What Is Prayer?

In its simplicity, it is “communication with God.” But what do the Scriptures say about it more fully? This post offers a thorough biblical teaching, with many references, on prayer generally.

Let’s organize this rich material in an outline and the question-and-answer format, for clarity and conciseness.

I.. What Is Prayer?

A.. It is calling on the name of the Lord and on the LORD himself.

1.. The name of the Lord stands in for the Lord, expressing his authority and identity clearly. It is not other gods that we call on, but on the God of Israel.

2.. In Gen. 4:26, people began to call on the name of the LORD, early in human history. One gets the impression that many more people than the Bible names are calling on him.

3.. In Gen. 12:8 Abram built an altar in Bethel and called on the name of the Lord.

4.. In Zeph. 3:9, God promises that he will purify the lips of his people, so they can call on the name of the LORD.

5.. In Ps. 4:1, 3, David calls on the name of the LORD and requests God to answer him.

6.. In Ps. 17:6, David called on the name of the LORD, and the LORD heard him from his temple.

7.. In Ps. 3:4, when David fled from his son Absalom, who had revolted, David called out on the LORD, and he answered his chosen king.

8.. In 1 Cor. 1:2, people belong to the church and are sanctified have called on the name of the Lord Jesus. Calling on the name of the LORD (YHWH) and on the Lord Jesus puts the two names on the same level.

B.. It is seeking God’s face

1.. In 2 Chron. 7:14 if God’s people call on his name, humble themselves and pray and seek his face and turn from their wicked ways, he will answer them and forgive their sins and heal their land. Yes, this promise is delivered to the covenanted people of God, but why not expand the coverage to include other nations like America? I say we can, as long as people realize that America is not ancient Israel.

2.. David’s heart told him to seek God’s face, and his heart responded and sought God’s face (Ps. 27:8).

C.. It is seeking the LORD

1.. When David pretended to be crazy to escape from betrayal and capture, he sought the LORD, who answered him and delivered him from all of his fears (Ps. 34:4).

2.. It is time to seek the LORD while he can be found and call on him while he is near (Is. 55:6). In the New Covenant, he is always near—and he was always near in the Old, but people did not have his Spirit living in them permanently. We in the New do have the Spirit living permanently forever.

D.. It is lifting your soul to the LORD

1.. Ps. 25:1, David says he lifts up his soul to God, a phrase which the new NIV omits and just says the psalmist trusts in God.

2.. In Ps. 86:4, David lifts up his soul to the LORD, but the NIV also omits this image and just says that David puts his trust in the LORD.

E.. It is approaching the throne of God’s grace.

1.. Heb. 4:16 Jesus is our great high priest (v. 15), so we now have access to the throne of grace.

F.. It is drawing near to God.

1.. Heb. 10:22 promises us that our hearts are sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and our bodies have been washed with our water. Therefore we can draw near to God with a sincere heart with full assurance of faith. Great promise.

II.. To Whom Should We Pray?

A.. To God (2 Chron. 20:5-8; Ezr. 9:6; Acts 4:24).

1.. In Acts 4:24, Peter and John stood before the Sanhedrin, the highest council and court in Israel, and testified about the name of Jesus. Then they were released and went back to the community and lifted up their prayers to God, so they could boldly proclaim the name of Jesus.

2.. You can look up the other verses.

B.. To the LORD (2 Chron. 20:5-6; Acts 4:24; 2 Cor. 12:8).

1.. So in the two NT verses, whom did the apostles have in mind? YHWH (LORD) or Adonai? Throughout the NT the LORD is often in view. See my post about the title LORD 5. Titles of Jesus: The Lord

C.. We pray to the Father (Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2; Eph. 1:17; 3:14; Col. 1:3)

D.. To Jesus Christ (Luke 23:42; Acts 7:59; 1 Cor. 1:2)

III.. What Are the Components of Prayer?

Please see the links for more information.

A.. Confession

What Is Biblical Confession?

B.. Praise

What Is Biblical Praise?

Bible Basics about Praise and Worship

C.. Thanksgiving

What Is Biblical Thanksgiving?

D.. Intercession

What Is Biblical Intercession?

E.. Petition

What Is Petitionary Prayer?

You can follow that sequence, if you like (no hard and fixed rules, however).

You can confess your sins, like unforgiveness, if God comvicts you. Or you can confess Christ and all he did for you.

You can praise God for his blessing like salvation and previous answered prayer, and for who he is).

You can give thanks for his spiritual and material blessings.

You can intercede for others, standing in the gap between them (and their needs) and God, who has the answer to their needs.

You can petition God for your own personal needs.

IV.. How Should We Pray?

A.. Divine initiative

1.. We pray through Jesus Christ (Rom. 1:8). Paul thanks God through Jesus Christ the Lord.

2.. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ (John 14:13-14; Eph. 5:20).

Eph. 5:20; in the latter verse, we must give thanks for everything, in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ.

3.. We pray in the Holy Spirit (Eph. 6:18; Jude 20).

This probably refers to the divinely given prayer languages (archaically called ‘tongues’):

Should We Call It ‘Tongues’?

Questions and Answers about Spirit-Inspired Languages

The Purpose and Importance of Spiritual Languages

B.. Human side

1.. We pray in the fear and our reverential awe of God (Ps. 145:19; Prov. 1:28-29).

There is nothing wrong with the fear of the Lord, despite what the TV Happy Highlights teachers tell us. God is so awesome and wholly other that we better be willing to bow down in reverence before him.

2.. We pray in faith (Mark 11:24; Jas. 1:6; 5:15).

If we waver in our faith and become double-minded, we will lose out on the best God has for us. Instead, you must put your childlike trust in him. Just pray and finish with, “Lord, I trust you. You know my situation or problem better than I do, and you are keen to give me the keys of the kingdom. Thank you, God. I trust in you” (Luke 12:32).

3.. We pray in humility (2 Chron. 7:14; 2 Chron. 33:12-13).

In the latter two verses, Manasseh, a wicked king, prayed humbly to the LORD, who was moved by his plea, so God brought him back to Jerusalem from exile to Babylon. The king purged the idols from the land. It is a defective idea to strut before God and be pushy, as if he is reluctant to answer your prayers. He’s not reluctant to do that, but he is more interested in your character. Don’t push God. Just be humble before him. Yes, the authority of the believer is important, and you can use it to “smack down” your evil thoughts and satanic attacks, but don’t boss God around.

4.. We pray in repentance (2 Chron. 6:37-28 and Acts 3:19)

Repentance has fallen out of favor among some TV teachers, but repentance for believers is biblical. In 2 Chron 6:27-28 God promised a return of the exiles if they truly turn from the wicked ways. In Acts 3:19 Peter tells his fellow Israelites to repent and turn to the Lord. Repentance is, yes, a change of mind, but it is also a turning from one way—your way—and to go in the opposite way—God’s way.

See my post on repentance:

What Is Repentance?

In Luke 11:4, followers of the Father are to pray each day for forgiveness.

5.. We pray with all our heart (Deut. 4:29; Jer. 29:13).

If we seek God with all our heart and all our soul, we will find him (Deut. 4:29) The latter verse is a great promise. Read Jer. 29:11 too.

6.. We pray with a heart free from sin (Ps. 66:18-19; Is. 1:15-16; John 9:31).

No, we cannot get rid of sin completely out of our lives, but it does not have to dominate us, because we have crucified the old nature (Rom. 6:6-14). If you have an easily besetting or ensnaring sin, then look to Jesus and keep running the race ahead of you, not behind you (Heb. 12:1-2).

7.. We pray with a life free from selfishness (Luke 18:9-14; Jas. 4:3).

In the illustration of the tax collector and the Pharisee, the religious guy was so far off base, he did not leave with righteousness or his prayer answered. The sinful tax collector, who realized his great need, left his prayer time righteous.

In Jas, 4:3, we don’t have because we don’t ask and when we do ask with pray out of bad motives, to spend God’s answer on our own pleasures.

The latter verse says we do not have because we do not ask of God, and when we do ask, with do so with wrong, selfish motives.

8.. We pray with a heart free from doubt (Matt. 21:21; Jas. 1:5-7).

In Matt. 21:21, the disciples marveled that Jesus’s answer about the fig tree withering was done so soon. Jesus said that if they had faith and did not doubt, they too could see such powerful to prayer. For Jas. 1:5-7, see III.B.2, above.

See no. 2 for a comment. Read the Word to feed your faith, and ignore your plaguing doubts to starve them. Don’t obsess over them. They are put there by the devil.

9.. We pray with a forgiving spirit (Matt. 6:14-15; Mark 11:25).

Those verses are so important. Please look them up, if you dare! Unforgiveness is the greatest hindrance to prayer.

10.. We pray with confidence (Eph. 3:12; Heb. 10:19, 35; 1 John 3:21-22).

Those verses are key for confidence. We can pray in him and through him with confidence, so we have confidence in our union with him (Eph. 3:12). We can confidently enter the Holy Place through the blood of Jesus; by his blood the holy presence of God is accessible by us (Heb. 10:19), and we can be so confident that if our property is confiscated, we understand that our possessions are really heavenly (Heb. 10:35). This understanding comes only through our knowledge of Jesus’s salvation and our union with him. When our hearts do not condemn us we have confidence before God, and so we receive anything we ask. But there is a provision attached: we keep his commands and do what pleases him. And what is his command? To believe in the name of his Son and to love one another (1 John 3:21-23). So faith in Christ and love are his commands. Do we have and use them?

11.. We pray with persistence (Luke 11:5-10; Luke 18:1-7; 1 Thess. 5:17).

In the first passage, Jesus tells the quick illustration about a friend who has a traveler visiting unexpectedly and has no provisions for him. So the friend asks a reluctant neighbor, who finally relents and gives him bread (Luke 11:5-10). Keep on asking, keep on seeking, and keep on knocking, and God will answer you, and he is not reluctant. He is making sure that you grow up with good enough character to receive what he has for you (Luke 11:9-10).

In Luke 18:1-7, Jesus tells the story about the persistent widow and a reluctant judge. After imploring him over and over again, the judge finally gives in. Our Father is not like that reluctant judge. The argument goes from the worst to the best. If the reluctant judge finally gives in, how much sooner will your Father finally answer your prayer.

1 Thess. 5:17 says to pray constantly. Adopt an attitude of prayer all throughout the day. Whisper prayers to God.

12.. We pray with sincerity and simplicity (Matt. 6:5-8; Mark 12:38-40).

Don’t pray long, verbose prayers, like the religious guys do. Just keep your words simple and straightforward, which reveals your faith in God, not your own efforts and self-confidence.

13.. We pray for according to God’s will (Matt. 26:42; 1 John 5:14).

Did you think you would get a blank check, despite what the “faith teachers” claim? No, you have to pray according God’s will. He knows better than you what you need. He will provide the right person or thing or other answer, at the right time

14.. Your prayer has to come from obedience (1 John 3:22).

See no. 10 for a comment. Walk in faith in Christ and love for people.

V.. Does God Answer the Prayers of His People?

A.. Remarkable answers to prayers

1.. Abram prays for his servant to be successful in finding a wife for his son Isaac (Gen. 24:12-27).

2.. Moses prays for the defeat of the Amalekites (Exod. 17:8-13).

3.. Gideon gets his answer by asking God to moisten a fleece or keep it dry. God honored his extreme prayer in an extreme circumstance (Judg. 6:36-40).

4.. Samson prayed for strength, which had flowed out of his obedience and commitment to the LORD (Judg. 16:25-30).

5.. Hannah prays for a child and has Samuel (1 Sam. 1:9-20).

6.. Elijah prays for the resuscitation of a dead child (1 Kings 17:19-23).

7.. Elijah calls down fire from heaven on false prophets (1 Kings 18:30-38).

8.. Elijah prays for rain (1 Kings 18:41-45; Jas. 5:17-18).

9.. Elisha prays for the resuscitation of a dead boy (2 Kings 4:32-35).

10.. Hezekiah repents and prays for healing (2 Kings 20:1-7).

11.. Daniel prays for safety in the lions’ den (Dan. 6:10, 16-22)

12.. Zechariah prays for a child (Luke 1:7, 11-17).

13.. The criminal on the cross prays for salvation (Luke 23:42-43).

14.. Early Christians pray for Peter in prison, who is miraculously released (Acts 12:3-11).

15.. Paul and Silas worship and pray, and an earthquake broke their chains and the doors flung open (Acts 16:25-26).

God answered many more prayers than the one listed above!

B.. God promises to answer our prayers.

1.. In the Old Testament (Ps. 86:7; Is. 30:19; 58:9)

2.. In the words of Jesus (Matt. 7:7-11; John 14:13-14);

Matt. 7:7-11 says to keep on asking, seeking and knocking. God know how to give good things to those who ask.

John 14:13-14 says that if we ask anything in his name, he will answer. What does it mean to ask in his name? His name stands in for his person and character. You must ask for things according to his person and character. Don’t ask for selfish things with selfish and bad motives.

3.. In the New Testament letters (Jas. 1:5-8; 1 John 5:14-15).

The latter verses say that if we ask anything according to his will, we know that he hears us, so we know we receive anything we asked for. But our prayers have to conform to his will, especially Scripture. Don’t pray to have another woman’s husband (Exod. 20:14). You do not get carte blanche for your life or prayers. You may be carnal and fleshly and ask amiss (Jas. 4:3).

C.. The basis for God’s answers

1.. God must get the glory.

In Num 14:13-16, Israel revolted, so God threatened to wipe them out and start over. But Moses pleaded with the LORD, who relented. Egypt would hear about the wipe out, and how would God get the glory?

In John 17:1-5, the introduction to the great high priestly prayer, Jesus asked God to glorify his Son, so his Son would glorify the Father. The whole flow of the new Christian faith was God’s glory.

2.. God’s grace is the foundation of answered prayer.

In Exod. 32:31-32, Moses pleaded with the LORD to atone for their sins, at the moment they had forged the golden calf. His forgiveness, after punishment, is the grace of the LORD.

In Num 14:17-19, God relented from wiping out the people, and this relenting = his grace.

In Is. 30:19, the prophet promised God would be gracious as soon as the people call on the LORD’s name.

In 2 Cor. 12:8-9, Paul asked the Lord to take away the thorn in the flesh, but God answered him with grace. “My grace is sufficient for thee.”

3.. God’s faithfulness to his Word is the basis for answered prayer.

In Exod. 32:12-13, Moses interceded with the LORD, standing in the gap between him and them, because they had just made the golden calf. Moses reminded the LORD of the covenant and promises he had made with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Would God go back on his Word?

In 2 Chron. 20:7-9, King Jehoshaphat prayed to the LORD for deliverance from the Moabites, Ammonites, and some Meunites. The king reminded the LORD of his earlier promises (his Word) he had made the Abraham and his descendants. God gave them the victory.

D.. The how (manner) of God’s answer.

1.. Sometimes God answers immediately.

In Num 14:20, Moses prayed, and God instantly relented from wiping out the ancient Israelites when they had revolted and wanted to return to Egypt.

Elijah prayed for son of the widow of Zarephath, and after stretching himself three times over the boy, the boy revived. The prayer may not have been answered after one try, but it happened in just a minute or two (1 Kings 17:2-21).

In Luke 23:43, the criminal on the cross prayed to be with Jesus in paradise, and Jesus replied that on that day his prayer would be answered.

2.. Sometimes there is a delay in an answer.

In Dan. 10:1-14, an angel said that as soon as Daniel had begun praying 21 days earlier, the prayer was heard, but the prince of Persia, a demonic person, hindered him, so Michael the archangel had to step in and fight, until the spiritual path was cleared.

In Luke 18:1-7, Jesus illustrated God willingness to answer prayer, by a persistent widow. A reluctant judge at first refused to answer her petition, but he relented. So how much more will God, who is not unjust, quickly answer your prayers. See III.B.11 for a further comment.

3.. Sometimes the prayer super-exceeds our request

In 1 King 18:24, 36-38, Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal. God did not answer their prayers, but he did answer his prophet’s beyond his request, sending down fire to consume the water around the sacrifice.

Eph. 3:20 reveals the wonderful promise that God will answer your prayers more abundantly and fully than we believers could even ask or imagine.

4.. Sometimes God’s answer is different from the request.

In 1 Kings 19:1-9, God answered Elijah’s pray by a still small voice, a gentle whisper, not a mighty wind, an earthquake, or fire (lightning).

5.. Sometimes the answer is no.

In 2 Sam. 12:15-20, after Bathsheba got pregnant, David prayed for the child to live, after it was born. It did not live. He got up and moved on, surrendering to the will of God.

In 2 Cor. 12:8-9, Paul prayed for a thorn to be removed, but God said no. His grace was sufficient for the apostle.

6.. Sometimes our prayers require action.

In Neh. 4:9, Nehemiah prayed for protection and posted guards day and night to meet the threats.

VI.. What Are Aspects of Prayer?

A.. Postures of prayer

1.. We can stand while we pray (1 Kings 8:22; Neh. 9:4-5).

In Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the temple, he stood in the assembly.

Nehemiah and the priests stood on the stairs and prayed loudly, confessing their sins before the people.

2.. We can sit while we pray (1 Chron. 17:16; Luke 10:13).

In the first verse, David went into the temple to pray and thank the Lord for his blessing on him. The cities whom Jesus denounced can’t compare to ancient cities, who would have sat in sackcloth and ashes, as they repented.

3.. We can kneel while we pray (Ezr. 9:5; Dan. 6:10; Acts 20:36).

At evening prayers, Ezra fell on his knees and spread out his hands before the LORD his God. Daniel prayed three times a day on his knees. In Acts 20:36 the church at Ephesus knelt down on the beach to pray with Paul, as he was sent off to his next city, on his way to Jerusalem.

4.. We can bow down while we pray (Exod. 34:8; Pss. 5:7; 95:6).

God made two new tablets of stone, and Moses bowed down and prayed. David went into the house of the Lord and bowed down in the temple. In 95:6, the psalmist encourages the people to come and bow down before the Lord their Maker.

5.. We can lie down on the ground while we pray (2 Sam. 12:16; Matt. 26:39).

When David pleaded with God to spare his son, he lay down in sackcloth, the ultimate sign of humility. His prayer was not answered. In Matt. 26:39, Jesus fell on his face to the ground to pray just before his arrest and trial and crucifixion.

6.. We can lift up hands while we pray (Ps. 28:2; Is. 1:15; 1 Tim. 2:8).

David prayed cried out to God for mercy, and he stretched out his hands to the Lord. Isaiah said that when the people spread out their hand in prayer, God ignores them because the people were rebellious. But notice how lifting up the hands was still assumed to be done. Paul asks everyone to lift up their holy hands as they prayed.

B.. The manner of prayer

1.. We can pray alone and silently (1 Sam. 1:18).

Hannah prayed quietly, to receive a son from the Lord.

2.. We can pray alone and aloud (Ezek. 11:13).

Ezekiel fell face down and cried out with a loud voice.

3.. We can pray with two or three (Matt. 18:19).

Where two or three are gathered in Jesus’s name, he is there in their midst.

4.. We can pray in a large group (Ps. 35:18; Acts 4:23-31).

David said he would give thanks and pray in the great assembly and the throngs.

The early church gathered together to pray for boldness, after Peter and John were released by the Sanhedrin. It was a large gathering

C.. The time of your prayers

1.. We can pray in the morning (Ps. 5:1-3; Mark 1:35).

David said that the LORD hears his voice in the morning.

Jesus got up early in the morning, while it was still dark, left the house and found a solitary place to pray.

2.. We can pray in the evening (Gen. 24:63).

Isaac went out to pray in the evening.

3.. We can pray at fixed times (Ps. 55:17; Dan. 6:10).

David prayed out in his distress, evening, morning, and noon. Daniel prayed three times a day.

4.. We should pray always (Luke 18:1; Rom. 1:10; 1 Thess. 5:17).

Jesus told a parable to tell people always to pray and not give up.

Paul says he prays always for the Romans, in all times.

Paul told the Thessalonians to pray without ceasing or stopping.

D.. Possible places of prayer

1.. We can pray in secret (Matt. 6:6).

Go to your closet or other secret place.

2.. We can pray in bed (Ps. 63:6).

David remembers the LORD, on his bed, during the night watch.

3.. We can pray in a family setting (Acts 10:1-2).

Cornelius and his household asked Peter to pray for him and them.

4.. We can pray out in the open (Gen. 24:11-12; Acts 21:3-6).

Abraham’s servant prayed at a watering hole to find the right bride for Isaac.

Paul prayed with the Christian community at Tyre,. They all knelt on the beach and prayed.

5.. We can pray in the battlefield (Josh. 10:12-13).

The five kings of the Amorites formed a coalition to attack Israel, but Joshua was winning and prayed that the sun would stand still.

6.. We can pray by the riverside (Acts 16:13).

Lydia and her household and employees went down to the river to pray, where they met Paul and his team.

7.. We can pray in the temple (2 Kings 19:14).

When the Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem, Hezekiah went in the temple and spread out the threatening letter and to implore the LORD for deliverance. His prayer was answered. For us prayer in the temple is prayer in the church (see next).

8.. We can pray in the church gathered together (Acts 4:23-31).

The church gathered together to pray, in order to be bold in their witness.

9.. We can pray anywhere (1 Tim 2:8).

Paul said to pray everywhere for all people, lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting.

So how does this post help me know God better and improve my prayer life?

You now know how to pray more biblically. You can pray with confidence in Jesus’s name and by his sprinkled blood on the heavenly altar. You can rest assured that he heard your prayer. Now all you have to do is wait for his answer. It may come in a few minutes or a few years. But wait for it. Don’t give up. Be like the persistent widow, who always prayed, without ceasing and without giving up.

Let’s look to a “how-to” or how to pray:

Prayer flows out of confidence before God that he will answer because we no longer have an uncondemned heart (1 John 3:19-24; Rom. 8:1); and we know him so intimately that we find out from him what is his will is and then we pray according to it (1 John 5:14-15); we pray with our Spirit-inspired languages and our native languages (1 Cor. 14:15-16). But that’s what all believers should do; however, too often theory outruns practice. Pray! For a theology on how to respond when God does not answer our prayers, as when James was executed by Herod, see Acts 12 and the very last Observations for Discipleship section.

Prayer can be (1) for oneself, like overcoming sins and vices in your heart and mind or receiving wisdom from above (James 3:17) and not being double-minded about receiving it (Jas. 1:5-8), but (2) it is also for the needs of the community. It was coming under attack, so prayers were offered. Praying for boldness to reach out and spread the word is wonderful. We should do it more often. (3) Further, prayer brings down the manifest presence of God. God is omnipresent (everywhere) of course, but his presence can make itself felt and experienced. God showed up and shook the place where they were gathered.

Prayer can be visualized like a pebble in a pond, and the ripples go outward. (1) It starts with oneself and one’s needs; (2) then it goes outward to one’s own family and (3) to the Christian community (your home church). (4) It goes out to evangelism and the needs of the world around the community, (5) and finally to parts around the globe. But this prayer here in Acts varies the order, which you may do, if you like. Prayer is ultimately and most deeply a conversation with God.


What Is Prayer?

What Is Petitionary Prayer?

What Is Biblical Intercession?

What Is Biblical Praise?

Bible Basics about Praise and Worship

Word Study on Praise and Worship

What Is Biblical Thanksgiving?


Works Cited

At that link look for the NIV Study Bible.


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