I grew up going to church. Every Sunday and frequently on Wednesday it seems my family was always there in the building. Can I be honest? Most of the time I didn't want to be there.
I was a fidgety kid. I remember sitting in the Church pew hearing more prayers than I can count. Some were simple and profound. Touching and real. But most were just long drawn out speeches trying to influence God -- and all those listening. It was a sales pitch usually combined with an alter call. That was my perception of prayer.
What’s interesting is that despite all my years of going to church and "being" in church, rarely did anyone talk about WHAT prayer really is. It was if they assumed you just knew.
Sure, we heard the Lord’s prayer, and I was even taught how to pray. That is really important, but what about understanding what prayer really is? Not necessarily the why - but the what. Think about it, what is prayer to you?
Is prayer just a wish upon the star mantra? Is prayer a subtle way to complain about someone's bad judgement or to talk about others on what they ought to do ? Or is prayer something more?
I think this is a great question to think about as we near Christmas.
Quietly, I've always wanted to know, “is there a bare bones basic definition of what is prayer?" So, after decades of silently wondering, I went searching for one. I'm going to throw it out there for you to chew on. I'm going for a clear-cut definition of prayer.
At its core, I believe prayer is expressing the desire of our heart. That's it, plain and simple. It's about being real and honest with God. And what's great about prayer is that in the process of expressing of our desires, we self evaluate our motives. Think about how Jesus taught us to pray.
Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be your name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on hearth as it is heaven.
That's part one. 23 words long. The opening basically says. "God you are in control not me. I acknowledge You." The next part gets into the real request.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
The most quoted prayer in the universe spoken by the person we celebrate on Christmas day is a prayer expressing the desire of our heart. The meat of the prayer is only 28 words long. Notice that there is no passive aggressive tones in the prayer.
I first heard my wife share this definition when we were cooking dinner the other night. I had asked for her thoughts on prayer, and she shared this statement without thinking. It was perfect. It’s simple and foundational like it should be. It's also easy to remember.
This definition has the what and the why. It compels you to want to pray -- it gives you PERMISSION to pray. It's non-judgmental. And it doesn't limit you in how you can pray. You can write it out. You can talk it out quietly. You can express it with others. You can "walk" your prayer in thought, and more.
Think of it this way, prayer is an invitation to talk to the God of the universe. It's like He has friended you, followed you on social media, and you can DM Him anytime - day or night. Best of all He's going to see and read your DM.
The question is, how is He going to respond? It may not be in words. After all, He doesn't necessarily DM back. But He is always listening. Some how He will respond. The question is are you listening?
Prayer works this way.
For me, God responds through other people. Even the gentle nudge of my dog can be the message I needed. It can come in a card in the mail. A smile from a friend. A text from a colleague. A good warm meal at the end of long day. There are lots of ways God responds where he uses others. Our job is to look for it, but first we have to put in the request.
When you open Christmas presents on the 25th. Think about what message God is sending you in that moment. Remember your requests and remember He is always listening. The question is, what has He heard from you.
Like any good idea, there is more. A foundation should be something that we can build on. So, I went through as many books as I could find on my Kindle shelf to learn more about the power of prayer, but I was surprised on how few faith-based books actually state what prayer is. Shocked actually.
Fortunately, I have a good number of books in my Kindle library – so eventually I did find a few, but I thought it was going to be more.
The good news is that there’s one author that seems to tackle this opportunity head on more than anyone else, and that was Mark Batterson. One other not far behind was Billy Graham. And coming in third was Joyce Meyer.
I was surprised more didn't tackle "The What is Prayer" question -- at least in the books I owned. (I won't name any names, but there are at leaset 10 authors who are spirtual or faith leaders on myself). May be there's an assumption that people just instinctively know what prayer is. But do they really? Just because we know prayer matters, doesn't it mean we understand what it is.
But let’s explore the definitions of prayer for those that did have something to say about it. And as I do, I think you’ll see that the initial definition that I offered - that prayer is expressing the desire of our heart – is the common denominator amongst these definitions.
We’ll start with Batterson who has written several books on this topic. He is a prayer warrior and walks the talk – literally. (For you Circle Maker fans, you might get that reference).
- Prayer means “to set a trap.” It’s the way we take thoughts and dreams and ideas captive.”
- Prayer is the best way to jump-start the process of goal setting. It is a goal incubator.
- Prayer is the genesis of dreams [and] goals are the revelation
- Each prayer is like a seed that gets planted in the ground.
- Prayer is asking God to do something, future tense; praise is believing that God has already done it, past tense.
- Prayer is priming. Prayer puts us in a spiritual frame of mind. It helps us see and seize the God-ordained opportunities that are all around us all the time.
- Prayer is the difference between the best you can do and the best God can do.
- Prayer is the way we sanctify our expectations.
Batterson, makes several enlightening points. Prayer is a way for expressing our thoughts and dreams. It’s a goal incubator. It primes us to see and seize the opportunities around us. Best of all it’s a partnership that invites God to participate in our pursuit.
His narrative – give us context in understanding how prayer is truly about expressing the desire of our heart. It’s a goal setting machine.
The legendary Billy Graham shares his perspective, which I love too.
- Prayer is simply talking with God. It’s not something mysterious or secret
- Prayer is the highest use to which speech can be put. But today we often regard prayer as merely an honored tradition or a polite formality. But prayer—sincere, believing prayer—is so much more.
- Prayer is an acknowledgment of our helplessness. You will never pray if you think you can solve everything on your own, or if you are too proud to ask God for help. Pride leads to prayer-less-ness. But prayer also is an acknowledgment of God’s power and love.
- Prayer is simply a two-way conversation between you and God.
I love Reverend Graham’s view on prayer. It echoes also the foundation that prayer is expressing the desire of our heart. And like Mark Batterson, Graham points out that the intended target of conversation is God himself. It’s an invitation.
Next up is a string of great lines from a Joyce Meyer's devotional book. Check out what she has to say about prayer:
- Prayer is one of the things that reflects our closeness to God and our confidence in Him.
- Prayer is a lifestyle that brings us closer to God.
- Prayer is a positive force; worry is a negative force.
- Prayer is what opens the door for God to work in our lives and the lives of other people.
Prayer Opens the Door
Once again – Meyer’s perspective echoes the foundation definition that we’ve shared. Prayer is the expressing the desire of our heart. But she adds that proximity to God that we get when we pray. She also injects a beautiful thought that prayer opens the door for God to work not just in our life, but the lives of others.
Meyer adds a few more thoughts that I thought were worth to include as well. "Too often we get caught up in our own works concerning prayer. Sometimes we try to pray so long, loud, or fancy that we lose sight of the fact that prayer is really just conversation with God."
Charles Spurgeon also identifies some powerful thoughts on prayer that I found on a Google search:
- Prayer is a blessing.
- Prayer is a creature’s strength, his very breathe and being.
- True prayer is neither a mere mental exercise nor a vocal performance. It is far deeper than that - it is spiritual transaction with the Creator of Heaven and Earth.
Now there are a string of other authors and thought leaders with single definitions. Some of these came from my Kindle collection, others form a Google search. Check these out:
- Prayer is the constant calibration of the soul. – Bob Sorge
- Prayer is the vital link for God’s guidance. – Neil Anderson
- Prayer is where the action is. – John Wesley
- Prayer is not itself meritorious. It lays God under no obligation nor puts Him in debt to any. He hears prayer because He is good, and for no other reason. – A.W. Tozer
- Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God. - Saint Teresa of Avila
- Prayer is simply having a conversation with God. He has been waiting to hear from you. - Daniel Floyd
- Prayer is God's backstage pass into a personal audience with Him. - Tony Evans
- Prayer is the medium of miracles. - Marianne Williamson
- Prayer is our invitation to God to intervene in the affairs of earth. It is our request for Him to work His ways in this world. - Myles Munroe
- Prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscle of omnipotence. - Martin Farquhar Tupper
- Prayer is the most concrete way to make our home in God. - Henri Nouwen
- Prayer is a chief task of the leader (Acts 6:4). The leadership we provide which no one sees may be more important than what we do in public. Followers think of leadership in terms of the visible. In reality, leadership is like an iceberg; most of it lies unseen. A leader’s prayer tells you a lot about the leader. It reveals his or her commitment and concerns. Prayer keeps the leader focused. It keeps a leader dependent on God. It sustains the leader’s heart for people. If we are to lead people, we must pray for them. – John C. Maxwell
That last point by Maxwell is profound. “Prayer is a chief task of the leader.” If that's not a call to action, I am not sure what is. For us to lead, prayer is tool we should never neglect.
I like a lot of these other thoughts too, especially Tony Evan’s comment that “Prayer is God's backstage pass into a personal audience with Him.”
So, for now, that’s my exhaustive expose on the definition of prayer. Again, I want to reemphasize on the foundation we’ve already shared. Prayer is expressing the desires of our heart.
When we express our desires of the heart, we are more apt to be on the lookout for the opportunities that come our way – that helps us achieve those goals. And when we are more apt to acknowledge God of those opportunities and trust him, it helps take the worry away. It draws us closer to Him. It allows us live with greater confidence.
In closing, I want to share the words of legendary singer Keith Green from one of his songs before his passing.
“Lord, make my life a prayer to you.
I want to do what you want me to.
No empty words. No white lies.
No. token prayers no compromise.
I want to shine the light you gave.
Through Your Son You sent to save us
From ourselves and our despair
It comforts me to know You're really there”
Now that’s a prayer. It's wanting to live our life in such a way that our actions - what we do in life -- represents prayer. That we live our life in expressing the desire of our heart and experiencing God's presence. Imagine what might experience if you lived this way. Joy. Peace. Confidence. Faith. Trust. Courage and more.
What if we chose the same? What if this Christmas -- like Keith Green's song -- we made our life a prayer -- a gift back to God?
Imagine the life that you could live. The DMs you might get. The influence you would have.
There's power in prayer. And there's power in a life that walks in prayer.
Live in such a way that you are always expressing the desire of your heart.
This is the example that Jesus set for all of us . Who wouldn't want to follow a leader whose life is a prayer? When you live this way, you just might be the answer to someone else's prayer.
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