A Theology of Prayer
In Luke 11:1, after Jesus finished praying, one of His disciples came to Him with this request, “…Lord, teach us to pray…” This is what it means to develop a theology of prayer; leaning to pray from God so that your prayer-life will become more about Him and what He wants than about you and what you want. Praying, “Lord, teach us to pray,” is the first prayer to learn because it puts you in a posture of receiving from God and it reveals to you what God wants to give you so that you will ask Him for that in prayer. This is a theology of prayer. And God has already answered that request in His Word, the Bible.
The word, “theology,” means the study of God. Another way to say that would be to know God as God has revealed Himself in the Bible. This is also the result of prayer, to know God as God has revealed Himself in the Bible. In other words, the Bible is the place to learn to pray.
The longest book of the Bible, the book of Psalms, is the book of prayers. The longest chapter in the Bible, Psalm 119, is a prayer. The greatest life of the Bible, the Lord Jesus Christ, reveals a life of prayer. Jesus called John the Baptist the greatest man who ever lived (under Adam; Matthew 11:11), and he was a man of prayer who also taught his disciples to pray. And yet so many of the followers of Christ have not learned to pray from God’s Word. They do not have a theology of prayer. Their prayers do not echo the teachings of the Bible on prayer. Too many have learned to pray by listening to someone who has not been taught to pray from the Scriptures. We need to learn to pray by listening to God’s Word. This is what it means to have a theology of prayer.
Learning by Listening
A child learns to talk by first listening. The old adage, “Be careful what you say around a child, because they will repeat it,” has been proven many times to the embarrassment of many of parents. We are created to be first of all, a receiver. And a child is an indiscriminate receiver. Another observation about a child is that they understand words long before they can formulate words on their own. Their first words and sentences are hard to understand but the more they listen and speak what they hear, the clearer their words and sentences become. So it is with prayer.
We learn to talk to God by first listening to God talk to us, just like the disciple of Jesus in Luke 11:1. He was listening to Jesus talk to God and wanted to learn to talk to God the same way. One of the most telling things said about the prayer-life of Jesus was spoken by Martha in John 11:22, “…I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” When you study the prayers of Jesus recorded in the Gospels, you hear God’s Word in them (Matt. 11:25-30, 27:46, Mk. 1:35-39, Lk. 22:42, 23:46, Jn. 17, 19:28-30). Jesus, the last Adam, reveals not only the fullness of the Godhead, He also reveals the fullness of Man the way God created man to live. His prayer-life echoed God’s Word. When you learn to pray from the Lord Jesus Christ, you will have learned to pray from the Word of God, just like He did, and you will pray the way God intended man to pray from the very beginning; by listening first, then saying back to God what you have heard Him say to you.
The first step in developing this kind of theology of prayer and learning to pray from God’s Word is to learn to listen to God when you pray. There are several good authors that have written on this subject (see bibliography). Most of them will point out the shift in moving from what you want in prayer to desiring what God wants in prayer. Asking God for what God desires to give you is the result of knowing God. In other words, the beginning of prayer is also the goal of prayer, which is to know God in prayer.
A careful study of Psalm 2 reveals this theology of prayer in the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, His King. Notice how the King, the Son, echoes the word He has heard from the Father. The King, the Son, speaks what He has heard the Father say, “I will tell the decree: The LORD said to me, You are my Son; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, the ends of the earth your possession.” Psalm 2:7-8. God the Father tells His own Son to ask Him for what He, the Father desires to give Him. This is the proper foundation for a theology of prayer.
A New Testament example of this is found in Matthew 16:13-23. This is sometimes called the great confession. It is also one of the clearest teachings on prayer in the Bible. The question Jesus asked His disciples was a set up, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” After they repeated what they had heard others saying (like some have learned to pray by listening to what others pray), then Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?” All of a sudden, Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God!” Jesus told him that he was speaking what he just heard God say to him. Simon was praying! Jesus went on to say that this would be the way His church would advance against and conquer the kingdom of darkness; praying out loud what is heard from heaven. Immediately, Jesus began to reveal to His disciples what He wanted them to begin praying with Him about; His journey to Jerusalem, His betrayal, His passion, death, burial, and resurrection. When Peter objected, he was rebuked as a hindrance to Jesus, not being mindful of the will of God but of man. This passage is about prayer and understanding a proper theology of prayer.
Bad Theology vs. Good Theology
This is contrary to what some have been taught about prayer. Some have the idea (bad theology) that prayer is about getting things from God. This kind of theology sees prayer as a way of seeking to get God to help you out with your life. People who have embraced this faulty theology seek to learn the proper phrases, like a mantra, that will get God’s attention. Or they will “…heap up empty phrases…for they think that they will be heard for their many words…” (Matthew 6:7). And they will worry a lot when they pray, fearing that they may be asking God for the wrong thing. They have swallowed the teaching, “Be careful what you pray for, because God may just give it to you!” Oh my. What kind of parent would teach a child to be careful what they ask for because they might get it? What father would give his child a scorpion to teach the child a lesson in asking for the wrong thing? Certainly not a father who loves his child, and God loves us more than we can begin to imagine. His greatest desire is that we know Him and to desire what He desires us to desire. That sentence may not be very good English but it is good theology.
A proper theology of prayer first seeks to know God and His desires for you by listening to Him. You learn to listen to God by listening to His word. God relates to you through Jesus Christ and His Spirit and by His word. As you receive His word in Christ, He creates in you His desire, His will. God creates with His word (Genesis 1-2). As His will is formed and manifested in your life, the Life of Jesus is seen, heard, and experienced by the world around you. This is the will of God! And prayer is the means of it coming to pass; God the Father revealing His Son by the Spirit of Jesus living in you, with you, through you, as you, in the world around you.
How to Learn to Pray from God’s Word
Practically this is done with the Bible when you pray. It is more than just praying the words of the Bible, although it does start there. Since the book of Psalms is the prayer book of the Bible, start with the book of Psalms and pray a Psalm a day. Start on the first day of the month with Psalm 1. On the 31st day of the month pray Psalm 31. Then, pray it again on the next day in order to stay with the 0-9 numbering and days of the month. This will allow you to pray through the book of Psalms in about five months, 150 days of prayers. You will prayer through the book of Psalms twice in one year.
As you read the Psalm, ask yourself what these words are revealing to you about God. Remember, prayer is first of all getting to know the Person who is speaking to you, God. As God reveals something about Himself to you, pray that back to Him similar to how Simon Peter did that day at Caesarea Philippi, “You are…”
As you read the Psalm in prayer each day, ask yourself how this prayer addresses various issues in life. It may be an issue you are experiencing or struggling with, or if not, it may be an issue that someone you know is experiencing and struggling with. Or it may reveal something that God desires to do in your life and give you. One of the things to keep in mind as you learn to pray from the Psalms is what the New Testament teaches about our enemies; they are not “…flesh and blood, but…spiritual forces of evil…” (Ephesians 6:12). The Psalmists will not teach you to fight people, but will teach you how to fight God’s enemies, Satan and his demons.
Psalm 119 is 176 verses long. It is too long to pray in one prayer time. It is arranged in eight-verse sections (22 in all) which can easily be added to your Psalm for the day. As you pray a different eight-verse section for the day, notice what the prayer is saying about God, what the requests are, what vows are made. Pick out one verse from that section and write it on an index card and memorize it in order to pray it throughout the day that day. With this practice, you will pray through Psalm119 seven times during the five-month journey through Psalms. By memorizing one verse of Psalm 119 for the day, you will have prayed by memory the entire Psalm, more or less, because on many days you will want to write down and pray two or three of these powerful prayer-verses.
Your prayer-life will change with this practice. Your prayers will take on a new form, the shape of God’s desire. They will begin echoing God’s word and will. As you pray and read the Bible (see Appendix 1), your life will begin to be transformed and shaped more and more into the likeness of the Lord Jesus Christ, by the Holy Spirit, for the glory of God the Father. AMEN.
Bible Reading As Prayer
Start with the Psalm corresponding to the day of the month; for example; today is August 24; read Psalm 24. On September 1, read Psalm 31 again to keep with 0-9 numbering. On September 9th you will read Psalm 39, on the 10th you will read Psalm 40. On September 30th you will read Psalm 60. October 1 you will read Psalm 61. In 5 months you will have gone through the book of Psalms.
As you read the Psalm for the day ask this question the first time you read it; “What does this say about God?” As you identify His attributes, praise Him for those attributes. Think of songs and hymns you know that also praise Him for those attributes and sing those songs and hymns to God.
The second time you read the Psalm notice what it says about you and respond with confession. Think of songs that correspond to that confession. The third time you read the Psalm take note of how it reminds you of the need of others that you know of and pray for them.
Turn to Proverbs 1:1-15. Here God the Father is speaking to you from the words of King Solomon to his son. The next day, read Proverbs 1:16- end of chapter 1. Each day listen to God speaking to you from half of a proverb. You may want to keep a note pad handy to keep track of what Proverb you are on. In 2 months you will start over.
Now read a section of 10-20 verses from the gospels. Meditate that day on the teaching and activity of Jesus. Throughout the day, follow Him in that reading, asking Him about it. In six months you will have gone through all four gospels and can start over.
Read Romans the same way you do Proverbs, half a chapter a day. Follow Romans with Ephesians, Colossians, and Hebrews. These three books have short chapters and can be done one a day. In about two months you start over with Romans again. These four books are loaded with concentrated Christ-centered theology. Pray the truths from these four books.
Psalm 119 is the longest chapter in the Bible. It has 176 verses that are arranged according the Hebrew alphabet, which has 22 letters. This Psalm is a prayer about the beauty and value of God’s word in the life of a believer. It can be prayed each day by following a simple plan.
It is best to start with the first day of the month. Notice the heading above 119:1. It is Aleph. This is the first letter in the Hebrew alphabet. The prayer you will pray on the first day of the month is 119:1-8. Notice the heading above 119:9. It is Beth. This is the second letter in the Hebrew alphabet. On the second day of the month, you will pray 119:9-16 as part of your prayer time.
On day 22 you will be at 119:169, with the heading Taw. This is the last letter in the Hebrew alphabet. On day 23, go back to Aleph. On day 30 you will be at 119:57-64, Heth, the eighth letter in the Hebrew alphabet. Then simply continue praying a different section each day. By the time you have prayed through the book of Psalms (about 5 months) you will have gone through Psalm 119 seven times.
As you pray that section for the day, notice a line or verse that you can memorize and pray throughout the day. Write it down on an index card if you need to as a reminder of your prayer that day. End with the Read Through the Bible in Two Years chapters (about 10 per week).
Selected Bibliography on Prayer
Blackaby, Henry and Richard. Hearing God’s Voice. Nahville: Broadman &Holman Publishers, 2002.
Blackaby, Henry and Norman C. Experiencing Prayer with Jesus. Sisters, Oregan: Multnmah Publishers,
Bunyan, John. Prayer. Carlisle, Pennsylvania: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1995.
Hallesby, O. Prayer. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994.
Mulholland, Robert M. Jr. Shaped By the Word. Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2000.
Murray, Andrew. The Inner Life. Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1984.
Nee, Watchman. The Prayer Ministry of the Church. Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministry. 1995.
Packer, J.I. Praying. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 2006.
Peterson, Eugene H. Eat This Book. Grand Rapid: William B. Eerdmans Publishing. 2006.
Piper, John. A Hunger for God. Wheaton: Crossway Books. 1997.
Sorge, Bob. Secrets of the Secret Place. Greenwood, Missouri: Oasis House. 2001.
Stanley, Charles. How to Listen to God. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers. 1985.
Willard, Dallas. Hearing God. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1999.