What is Prayer (Part 2)*
As Christians we readily acknowledge that prayer is important. But far too often our actual practice reveals that we really don’t appreciate just how important it is. We know that we do not pray as often as we ought. But sadly we frequently do not even think about prayer with anything like the priority that we ought. Many of us place far greater stress on other things in the Christian life, things like Bible study or sitting under the preaching of the Word each week. It may be rather surprising, therefore, to read what the 19th century Anglican bishop J.C. Ryle says about the necessity of prayer in the Christian life:
It is not absolutely needful to salvation that a man should read the Bible. A man may have no learning, or be blind, and yet have Christ in his heart. It is not absolutely needful that a man should hear the public preaching of the Gospel. He may live where the Gospel is not preached, or he may be bedridden, or deaf. But the same thing cannot be said about prayer. It is absolutely needful to salvation that a man should pray.1
Ryle’s point is that genuine faith will necessarily express itself in prayer. It may not express itself in Bible study, because an individual might not be able to read or might be uneducated. It may not express itself in sitting under the preaching of the Word, because an individual might live where there is no gospel preaching or might not be able physically to sit under that preaching. But genuine faith will always express itself in prayer. It is just as necessary for the Christian as breathing is for life.
Several passages in Scripture support the claim that prayer is necessary for the Christian. Acts 9:11, for instance, tells us that the one distinguishing characteristic demonstrating beyond all doubt that Saul has become a Christian is prayer. Ananias can rest assured that Saul is in fact a changed man, because faith necessarily expresses itself in prayer, and Saul “is praying.” In Matthew 6:5-7 and in Luke 11:2, Jesus assumes that all Christians will be engaging in prayer as a regular part of their lives (he says “when you pray,” not “if”). In Revelation 8:3, we are given a glimpse into heaven and told that “the prayers of all the saints” are offered on the golden altar, which clearly implies that “all” Christians will have contributed prayers to this offering. It is not the prayers of some of the saints that are offered but the prayers of all of them. Moreover, when Paul lays out the marks by which a genuine Christian is distinguished in Romans 12:9f, he includes “constant in prayer” among those marks (v.12), which suggests that all Christians will not only contribute an occasional prayer but will be as persistent in their praying as they are in their breathing. Prayer is necessary. It is as necessary to spiritual life as breathing is to physical life.
The Scottish Reformer, John Knox, expressed the necessity of prayer in similar terms, albeit with a different metaphor:
For if the fire can be without heat, or the burning lamp without light, then true faith may be without fervent prayer.
Faith and prayer necessarily go together, just like fire must go together with heat or a burning lamp must go together with light. It is impossible to have the one and not the other.
What we really see on display here in this discussion of the necessity of prayer is the relational nature of faith. Faith is frequently depicted in the Bible as an intimate relationship between the individual and Christ. In Matthew 7:21-23 (ESV), for instance, Jesus says:
Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?” And then will I declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.
Now, obviously, Jesus did know these people. He knew them well enough to know that they were “workers of lawlessness.” So when he says that he “never knew” them, he is not using the word “know” to refer to knowing things about them but is instead referring to the absence of a relationship. Jesus knows about them but does not know them in relationship. The “faith” that they exhibited—enough to turn to Jesus and call him “Lord, Lord”—was not, therefore, a true and genuine faith. To be sure, they knew certain things about Jesus, but they did not have an intimate relationship with him.
Every intimate relationship requires constant communication (take marriage, for instance). It is a necessary component, as there can be no relationship without it. This is especially the case with our relationship with the Lord, because of the way this particular relationship is sovereignly initiated and graciously and sacrificially established. Let me explain by illustrating with the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15). In the parable, the younger of two sons asks his father for his share of the inheritance—in essence rejecting his father and telling him he wants nothing to do with him. After going off into a far country, squandering the inheritance in riotous living, barely eking out an existence among the pigs, realizing that the servants in his father’s house have it much better than he does, and resolving to return home and plead for mercy, the younger son is overwhelmed by the father’s lavish, gracious (i.e., undeserved), and sacrificial display of love and affection. What would it say about the son if, after all this, he never spent any time talking with his father and building their relationship? It would say that his father, and everything his father did for him, meant very little to him. It would say that, from his perspective, there was little, if any, real relationship. Communication is a necessary part of all relationships. If there is a relationship, there must be communication. If there is not, there is obviously a problem with the relationship.
Just as the struggles we experience in our breathing should serve as warning signs that something is wrong with our physical health, so the struggles we experience in our praying should serve as warning signs that something is wrong with our spiritual health. We have a relationship problem. It is vital to remember, however, that when we struggle in our breathing, we are, nevertheless, still breathing. There is a big difference between struggling in our breathing and not breathing at all. The fact that we struggle means that we are alive. It is the absence of struggle that means there is no life. Like the prodigal, we need to be reminded daily both of our unworthiness and of the sovereign initiation and gracious and sacrificial institution of the intimate relationship we have with the Father. And we need to let that motivate all our communication with him.
1. An excerpt taken from Ryle's "A Call to Prayer" in Practical Relgion. Ryle is not contradicting what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 10:14-15, or what Jesus says in John 8:31 about the necessity of hearing the Gospel and abiding in Christ's word. He is emphasizing that there may be times when a man may not hear the word preached or be able to read the Scritpures, and yet have the Spirit of Christ dwelling in him. Prayer, on the other hand, must be--and will be--offered to God by everyone who is indwelt by the Spirit of God.
*This is the second installment in the "What is Prayer?" series. You can read the find post here.
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.