Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©

Chapter 11 The practice of prayer

1. Prayer, private or corporate

Clearly in Scripture personal prayer and corporate prayer are alike important. The Psalms well illustrate this, though it is sometimes difficult to know whether any individual psalm began as an individual prayer or as the prayer of the community as a whole. Some Psalms indicate the reality of personal prayer and individual communion with God. At the same time we know that the worship of the temple was significant in the life of Israel, and that the times of the annual festivals in particular were times of great corporate praise and celebration. In 1 Chronicles 23:30 we read of the Levites standing to praise the Lord in the temple morning and evening. Isaiah 64:11 looks back from a time when the temple had been destroyed, and laments to God over the way that "our holy and beautiful house, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned by fire."

Acts 1 speaks of the way that after the Ascension of Jesus the disciples met together for prayer, and then after Pentecost the life of the early Christians is spoken of in terms of the way that "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). At first they continued to go to the temple for prayer. Then the emphasis came to be on meeting in their own communities, from house to house.

One of the important realities of corporate prayer, of praying with others, is that we can encourage one another in our praying. We can go back to the Old Testament for examples of his, to Aaron and Hur (in Ex.17) who held up Moses' arms as he prayed for his people fighting against the Amalekites, and to David and Jonathan encouraging one another in the Lord (1 Sam.20:41-42). In the New Testament Hebrews 10:25 emphasises "not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching." Sometimes united prayer is the supporting of one another in times of special need, and even Jesus asked his disciples to stay with him as he wrestled in prayer in Gethsemane (Matt.26:36-40).

Uniting together in prayer was encouraged by Jesus himself as we read in Matthew 18:19-20 of his saying to his disciples, "If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." 1 Corinthians 14, as well as other parts of that Epistle, says a good deal about corporate worship. 1 Corinthians 16:1-3 appears to indicate the Christians in Corinth meeting together on the first day of the week. James 2:2 similarly indicates the assembly of Christians together.

There is a significant relationship between public and private prayer. We have seen how the stress of Hebrews 10:24-25 is on our encouraging one another by our praying together. Often we need that for our individual Christian lives. At the same time personal private prayer must have a place in our lives, and we should form a habit of bringing our personal praise as well as the needs of our personal lives to God in prayer. Jesus clearly referred to such prayer when he said, "whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you" (Matt.6:6). The personal prayer life of Christian people in turn helps them to bring to corporate worship sincere praise and the desire together with others to live in dependence on God and to his glory. Dietrich Bonhoeffer expresses well how the two belong together, as he says,

'One who returns to the Christian family fellowship after fighting the battle of the day brings with him the blessing of his aloneness, but he himself receives anew the blessing of the fellowship. Blessed is he who is alone in the strength of the fellowship and blessed is he who keeps the fellowship in the strength of aloneness. But the strength of aloneness and the strength of the fellowship is solely the strength of the Word of God, which is addressed to the individual in the fellowship' (1).

2. Prayer, set form or free

Christians today according to their church background may be more accustomed to free prayer or to set forms of prayer. There is clearly in the Scriptures abundant precedent for both set forms and for prayer offered spontaneously to God. The Psalms illustrate both. There are words that are found again and again in the Psalms, like "O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures for ever." There were particular words set on the lips of the people as they brought their first fruits to the Lord (Deut.26:1-11).

On the use of set prayers Anthony Bloom comments helpfully as he puts it that the words that we use in prayer must be meaningful to ourselves, but we cannot always have spontaneous prayer that just wells up within us, and 'so there is a need for some sort of prayer which is not spontaneous but which is truly rooted in conviction' (2). Just as many of the Psalms used words that would have been repeated again and again in the people's worship in those far-away times, so down the centuries the prayers and praises of the Psalms have been used in the life of the Jewish people, and come to be used similarly in the life of the Christian Church and by individual Christians (3). We have often what might be called fragments of liturgy scattered in many parts of the Bible. It is in Ruth 2:4 that we have the first known use of the liturgical salutation, "The Lord be with you", with the response, "The Lord bless you." A number of passages in the New Testament epistles are thought to have been hymnic or credal forms used in early Christian worship (e.g.Eph.5:14, Phil.2:6-11, 1 Tim.3:16 and 2 Tim.2:11-13).

Then since biblical times a rich Christian liturgical tradition has come down to us, prayers and hymns and many and varied expressions of worship. Anthony Bloom speaking of the benefit of the liturgical, says how many of us memorise passages of Scripture, especially in the Psalms, passages that go deep into our hearts, that move us deeply, that express what is already part of our experience, and they are of immense value in prayer when we find it difficult to called out of our souls any spontaneous expression (4).

Times and places of prayer

Men and women of faith have always realised that every emergency can be dealt with by prayer. Good biblical examples of this we find in Nehemiah 2:4 and 20. There is no restriction in time and place for our turning to God, and the practice of doing so whether in emergency or just in the normal course of daily living is always to be encouraged. At the same time both corporately and individually we are wise to have regular times of prayer, and Scripture gives precedent for both.

At the level of corporate prayer we realise that the Old Testament provided for the annual festivals, the celebration of new moon and sabbaths. In the New Testament apart from the first Christians going to the temple at the regular times of prayer, we see that there came to be the habit of meeting on the first day of the week (1 Cor.16:2) that came to be known as the Lord's day (Rev.1:10). Romans 14:5-6 and 13, a passage that addresses the question of the observance or non-observance of special times, gives a warning against legalism and the judging of fellow-Christians who have different spiritual disciplines from our own, but this is hardly an argument against regular habits of prayer.

In relation to times of personal prayer we read of Daniel (6:10) praying three times in the day and this is also reflected in the psalms as a custom that at least some of the people followed. Psalm 55:17 speaks of turning to God "evening, morning and at noon. In the New Testament we see the place of regular times of prayer in Acts 10:2, 3, 9 and 30 in the lives of both Peter and Cornelius.

It is clear in practice that if we fail to set aside regular times of prayer there is danger of losing the prior place of prayer in our lives. While we may say that we can pray at any time, it is in fact the case that if we do not have regular times set apart for prayer, we are less likely to make our life a constant attitude of prayer. It is as with a married couple, or even close friends, their relationship is not likely to deepen unless they have times when they spend together understanding and appreciating each other more fully. The greatest challenge to the Christian is always the question, How important do we see prayer in our lives? What priority does it have? For those called to particular ministry within the life of the Church there is great challenge in the way that the early apostles refused to be diverted from their commitment "to prayer and to serving the word" (Acts 6:4).

The best time for prayer will clearly differ with individuals and the commitments of their lives. There is, however, very much to be said for the beginning of the day, when a person can lay the whole of the coming day before the Lord seeking his grace and wisdom, direction and strength. The psalmist (in Ps.5:3) says, "O Lord, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch." Then Mark 1:35 speaking of Jesus at prayer, may indicate a habit that Jesus had of spending time alone with the Father at the beginning of the day. On such prayer at the beginning of the day Anthony Bloom says,

'Awake in the morning and the first thing you do, thank God for it "This day which the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be grateful in it." -- Once you have done this, give yourself time to realise the truth of what you are saying --- Come to God with two convictions. The one is that you are God's own and the other is that this day is also God's own --.'(5)

Then there is value in the evening time, the end of the day, to bring the events of the day to God, to ask pardon for its failures, to commend to the Lord what has been done in his name, and to bring before him those for whom we have been specially concerned in the course of the day.

Little needs to be said on the places where prayer can and should be offered. In the Old Testament there was the tabernacle and the various shrines. The temple was intended as a place of prayer, as Isaiah 56:7 puts it, for all peoples (so in Mk.11:17). After the exile the synagogues came to be of very great importance for the worship of Jewish people, and there were places of prayer where Jewish people met when there was no synagogue (Acts 16:13, 16). We have seen that the temple was still significant for Christians in the earliest days of the life of the church (see Acts 2:46, 3:1 and 22:17), and so were the synagogues, but as time went by the separation from both temple and synagogue became complete. Christian congregational worship in a real sense took over from synagogue worship, but for the most part for many decades without special buildings, and meeting rather from house to house. Some would argue today that we would be better to have only houses for Christians to meet in for their worship and fellowship, but many vital activities would hardly be possible or at least would suffer great restriction if we had no church buildings.

Jesus spoke of the importance of private prayer, prayer in secret - with the suggestion of a place apart, where one could be alone and quiet to commune with God (Matt.6:6). He went up into the hills to pray (Lk.6:12), perhaps partly because in the Palestinian situation, as for many people today, their living conditions made privacy hard to come by. For most of us, however, there is a way, a place, if there is the will to find it, and there is tremendous gain if in times of personal prayer there can be detachment from the world and from the pressing tasks of daily duties. Of course any place can be a place of private prayer, because we direct our prayers to God at any time. Nehemiah prayed as he stood as cupbearer before the king (Nehemiah 2:4), Peter prayed on a roof top (Acts 10:9), the Psalms speak of praying to God and singing praises in bed (Psalms 63:6 and 149:5)!

The leadership of prayer

There are those in the Bible as we have seen, who stand out as intercessors for their people, Moses, Amos, Jeremiah, and others of the prophets (see Ps.99:6 and 106:23). Samuel so recognised his calling as an intercessor that he said, "far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you" (1 Sam.12:23). In the New Testament we see the apostle Paul's intercession for the churches. Supremely Jesus himself intercedes for his disciples. Those who lived close to God and had a depth of insight into his purposes knew how to pray, and we can learn greatly from them. At the same time it should never be imagined that one person's prayers are intrinsically better or more powerful than another's. Access to God through Jesus Christ is free and without discrimination, and answers to prayer are dependent on the God to whom prayer is offered and never the status of the one who prays (7).

Postures for prayer

Finally some brief comments may be made about what is said of postures in prayer in the Scriptures, not for us to prescribe legalistically what we should do today, but rather to see what was involved in each. Jewish people frequently stood to pray, as we see in Matthew 6:5 and Luke 18:11 and 13. Kneeling has become a common attitude for Christians, but formerly it expressed deep emotion and earnestness in prayer, as was the case with Solomon at the dedication of the temple (1 Kgs.8:54), with Stephen at the time of his martyrdom (Acts 7:60), Peter at the death bed of Dorcas (Acts 9:40), Paul at the time of his farewells on his last journey to Jerusalem (Acts 20:36 and 21:5) and supremely we note that Jesus knelt to pray in Gethsemane (Lk.22:41). Such deep emotion and earnestness is indicated by the words of the apostle in Ephesians 3:14, "I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes it name ---."

When Moses prayed in great humility before God when the people had sinned with their idolatrous worship, we read that he "lay prostrate before the Lord" (Deut.9:18 and 25). Passages such Psalm 63:4 and Lamentations 2:19, and in the New Testament 1 Timothy 2:8 speak of lifting up one's hands to pray, perhaps expressive of dependence on God, reaching out to God, and a seeking to receive the gifts that only God can bestow. 1 Kings 8:22 speaks of Solomon spreading out his hands to heaven as he prayed at the dedication of the Jerusalem temple (cf. Ps. 28:2). The emphasis of Lamentations 3:41, however, is that people should lift up hearts as well as hands to the Lord. The principle of that verse can be applied to all that may be said about practices of prayer and postures in prayer. True worshippers are to "worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24). Those words speak of the essence of prayer and make all other considerations about times, places and postures of secondary importance. Yet there is wisdom in the words of Tom Wright,

'this doesn't mean that the physical expression of prayer is irrelevant. We have learnt a lot in our generation about what we call "body language"; have we thought of applying it to our prayer?'

'If we do, we may well discover that the great men and women of prayer in other times and cultures lead learnt a trick or two. The ideal posture, they would tell us, is relaxed but not slumped; poised but not tense; alert but not fidgety; above all, humble but happy in the presence of the Creator whom you are learning to call "Father". Find the posture that does all that for you; find the gestures that express and symbolize the life and love of Jesus for you; and you will be teaching your body to pray - which, to the surprise of many modern persons, is not bad way to teach your mind, heart and soul to pray as well." (8)