Written by John B. MacDonald
What we understand about something can make all the difference.
A lumberjack returned to the store with his newfangled chainsaw. He complained it wasn’t performing as advertised. The store owner pulled the cord and the chainsaw roared to life. The surprised lumberjack asked, “What’s that noise?”
His new understanding of the chainsaw made all the difference.
What do you understand about prayer? Your answer will either limit or free you, impoverish or enrich you. Let’s look at a few limiting understandings of prayer before I propose one that frees and enriches.
Some Limiting Views
There is some truth—perhaps lots of truth—in the following descriptions, but I suggest that each of them limits us.
“Talking to God” was a definition common in my early Christian years. Its weakness is that it views prayer as one-way communication: I speak, God listens.
A description by Simone Weil (1909-1943) was popular among my theology professors: “Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.” Although I agree prayer usually has an intentional focus, “unmixed attention” can describe lots of activities. For instance, watch a person riveted to a computer game or texting on an iPhone, and you’ll have an illustration of “absolutely unmixed attention.” Prayer is more than “unmixed attention.”
James Montgomery (1771–1854) wrote the lyrics to a hymn about prayer. He wrote at least eight stanzas, the first being:
Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed, the motion of a hidden fire that trembles in the breast.
Does the absence of such feelings mean you are not praying? What about other emotions such as disappointment and anger? Do they disqualify your prayer?
A thorough, orthodox definition is offered by the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647).
Q. 98. What is prayer?
Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.
This is accompanied by numerous Bible verses, proofs for each component of the definition. There is a certain cool clinical detachment in the Catechism’s presentation of the facts about prayer.
How do you understand prayer? And does your understanding make a difference?
A Shift in Understanding
What is an understanding of prayer that makes a difference? For me, the most helpful description of prayer was penned by Clement of Alexandria (150-215): “Keeping company with God.”
Understanding prayer in this way made a significant difference for me. I no longer saw prayer as a medium of communication, like a text message. Prayer became relational. This fresh understanding shifted my focus from prayer as speaking to God over to prayer as relationship with God. This new understanding made all the difference.
Here are four benefits flowing from this relational understanding of prayer.
Praying becomes a conversation. We do not develop much of a relationship if we do all the talking. Conversation goes both ways. Keeping company with God encourages us in listening to God and speaking with God. It also allows for times of companionable silence. Praying that is relational incorporates conversation with God.
Praying becomes a way of life. We do not develop an intimate relationship with people without spending significant amounts of quality time with them. If prayer is “keeping company with God,” that means spending time with Him. This also helps us make sense of biblical texts such as “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:18). Praying that is relational invites you to spend more time with God in all the activities of life.
Praying becomes more honest. Prayer as a medium can tend towards formality, as if you are speaking to a judge, or putting a request to an official. If prayer is “keeping company with God,” over time we become more transparent and honest. For instance, emotions of disappointment and anger are expressed—as if we were in the presence of our best friend. Consider the emotions expressed in Psalm 42-43 or Jonah 4. Praying that is relational develops openness and honesty.
Praying becomes transformational. As we keep company with God, we become more aware of God’s heart, purposes, desires, intentions, ways, and will. It is no longer about me; it is about us—and more importantly Him! Our growing awareness of God’s heart becomes fertile ground for change in our own hearts, attitudes, biases, and self-centeredness, which will begin to impact all of life. Praying that is relational involves your transformation.
Does this fresh understanding of prayer make a difference for you?
Dr. MacDonald serves with Outreach Canada and can be contacted at [email protected] As a foretaste of the innovative disciple-making project Matthew’s Paradigm, you can download a free copy of “Listening Well to Matthew” by subscribing at www.johnbmacdonald.com.