Prayer, Part 1


This is the first of three parts I will be posting on prayer. The other two parts will follow on the next two Sundays. As with anything I post here, I would be very interested in your feedback and thoughts.



In the western evangelical tradition when prayer is discussed it is almost always divided up into areas such as petition, supplication, praise, adoration, worship, and so on.  While these can be very useful distinctions and yield many valuable insights, they do rather severely restrict our appreciation of—and hence our experience of—prayer.  Instead, let us look at another way of dividing up prayer that will allow us to consider it in a much wider scope.


“Prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.  It is frequently conversing in secret with Him who loves us.” So wrote Saint Teresa of Avila.  Prayer is a continuous conversation with God because we are in a relationship with Him.  This gives up the first division of prayer, because conversing involves two distinct activities: talking and listening.


In any healthy relationship these two things should be in balance.  That is, each partner should listen as much as they talk.  But note that this is a very different thing from saying that in any given conversation that balance should be enforced.  It is, in fact, probably quite rare—and may even be undesirable—for it to be so; the balance comes in that over many conversations each one listens as much as they talk.  In any given conversation it is most likely that one partner will need to do most of the talking and hence the other must do most of the listening.


So, in prayer it should not surprise us if sometimes we do most of the talking and at other times we do most of the listening Notice that we have already found a lack in the “usual” division of prayer mentioned above, for those divisions are all forms of prayer in which we do most, if not all, of the talking.  Indeed, for many, many evangelicals, the definition of prayer is probably closer to “us talking to God” than it is to “us conversing with God”.  Listening to God then too easily devolves to listening to sermons or to learning about Him in the study of the bible.  These are good and important things, but they should not stop us from seeking to listen to God directly.  Most of us could probably do with learning more about talking to God, but we are too often completely ignorant of the whole area of listening to Him.


There is another way of dividing up prayer that Paul talks about in the first letter to the Corinthians: “I will pray with the spirit, and I will also pray with the understanding” (1Cor 14:15).  Or again in Romans: “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weakness.  For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groaning that cannot be uttered” (Rom 8:26).  Sometimes, Paul tells us, I can understand what is going on, and sometimes I cannot.


Here again we run into something that often causes the western rationalist to stumble.  To us it is only what is understandable that is real and solid.  What cannot be understood is, at best, questionable and, at worst, essentially false.  We barely remember that God himself is beyond our understanding and so we try to capture Him in a systematic theology; it is beyond us that He might move in ways beyond our knowing.  We believe that He desires the best for us and knows how to give it to us, and then demand to know up front how He intends to do it.  We have such difficulty simply resting in trust!


Now, if we take these two different criteria as axes we can define a space in which we can locate the various forms and disciplines of prayer.  While there are no hard boundaries, we end up with four quadrants of prayer: Talking to God with the understanding, talking to God with the spirit, listening to God with the understanding, and listening to God with the spirit:



Quadrant 1:

The first quadrant contains almost everything that most of us think of when we consider prayer.  Praise and worship lie here, as do petition and intercession.  I suspect that praise and worship, when we enter into them fully, take us closer to the edge of our understanding, and petition and intercession can lead us towards listening to God as we earnestly desire to see him answer.


These forms of prayer quite rightly form the majority of our corporate prayer times.  All of our liturgical prayers and almost all of our free prayers when we are assembled together should be vocal and understandable.  That they should be vocal is obvious—how else will the church enter into our prayer? And Paul is very explicit in 1 Corinthians that they should also be understandable.


This doesn’t mean that there is no place in our corporate experience for silence, for listening for God, or even for non-understandable verbal prayer.  But it does mean that these are rarer things, to be used with restraint and decorum.  It may well be that a body will come together to seek the Lord’s will in a particular circumstance, but this is not the normal experience, and even when we do it we often find God talking to us outside of the meeting itself—the meeting is more often us asking God to reveal Himself and His will (and hence more a first quadrant prayer).


I want to point out here that even in these forms of prayer that we think we understand there is great danger.  God doesn’t play fair! On the one hand, when we pray without totally meaning it (and which of us hasn’t!) He will nonetheless take our words at face value and give us more than we really wanted.  On the other hand, we may be using words we do not fully understand or that do not really capture the desire of our hearts, in which case He often overlooks the words and gives us that unknown thing that we hardly even knew we wanted.  He is a jealous God and will take from us what He wants if we give Him the slightest opening.


So, let’s put these forms of prayer on our diagram:

Quadrant 1

Quadrant 1


Next time I’ll look at quadrants 2 and 3.




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