Prayer is a feature of all world religions and also those of a more homespun variety. This is because human beings are made in the image of God and have some awareness of being indebted and accountable to some higher being or power. Pagan petitions for aid and thanksgiving for help are recorded in the Old Testament; for example, the Philistines (Judg. 16:23-24), the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:25-26), and the sailors on Jonah’s ship (Jon. 1:5).
But this does not mean that our religiously pluralistic society is correct in regarding all prayer as being much the same. Christian prayer is unique, and Christians should make that clear by the manner in which they pray.
The Lord Jesus spoke about prayer in a discriminating and authoritative way. He discouraged followers from praying as the Jewish leaders and the Gentiles did (see Matt. 6:5-7) because God is neither deceived by masks nor pressured by mantras. Instead, he told them that prayer was "asking the Father in [his] name" and added that this was something they had not yet done (John 15:16; 16:23, 24).
“Name” is equivalent to the Lord God being present and active to save. Jesus is the sent one of the Father, his Christ, because he came in his Father’s name and not his own (see John 5:43). So to pray to the Father in his name is to crown him as Prophet, Priest, and King, and to serve him by way of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication.
Groaning in the Spirit
Christian prayer, then, is “draw[ing] from [Christ] an overflowing spring” and having our “spirit raised” by the Holy Spirit as we come to God as our heavenly Father. This is what marks out Christian prayer. It is the consequence of the distinct but complementary ministries of two advocates, one before the throne of God in heaven for the believer guaranteeing access to God as Father (see 1 John 2:1, 2), and the other in the believer assuring him that he is a child and heir of God (Rom. 8:15-28).
There are times when such thoughts will lie too deep for words and will only find vent in sighs and even tears occasioned by the sufferings of this present time as they affect the believer, the church, and the world. The Spirit understands this nonverbal language, and he translates it to the Father through the Son.
Praying in the Spirit
It is important to note that Christian prayer is: (1) Trinitarian in shape; (2) universal in scope; and (3) childlike in spirit.
1. Trinitarian in Shape
When we say that our prayers are “Trinitarian in shape,” we mean that the doxologies, benedictions, wishes, and recorded prayers of the New Testament are structured in such a way as to lead to later creedal formulation. In these prayers, primacy is given to the Father to whom we pray, through the Son, and with mention of the Spirit’s work, because it is by him that we are empowered to pray. This is standard in the writings of the apostles Peter, John, and especially Paul.
The latter generally addresses the Father and the Son and does so by the Spirit, even laying down the declaration, “Through him [Jesus Christ] we both [Jew and Gentile] have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Eph. 2: 18); and it announces the benediction, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13:14).
2. Universal in Scope
It goes without saying that Christians pray for churches and fellow believers. The prayers recorded in the New Testament Epistles are proof of this. Even John’s words, “I do not say that one should pray for that” (see 1 John 5:16), occur in the context of encouraging prayer for fellow Christians who sin. But the world is also to be included in such intercession. The Old Testament does not confine God’s goodness and grace to Israel alone: “The Lord is good to all and his mercy is over all that he has made” (Ps. 145:9). All people should pray to him, but even when they do not “he is kind to the unthankful and the evil” (Luke 6:35).
He sent his son to die for a bad world of perishing human beings (John 3:16). His benevolent concern and activity are not limited to the church. Paul, therefore, urges a great diversity of prayers for all sorts of people in keeping with his desire that the gospel should be made known to all the nations. The gospel is to be freely preached to all, far and wide, and a ministry of "neighborly" intercession supports such proclamation. "This is good and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior [benefactor] who desires all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth" (see 1 Tim. 2:1-7).
3. Childlike in Spirit
One feature of Christian prayer that distinguishes it from all others is that God is addressed as "Father." Old Testament believers were humble and trusting, but God was only "Father" to the king and to the nation (Exod. 4:22 and Isa. 63:16). By contrast, Jesus gives each believer the right to call his Father theirs (Luke 11:2 and John 20:17), and his Spirit enables them to do so (Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4: 6).
He also gives them the sure promise that God will hear and answer their prayers always! He can no more turn a deaf ear to his children than he can to their Elder Brother who is at his right hand in heaven. The Father sent his Son to gather his estranged children and bring them home. He, therefore, delights to hear them call on his name in faith and love (whatever words they use and in whatever language) and to respond positively to them.
Adapted from Hywel R. Jones,"Christian Prayer" Modern Reformation, Jul/Aug 2013. Used by permission.