What is Prayer?

A major question for many people is not the how of prayer, but the what. In their minds, some people may connect prayer with memorized lines they were taught in childhood, or a thing religious leaders said in church worship. But what exactly is prayer?woman raising hands beneath sunlit sky

The answer to this question is not the same for everyone. It can arise out of a number of different experiences. For example:

1. Prayer can help us give words for when we encounter life’s mystery that can overwhelm us with grief or loss, with suffering or guilt, or with overflowing beauty or wonder. It can also be a term for awareness of divinity around us, acknowledging our silent presence to the presence of God.

2. Prayer can be whatever we do that moves us from intention to action. In Tell It Slant, scholar and pastor Eugene Peterson1 describes it this way:
“Prayer is the practice by which all that we are, all that we believe and do, is transformed into the action of the Spirit working [God’s] will in the details of our dailiness. Prayer consists in the transformation of what we do in the name of Jesus to what the Holy Spirit does in us as we follow Jesus.”

3. What and how we pray inevitably expresses how we invest our lives in the world: what we care about and how we see it. It reveals our current relationships and the stance we take to life. Jesus referred to this when he told the story about the respected religious leader who was arrogant before God, in contrast to the despised tax collector who was honest about his unethical living, and therefore was forgiven. (Luke 18:9-14).

4. Prayer can also be a way to do battle with the sources of injustice, of oppression, or of evil in our lives. Simply engaging in prayer – naming the “powers and principalities” that challenge us, our world, or those we care about (Ephesians 6:12) – dares us to shift the universe as we call on God’s presence and power. Whenever we pray, it also implies that we will act to help that shift become current reality “on earth as it is in heaven.”2

5. Even in our most personal prayers, we may think we are praying alone. But the fact of prayer itself (whether we think it is answered to our satisfaction or not) shows us as all as human in the face of the Beyond. It also reveals our own humanness as we experience living. It’s one way we acknowledge our own creatureliness in the midst of the world.

There are countless ways to pray, and no one way is better than the other. But often what we pray about falls into four categories: confession, gratitude, petition, and intercession.
Confession is acknowledging how we’ve messed up or avoided acting in line with God’s priorities
Gratitude is embracing our dependence on God and our thankfulness for God’s love, blessings, and forgiveness
Petition is asking for God’s help in our lives
Intercession is realizing our deep kinship with those around us and praying for fulfillment of their needs. (Ephesians 6:18)
There is nothing false, packaged, or pretentious about authentic prayer. Prompted by the Spirit of God, it can come out of us simply as groans “with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).

Here is a heartfelt prayer that draws me in, written long ago by the great theologian Thomas Aquinas:3
“Grant me, O Lord my God, a mind to know You, a heart to seek You, wisdom to find You, conduct pleasing to You, faithful perseverance in waiting for You, and a hope of finally embracing You. Amen.”

However you pray or desire to pray, may it help you connect more deeply with God, drawing strength, purpose, and joy.

Your partner in faith,

Betsy Schwarzentraub

1 – Eugene Peterson was an American Presbyterian minister, scholar, theologian, poet, and author. He wrote more than thirty books, including The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, a paraphrase of the Bible in modern American English.

2 – Part of the Lord’s Prayer, or “Pattern Prayer,” that Jesus taught his first disciples and all who come after them. (Matthew 6:9-13)

3 – Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was an immensely influential philosopher, theologian, and jurist in the tradition of Scholasticism. He is best known for his Summa Theologica and commentaries on the Scriptures.

See also: Prayer for an Open Heart, The Pattern Prayer, Thanksgiving Prayer