What is Prayer?

A friend once told me about something that happened to him in a meeting of his church’s prayer committee, which had gathered to consider ways of encouraging greater participation in their Wednesday evening prayer meetings. After the committee had discussed for some time the obvious reluctance that many in the congregation felt with regard to a prayer meeting, a well-respected older member interjected and said: “I don’t understand why we are having this discussion. We are acting like prayer is something complicated. Prayer is not that big of a deal. It’s just talking to God.”

While I appreciate the sincerity with which this man was speaking--and his earnest desire to remove what he believed to be the main hindrance that was keeping the members of his church from praying (i.e., they were making prayer more complicated than it really was)--I am not so sure that what he said was all that helpful, and it may actually have been harmful to the mission that the prayer committee was seeking to accomplish. When Christians engage in prayer, they are without a doubt engaging in conversation with God, even if their prayers are not spoken audibly. But the fact that Christians talk to God when they pray does not mean that prayer ought to be defined in terms of talking to God. Defining prayer as talking to God is like defining preaching as talking to people. Everyone knows that preachers talk to people when they give their Sunday sermons, but this does not imply that preaching ought to be defined in those terms. Preaching is more than just talking to people. And prayer is more than just talking to God.   

The real danger in what this older man was saying is that he was unwittingly minimizing prayer and overlooking the real spiritual anemia that was producing the lack of prayer in the first place. We will never progress very far in our prayer lives as Christians until and unless we understand what prayer actually is. Once we discover what prayer is, then we begin to see that the real problem in our prayerlessness is not that we make prayer too complex but that our hearts are too far from God.

So, what is prayer? When the members of the Westminster Assembly in the mid-17th Century wanted to define what prayer is, they started with the following statement: “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God” (WLC 178; WSC 98). And in order to show what they meant by this, they cited Psalm 62:8 as the sole proof text for their assertion:

Psalm 62:8, Trust in him at all times, O people;

Pour out your heart before him;

God is a refuge for us.

I think it is significant that the members of the Assembly chose Psalm 62:8 instead of other passages like Revelation 5:8 or Revelation 8:3-4, which both seem to convey the idea that prayer is an “offering up of our desires unto God” more clearly than than that of Psalm 62:8. Obviously there was a reason that the members of the Assembly chose the verse that they did; and that reason would seem to be because they understood the essence of prayer to consist in “pour[ing] out your heart” to God. The members of the Westminster Assembly were apparently persuaded that prayer was not fundamentally about talking to God but about pleading with Him with all one’s heart.

Several well known passages of Scripture offer support for the conclusion that prayer is essentially pleading with God. Among these passages are Psalm 42:4; 55:22; Matthew 9:38; 1 Samuel 1:10-18; Deuteronomy 4:29; and Luke 22:44 (see also the language used in Psalms 17, 86, 90, 102, and 142, which are explicitly entitled prayers). But perhaps the most explicit Scriptural support for this idea comes from Jesus’ teaching on prayer in Luke 11:5-10. In this passage, Jesus uses the example of a man who has no food to set before his visiting friend. Even though it is midnight, the man ventures out to his neighbor’s house in order to borrow some food to share with his friend. Verse 6 captures the element of desperation in the man. He has nothing to set before his friend and does not want to offend him by offering him nothing to eat or drink. That element of desperation drives the man to ask—and to keep on asking—to seek—and to keep on seeking—and to knock—and to keep on knocking (all are in the present tense in the Greek, which signifies ongoing action).

The man in Luke 11 is not merely talking to his neighbor, and he is not simply asking him for food. He is pleading with him, begging him earnestly to get up out of bed and to provide him the items that he is lacking. It is the man’s need that drives his plea, and it is a plea, we are told, that the neighbor will not refuse. Since Jesus is using this story to teach us about prayer, his point would seem to be that prayer is a persistent pleading with God which arises from a sense of our need and our own inability to meet that need.

Charles Spurgeon, for one, understood this. In a sermon on Psalm 70:5—a psalm which contains an earnest plea from David to the Lord for deliverance—Spurgeon told his congregation: “Oh, brethren, let us learn thus to plead the precepts [of God], the promises [of God], and whatever else may serve our turn; but let us always have something to plead. Do not reckon you have prayed unless you have pleaded, for pleading is the very marrow of prayer.” Not only did Spurgeon locate the essence of prayer in pleading, but he rightly understood that if that is what prayer is all about, then anything less is not actually prayer but something else altogether. He referred to those who fall short of pleading as “mere prayer sayers, who do not pray at all.”

If we describe prayer as simply talking to God, we miss this fundamental characteristic. Prayer is not just talking to God; it is pleading with God. It is pouring out one’s heart before Him.

One of the reasons that we have so much difficulty in putting this into practice in our lives today is that pleading presumes we have needs we cannot meet on our own. This is our real problem today. Most of us who live in developed regions of the world in the 21st century do not have very many needs that we cannot meet ourselves. We live comfortable lives without much recognition that we are every minute dependent upon the Lord. We do not live with a continual awareness of our sin and our desperate need to be more like Christ. We forget, and we drift. We become numb to our own sins and to the glory of the cross. If we tell ourselves that prayer is simply talking to God, we enable ourselves to continue down this path unabated. But if we remind ourselves that prayer is—as the Westminster divines believed—pleading with God, we remind ourselves of our own desperate spiritual need and the urgency of our walking closely with the Lord every day. 


Dr. Guy M. Richard is Senior Minister of First Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, MS. He is the author of What is Faith? (Philipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2012), has written several articles for Reformation 21, Tabletalk Magazine and other theological journals. You can find him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter at @GuyMRichard.