What is Prayer?
In the Christian religion, prayer is the act of communicating with God.
Prayer can take on different forms such as verbal, written, or silent communication. It can consist of petition, confession, lamentation, and other expressions of faith. The subject of prayer permeates the Old and New Testament.
The Old Testament places prayer in connection with other religious acts, such as sacrifices, vows, fasts, and mourning ceremonies. "To pray" is expressed in Hebrew by ‘athar or he‘ethir, a verb which in Arabic means "to sacrifice," and thus had a cultic meaning from the beginning. This word is found in the older sources of the Pentateuch and in Judges xiii. 8; Job xxii. 27, xxxiii. 26.
The Old Testament prescribes no such external ceremonies or postures in prayer as occur among the later Jews and Muslims. The petitioner stood or prostrated himself as did the subject before the king. The hands were extended to express purity, and were lifted up to heaven or toward the sanctuary in intercession. Prayer as the freest expression of religious life could be performed in any place, although the sanctuary was considered the most appropriate. In early times prayer accompanied the offer of sacrifice; later it is mentioned expressly as an integral part of daily service, partly as a function of the Levites in which the people joined.
Prayer in the Bible
It is nowhere directed in the Old Testament because it was regarded as the natural expression of religious life. No definite form is prescribed; the mode of expression was left to the inspiration of the moment; but the prayers contained in the Psalter naturally gained lasting importance as hymns of the congregation. Prayer was called forth by the most varying sentiments; it was an expression of gratitude for gifts, but more frequently it expressed supplication for external well-being, for deliverance from distress, for forgiveness of sins, or for wisdom.
It had reference at times to the salvation of the whole people, at other times to purely personal relations. Great importance was attached to the prayer of a prophet if it had reference to the fulfilment of the divine word and the manifestations of the true God. In this respect, Jeremiah was the great example and was imitated by the psalmists; for the Psalms are mostly entreaties for a decisive self-manifestation of God.
There occurs frequently in the Old Testament also the intercessory prayer of men who stood in nearer relation to God and were especially heard. It was only in post Exilic times that prayer was regarded as a meritorious service and practise, a conception which further developed under Pharisaism (see Pharisses and Sadducees).
Prayer in the New Testament
The reader of the New Testament, in the course of a rapid reading, might receive a very strong impression that as compared with other sacred books, including the Old Testament, there is an almost complete absence of the sacerdotal sacrificial elements. The main cause is the revival of prophetism, begun by John the Baptist, embodied in Christ and giving distinctive quality to the Christianity of the Apostolic Age.
A secondary cause is found in the history of Judaism. The bankruptcy of the Jewish state, the development of the Jewish Church, the shifting of the center of gravity from the nation to the individual, the irresistible though unconscious forces whereby the synagogal system ousted the Temple from the center of consciousness,—it was along this road that prayer came to take the place of sacrifice. The immense outflow of spiritual power and moral energy that founded the Christian Church made prayer its spring and soul.
Necessarily Christian prayer was strongly corporate. Such was the tendency in Jewish prayer. Even stronger was the tendency in Christian prayer. And this because of the psychology of prayer. For prayer is yearning and desire fed on hope and grounded in faith. The reason for the Apostolic Church's existence was her belief in the kingdom of God. The power that grouped chosen individuals together and built them into congregational units was an impassioned confidence in the reality and immanence of that divine order.
Consequently, prayer was the soul of the Christian community, and this prayer, by its constitution, was intensely corporate. The Lord's Prayer clearly shows this. Jesus put it forth not to serve as a specific prayer but to manifest the perspective and the proportion of prayer. It gives the framework and the constitution of prayer as Christians learned it from their master. The heart of it is a profound sense of solidarity between the followers of Jesus Christ. Its fundamental quality is a corporate desire and will bent upon the kingdom of God.Prayer in James and Paul
Healing in the Apostolic Church was inseparable from prayer. The only deliberate testimony on this point is found in the epistle of James (v. 14–15). But the necessity of the connection is everywhere taken for granted. The personal practise of the Savior is clear.
The incidental allusions of the New Testament are conclusive. There is no present need of arguing for the healing value of prayer when prayer, rightly framed, has control of consciousness both personal and corporate. Its therapeutic power can not be doubted; the question is how to use it wisely.
The deep consciousness of salvation that pervades the New Testament makes joy the keynote of prayer as of life. In Paul, the supreme individual of the Apostolic Age; and at the same time its master-worker, this is strikingly true. Prayer is the atmosphere of life. It should be unceasing (I Thess. v. 17). It is the voice of the creative spirit in the soul of redeemed people (Rom. viii. 15). And because it is the deepest reach of experience, it is the final mystery. The redeemed man learns that his prayers by themselves are incompetent (Rom. viii. 26–27), but within the spirit of prayer in his breast he finds the Holy Spirit yearning. It is this discovery that gives him indestructible confidence.Prayer and Christ
The nature of prayer in the New Testament accounts for and explains the relation of prayer to the person of Christ. The fact that prayer is essentially corporate being clearly in mind, it follows forthwith that prayer must be in the name of the Savior. The new community was inseparable from its founder and head. Baptism, the rite of entrance into Christian fellowship, was in his name (Acts ii. 38). The working creed was the conviction that he was master of the world's fortunes, this conviction taking the form of an impassioned belief in his speedy second coming.
The deepening thought of the Church was Christologic (e.g., II Cor., as a model of pastoral theology). The miracles of healing were wrought in his name (Acts iii. 6). His name was taken to be the only name given under heaven among men whereby they must be saved (Acts iv. 12). Hence the person of Christ becomes inseparable from the idea of God (John xiv. 9). Consequently prayer is necessarily related to Christ.
In Paul this is particularly clear. The mystical immanence of the risen Savior is the center of the inner life (Gal. ii. 20); all things which it becomes a Christian to do must be done in his name (Col. iii. 17). Therefore it follows that thanksgiving and prayer, the upgoing and outgoing of the soul to the source of life, while it goes direct to God, may, without detriment to the vital strength of monotheism, pass through the mind and person of Christ. In the ripest form of New-Testament thought, the Johannine theology, this becomes even clearer than in Paul. The mature Christian is to ask all things of God in his son's name (John xv. 16, xvi. 23).
The necessary recasting of trinitarian doctrine in the light of historical knowledge of the New Testament, the more vital pressure of the divine unity upon Christian consciousness brought about by the social problem, the deepening sense of the divine immanence-these forces in course of time will enable Christians to put aside those imperfect conceptions of the mediatorhood of Christ which led the Church to underweigh the humanity of the Savior. While praying to Jesus they will not forget that Jesus prayed.Prayer in the Church
Prayer purports to be communication with God. Friends as well as opponents of prayer regard it as an attempt to gain in time of need the aid of a power supramundane. On this ground prayer might be defended as an expression of human impotence. Prayer in its essence, however, is quite other than a cry of distress to an indefinite power or object; it is communion with God. Necessity is a stimulus to prayer, but the capacity for real prayer does not originate in need.The Element of Experience
Prayer, as an address to God, implies that God is near to man, it involves certainty of the reality of God. One who had received no revelation of God would not be able to pray, while consciousness of such an experience brings ability to pray aright and inspires devotion. Such devotion expands spiritual power, and at the same time continues the experience through which is realized consciousness of God's interposition in life. Absorption in such consciousness affords confidence that God is present to us.
None can pray if by his own fault the recollection that God once called him is obscured. However urgently Jesus enjoined prayer, he surely did not believe that man should pray without regard to his present condition; he did not desire prayer in which the heart is removed from God. Each individual must feel the revelation of God to be his personal experience. God is found in that life in which he reveals himself as personal life in Jesus Christ, so that in addressing him man addresses the Father.
The ability to commune with God is for man an introduction into a new reality and a foreglimpse of an infinite future. Nothing can give deeper joy than these drafts of breath in a new life. Consequently Luther asserted correctly that the Lord's Prayer, and indeed every right Christian prayer, begins with thanksgiving and praise. But after the address to God has unfolded as an invocation of the Father in heaven, prayer becomes necessarily an entreaty. With the Christian supplication originates in God's revelation of himself.
To possess God means to seek God. He who does not find the desire for God repressing every other desire has not found the God who reveals himself in Christ. This desire should be the starting-point of the Christian's unceasing prayer. This thought is expressed in the opening petitions of the Lord's Prayer. They are not a declaration that the Christian wishes to consider God's affairs more important than his own; they express rather the most urgent concern of the Christian himself. Those men are not children of God who do not desire above all to be near the Father; and for this knowledge of God is necessary.Self-Seeking Excluded
While Jesus directed to urgent and trustful prayer, without reservation and limitation, his directions presupposed that independence which was to grow up under his influence; they imply a disposition consciously ready to utter such petitions. They might be interpreted as though God would grant every self-indulgent Seeking and selfish wish of his children. Indeed, they must be so understood if followed by one who knows no desire for God. One whose heart is filled with earthly care can utter only this in his prayer.
Such a man, therefore, dares not pray as others pray, but is intent upon his own needs. This was doubtless the meaning of Jesus. He must have hated supremely insincere prayer. But is that prayer sincere which expresses only burning desire for some worldly concern under the idea, upheld by an energetic will, that a power exists which by continual supplication may be moved to grant some definite petition? It is evident that such a prayer is only seeming; for while the petitioner pretends to address God, his representation of God is only an amplification of his wish.
That prayer is not real in which effort is needed to follow the words of Jesus in which he limits the confidence of supplication. One not in the proper inner condition can not understand how a man can pray in earnest realizing that the Father in heaven knows and considers his needs without his asking or expressing with his supplication the willingness to renounce it. He who takes these words of Jesus as precepts that may be followed, is left without a motive; he can not realize that they are the expression of experiences gained in the exercise of prayer.
All these difficulties disappear for those to whom Jesus spoke these words. If the eye has been opened to the fact that the efficient cause in all reality is a personal life that surrounds man with fatherly love, longing for God results. This longing is real life, and to develop it is the one in exhaustible task. Only when God is known from personal experience will it be possible to discern the relation of other forms of prayer. It can then be understood how a petition for external things, permeated by full assurance of being heard, may harmonize with a willingness to renounce it.Source
Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge" (in the public domain), "Prayer" with minor edits.