May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight,
Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer (Ps 19:14).
When I was young my brother and I would head to my grandparents for weeklong visits. One of the things that I remember most vividly was that around bedtime my grandparents could be heard praying loudly from their bedroom. I also witnessed the kind of prayers typical in small Pentecostal churches, of people up at the front of the church at the end of the service, pacing, kneeling, standing with hands raised, striving in prayer. I did not really understand prayer back then, but my grandparents and members of my church modeled different forms of prayer that I came to see as Pentecostal.
Prayer is an important spiritual discipline of the Christian faith. We are encouraged to pray regularly as a way to commune with God. Through prayer, God transforms us. We recite prayers over meals or in church. We say the Lord’s Prayer. We pray for health and well-being. We pray for others and the world around us so that as the Lord’s Prayer exhorts: “thy kingdom come.”
But what do we really know about prayer?
Richard Foster claims that prayer has inward, upward, and outward directionality. The practice of inward prayer brings about self-examination in order to uncover the hidden depths of our sin. Inward prayer includes simple prayers, prayers of the forsaken, prayers of examination, and prayers of tears. Upward prayer orients us towards God and expresses our dependency on God. Upward prayer seeks to form us in love according to the spiritual disciplines such as the fruit of the Spirit. Prayers included here are prayers of adoration, meditation, contemplation, unceasing prayers, prayers of the heart, and sacramental prayers. Outward prayer orients us to the plight of the world and the misery of the human condition and instils the desire within us to co-labor with God in bringing the world into alignment with the kingdom. Outward prayer includes prayers of petition, intercession, healing, suffering, prayers of authority, and radical prayers.
Likewise, Margaret Poloma has an interest in the outcomes of prayer, especially in Pentecostal and charismatic Christianity. Over the years she has conducted numerous surveys and qualitative studies that probe prayer habits among Americans. She has found that consistently nearly 90% of Americans claim to pray on a regular basis. However, one of the puzzling questions for her is that while Americans claim to pray, we don’t really know how they pray, what kinds of prayers they practice, and what outcomes they believe occur when they pray. She finds that people usually engage in four types of prayer practices: ritual prayers (learned prayers that one recites from memory), colloquial prayer (where a person talks to God in a conversational or matter of fact way), petitionary prayer (where a person brings one’s needs or the needs of others to God), and meditative prayer (where one remains quiet before God in expectation). What the study reveals is that meditative types of prayer is the most profound for fostering religious experiences such as receiving answers to prayer, inspiration to act, and feeling God’s presence.
The kinds of prayer we practice change over the course of our Christian walk. Everyone brought up in the Christian faith remembers being taught simple prayers to recite over meals or at bedtime. New Christians are often exuberant in their prayers. Their prayers tend to be more self-centered in asking God to help in a time of need. New Christians are usually more extemporaneous and vocal in their prayers. However, even these kinds of prayer are important as they teach us to engage in the habit of communicating with God. As we mature, prayer life changes so that we are more in tune with the mind of God. Mature prayers reflect Christ-likeness and the virtuous life. Over time our prayers instill in us the habits of the Christian life so that we recognize the will of God more readily.
Marriage teaches us about prayer.
Simon Chan uses the illustration of marriage. Newly married couples are more vocal in their relationship as they carry on conversations to get to know each other more intimately. Everything is exciting and new. At different points in the relationship couples will have to deal with difficult situations and the newness experienced early must develop into a more mature process of truthful and heartfelt communication, expression of disappointments, and mutual comfort. The process is one that if worked through will bring about a deeper, more intimate relationship. As couples get to know one another in deeply intimate ways they do not have to vocally express their thoughts, but come to enjoy simply being in each other’s presence. The life of prayer is like a marriage in that initially we are exuberant and expressive. Over time we are confronted by the difficulties of life and must pray through these situations even when God is seemingly distant. Mature prayer is one in which you have been immersed in the presence of God and thoroughly formed in the mind of Christ so that you know what God wants. In other words, the life of prayer is one that develops and changes over the course of time.
So what does this all mean?
First, prayer is an important spiritual discipline that forms us according to the virtues of the Christian faith. As we develop the habits of prayer – and they can be of a different variety – we are changed and transformed into the likeness of Christ. Second, prayer is a vehicle through which a person communes with God. While vocal prayers are important as we pray prayers of thanksgiving and adoration, or petition and intercession, prayers of the heart where we quietly open ourselves up to the presence of God bring about those special moments when we hear God’s still small voice, or feel a tugging in our heart to act in a certain way or follow a different path. In the end, however, it does not matter so much how one prays, but rather that we pray.
Richard J. Foster, Prayer. New York: Harper Collins, 1992
Simon Chan, Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 1998.
Margaret M. Poloma and G. H. Gallup, Varieties of Prayer. Philadelphia: Trinity Press International, 1991.
Matthew T. Lee, Margaret M. Poloma, and Stephen G. Post, The Heart of Religion: Spiritual Empowerment, Benevolence, and the Experience of God’s Love. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Michael Wilkinson and Peter Althouse, Catch the Fire: Soaking Prayer and Charismatic Renewal. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014.