As a church, we have been deliberately working to grow as a praying community. As we continue to pursue this important goal, it may be worthwhile to remind ourselves of some foundational issues as they pertain to prayer.
In her excellent book on corporate prayer (Praying Together: The Priority and Privilege of Prayer in Our Homes, Communities and Churches), which I highly recommend, Megan Hill notes that there is a threefold basic foundation for prayer: First, prayer is rooted in relationship; second, prayer is exercised out of duty; and third, prayer embraces divine promises. It will help us to consider each aspect of this foundation as we seek to grow as a praying community. We’ll start by talking about relationship as a foundation for prayer.
Prayer is rooted, first of all, in relationship. This relationship must be understood in a threefold way.
First, prayer is an activity of relationship between God and the worshipper. In November 2010, Christo, introduced us to a philosophy dubbed “moralistic therapeutic deism.” Coined by sociologist Christian Smith, this philosophy is founded on five basic convictions:
- A God exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
- This God wants people to be good, nice and fair to each other as taught in the Bible and by other major world religions.
- The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself.
- God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when he is needed to resolve a problem.
- Good people go to heaven when they die.
Smith summarises it this way: “God is treated as something like a cosmic therapist or counselor, a ready and competent helper who responds in times of trouble but who does not particularly ask for devotion or obedience.”
In stark contrast, Jesus taught his disciples that God desires a relationship with his children. This relationship is the basis of prayer. When we pray, we pray, “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9). Prayer is, says Hill, “the confident communication of a child with his parent.” If prayer is not offered in the context of relationship, it becomes little more than a wish list. But when we pray to God as a loving heavenly Father, we approach the throne of grace with boldness, knowing that he is a Father who desires to bless his children. After all, “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (see Luke 11:9–13).
Of course, since we are praying to the God of the universe, the relationship is not a relationship of equals. We are creatures—mere dust (Psalm 103:14)—while our Father is the eternal Creator. We must, therefore, approach prayer with a sense of reverence, offering our prayers to God in light of the cross. God does not hear our prayers because of our inherent righteousness, but because of Christ’s righteousness. “We have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus” (Hebrews 10:19–22).
Second, prayer glories in the relationship that exists within the Godhead. Todd Billings notes that Christians pray “as children of a gracious Father, as persons to united to Christ and empowered by the Spirit.” All three persons of the Trinity are intimately involved in our prayers (see Romans 8:14–34). As Brad Evans (Megan Hill’s father) once said, “When we pray, God talks to God.”
Prayer involves all three persons of the Trinity.
We pray to a Father who so delights to hear us that he declares, “Before they call I will answer; while they are yet speaking I will hear” (Isaiah 65:24).
The Son serves as our mediator and intercessor in prayer. We pray to the Father in Jesus’ name because our prayers are accepted only by his righteousness. We are entirely dependent in prayer on the mediating work of Christ. Job longed for someone to plead to God on his behalf (Job 16:20–21). Jesus is the one who prays to God on his people’s behalf.
The Spirit, the third participant in the divine conversation, “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” and “intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26–27). The Spirit unites us to Christ through adoption, prompts us to pray, and helps us as we pray to the Father.
In prayer, the Trinity reveals itself as a perfect unity. Megan Hill suggests that this understanding motivates us to pray in two ways.
“First, Trinitarian participation in prayer frees us from trusting in our prayers themselves.” Our confidence in prayer is not our own ability or eloquence or righteousness. It is only as our prayers are offered through Christ, in the power of the Spirit, that we can pray with confidence. If we truly pray “in Jesus’ name,” we know that God accepts our prayers (John 14:14).
“Secondly, when God talks to God, it encourages us to pray by assuring us that prayer is not merely happy thoughts (or desperate thoughts) tossed into the void…. Prayer is the occasion of a divine conversation—a confident request for the loving persons of the Trinity to discuss and to act.” Christians never pray alone!
Third, prayer is exercised in relationship with other believers. In the studies that led to his coining of the term moralistic therapeutic deism, Christian Smith found that people believe that “each individual is uniquely distinct from all others and deserves a faith that fits his or her singular self” and “that religion need not be practiced in and by a community.”
Biblically, to the contrary, every believer is “in Christ” (1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:22; Ephesians 1:1; Colossians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 2:14; 1 Peter 5:14). We are branches connected to the Vine (John 15:1–17), stones laid upon the Foundation (Ephesians 2:18–22), and members of a body joined to the Head (1 Corinthians 12:12–17). In each of these images, it is clear that the members cannot exist apart from each other. While prayer is certainly the privilege of every individual believer, individual believers are always connected together “in Christ.” One of the privileges of being together in Christ is the privilege of praying together.
Branches cannot separate themselves from the Vine. Stones cannot break away from the Foundation. Members of the body cannot live apart from the Head. Being “in Christ” secures our relationship with other believers, and one of the primary expressions of that relationship is the privilege of praying together. One day, all believers will stand before the throne of God praising him together (Revelation 7:9–10). Praying together as a church is something of a foreshadowing of the glorious day.
Megan Hill summarises this well when she writes,
Praying is an activity of relationship. Calvin said prayer is “an intimate conversation of the pious with God”; it is also the intimate conversation of God with God and is precious opportunity for the intimate conversion of the people who are bound together in relationship to him. By praying together, we nurture our relationship with our triune God and with his people—a relationship that will never end.