When Jesus’ disciples asked of Him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1) they were making a request that should find resonance with our own hearts. It has been said that, if the scriptures are the spiritual nourishment our hearts crave, then prayer is the very breath we breathe. Clearly, that makes praying a pretty significant part of walking with God—so here do we start?
Writer and scholar C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) said, “The first qualification for judging any piece of workmanship from a corkscrew to a cathedral is to know what it is – what it was intended to do and how it is to be used.” This applies to prayer as well. What is it for? Why does it matter? Where does it come from? These are ideas we want to explore together as we consider how to allow our good Lord to teach us to pray.
Understand Its purpose
“Why bother? Isn’t praying just talking to a God who has already decided what He wants to do anyway?” My friend was listing somewhere between irritated and bored. My response to him was simple. “If prayer was about talking God into things, then yes, why bother? But that isn’t what its about.”
If we notice the example of Jesus, we find times that He prayed for Himself (Luke 22:41–44), times that He prayed for others (John 11:41–42), and times even when He prayed for us (John 17:20–21). But that is only one facet of how he prayed.
Much of His praying seems to have been focused on simply being in communion with His Father. Repeatedly, especially before key moments in His ministry, Jesus would retreat to a solitary place and spend a night in prayer—talking to the Father about the things He was facing (see Luke 6:12).
It would appear that this was typical of Jesus’ incarnate experience where communion with His Father was a routine, repeated, and relished experience. The same is true for us. Prayer’s purpose is to let us come into the presence of our God and simply be with Him in fellowship and sharing. As we pour our hearts out to Him, we find strength for the journey in His faithful love and care.
Understand Its essence
When engaged in conversation about prayer, I often get asked what my view of prayer is. The many responses I have received include: Prayer is . . .
“interceding for others.”
“confessing to God when I have sinned.”
“communion with God.”
“giving thanks for God’s provision and blessings.”
“asking and receiving.”
And on and on and on come the variety of answers. But I would suggest that none of these descriptions really get to the heart of what prayer is. While none of these answers are incorrect or unscriptural, they are incomplete because they fail to go deep enough. Why? Because while these are useful and accurate descriptions of how prayer functions, they do not really speak to what prayer is.
At times, prayer functions as an act of thanksgiving. Or, it functions as a season of worship, or of praise, or of confession. That is what prayer does, but it is not what prayer is.
It seems to me that, at its core, prayer is very simple. Prayer is acknowledging our dependence upon God. It is accepting in our own hearts and minds what is patently obvious—that we need Him.
Whenever we bow our heads, get on our knees, or assume any prayer posture, we are acknowledging what God already knows. Life is too big for us. We need Him. So, we go to Him with all of the big and little, annoying and overwhelming, joyous and heartbreaking things of life knowing confidently that there is nothing in life that is too big for Him. He is more than sufficient for all the things of life—and so we pray to Him, reliant upon His grace and power and care.
This is the essence of prayer, and the ultimate why behind the what of prayer’s activity.
Understand its heart
Earlier, we noticed the prayers of Jesus and that, at times, He prayed for Himself. The most notable of these times came when Jesus bowed in the garden of Gethsemane the night before the cross. As the Son sought the Father in His most crucial moment of need, we find what, at its core, is the very heartbeat of prayer—trusting God Himself for the outcomes.
As Jesus prayed, three times He presented His request and three times He added, “…yet not what I will, but what You will.” (Mark 14:36). The heart of prayer is that we not only bring our needs and concerns to God because we want to be in His presence, or because He is greater and we need Him—we come to Him because we trust Him. We trust that God loves us and knows what is best for us, so as we lay before Him the things that weigh on our hearts we have confidence that His great love for us can be trusted.
This is why Paul reminds us that, as we pray, we can say “Abba, Father” (Romans 8:15). We pray to the Father whose love for us is eternal and unchanging—and who knows what is best for us and for those around us.
C. S. Lewis was right. In understanding anything we must understand what it is and what it is intended to do. Prayer exists to allow us to turn to our Father, know Him, and trust Him with our deepest needs and greatest longings. Prayer draws us to the presence of our good, good Father.