Definition Determines Destination
Some words in our common vocabulary cry out for definition. They are so frequently used in a vast array of contexts that the clarity of their real meaning and impact is convoluted. I believe “prayer” is one of those words.
According to research, 55% of Americans say they pray daily.[i] As you read these words, millions around the world from different religious perspectives are also praying. So, what are they doing? Catholics include prayer to departed saints or to the Virgin Mary, often accompanied by lit candles and a rosary. Muslims pray five times a day in a required ritual, accompanied by bodily movements, in an act of worship and supplication to Allah. Buddhist prayer is primarily an inward-focused meditation frequently accompanied by some repeated mantra. Hindus also utilize mantras, meditation, and yoga in connection with their millions of gods. Others pray to a “higher power” while some pray for peace as they focus on the “collective universe.” (Whatever that is.)
Definition and Destination
If you asked the average evangelical Christian to define prayer, they would likely say that prayer is “talking to God.” In the words of Calvin Miller, this definition essentially makes “us ‘one big mouth’ and God ‘one grand ear.’”[ii] Some would describe prayer as telling God about my needs. For sure, requests are a part of prayer, but not the foundation or beginning place. Requests are more man-centered by nature rather than God-centered. Jesus had much more in mind when He taught us how to pray.
If these are our fundamental definitions of prayer, the destination may be disappointing. If we are doing all the talking, and making our perception of our needs the primary content of prayer, we may not experience the intimacy of a two-way relationship with God. Rather than coming to embrace His will, we may be deeply disappointed that He did not carry out our will. Quoting Calvin Miller again, “Too often we go into God’s presence with a list of pleas, trying to talk God into granting our desire . . . But when we pray the Scriptures, it makes God the voice and leaves us as the ear. In short, God gets His turn at getting a word in edgewise.”[iii]
A classic definition of Christian prayer is “an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies” (Westminster Shorter Catechism).[iv]
A definition that I believe really summarizes the essence of New Testament prayer was offered by seminary professor Alvin Reid. He proposed:
“Prayer is intimacy with God that leads to the fulfillment of His purposes.”[v]
Of course, Reid’s definition presupposes a born-again experience and a personal, saving relationship with God through the work of Jesus Christ. The destination shaped by this definition is clear. We develop a deeper, richer, life-changing intimacy with Christ as we abide in Him through prayer. As a result, He accomplishes His purposes in our lives, which overshadow all of our own desires and even disappointments. He gets glory in and through us in all things.
The Pattern that Illustrates the Definition
I believe this definition aligns well with the model prayer given to us by Jesus in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. Prayer begins with worship and adoration of our Father in heaven. This is a pursuit of intimacy. The remainder of the prayer brings us to surrender to His kingdom purposes, trusting Him for our needs, aligning with His will in our relationships, and living by His power to overcome evil. Intimacy with God that leads to the fulfillment of His purposes.
The Models that Underscore the Definition
The most notable of Jesus’ prayers is found in John 17 when, just before going to the cross, our Savoir offered His soul up to the Father. It is a great picture of how Jesus understood prayer. I think it would be reasonable to say that this prayer is a portrayal of Jesus’ intimacy with the Father and the fulfillment of the Father’s purposes in and through Jesus’ earthly life.
In last week's devotion, I showed that the prayer of the early church in Acts 4:23-31 portrayed the greatest example of the content of the prayers of the early believers. They worshiped God first, from the Scriptures, then surrendered their lives to His purposes. Of course, the church had its origins in 10 days of prayer, waiting for the Spirit and the fulfillment of Christ’s mission for their lives. In Acts 13:1-2 the second half of the book of Acts was rooted in the leaders “fasting and ministering to the Lord.” Holy Spirit-powered world missions was launched as a result. Intimacy with God that led to the fulfillment of His purposes.
If you look at the recorded prayers of Paul in his letters to the churches (Ephesians 1:3–23; Ephesians 3:14–21; Philippians 1:3–11; Colossians 1:3–14; 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13; 2 Thessalonians 1:3–12) you will find that they are the fruit of his worship and intimate, experiential knowledge of the person of Christ. Paul’s requests were focused on the growing faith and love of believers with the goal of God’s glory. Intimacy with God that would lead to the fulfillment of His purposes. (For more about the prayers of Jesus and Paul, see my book, Transforming Prayer, pages 215-218.)
A Glorious Destination
Perhaps the final declaration in Jesus’ model prayer best captures the destination of intimacy with God that leads to the fulfillment of His purposes. “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever” (Matthew 6:13 - NKJV). The destination of our prayers is the advancement of His kingdom, the display of His power, and the glory of His name in and through our lives. In the final analysis, what else really matters?
Copyright ©2017 Daniel Henderson. All rights reserved.
[ii] Calvin Miller, The Path to Celtic Prayer (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 57
[iv] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Prayer. In Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 2, p. 1745). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.
[v] Alvin Reid, Evangelism Handbook: Biblical, Spiritual, Intentional, Missional (Nashville; B & H Academic, 2009), 167