Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©


"All the ends of the earth shall -- turn to the Lord." (Psalms 22:27)
'Prayer is keeping company with God'
(Clement of Alexandria)

The Bible assumes the existence of God and the reality of communion with God. From the first chapter of Genesis to the last chapter of Revelation, it describes communication as taking place between humanity and God. We must indeed offer rational arguments to a sceptical and questioning world why we believe in the reality of that communication. But if such communion with God is the supreme potential of humankind and the divine purpose for us, nothing in all the world could be more important than our taking notice of God's address to us, and our responding with the activity of prayer. The words of Coleridge must then ring true, `The act of praying is the very highest energy of which the human mind is capable.' To refuse to pray then is to deprive ourselves of one of the greatest blessings that God offers to us. Prayer is welcoming God into our lives and our needs. Norwegian writer Professor O. Hallesby makes the central feature of his book Prayer the application to this dimension of life the words of the living Christ in Revelation 3:20: "Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me." (1) These words speak of the offer of communion with God, suggesting listening and speaking, stemming from the awareness of the presence of the One to whom we pray, and the Bible speaks of that presence as a transforming presence (see e.g. 2 Cor.3:18, Eph.4:23-24 and Col.3:10).

Another way in which this fellowship with God is expressed in the Bible is in terms of "walking with God" (see Gen.5:22 and 6:9), and while we could think of two people walking together without verbal communication, that would be unusual unless they lacked the power of speech. The Biblical records and many records of human experiences outside the Bible speak of visions, though usually a figure seen in a vision makes verbal communication. There can also be thoughts that words cannot express, and the Bible (in Romans 8:26) speaks of the Spirit interceding "with sighs too deep for words". Nevertheless most prayer involves words. As one writer has put it,

'Speech is an integral aspect of the divine-human relationship. -- From the creation stories on, conversation is perhaps the most prevalent way in which God and humankind relate to each other. The absence of such conversation, of listening and responding, is a sign that the relationship is not healthy --'(2).

Prayer can be without words, but it is misleading to suggest that mere thoughts of goodwill for others amount to praying for them. As essential of prayer is that we relate our own situation or the situation of others to God, to the One who invites us to pray to him.

It is vitally important to realise, however, that that communication between God and humanity is a two-way process. The Bible constantly speaks in reciprocal terms: we call, God answers; God calls, we should answer (Isa.65:24 and 66:4). Indeed the real initiative is always God's. God speaks - in an almost endless variety of ways. God makes himself known to us. Our prayer should always be like that which the aged Eli taught Samuel to pray, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening" (1 Sam.3:9). God speaks to guide and to instruct his people, to encourage and to warn, as the Bible shows from beginning to end. If we are to hear God speak, we must follow the exhortation of the divine word in Psalm 46:10, "Be still, and know that I am God."

The Bible is full of invitations to us to listen to God and to speak to God in prayer, and there are many examples of two-way communication. When Genesis 1 speaks of God creating us in his own image, though many other things may be involved, not least is the reality that we have such a degree of likeness to God that God is able to communicate with us and be understood by us, and we are able to communicate with God. From Genesis 3 onward and throughout the Bible God addresses his human creation and his human creation makes response - affirmatively or negatively. Response to God in words may take the form of praise and thanksgiving, devotion and assent, or questioning, argument, bargaining, petitioning. The tragedy is, however, when we do not respond. Sadly the words of Isaiah 65:12 are too often true, as the Lord says, "I called but you did not answer, I spoke but you did not listen. You did evil in my sight and chose what displeases me."

The Bible indicates in many ways that God intends there to be a growing relationship between himself and his human creation. Often this is expressed in picturesque ways. We have noted how it is spoken of as `walking with God', as is said of Enoch (Gen.5:24) and Noah (Gen.6:9). It is pictured in the ladder from heaven to earth in Jacob's dream with the angels of God ascending and descending on it (Gen.28:12, and in the New Testament see Jn.1:51). Moses is a man whom the Lord is said to have known "face to face" (Deut. 34:10). Covenant is a very significant biblical way of speaking of the two-sided relationship between God and his human creation. There was the covenant with Abraham, that between God and Israel, and then the new covenant in Jesus Christ. All these ways of speaking involve the understanding of the intended relationship between us and God; and, as Mark Gibbard puts it Prayer is relationship, ` ever to be reaffirmed, re-expressed and ever deepened.' (3)

All of the pictures mentioned above involve communication - God addressing humans, and their addressing God. Our addressing God is prayer, and to pray rightly is one of the most vital lessons that any of us can learn. Not all prayer is true prayer. Not all prayer is worthy of creatures made in the image of God. Genuine prayer, as we shall see, is based on a true knowledge of the God to whom we pray. There are also right and wrong attitudes in prayer, and the Bible says much about these. There are things that we are always right in asking of God. Other things are questionable, and in the school of prayer we need to learn discernment how to pray.

The invitation to pray shows that prayer is determined by God as an essential part of the way in which we should live as people made in the image of God. It is the way God's work is to be done in the world. It is the way that we are intended to meet our difficulties and grapple with our perplexities. When Hezekiah prayed in the face of the Assyrian invasion, the prophet Isaiah was sent to him to say, "Because you have prayed to me ---", this is what has happened (Isa.37:21). It is true that in his grace and goodness God often acts before we pray, or even when we fail to pray at all, but we still need to see prayer as a divinely-ordained way for us to live out our lives in the world in relation to God.

If God's purpose for the whole of our lives is that we should live in personal relationship with him, and if prayer is communication with God, it follows that the whole of life should be permeated by prayer. At the human level two people united together in a loving relationship communicate by their conversation, and without such communication their relationship is not likely to be sustained, much less to grow and deepen. So it is with our relationship with God. Communication is essential for that relationship to grow and deepen. Selwyn Hughes rightly puts it that prayer is `a commitment to develop a relationship with God rather than just asking him for things (4).

Because these things are true, prayer has a deeply formative influence on our lives. Our relationship with God is our highest privilege and the greatest feature of our humanity, and because prayer is the normal expression of that relationship, the words of Murray McCheyne are true when he says that what a person is `alone on his knees before God, that he is, and no more.' J.I. Packer, commenting on this says, that as prayer is the spiritual measure of a person in a unique way, `how we pray is as important a question as we can ever face.'(5) In the same vein Anthony Bloom says, prayer `is the best way to go ahead towards the fulfilment of our calling, to become fully human, which means in full communion with God and ultimately what St. Peter calls partakers of the divine nature.'(6)