I remember teaching my young sons that prayer is ‘talking to God.’ A simple explanation for a child, but is prayer really that basic? What is prayer in the Bible? What does Jesus teach us about prayer? How is praying Biblically different from what you might think prayer is?
These questions, and others like them, often prevent people from praying. Perhaps you know someone like that. Or perhaps you struggle with similar questions yourself.
The truth is that we cannot fully understand the mind of God, so we cannot fully understand how prayer works. But God has not left us without guidance and instruction about prayer. He told us everything we need to know about prayer in the Bible. With the Word of God as our guide, let’s explore what prayer is – and what it’s not.
Where Do We Find Answers About Prayer?
The question, “What is prayer?” is the most basic, most frequently asked, question about prayer. By asking this question, you assume that there is an answer. And not just an answer, but a correct, truthful answer.
Do you remember taking tests in school? Spelling. Math. History. It didn’t matter – there was always only one correct answer. Sincerely believing – and answering – that the American Revolution was fought in the 20th century would be wrong. Period.
And the same idea applies to prayer. It doesn’t matter what you believe about prayer, or how sincerely you believe it if what you believe isn’t what the Bible teaches about prayer. Of course, that goes for so many other things as well – salvation, who God is, who Jesus is, heaven, hell, and more. But right now, we’re focused on prayer.
Only the Bible can teach you what prayer is. Only the Bible can correct any faulty beliefs you may have about prayer.
I’ve read many books on prayer. Many useful and challenging books on prayer. But I always consider what I read in light of what the Bible teaches. When what I read in a book contradicts what the Bible teaches, the Bible wins.When what I read in a book contradicts what the Bible teaches, the Bible wins. Click To Tweet
With that foundation established, let’s first consider what prayer is not.
What Prayer Is Not
Probably the biggest misunderstanding about prayer is that God is required to give you what you want when you pray ‘correctly.’ Verses like Mark 11:24, where Jesus promises that “all things you pray for” will be given if you believe, are twisted to make God into a heavenly genie.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. God does not exist to make people happy. Prayer does not exist so you can get all the goodies you want (James 4:3). However, these facts do not mean that God wants you to be miserable.
The truth is that God wants you to be happy, joyful, confident, and filled with blessings (Psalm 1; Psalm 34:4-10; Matthew 6:25-34; 7:7-11; John 10:10; James 1:17). He repeatedly says He wants to bless His children. But you don’t get His blessings by praying the right way or the right words or demanding He answer how you want. That is not what prayer is.
Of course, knowing what prayer is not doesn’t help much in understanding what prayer is. That would be like trying to understand what milk is by saying, ‘it isn’t juice.’ So, what is prayer? What does the Bible teach about prayer?
A Definition of Prayer
The Bible uses some version of the word ‘pray’ or ‘prayer’ in more than 100 verses. Plus, there are dozens of verses that use different words but are also about prayer. Words like supplication, request, ask, beg, petition, and others. God obviously included all this information in the Bible because He wants us to understand prayer so we can become faithful pray-ers.
A basic definition of prayer is “asking, requesting, or making a petition of God.” Simply put, praying is asking God to meet your needs or fulfill your desires. The word ‘ask’ or some version of it is used dozens of times in the Bible to refer to prayer. One of the most well-known verses is Matthew 7:7 which says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.”
Examples of Prayer in the Bible
Scripture gives us plenty of examples that we can learn from.
- Abraham’s servant prayed for guidance in finding a wife for Isaac (Genesis 24:12-14)
- Moses prayed to see God’s glory (Numbers 33:18)
- Hannah prayed specifically for a child (1 Samuel 1:10-11)
- Job prayed for his friends (Job 42:8, 10)
- David prayed for his son to live (1 Samuel 12:16-23)
- Solomon prayed for wisdom (2 Chronicles 1:8-10)
- Daniel prayed for forgiveness for the nation of Israel (Daniel 9)
- Nehemiah prayed for God to keep His promises and return Israel to their land (Nehemiah 1:4-11)
- Nehemiah prayed for favor with the king (Nehemiah 2:2-4)
- Zacharias prayed for a son (Luke 1:13)
- The early church prayed for Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:5-17)
- Paul prayed to be free from his ‘thorn in the flesh’ (2 Corinthians 12:7-9)
I could keep going, but you get the idea. God said ‘yes’ to almost all these prayers. But both David’s and Paul’s prayers listed above were answered ‘no.’ David, the “man after God’s own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14) did not always have his prayers answered the way he wanted. Nor did Paul, the man Jesus chose to bear His name before “the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel” (Acts 9:14-15).
Clearly, the Bible teaches that praying is asking (Matthew 7:7-8). It also clearly teaches that sometimes the answer is ‘yes’ and sometimes the answer is ‘no.’ Even for the strongest believers and most faithful followers. But even though you are not guaranteed a ‘yes’ answer, as a Christian you are still expected to pray.
Prayer is Expected of Believers
That God expected His children – and still expects them – to pray regularly is obvious when you read the Bible. He created that expectation when He created the first man and woman. God would walk in the garden in “the cool of the day” and speak with Adam and Eve (Genesis 3:8). The essence of prayer is conversation – and God started the conversation in the garden of Eden (Genesis 1:28-30).
He continued the conversation with anyone who would participate. Enoch (Genesis 5:22-24). Noah (Genesis 9:13-22). Abraham (Genesis 12:1-4). Jacob (Genesis 28:13-22). And many more.
Moses is a great example of this ongoing conversation. God spoke with him – remember, prayer is conversation – “face to face, just as a man speaks with his friend” (Exodus 33:11).
The psalms are a book of prayer and worship. So many prayers! God’s children taking all their concerns to Him in prayer. And then worshipping Him, even if the answer isn’t what was desired. Just a few of the psalms you can read and pray are Psalm 4, Psalm 42, Psalm 51, Psalm 55, Psalm 109, and Psalm 143. Of course, there are many, many more!
In the New Testament, Jesus often started teaching about prayer by saying, “When you pray” not “If you pray” (Matthew 6:5-7). Prayer was, and still is, an expectation.
In the first parable about prayer in Luke 18, Jesus teaches that believers “ought to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). In the second parable, he simply states that two men went to “the temple to pray” (Luke 18:10). Obviously, this was a normal, expected practice.
Finally, the Bible teaches that praying was a continual habit of the early church – and by example, it is an expectation for all believers through the ages (Acts 1:14; 2:42; 4:24-31; 6:4; 12:5, 12; 13:2-3).
But prayer is more than an expectation. It is also a command.
Prayer is a Command for All Christians
“Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) is probably the best-known command about prayer. Paul wrote this command in what is probably the earliest written book of the New Testament. That means that believers from the beginning of the church knew that praying wasn’t just a nice addition to the day. It was a necessity. It was a command.
But Paul didn’t stop with that one verse. He commanded prayer in several other letters as well.
- Believers are urged to be persistent in prayer (Romans 12:12).
- Paul wraps up the instruction on the armor of God with the command to “pray at all times” (Ephesians 6:18).
- Again, in Colossians 4:2, believers are commanded to “devote” themselves to prayer.
- Paul urges prayer for anyone in authority in 1 Timothy 2:1-4.
- Finally, what is probably the second best-known command on prayer is found in Philippians 4:6-7, where believers are told to not be “anxious” but to be prayerful.
Paul was not alone in commanding believers to pray. Peter also directed believers are to be “alert and sober-minded” in prayer because “the end of all things is near” (1 Peter 4:7).
Prayer is commanded of us because we need it, God desires it, God uses it, and God wants us to spend time with Him. Prayer is a command. But it is not a harsh command. Instead, it is the type of command a parent gives a child when she says, “Turn off the phone and come eat dinner with the family.” It is a command of love and desire.Prayer is a command of love and desire. Click To Tweet
Now…Will You Pray?
The Bible teaches much more about prayer. Future posts will explore more about prayer, including answers to these questions:
- What is the purpose of prayer?
- Why should you pray?
- What should be included in prayer?
- What should not be included in prayer?
- Are there any rules in the Bible about prayer?
- Does God really answer prayer?
As you learn more about prayer, be sure to put into practice what you learn! Now that you know God expects and commands prayer, you must ask yourself, “When will I set aside time for prayer?” This post could help you make a plan for prayer. And the free prayer guide available in the new Treasure Trove of Faith Freebies (formerly known as the Resource Library) could give you a framework to start with.
Stay tuned! More posts about prayer coming…along with a new prayer tool!