Prayer

Preaching and Worship Resources about Prayer

Prayer is address to God. It may include praise, thanksgiving, confession, lament, or petition, including intercession. Prayer may be said, thought, or sung. Prayer calls for reverence toward a holy God, but may also provide fellowship with a loving God.

In Scripture

"If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land" (2 Chron. 7:14).

"The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth" (Ps. 145:18).

"When you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you" (Jer. 29:12).

"I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" (Matt. 5:44).

"Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one" (Matt. 6:9 - 13).

"Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you" (Matt. 7:7).

"If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matt. 7:11).

"[Jesus] threw himself on the ground and prayed, `My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me, yet not what I want, but what you want'" (Matt. 26:39).

"I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Mark 11:24).

"Jesus said, `Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing'" (Luke 23:34).

"The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words" (Rom. 8:26).

"It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us" (Rom. 8:34).

"Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer" (Rom. 12:12).

"Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints" (Eph. 6:18).

"Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Phil. 4:6).

"Be thankful. . . . With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him" (Col. 3:15 - 17).

"Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you" (1 Thess. 5:16 - 18).

"I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth" (1 Tim. 2:1 - 4).

"Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise" (James 5:13).

"Confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective" (James 5:16).

"If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:9).

"And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have obtained the requests made of him" (1 John 5:14 - 15).

Points to Ponder

Praise is what is fitting. An obvious and important form of prayer, praise falls into the category of what's fitting. When healthy people spot greatness or goodness, they feel an impulse welling in them. The impulse is to praise what's great or good. Psalmists had this impulse all the time, and so the psalms ring with praise and with calls to praise. God has delivered the children of Israel. Let's praise our deliverer! God is great, God is good. Let's praise God! Let everybody praise God — even other nations, even mountains and hills, and rivers! Let everything praise God! Why? Because it's right and proper and fitting.

What's right is what causes us to thrive. When in our music God is glorified, adoration leaves no room for pride, no room for anger, no room for envy, or for sloth, or for any of the other sins that slay the human spirit. We praise God because it's right and proper and fitting, and in the wisdom of God what's right turns out also to be what causes us to thrive.

Praise requires a kind of recognition. You recognize greatness, and then you call attention to it, and then you try to magnify it. All this, said C. S. Lewis, is simply "inner health made audible." (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, Harvest, 1964, p. 179.) It's healthy to praise God's greatness. It's one of the things we human beings were made to do, and when we do it, our motor starts to hum and our exhaust tone gets throaty and strong.

The Christian's respiratory pattern: Thanksgiving is exhalation within the Christian's respiratory pattern. When you have been raised with Jesus Christ, giving thanks is simply a way to exhale. A resurrected Christian breathes in God's goodness and breathes out thanksgiving. Inhale goodness, exhale thanksgiving. That's the Christian's respiratory pattern, and Paul knew all about it.

So, in Colossians 3, Paul calls everybody who has been raised with Christ to start breathing the right way. Since you have been raised with Christ, be thankful, sing with gratitude in your hearts, give thanks to God through Christ. Three times in a row Paul urges thanksgiving as a kind of first prayer for those who have been born again.

The idea is that if somebody gives you something, then you give something back. You round out the transaction. Take in something, give out something. Breathe in, breathe out. Receive, give. This is the healthy rhythm of a healthy Christian life.

Lament takes faith. The psalms of lament are full of questions because the psalmists believe in a God of unfailing love. How long, Lord, how long? Why, Lord, why? When, Lord, when? Lament makes no sense if God is indifferent or off duty. Lament makes sense only if God is a God of unfailing love.

Unbelief shakes its fist at God or dismisses God or tries to get an invasive God off its back. It's faith that laments. Faith wrestles with God because trouble and enemies and terror all are anomalies in God's world. They don't belong there. In a world in which the King of the universe has unfailing love, these things should not happen.

But there they are, and so the believer points them out to God and laments them. These terrible things should not be.

Prayers of confession: Confession of sin is one of the healthiest things believers do. It's like taking out the garbage. Once is not enough. Healthy believers frankly own up to their shortcomings and trespasses, always aware that they pray from inside the cradle of God's grace. We confess to a generous God with whom our secrets are safe.

Petitionary prayer: Petitionary prayer is an important recognition of our dependence on God. We have to ask for things. We are not independent generators of goods. Goods come to us through a whole web of interdependence, and God is positioned at the center of it.

We do not understand how petitionary prayer works, and, some of the time, even whether it works. But Jesus told us to do it. And Jesus taught his disciples how to do it. In Scripture the Lord's Prayer is all petitions (the closing doxology used mostly by Protestants is a later addition). The petitions center on the coming of God's kingdom, when God's will is going to be done on earth as it is in heaven. This is the "paradigmatic prayer" for Christians. (Nicholas Wolterstorff, The God We Worship, Eerdmans, 2015, p. 111.) What we want is that what God wants will actually start to happen.

In the providence of God, petitionary intercession may do some good for the people we are praying for, but it is sure to do some good for us. I think we all understand. It's hard to know exactly what the link is between petitionary prayer for others and any improvement in their situation, but we have the weight of centuries behind the conviction that people who know they are being prayed for do better emotionally and spiritually. But the person praying gets better too. Just as it's healthy to praise greatness, so it's healthy to intercede for others — to make their causes our own, to want good for them, to ask for it, to mortify our own self-centeredness and to center instead, for a time, on the lives and needs of others.

Heard by more than one listener: In the heavenly realms prayer is heard (or overheard) by more than one listener. For one thing, God is triune. Strong trinitarians may conclude that three listen, not just one. But then there's also the heavenly council, the ranks of angels and archangels. Perhaps they hear prayer. For all we know, so do the saints and martyrs. We surely don't know they don't. The point is that we likely pray into a whole cloud of witnesses.

Paul says that not only mere humans intercede. So what if a homeless Christian under a bridge prays to God? He doesn't have a prayer chain from his church to lobby God. The two other guys under the bridge are too out of it to intercede. But what if Christ, our mediator, intercedes for him? What if the Holy Spirit groans over him? What if angels and saints and martyrs light heaven up with their intercessions for him? "Lord, hear my prayer. Lord — and anybody else who may be listening."

Prayer calls for reverence before a holy God. Christians are aware that it is God to whom they pray. God is high — in fact, most high. God dwells in realms of glory. God is terrifying in purity, and the sworn foe of all evil. The Bible tells us that God's holiness in the temple was sometimes so intense that the priests had to back up. God was too hot for them that day. Once upon a time people loved God, but they also feared God because God is not domestic, not predictable, not safe at all.

Luther was stricken in the presence of God. Doesn't God shine like a billion stars? Isn't God the one before whom mere human beings must fall on their faces? Isn't God terrible in holiness and dramatic in justice? Isn't God's truth sharper than any two-edged sword? Isn't the desire to meet God a death wish for our sinful selves?

So worship leaders who are aware of God's holiness may adopt small strategies for honoring it. For instance, before the worship leader says prayer she pauses for four beats. When she finishes prayer she pauses for four beats. These tiny silences frame the prayer as a reverent address to a holy God. Tone of voice can do it too. We've all heard people affecting a reverent tone, and we all have heard it sound stagy. The tone is thin stained glass, and it easily shatters into parody. But you and I have also heard natural reverence in the voices of worship leaders: It's a respectful tone; it's courteous without being courtly or stuffy.

Silences and tones of voice can indicate deference to God's holiness. So can a deliberate choice of rhetorical register that lands someplace between tuxedo formal and tank-top casual. Here's tuxedo: "O God, we harbor cognitive dissonance, transgressive communication, and deleterious enactments." Here's tank-top: "I just wanna say, God, that we're, like, full of stinkin' thinkin', nasty talkin', and crazy actin'."

Here's simple reverence: "We have sinned in our thoughts, in our words, and in our deeds."

Silences, tones of voice, and rhetoric that registers around upscale or business casual.

Also, if I lead worship in a way that is deliberately reverent, I am going to try to purge my public speech of fillers: "Lord, we just wanna say, Lord, that you're an awesome God, Lord." Why not say simply, "O God, you are awesome"?

Silences, tone of voice, rhetorical register, simplicity — all should be in the service of acknowledging an attribute of God we have been forgetting.

Fellowship with a loving God: Finally, prayer is opportunity for fellowship with a loving God. We have a God who listens, who loves, who yearns for the best in us. We may pour ourselves out to God, knowing that at the end we will get ourselves back — stronger, cleaner, and more deeply loved than ever.


Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.