I’m an adult new Christian having a bit of a problem I thought you could help me with. Namely: What exactly is prayer? What do people mean, really, when they say that they “pray at night,” or “I asked God to hear my prayers?” Prayer and praying comes up all the time in Christian circles. But when I later think about it I find that I’m not exactly sure what it is. And I want to know. Help?
This is a great question that I don’t think gets asked often enough. So … good job!
So to my mind prayers boils down to attentively, purposefully and openly turning your mind to God.
Beyond that there are in essence two kinds of prayer: what I call (well, what I’m deciding right now to call) meditative and intentional.
Meditative prayer is when one brings oneself to God with no explicit purpose beyond “simply” being with God–communing with God, sitting with God, listening to God. Meditative prayer is not about results; it’s purely about the experience of being in the presence of God.
Intentional prayer is the sort of interaction with God that most people mean when they use the word “prayer.” This is where one brings oneself before God with an end in mind; it’s when we appeal to God for help with a problem or deep concern that we are incapable of satisfactorily resolving on our own.
Generally, an intentional prayer will boil down to one of four core types:
1. Supplication (e.g., “Lord, I’m humbly asking you for this thing.”)
2. Contrition (e.g., “Lord, I feel terrible bad about this thing I did.”)
3. Intercession (e.g., “Lord, I’m asking for you to fix this thing.”)
4. Gratitude (e.g., “Lord, you rock.”)
Need, remorse, helplessness, and gratitude. You can’t go wrong turning to God with either of those on your heart.
Countless books have been written about the reasons it’s spiritually, psychologically, and even materially beneficial to pray. (Prayer is beneficial materially because more prayer = less stress = clearer mind = more productive = better.) But the main thing to remember about prayer is that it’s an act that places you in your proper, natural, peace-producing, existence-affirming relationship with God. In the best possible way, praying puts you in your place—that is, it puts you in the best place anyone can be, which is before God with an attitude of humility, hopefulness, wonder, appreciation, and love.
In life, context is everything: you can’t know who you are or what you’re doing without understanding the context in which you’re living and acting. The great thing about praying is that it centers you at the great, humming, vibrant balance point between yourself, the created universe, and the infinite, infinitely compassionate power that created both you and the universe. It puts you, in other words, in the greatest place you can be–which (hallelujah!) is usually right where you are anyway.
Contrary to rather popular opinion, praying is not how you become someone better than you are. Nah. That’s too simple. Praying is how you remember who you are in the first place.
I’m the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question: