Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©


"I love the Lord, because he has heard my voice and my supplications. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live:" (Psalms 116:1-2)
'Prayer is a haven to the shipwrecked, an anchor to them that are sinking in the waves, a staff to the limbs that totter, a mine of jewels to the poor, a healer of diseases, and a guardian of health. Prayer at once secures the continuance of our blessings, and dissipates the clouds of our calamities. O blessed prayer! thou art the unwearied conqueror of human woes, the firm foundation of human happiness, the source of ever-enduring joy, the mother of philosophy. The person who can pray truly, though languishing in extremest indigence, is richer than all beside; while the wretch who never bowed the knee, though proudly sitting as monarch of all nations, is of all people most destitute.'

There are different moods or aspects of prayer as our communication with God. We will consider these in more detail later. There is praise and worship and adoration, simply acknowledging the greatness of God, greatness in power and love, holiness and mercy, wisdom and truth. There is thanksgiving as we express our gratitude to God for what he has done for us, and for others. There is the confession of sin, with the request that God will have mercy and forgive. Then there are prayers of petition and intercession. Sometimes people speak disparagingly of petition and intercession as the lowest forms of prayer, and refer to them as 'bringing a shopping-list' to God. As we study the Scriptures, however, we see that a very large part of what the Bible says about prayer is about bringing our needs and the needs of others to God, expecting him to deal with those needs in his bountiful way. We will study later the many ways in which the Lord's Prayer teaches us to pray, but here it is sufficient to note that that 'model prayer' includes three petitions that are intercessions, petitions that relate to the provision of our daily needs, our forgiveness, and our deliverance from evil. We are permitted, even commanded, to bring all these things to God - all the complicated baggage of our lives.

In relation to asking things of God, the question is often raised why we should pray when God knows our needs before we pray, and when in fact God gives us innumerable blessings for which we never think to pray, and, more regrettably, never think to give thanks for them. John Polkinghorne says

'he wishes our desire to be exercised in prayer that we may be able to receive what he is preparing to give. In other words, prayer is neither the manipulation of God nor just the illumination of our perception, but it is the alignment of our wills with his, the correlation of human desire and divine purpose.' (1)

Taking the example of a laser light beam, where there is the maximum power because all the oscillations are in phase, Polkinghorne says that there is the 'tuning of divine and human wills to mutual resonance through the collaboration of prayer.' (2) Polkinghorne, like others, sees the answers to prayer not as miracle in the sense of natural law being in some way suspended, but by the operation of a higher law. However this may be, in petition and answer to petition there is prayer to God and response by God. Prayer is the expression of our dependence on God and the glad acknowledgment of the privilege that prayer is. If we fail to pray we almost certainly fail to acknowledge our dependence on God. Catherine Marshall puts it that asking of God in prayer 'immediately puts us into a right relation to God. It is acting out the fact that He is the Creator with the riches and resources we need; we are the creatures who need help. --- God insists that we ask, not because He needs to know our situation, but because we need the spiritual discipline of asking.' (3) In prayer we express our dependence on God for what we need for our daily lives, for the blessings that we desire for others, and for the blessings that he desires for us.

In relation to the first of these Vincent J. Donovan speaks of prayer as opening oneself to the creative work of God, and says,

'The example of Christian prayer is depicted in the gospels, even before Christ is shown teaching us how to pray, in the story of the teenage girl being confronted with a highly improbable and even impossible situation, a state of affairs before which she was baffled, and with which she was unable to cope, "How can this be since I know not a man?" (Luke 1:34) -- She opened herself up to the creative presence of God by a simple "fiat, thy will be done, let it be done to me according to your word." This is a single prayerful statement with a twofold meaning, "I will be open to your presence continuing to create in me," and "I am willing to be involved in the answer to this prayer." ---Once you allow creation into the action, what was before impossible now becomes eminently possible, "for nothing is impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). (4)

In relation in particular to prayer for others another question that is often asked about intercessory prayer is 'What does it say about a God of love and of power who acts differently towards people according as someone has prayed or not prayed for them?' Does intercessory prayer change God's will or suggest that it is subject to change? This is the wrong way of approach to the question. God is not an abstract Being or Force behind the universe, but a personal being, and he treats us as free persons. True, human words like 'personal' can never adequately express what God is like, but they convey meaning to us. God is unchanging in character, but we can say reverently that he has limited the application of his omnipotence by the freedom he has given to us.(5)

God could work among people in the world without our co-operation, but he has so made us and ordered the conditions of our living on the basis of his intention that we should work together with him - by our words, by our actions, by our prayers. The gospel of life in Christ could be made known in the world without our having part in its proclamation, but we have been given that part. The love and truth of God could be made known without us, but God has called us to show that love and truth so that others may be drawn to him. So he has ordained prayer, and we have a part in the loving purpose of God as we bring others to him in prayer. It is a way in which we are brought into the privileged position of co-operating with God in his work.

The Bible in both Testaments presents many invitations to intercession. "Call to me, and I will answer you" says Jeremiah 33:3. The words of Jesus are an invitation, almost a command, "Ask and it will be given you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you" (Matt.7:7). With the invitation of Jesus we must link the promises involved in his teaching about prayer, "Whatever you ask in prayer with faith, you will receive (Matt.21:22; compare Mk.11:24).

As we have recognised, God does many things and gives countless gifts, for which we have never thought to pray. We see in the life of Jesus the things that he did out of compassion for people who never actually prayed for them (e.g. Matt.8:28-34 and 14:14). That does not take away from the significance of prayer. The Bible in fact indicates that some gifts are dependent on our asking. "You do not have because you do not ask" says James 4:2. In giving us the privilege and the opportunity of prayer God has put power into our hands to affect the lives of others for incalculable good. By our actions and our words we affect the lives of others for good or for ill whether we plan that or not. We can live selfishly, or our concern can be for the kingdom of God, for God's rule in people's lives in the world. We can work for the kingdom of God, and we can also pray for the kingdom of God, for God to rule in people's lives. We think of a person suffering, or in some special need to find courage or wisdom in decisions to make. We choose to go to that person and by word or action or both we can help - or we can refrain from doing so. We may not be in a position to go to the person and so to help in specific ways. But we are taught by Scripture that prayer is a way in which we can always help. If we pray, God is willing to answer, and to bring some special help. God loves the person in any case, but it does make a difference if we pray, just as it can make a difference if we go to a person in need.

H.E. Fosdick puts it that prayer is simply one of the ways of human co-operation with God that has been granted to us. He lists three ways, thinking, working and praying. He says, 'if God has left some things contingent on man's thinking and working, why may He not have left some things contingent on man's praying?' (6) All three should be ways in which we seek the will of God in our own lives and in the lives of others. If we ask how God answers such prayers, we can only say that there are countless ways in which he may do so. It may be by bringing some fresh factor into the person's life, some special word from Scripture, something from the circumstances of life, or some special motivation of the Spirit. Vincent Brummer speaks of God working his will through human agents, 'by (a) arranging their factual circumstances in such a way that they are enabled to do what he wills --- and (b) inspiring them by his Spirit in order that they may be motivated to do his will.' (7) Whether it is by action or by prayer, if we are really seeking a person's good, we are seeking God's will for them in life. Prayer and action both have the same goal, the good and perfect will of God (compare 1 Jn.3:22).

One of the foundational principles for our understanding of prayer is that God wills to work in partnership with his human creation, and he has so ordered the world to make this co-operation both possible and infinitely desirable. Prayer is the way of knowing God's will and so co-operating with him. As Stephen Winward puts it,

'For the object of prayer is not to persuade God to do what I will, but to enable me to know, desire, and do God's will. --- Prayer is co-operation with God's purpose in and through the lives of others; it is intercession for the whole creation. It is man working together with God for the achievement of His age-long purpose: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven".' (8)

There are many who question whether intercession can have any real effect on the lives of those who are prayed for, and rather restrict its effect to the lives of those who pray. So Leroy T. Howe says,

'the effectiveness of intercessory prayer, about which also faith has no doubt, rests with God's power to kindle the imagination and energize the will of the intercessor himself, in order that he may become the agent through whom the other's needs may be addressed. Genuine intercession is the act by which believers become deeply engaged in the very situations occasioning their prayers. Its function is to focus concretely those needs which impinge sufficiently closely upon the believer's own life involvements to enable him to assume part of the responsibility for their alleviation.' (9)

To stop at this would take away any meaning from intercession for those whom we are powerless to do anything for except by prayer. Fortunately the same writer later adds,

'Really to pray is to be persuaded, however tentatively and for whatever reason, of the possibility that in and beyond the perceived world there exists an omnipresent Being capable of hearing and responding effectively to human address' (10).

We are invited, by God himself, to pray. Prayer is our response to God's own invitation. Prayer is turning consciously to God and expecting God to act in response to our requests because he has promised to do so. Karl Barth puts it:

'Prayer means turning to God, asking him to give us what we lack - power, strength, courage, serenity, prudence, to enable us to obey the Law and keep his Commandments.'(11)