How do we pray, and how do we get better at prayer?
What is prayer? What does it do, and most importantly, how do we build the kind of relationship that invites two-way communication with God?
What Have Your Experiences with Prayer Been like?
As a young girl, I would visit my friend’s place and there we would always say grace before meals. My childhood friend prayed the prayer her dad taught her – it took me years to work out what was being said; “forwhatwerabout to receive… make us truly thankful, Amen.” When I finally worked out what it meant (“for what we are about to receive”), I thought it was a little odd to ask God to make us thankful – couldn’t I make myself thankful?
In the church I grew up in, prayer was a very solemn experience – heads were bowed and everybody sat in a tightly crouched position. It was very quiet – there were lots of awkward silences and people would often speak with a kind of King James English. Prayer was a serious activity that required deep reverence.
When I moved churches at 21, it was a bit of a shock to the system. In my new church, prayer was loud! People would often shout, and prayer felt like a football match with regular waves of noise that built to a high-pitched crescendo. Instead of sitting down with our heads hunched over, we stood up. Hands were raised high in the air and everyone prayed at the same time. At first I found it intimidating – both because they were so emotionally expressive and because they prayed for so long… it made me want to run out of the door. But I was impressed by their passion and enthusiasm.
Then, a few years ago, I visited a Benedictine monastery in Europe and it felt like I was stepping back in time. Prayer took place at five set times each day, with the first at 4am (we didn’t attend that one). All the prayers were spoken or sung in Latin using traditional Gregorian chants. I couldn’t understand what they were saying and I wondered if they got bored repeating the same words day after day, week after week.
What is your experience of prayer? What should our experiences of prayer be like?
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So, What is Prayer?
We often associate prayer with asking God for things, but it is much broader than that. Essentially prayer is communication between ourselves and God. We speak to him and he speaks back. Prayer then, is the substance of a relationship. You cannot have relationship without communication. At its core, prayer is about our relationship with God.
That means the way we view our relationship with God will impact our ideas about prayer. Conversation happens in the context of relationship. To understand prayer, we really need to ask, “what kind of relationship do I have with God?”
The question isn’t always easy to answer. How do you describe a relationship with an invisible deity? I believe that’s part of the reason why the Scriptures use a lot of metaphors in their stories. Metaphors are a tangible way to describe a relationship with a God who is unseen.
“In each type of relationship, prayer is seen in a different way. The nature of our relationship with God will shape our conversation with him.”
For example, there’s the imagery of bride to groom – where we are the bride, God is the groom; depictions of God as King and us as his servants; God as parent and we as his children; God as shepherd to us, his sheep.
In each type of relationship, prayer is seen in a different way. The nature of our relationship with God will shape our conversation with him.
Using the metaphor of bride to groom (Revelation 19:6-9), prayer will likely be intimate, full of love with elements of surrender and self-sacrifice. It may have romantic or adoring feelings attached to it. In contrast, the metaphor of servant to king (Revelation 19:16) will have a different emphasis. In prayer, there may be a recognition of lordship and authority. Instructions, commands and submission will be key parts of the conversation.
Then there is the metaphor of parent to child (Matthew 7:11). Here there will be plenty of requests for provision for personal needs. Prayer may consist of seeking God to provide a home to live in, a church to go to or a good job to find.
And then there’s the metaphor of shepherd to sheep (Psalm 23, John 10:1-18). This image becomes important when we’re looking for guidance; when we’re saying, “Lord lead me, show me the way to green pastures and still waters.”
There are other metaphors, too. There is the image of co-labourers (1 Corinthians 3:9). In this relationship, prayer will consist of praying for God’s kingdom to come and seeking our purpose in how we can co-operate with God’s plan to bring it about. Finally, there is the image of our relationship with God as friend to friend (John 15:15). Here, prayer will reveal a level of openness and vulnerability. There will be a willingness to share the deeper issues of the heart – both on the part of God and on us as his people.
What Does Prayer Look Like to You?
Which metaphor of relationship do you relate best to? The answer to that question will probably give some indication as to your current prayer life. Of course, each aspect of these relationship are important. They are like facets of a diamond all playing their part. The fullest type of relationship is likely to include all different facets. At times, one aspect of relationship becomes more important than another. There are times when we need a parent or shepherd; times we need a friend; other times when we need a Lord. But at the same time, it’s important to understand that all of these angles make up what prayer looks like, and a well-rounded relationship with God involves all of them at different times.
Article supplied with thanks to God Conversations. About the Author: Tania Harris is a pastor, speaker, author and the founder of God Conversations.