Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©


"Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you - majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?" (Exodus 15:11)
'The character of our prayers is determined by our awareness of the character of God.'
(James Houston)

The meaning of prayer is dependent on who God is and who we are. Mark Gibbard puts it that prayer `is whenever two great mysteries really meet - the supreme mystery who is God and that wonderful mystery who is you.'(1) There are many ways in which we can appreciate that Christian prayer depends on our understanding of who God is. It is significant that prayers addressed to God in both Old Testament and New often begin with some statement of who God is or with a description of some aspect of the character of God. Psalm 8 begins and ends, "O Lord our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" Psalm 134:3 has the prayer, "May the Lord, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion." The humble prayer in Daniel 9 begins with the words, "O Lord, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with all who love him and obey his commands ---." In the New Testament Epistles he is addressed in prayer with such qualifying terms as "God of steadfastness and encouragement" (Rom.15:5), "God of peace" (Rom.15:33, 16:20), "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation: (2 Cor.1:3), "the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth takes its name" (Eph.3:15).

It is significant that sometimes God is addressed in terms of another's experience of Him, as Abraham's servant prayed, "O Lord, God of my master Abraham" (Gen.24:12). It is more significant when a person can say, on the basis of his or her own experience, "my God", as in the Old Testament in the Psalms (e.g. Ps.22:1), and in the New Testament in St. Paul's expression of his faith (e.g. Phil.4:19). God's initiative

"I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, `Here I am, here I am.'"
`Nothing is more distinctive of Christian prayer, perhaps, than this sense of being expected, of having access.'
(Simon Barrington-Ward)

If we believe that there is a God, and that that God is Creator and Lord of all, then it must follow that our knowledge of him and our approach to him depend entirely on his initiative. We could know nothing of God apart from his making himself known to us. We could not approach God were it not for his invitation. God's revealing himself and our knowing how to pray belong together. The "name of God", as we have seen, speaks of God in his self-revelation to us. The knowledge of the name of a thing, or of animals (as Genesis 2:19 puts it), or of persons , implies knowledge of something about them. To know the name of God means to know something vital about God, and that means God's revealing that something to us, and so making it possible for us to "call on the name of the Lord". Above all God is known to us in Jesus, and so we are taught to pray "in his name". We will come to that later.

Prayer is the way that God has ordained for our life in relation to him to be expressed. We are made for a relationship with God, and we express that in prayer, and in being open to hear him speak to us. Karl Barth puts it, `The fact that God yields to man's petitions, changing his intentions in response to man's prayer, is not a sign of weakness. He himself, the in the glory of his majesty and power, has so willed it.' `God opens this road to us and bids us pray. --- to be a Christian and to pray mean the same thing ---. It is rather a necessity as breathing is to life.'(2) God's initiative implies that he is always more ready to hear than we are to pray. His word (in Isa.65:24) is, "Before they call I will answer, while they are yet speaking I will hear."

In the Scriptures we are repeatedly invited and exhorted to pray, as such passages as Philippians 4:6, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, 1 Timothy 2:1, James 5:16 indicate. We are constantly told of the willingness of God to hear and answer prayer. Archbishop Trench put it, `we must not conceive of prayer as an overcoming of God's reluctance, but as a laying hold of His highest willingness.' Another has put it, `For Jesus, the fundamental fact about the One who is addressed in prayer is God's readiness to hear and to answer human petitions; Jesus' God is an intimate conversation partner who remains always solicitous of his creatures' good'(3). So prayer depends, first of all, on the initiative God has taken, God's seeking, calling, inviting us.