A theology of prayer should examine the nature of prayer and its contribution to a better understanding of God and our relationship with Him. This should lead us first to look at the theological concepts that are foundational to prayer and then to view prayer as a theological expression.
Theological foundation of prayer
Prayer takes place within a set of theological beliefs, even though we may rarely think about such beliefs. We may have conceptually embraced such beliefs, but we do not directly connect them to prayer. Here are some of those concepts.
Prayer presupposes biblical theism. Prayer begins with the affirmation that there is a God and that we can communicate with Him. This theological statement immediately rules out deism, according to which God is the absent Lord or Creator, who, after finishing His work of creation, abandoned it. A theology of prayer will also rule out pantheism, according to which God is conceived as an impersonal power that permeates everything, including us. In that respect biblical prayer distinguishes itself from eastern meditation, which seeks integration into cosmic consciousness while prayer seeks communion with a personal God.
Since the biblical doctrine of God is unique, Christian prayer is also unique in a very special way. It operates within a Trinitarian understanding of God. When we pray, we address the Godhead with the faith-conviction that each of Them is actively involved with us as we lift our souls to Him. The Holy Spirit listens to our feeble expressions and articulates them in order to express the real intent of our being (Rom. 8:26). Then the Son mediates them to the Father, who is the object of our prayer (Ps. 5:2), and the Father releases the power we need in response to our request. This specific view of God provides a theological frame of reference to prayer.
Prayer and God’s immanence. The question of the nature of God’s presence within His creation remains theologically complex. Theologians and philosophers have been discussing it for centuries without being able to reach a common understanding. Pantheism is one of those attempts, but it is unsatisfactory because it sacrifices the personhood of God. Panentheism is also unsatisfactory because it conceives God as not yet here, but as a participant in the process of becoming. Contrary to those views, the biblical God is! He is the “I AM” (Exod. 3:14). He is not only the Self-existing One, He is also here with us. He is so near that He can hear us when we pray (Deut. 4:7; Ps. 6:8, 9; Matt. 6:6).
To a large extent, Greek thought was responsible for incorporating the concept of an impassive and emotionless God into Christian theology. This God could not hear us because He was the distant One. But prayer operates within the theological conviction that God is with us, that He experiences our joys, sadness, and fears, and that He listens to us when we invoke His name (Exod. 3:7). He is not the hidden God of the philosophers, but the God who is so near to us, we can touch Him through our prayers and He can caress us through His loving response.
Prayer as communion with God. The communion and fellowship we have with God is unique because through it we enter into a dialogue with the very source and fountain of our life. There is indeed a profound koinonia in prayer. In order for fellowship to be real and meaningful, the parties involved must have a common gravitational center that brings and holds them together in a communality of interest and goals. Prayer finds this gravitational core in the person of Christ, in whom God was present reconciling the world to Himself (2 Cor. 5:17).
We hardly understand or comprehend what happens to the human mind and soul when through prayer we enter into communion with God (cf. James 5:19). In this encounter with God through prayer, our minds become morallyand spiritually renewed, with our being nurtured and reenergized, and we are enabled to stand before Him to serve Him (Luke 22:32; Acts 6:4; 1 Tim. 2:8). The power and the grace of God directly and personally reach us through prayer. The tax collector poured out his soul to the Lord and went home justified before God, spiritually renewed and strengthened (Luke 18:10–14; cf. 21:36). It was during prayer that Jesus was transfigured before some of His disciples (Luke 9:29). At times we are brought so close to the Lord that we experience a renewal of even our emotional and physical energy (1 Sam. 1:10, 18; cf. 3 John 3). The experiential significance of our communion with God through prayer reaches so deep about which we now know very little.
Prayer and God’s love in Christ. Prayer presupposes that something took place at a cosmic level that made it possible for us to move from inaccessibility to God to accessibility to Him. We have accepted as an unquestionable reality that God, in His love, manifested in the redemptive and sacrificial death of His Son, made Himself accessible to us. The condition of the human race has changed in a radical way, thanks to Christ’s achievements for us. We are no longer alienated from God’s heavenly temple (1 Kings 8:49; Jon. 2:7).
Prayer and the cosmic conflict. From the perspective of the church and the heavenly family, we offer prayer to God from a world of sin and death that has neither accepted nor universally recognized God’s sovereignty. Our prayers reveal to the universe and to the forces of evil that we have taken God’s side in the conflict. Within that conceptual and experiential setting, prayer can be described as an act of rebellion against the forces of evil. When we pray, we witness to the fact that we have not submitted ourselves to the claims of the enemy, that we only recognize the claim of Christ over us as Creator and Redeemer. Like Daniel, we have chosen to pray publicly, before the universe, in order to reveal where our true loyalty lies (Dan. 6:11).
Through prayer we ask God to manifest His power over the forces of evil that oppose our service to Him. We intercede for others in order for God’s power to work for the benefit of others (Rom. 15:31; cf. Col. 4:3; Heb. 13:18, 19). We can pray because we know that Christ was victorious over evil powers and that His victory is now by faith our victory. Prayer is not a crusade against the enemy but the appropriation of Christ’s victory over them through communion with our Savior. We approach God in prayer, not because we fear the enemy but because we want to have fellowship with God, who through Christ already defeated the enemy. Out of that fellowship with Him through Christ’s blood we overcome by appropriating His victory.
Theological expression of prayer
What is the theological significance of prayer? What contribution does prayer make to our understanding of the glorious work of salvation that Christ achieved for us? Prayer becomes a subject of theological reflection in connection with Christ’s redemptive work. Prayer cannot be separated from Christ’s work of salvation. Praying is not simply talking to God, as important as that is; it is also a religious act through which we proclaim our need and constant reliance on Christ’s redemptive work for us. Prayer is fundamentally a re-presentation of the good news of salvation. The key elements of the gospel are embodied in the very act and experience of praying.
Prayer and need. In a narrow sense, biblical prayer seems to be motivated by need—temporal, emotional, spiritual needs. Indeed, prayer revolves around need. The prayer of praises anticipates a need, or responds to a need that was or will be satisfied. In prayers of thanksgiving, we express gratitude for God’s blessings through which our needs were satisfied.
With need also as an intrinsic part of our beings, prayer invites us to reevaluate our self-perception and to recognize that we are by nature in constant need. We need others, and we need an abundance of other things in order to realize ourselves and develop the potential God entrusted to us. This is particularly the case in a world of sin and death, in which our very being is almost, if not always, being threatened. This deep awareness of need brings us to our knees before the Father in prayer.
It is here that prayer begins to reveal its profound ties with the gospel of salvation through Christ. The work of Christ for us presupposes that humans were in desperate need of salvation. This was our ultimate and supreme need. Every other need is, in a sense, a type or, perhaps better, a sign of that most important need for reconciliation with God, deeply hidden in the human heart. Sin tends to numb that supreme need of the soul, deceiving sinners and leading them to conclude that they do not have to pray because they have no needs. But we all have needs. All our needs can be provided for because the fundamental need of redemption has already been provided. Consequently, when we bring our needs to God, we are proclaiming that the need of our soul for union with God has already been satisfied through Christ. Prayer memorializes that experience and keeps alive in our spiritual life the awareness of our constant need for and dependence on the gospel of salvation through faith in Christ.
Prayer and self-sufficiency. Prayer rules out self-dependence and has its roots in the humble realization that we lack the knowledge, power, and even the willingness to supply our personal needs. Prayer states that when it comes to our full self-realization, we are helpless, unable to master both creation and our lives. We are not self-sufficient. Without that conviction of insufficiency, prayer would become almost irrelevant.
This conviction lies not only at the base of our prayers but particularly at the very core of the gospel. The gospel pulverizes our claims of self-sufficiency, humbles us, and casts to the ground our inflated egos. The gospel illumines us, allowing us to perceive our true condition not only as needy creatures but particularly as beings that are unable to help ourselves. The inability we face in meeting our needs moves us to pray and points to the total insufficiency we experienced when confronted for the first time with the gospel of salvation in Christ.
Prayer and God’s self-sufficiency. Prayer is based on the conviction that God prevails as the only One who can provide for our needs. According to the Bible, those who pray made a significant discovery of God’s sufficiency. Hence, with God as the only object of our prayers, He becomes our Partner in dialogue. Therefore, we pray as an act of worship through which we express the wonderful conviction that God’s all-sufficiency overcomes our insufficiency. Consequently, we do not need to offer prayers to spiritual powers that compete for our service. Christian prayer proclaims that only God has the ability to amply provide for all our needs.
The gospel emphasizes in a unique way the surprising fact that only God can pull us out of our needy condition, out of our predicament and impotence. When we pray, we not only recognize God as the only One who could supply our needs but also affirm that He provided for our deliverance from the powers of sin and death even before we asked Him. He provided for us abundantly (Rom. 5:21).
Prayer and mediation. Christ taught us in a unique way the value of prayer because He personally practiced constant communion with the Father through it. He knew that sin had alienated us from God, but He also knew that the Father wanted to have fellowship with us. He announced that in His own person a channel of communication had been created to bridge the gap between us and God (John 16:23; cf. 14:13, 14). The Son’s mediation does not presuppose unwillingness on the part of the Father to listen to us. It rather assumes a divine willingness to have so intense a communion with us that He created a means by which He could listen to us in spite of our sin (Ps. 69:13; 4:1). As our High Priest, Christ identifies Himself with our needs and joys and imbues our prayers with heavenly efficacy.
Whenever we pray in the name of Jesus, we reaffirm our commitment to the good news of salvation through the mediation of the Son. It was through His sacrificial death on the cross that God mediated to us His reconciling love. The mystery of this most profound transaction is memorialized in the act of prayer, in which we constantly recognize that He “always lives to intercede for [us]” (Heb. 7:25, NIV).
Prayer and God’s will. When we pray, there could be a conflict of wills. What we think we need and what God knows we need may not always coincide. Consequently, Jesus taught us to pray, “ ‘ “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” ’ ” (Matt. 6:10, NIV). This dimension of prayer opens the mystery of the so-called “unanswered prayer.” Through the requests that were never granted to us exactly as we wanted, the Lord was revealing to us that even in His dialogue with us He remains the sovereign Lord. The biblical way of resolving a possible conflict of wills in the experience of prayer is for the human will to bow before God’s will for us. The prayer of faith is characterized not only by the firm conviction that God always listens to our prayers but also by the equally important conviction that God’s will always seeks our good.
In this act of adjusting and even relinquishing our expectations and plans to the will of God when we pray, we are simply recalling the moment when we surrendered our will to Him through repentance, confession, and conversion. From that moment on we began to walk in newness of life according to God’s will for us. We submitted to Him because through the work of the Spirit in our hearts we were absolutely persuaded that His will for us was always good. In the surrendering of our will, prayer and the gospel intersect each other.
Prayer as a response. Prayer includes not only talking to God, but also proclaiming our dependence on Him, as a response of our love to God’s saving act in Christ. Consequently prayer is not only asking, but also praising, thanking, blessing God for His goodness, loyalty, and mercies toward us. But in a very particular way, gospel and prayer come together when we bend our knees and ask for forgiveness. This is the goal of the gospel because at that moment human pride collapses and we are ready to receive from the Lord what we really needed—forgiveness of sin. Every prayer is a living echo of that moment.
Prayer expresses itself as a response to God’s loving mercies with our response to God not restricted to our mind alone. The mind and reason, our emotions, and our body are all involved in prayer, and through each one of those aspects of our being, prayer shows itself to be a response to the presence and goodness of God.
Prayer integrates theology and the practice of personal devotion to God in a way that perhaps no other act of worship can. Framed within some of the deepest theological topics in Christian theology, it represents our first encounter with the good news of salvation in Christ. Prayer is essentially a proclamation of that gospel, a ritual embodiment of it in the act of worshiping the Lord.