Mark J. Boda has observed that “identifying prayer is often more of an art than a science.”1 Scripture contains at least 50 lengthy prayers as well as several hundred references to the act of praying. The Bible does not prescribe a specific vocabulary for prayer but does give examples of how people prayed (e.g., Dan. 6:10;Mark 1:35). Are there any special procedures or esoteric knowledge we must have to pray effectively?
Prayer is difficult to define because biblical authors present the act of prayer rather than providing a definition.2 In this article, I present seven pictures that can throw some light on the life of prayer. (Not that Scripture has only seven pictures or metaphors for praying but just that I like the sacred connotations of the number.)3
1 Prayer as conversation
The best scriptural metaphor for praying is that of a conversation with God. The Bible uses terms of speech (e.g., say, speak, call) to describe how God’s people address God in a friendship relationship. Expressive words (e.g., cry, beseech, seek) denote the emotional attitude of the praying person rather than a religious vocabulary for elaborate prayers. However, the Hebrew Bible portrays praying essentially as a conversation with the Deity. It approaches Him with a realistic expectation of a response.
As we consider the elements of speaking, waiting, and listening, we can assume that Scripture portrays prayer as a communicative attitude. God listens to hear the motives behind the prayer (Ps. 34:7; Rom. 8:26, 27). Abraham spoke persuasively with God to save Sodom (Gen. 18:23–33). David reminds us to commit our ways to the Lord, to trust Him, and to wait (Pss. 20:5; 37:6). Isaiah summons the people to repent, reminding them of the conversation to which they can return: “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’ ” (Isa. 30:21, NIV).
Additionally, the prayer dialogue must be constant to establish true intimacy with God. Jesus portrayed such intimate conversation. He called God “Father” using the Aramaic abba, yet this intimacy did not prevent Him from showing a great sense of respect for God’s holiness. He brought a new dimension, one in which we call God our “Father” (Matt. 6:5–15; 7:7–11; Luke 11:2–4). Prayer is portrayed as not only conversa-tional but also personal.
Jesus often withdrew into desert or secluded places to pray (Matt. 14:23; Luke 5:16; Mark 1:35) and urged His disciples always to pray and not lose heart (Luke 18:1). Not only did He instruct His disciples how to pray (Luke 11:2–4; 18:1–8), but He also made prayer an essential part of His lifestyle and usually the first action in every critical step of His ministry and during any trouble (Luke 3:21; 9:28, 29; 6:12; Matt. 26:36–46).
2 Prayer as confidence
Prayer is a testimony of our confidence in God. The Father loves us as His children, hearing and answering our prayers because of Jesus (John 14:13, 14). Biblical prayers are not a magical or incantatory formula to control or conciliate God. Elijah offered a simple, straightforward prayer rooted in his relationship with God, “ ‘I am your servant’ ” (1 Kings 18:16–38, NIV).
3 Prayer as obedience
Usually, when someone bows their head, closes their eyes, and folds their hands, it indicates invocation in many world religions. But Scripture does not favor any specific postures while praying.4 Solomon started praying while standing with hands spread to God (1 Kings 8:22; cf. Ezra 9:5) and finished the prayer kneeling (1 Kings 8:54). Others spread their hands toward God’s sanctuary (Ps. 28:2; Isa. 37:14). Daniel prayed while kneeling in his home (Dan. 6:10) as Jesus Himself (Luke 22:41) and the apostles Peter and Paul (Acts 9:40; 20:36; 21:5) did. Ezra threw himself to the ground in prayer (Ezra 10:1). The Bible records other positions, such as sitting, bowing, or pounding the chest. The physical acts indicate how the whole person is engaged in prayer. But the bodily symbols are significant only when they match the humbled heart seeking God.
The fact that human beings look “ ‘at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart’ ” (1 Sam. 16:7, NIV) determines the value and effectiveness of prayer. Jesus opposed long prayers in public places (Mark 12:40). Likewise, God will shun even eloquent prayers if coming from the unrighteous (Isa. 16:12). The most important posture in prayer is one of both rest (trust in God) and action (obedience).
A deep and necessary connection exists between our praying and our living (Prov. 15:24; James 5:16). Jesus modeled the posture of submitted action as He prayed in Gethsemane: “‘May your will be done’ ” (Matt. 26:42, NIV). Most importantly, His lifestyle and prayers manifested the same thing (Heb. 5:7).
4 Prayer as relationship
David Antion states, “Prayer is an exchange of confidence between God and His covenant people.”5 God responds to people who appeal to Him on the basis His character—justice, love, grace, mercy, and trustworthiness (Exod. 32:11–14; Num. 14:13–22; Deut. 9:26–29; Neh. 1:4–11). Moses and Samuel exemplified a right relationship with God: “They called on the LORD, and he answered them. He spoke to them from the pillar of cloud; they kept his statutes and the decrees he gave them” (Ps. 99:6, 7, NIV).
Instead of involving some esoteric system of symbols and incantations limited to just a few, prayer is open to all because God wants to relate and respond to any of His faithful who come to Him in confidence. Moses captured the relational basis of biblical prayers when he declared, “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the LORD our God is near us whenever we pray to him?” (Deut. 4:7, NIV). David recognized this accessible aspect of prayer: “This poor man called, and the LORD heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles” (Ps. 34:6, NIV).
5 Prayer across life
Because God is near to us in every moment of life, every aspect of it is open to prayer, whether it be distress (Ps. 18:6), sickness (Ps. 30:2), a need for guidance (Ps. 119:18), repentance from sin (Ps. 51:1-4), or bewilderment at God’s ways (Ps. 22:1). The verb seek typically describes the action of prayer and depicts it as part of the quest after wisdom and life (Ps. 119). The book of Psalms consists entirely of prayers, reflecting the range of emotions people experience throughout their lifetime.
6 Prayer as service
Those who offered prayer in both the Old and the New Testaments demonstrated that one central goal should be to ask God to help others. Abraham, Moses, Joshua, and Daniel prayed on behalf of the Israelite people, as did all of the prophets. The apostles requested prayer from the churches for their outreach ministry (Rom. 15:30–32; Col. 4:3; Heb. 13:18, 19).
Jesus taught the disciples to use prayer as an avenue of service, not as a means of personal power. His prayer of blessing and intercession in John 1 echoes the language of public prayers of the Old Testament, furthering His image as prophet, priest, and king (John 17:1–26). The book of Hebrews portrays Jesus as a high priest who “always lives to intercede for [us]” (Heb. 7:25, NIV).
7 Prayer as power
Prayer allows God’s children to stand figuratively in heaven. The book of Revelation portrays the elders praying before the Lord while holding “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints” (Rev. 5:8, NKJV). Unlike most other communications, when we pray, we can expect that the Spirit of God Himself will aid us: “We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Rom. 8:26, NIV).
Prayers of faith avail much and can achieve remarkable things. Jesus said, “‘If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it will obey you’” (Luke 17:6, NIV).
Scripture presents no elaborate images for praying nor any special techniques, postures, or esoteric wisdom guaranteed to give success. Rather, the Bible depicts prayer as a vital dimension of the divine-human relationship. It marks the people of God and is rooted in human need and divine love. While pictures of nurture, confrontation (of God by His people and of people by God), quiet communion, and intimate dialogues are present in Scripture, asking for help is the primary image for prayer in the Bible.6
1 Mark J. Boda, “Prayer,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, ed. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL:InterVarsity, 2005), 806.
2 Patrick Anani Etoughe, 7 Jours avec Dieu: Etudes sur la prière et le Jeûne (France: Lulu, 2012), 5.
3 It is “the great number of spiritual perfection.” E. W. Bullinger, Number in Scripture: Its Supernatural Design and Spiritual Significance (London:Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1913), 158.
4 Leland Ryken, James C. Wilhoit, and Tremper Longman III, eds., Dictionary of Biblical Imagery (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998),659, 660.
5 David L. Antion, “Prayer: A Conversation With God (Pt. 1),” Guardian Ministries, http://www.daveantion.com/blog/2009/12/prayer -conversation-with-god-pt-1.html
6 See Age of Knowledge, “Atheists,” Christian Chat forum, August 23, 2015, https://christianchat.com/bible-discussion-forum /atheists.120007/page-7.