What is Prayer?

Prayer candles in the cathedral in Strasbourg, France

It doesn’t seem too strong to state that to be human is to pray. Every religion I know of practices some sort of prayer. It seems to be an intrinsic need along with food, sleep, and sex.

But what is prayer? What does it do? The simplest answer we have is that it is a way to make our requests known to God, with an accompanying desire that he will act on our behalf. That is undoubtedly a component of prayer. We see it modeled in the scriptures. We have insight into the prayers of Moses, David, and Hezekiah amongst others. All of them asked of God and received what they asked for at some point.

If all we do in prayer is “make our needs (wants) known,” I think we are praying at a pretty immature level. We should do that, but there should be more. We should be praying for other things as well.

We should pray for what God says we need. We should confess. We should pray for others. We should praise God for who he is. We should thank God for what he has done.

“We make ourselves what we are by the way we address God.”

Thomas Merton, No Man Is an Island

But prayer is more than just about us influencing God. It is about God influencing us. I find that happens most when I consider prayers, when I contemplate them, when they are written down. I don’t have to be the one to write them, but sometimes I am.

The Psalms, of course, have been the prayer book of the church throughout its history. Most people have some they like, but I haven’t met anyone who likes them all. I think that is part of the strength as it pushes and pulls on us to pray through the Psalms regularly.

Sometimes a prayer can capture our feelings and desires in a situation when we haven’t been able to find the words. St. Patrick’s Breastplate was such a prayer for me in Iraq. Some prayers are just very lucid ways of capturing our state before God. Consider this one a friend shared with me several years ago.

We thank thee, O God, that thou art never at home with us. Thy love is always discontent with our lives. Give us of thy grace such power over all those things which make us uneasy in thy company that more and more we may find ourselves at home with thee. Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

I find prayers like this form me. Yes, I am still asking God, but it seems in a different manner than praying for a safe trip. It is more aspirational. I am holding up a part of an image to God and saying, “This is what I think you want me to be. Will you help me be this?”

I don’t see this as changing God’s mind at all. On the contrary, I believe it reflects what his will for us is.

“This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

1 Timothy 2:3-4 (RSV)

If you’re not in the habit of “reusing” a prayer, I’d challenge you to add it to your repertoire of spiritual disciplines. Allow your prayers to form you through repeated use, like the motions of a chisel over a block of wood, slowly removing pieces to reveal the work the maker has in mind.

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