Principles of Prayer
by Francis Foulkes ©


"O you who answer prayer! To you all flesh shall come."
(Psalm 65:2)
'Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed,
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.'
(James Montgomery)

The word 'prayer', or its equivalent in different languages, carries deep meaning to a vast proportion of the world's people. Indeed it conveys different meanings to different people, especially those of different religious traditions. Yet it can be argued that in the diversity of our races and cultures, and as far back into history as we can go with any understanding, human beings have had in their hearts and minds the desire to communicate with a spiritual being, or spiritual beings, beyond themselves and greater than themselves, a being or beings in some way responsible for or able to influence their life and destiny. The first verse of James Montgomery's hymn quoted above would be acceptable to people of a diversity of religious traditions, though the subsequent verses are specifically Christian.

Over against such a general acceptance of prayer, however, there are many in our contemporary western society who boast to follow no religious tradition at all. To them the greatest reality is the world of science and technology in which we live, and so they suggest that prayer is merely outdated superstition or fantasy. Prayer cannot really make a difference to a persons life, they would argue. Certainly as Jacques Ellul has expressed it (1), there is much in the spirit of our age that is opposed to the idea of depending on God in prayer. It is not in reality god-less. It has substituted other gods, and it regards the very act of prayer to a God who is over all as a challenge to the concept of the supremacy of science and technology. Nevertheless, although great numbers of people in our society give no regular place to prayer when all is going well in their lives, very many, even while calling themselves atheist or agnostic, confess to the fact that they have prayed when they have been in a situation of danger or acute difficulty.

Countless books - countless Christian books in particular - have been written about prayer. There are books that seek to search out the meaning of prayer, books about different forms of prayer. There are books that encourage us to pray or that try to teach us how to pray. There are books of prayers. There are not many books that seek to study the basic principles of prayer as presented in the Bible. The Bible is full of prayers, but also there is much actual teaching about prayer. And it is deeply significant that there is a great unity in what the Bible presents - in the Law and the Prophets and the Psalms in the Old Testament, and in the Gospels and the Epistles in the Christian Scriptures - in its teaching about prayer and its examples of how people pray (2). The purpose of this book is to explore those things that the Bible in all its parts teaches us about prayer.

Those who recognise the Bible as foundational for Christian understanding, especially the understanding of our human relationship with God, will accept not just the theoretical but the practical importance of such a study. For while Christians acknowledge that prayer is their 'vital breath', an essential part of their lives, there is a constant danger of the misuse of prayer, especially consciously or unconsciously of regarding prayer as a means of manipulating God to do what we want.

For the Christian who takes the Bible as guide-book or as the most important written source of Christian understanding the first question we must seek to answer from the Bible is 'What is prayer?'

In this study I acknowledge, by quotations and references, the debt that I owe, for their insights into the meaning of prayer, to many writers ancient and modern and of very varied church traditions and ethnic backgrounds. It is harder to acknowledge those who have taught me, by precept and example, from my parents who first taught me to pray, to those who down the years have been colleagues in ministry and linked in the wide fellowship of the Christian church. At the same time the basis of this present study has been the consideration of the Bible itself, Book by Book, over several years, to find and to analyse the different aspects of the teaching about prayer that is found in the Scriptures.

Biblical quotations throughout the book are from the New International Version or the New Revised Standard Version unless indicated otherwise. In my writing I have used gender inclusive language for humanity. but ask the reader to accept the use of 'man' and 'men' in a generic sense in the quotations from older writings.