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  • Writer's pictureScott Carr, Jr.

Lesson 3: What is Prayer?

Note: This is a Sunday School lesson by Scott Carr, Jr. based on the third chapter of Dr. Tim Keller's book, Prayer.

* Prayer is an essential component of belief in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Muslims are required to pray five times a day while Jews traditionally have prayed three times a day. Buddhists have prayer wheels that fling prayers into the air to knit the spiritual and natural worlds, relieve suffering, and release kindness. In Hindu prayer, the goal is union with the Brahman and escape cycles of reincarnation. Various Indian tribes throughout North America pray through singing with the goal of uniting the spiritual and physical realms (shamanism). 30% of atheists have admitted to praying at times while 17% of those who have no religious affiliation pray regularly. Psychology has recognized that prayer plays a vital role in the lives of most people. Though not everyone prays, we see it shows up in all cultures and is important to a majority of people. It seems that there is an instinct for prayer. Though prayer is a global phenomenon, we see that there are many different ways it is practiced. In Christianity, there are various traditions of prayer. One study found that there are at least 21 different types of Christian prayer.

* Modern theory on prayer: it is a way for human beings to adapt to their environment and gain control of nature. It began when the human mind was childlike. Time brought it to the refined, meditative forms. Instead of going out to God, it looked inward to promote a change of consciousness and bring inner peace. With the dawn of science, we no longer need it to adapt to society and will move beyond it. Question: What is wrong with this view?

* Heiler’s Theory of Prayer:

1) Mystical Prayer: inward focus, goal is that the distinction between God and the person disappears and we are united to the Godhead, highest form of prayer is then wordless contemplation, emphasizes the immanence of God, can become something that merits salvation found in Eastern Spirituality and some Medieval Christian mystics

2) Prophetic Prayer: outward focus, wrestling verbal prayer, emphasizes God as transcendent, shows a reliance on God’s grace, goal is nearness to God rather than absorption into Him, shows us the sin that makes us different from God, highest expression is in words, seen in the prophets, apostles, and Jesus.

* Which theory is right? Our options: 1) Reject them both as they both reject a large repertoire of prayer. However, this fails to understand the differences between different forms of prayer. 2) Heiler is right in his emphasis on prophetic prayer, but he draws too many distinctions. The Psalms do reflect a calm contemplation of God (Psalm 27; 63; 131). Great Protestants like Jonathan Edwards who emphasized prophetic prayer could also speak of fellowship with God that resembles some experiences of mystical prayer. To figure it out, we need to understand who God is.

1) We recognize God is not the same as us and we are not the same as God. God is holy and righteous, completely without sin. We are sinners who have broken God’s holy law. We are thoroughly unrighteous and unholy.

2) God is not completely inaccessible. Believers are united to Christ by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

3) He has given us His Word which reveals to us who He is.

* Conclusion: Both mystical prayer and prophetic prayer get parts right. The prayer life of Jonathan Edwards was both mystical and prophetic. When meditating on the Scriptures, he would become overwhelmed by the reality of the words. Prayer is fundamentally a verbal response to God’s Word and though there are certainly dangers to mystical prayer, we need to understand that prayer done properly can lead to personal encounters with God.

* How can we define prayer to make sense of its pervasiveness and grow in practice towards real prayer?

* Genesis 1:26-27 “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

* Calvin: “That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service.” Institutes 1.3.1 “In the first place, he mentions knowledge, and in the second, true righteousness and holiness. Hence we infer, that at the beginning the image of God was manifested by light of intellect, rectitude of heart, and the soundness of every part.” Institutes 1.15.4 divinitatis sensum-the sense of deity that all human beings have.

* Romans 1:19-20 “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

* prayer-“a personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God” (p. 45). This is prayer at its essence and shows the common denominator of prayer, which is why it is so pervasive. An implication of this definition is that prayer is influenced by the amount of knowledge possessed and accuracy of our knowledge.

* “But though experience testifies that a seed of religion is divinely sown in all, scarcely one in a hundred is found who cherishes it in his heart, and not one in whom it grows to maturity so far is it from yielding fruit in its season. Moreover, while some lose themselves in superstitious observances, and others, of set purpose, wickedly revolt from God, the result is that, in regard to the true knowledge of him, all are so degenerate, that in no part of the world can genuine godliness be found…Mingled vanity and pride appear in this, that when miserable men do seek after God, instead of ascending higher than themselves as they ought to do, they measure him by their own carnal stupidity, and, neglecting solid inquiry, fly off to indulge their curiosity in vain speculation. Hence, they do not conceive of him in the character in which he is manifested, but imagine him to be whatever their own rashness has devised…With such an idea of God, nothing which they may attempt to offer in the way of worship or obedience can have any value in his sight, because it is not him they worship, but, instead of him, the dream and figment of their own heart.” Institutes 1.4.1

* Prayer functions on two levels. 1) It is the human instinct to reach out to God, but it cannot be a conversation because the knowledge of God is too vague. Comes through instinct and nature. 2) It is a spiritual gift because through study of Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit, our knowledge of God can be corrected. Comes through God’s Word.

* Prayer always begins with God. It starts with hearing. The better we know and understand God, the better our prayers are. The conversation is not superficial, but is deep and creates a personal encounter. The Christian life is that of meeting God and our lives are changed as a result. The fullest sense of prayer is “continuing a conversation that God has started through His Word and His grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with Him” (p. 46. The book of Job shows us that the better Job knew God, the fuller his prayers were. The power of prayer does not rest in us, but in knowledge of God. In Christ, we have the full revelation of who God is and we learn to see Him better as we see Him in the Scriptures.

Assignments: 1) Read the book of Job. Summarize the content of his prayers briefly and what he learns about God throughout the book. See for yourself how Job’s prayer life was deepened by knowing God.

2) Read ch. 4 in Prayer.

3) Keep summarizing the Psalms.

4) Spend time in prayer.

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