heal my uncle.”
I might ask in response why they think God would be interested in answering this request, and we can then look to Scripture and see that our God is a God who heals. We can see a larger biblical theme that sickness is the result of the fall and that God is working to overcome these things. When we do that, we can pray confidently because we know that we are praying in accordance with God’s character and nature. Now God may or may not heal this person, but we know that are praying in accordance with God’s character.
Then the next person says, “I have a big exam next Friday. Please pray that I would be able to prepare well for the exam and get a good grade.”
“What is it that you want God to do?”
“Well, . . . I’m not sure. I guess I want for him to help my preparation, and that he might give me a good night’s sleep before the exam. I’m not sure.”
“Okay then. And why do you think God wants you to pass this exam?”
“Well, there’s Jeremiah 29:11. God wants me to prosper and have a good future.”
“We can talk about that verse later. I’m not sure it means what you think it means. But in the meantime, let’s pray about this, but let’s be clear about what we are expecting God to do.” My goal is not to dissuade the person from praying, and I certainly don’t want for people to think that God does not care about their concerns, but I just want for people to be thoughtful in their request.
I too often see people in the world “sending thoughts and prayers” towards a person in need. I don’t want for our prayers to devolve into “positive thinking” or “warm thoughts.” We are doing something real and that is of grave importance.
The Last Word
I want to leave you with two things then. First, when we pray, be clear about what we are asking of God. It will often help to clarify in your own mind what the precise problem is, and it will make your prayers richer.
Second, I challenge you to know God. Find out whether the things we are asking are in accordance with God’s will and in accordance with his own nature. When Moses made his requests, he quoted God’s own words back to him and held God to his own promises. If we know God through his revealed word, then we can pray with confidence as we bring our requests before his throne.
As I said at the outset of this piece, to pray is better than not to pray. And now at the end I add, to pray thoughtfully is better than to pray without thought and attention.