Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©


"What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?"
(Psalm 8:4)
'In every prayer there are two requirements: First, we must know to whom we are speaking. ---. The second requirement that must be met and without which there can be no true prayer is that we must also know who we ourselves are.'
(Helmut Thielicke)

Prayer is supremely dependent on who God is, on the character of God and the purposes of God revealed to us. It is also dependent on the recognition of who we are as humans.

Made in the image of God

The first aspect of who we are we have already considered as a basis of the very possibility of prayer. God has made us in his own image (Gen.1:26-27), and whatever else that means it includes the fact of our being able to be addressed by God, and to respond to him. That address by God begins at the beginning of Genesis and continues throughout Scripture. Human verbal response to God begins with Genesis 3 and continues similarly.

Our speaking of the two testaments of Scripture expresses the reality of God's making covenants with us, inevitably implying personal relationship (Gen. 6:18, 9:8-17, 15:18, 17:9, Ex.19:1-6). Scripture can speak of a person walking with God (so Genesis 5:22 and 6:9), and such is the divine purpose and ideal for humanity, an ideal that involves two-way communication, and thus the reality of prayer. Moses is spoken of in Deuteronomy 34:10 as one "whom the Lord knew face to face", such was his fellowship with God. The New Testament, in an almost endless variety of ways, presents us with this same ideal for human life, fellowship of ordinary men and women, girls and boys, with the living God.

Alienated from God

We are made in the image of God, intended for fellowship with God, but we are alienated from God by our sinfulness, and this basic alienation results in practice in alienation from ourselves, from others and from creation. Prayer deals with our alienation. In turning from sin in penitence and to God in faith, we find our true selves because we have rediscovered the origin and goal of our being. In the words of St. Augustine, 'God has made us for himself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in him.' Our reorientation and reconciliation with God, moreover, makes possible restored relationships with others in true fellowship and loving service. Thomas Merton puts it, 'We cannot live for others until we have entered this solitude' (i.e. that of a relationship with God). 'If we try to live for them without first living entirely for God, we risk plunging with them all into the abyss.'(1)

Dependent on God

We are made in the image of God and restored to fellowship with God, restored to be sons and daughters, by God's pardon and grace. But we are still creatures of God, utterly dependent on him. Whether we choose to pray or not, this is so. Yet we can detect within humanity an almost universal sense of the need to pray, and at least at some times (even if only terrible emergencies) the desire to pray. E.M. Blaiklock says, 'Hence the blind yearning to pray, which is also at some time or another a part of common experience. Obstinate carnality dulls and deadens that instinct, and rebellious reason quenches its source, but it is part of human thinking, and marks man from brute.' (2) Our needs should drive us to God. Abraham Lincoln said, 'I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go; my own wisdom and that of all around me seemed insufficient for the day.'

Prayer is thus an expression of our dependence on God. God gives to us from his bounty even when we fail to acknowledge that bounty. But our human response to God's bountiful giving should be appreciation and gratitude - and then a continuing dependence on God. It is to our inestimable loss if we fail to pray, to use this God-given means of seeking and acknowledging his help and strength. To fail to "draw near to God" and to "trust in the Lord" is rebuked as a basic sin of those who should have lived as God's people in Old Testament days (Zeph.3:1-2). Not to "honour (the Lord) as God or give thanks to him" is described by the apostle Paul (in Rom.1:21) as the basis of the corruption of humanity.

Acknowledging our dependence on God means acknowledging our frailty. In terms of our physical life we cannot live without his gifts to us. In terms of our spiritual life the same is true. As disciples of Christ we are taught to acknowledge that without our Lord himself we can do nothing (Jn.15:5). We are too weak to meet with our own unaided resources the temptations of the evil one, the pressures of the world around us, and our selfish desires from within. We need constantly to heed the warning that Jesus gave to the disciples in Gethsemane (Matt.26:41; Mk.14:38). "Stay awake and pray, that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." Made to glorify God

We are made in the image of God. We are fallen creatures, and so need first his pardon. We are dependent on God, and need his help every hour we live. But as pardoned men and women we are not only to live in fellowship with God, but to praise and glorify and serve him. A number of times, especially in Paul's teaching, as we have seen, prayer and thanksgiving are set side by side (e.g. Phil.4:6 and 1 Tim.2:1). The Psalms also often link the two, as Psalm 50:15, "Call on me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me." It is significant that in Ephesians 1:3-14, one of the most inspiring passages of the New Testament in outlining the gifts of God that come to us in Christ, we have three times repeated what is intended as the goal of those gifts, that we might live "to the praise of his glorious grace", "so that we might live -- for the praise of his glory", receiving our inheritance "as God's own people, to the praise of his glory" (Eph.1:6, 12 and 14).

Summing up many of these things Paul R.Sponheim says 'We are creatures, dependent for our very being on the one to whom we pray. We are sinners, needing to come clean about our sin against the one to whom we pray. We are servants, blessed with life and forgiveness and directed to our neighbours near and far.' (3)