How we remember who we are

Dear John:

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:

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About John Shore

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  • BarbaraR

    Anne Lamott wrote there are two types of prayer: “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She later added “Wow” (both lower case and upper case) as the third.

  • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

    See? She forget one type, then: praying for others (which of my four types would fall under “Intercession.”) I win. I’m better.

  • BarbaraR

    John winz teh internetz today!

  • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

    Plus Christianity. So it’s been a good day for John.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com/ allegro63

    I would so have failed this quiz. Because I thought the answer was, 1. prayer that is word based. 2. prayer that is action based….OR. 1. The ones said out loud, and 2. The ones said silently

  • R Vogel

    I’m not sure if this is a new category or you would consider it fitting into one of your existing ones, but for me the only reason I pray is solidarity. To quote Richard Beck:

    I pray because people around the world are dying and god-forsaken. They have nowhere to turn. They are helpless and powerless. Prayer represents that moment when all hope is gone and you turn your face heavenward looking for aid, comfort or solace. Looking for a miracle.

    When I pray I stand in that hopelessness. I place myself in the position of those who can do nothing put pray. Prayer is their only option, only recourse. It is the only move available to them. Life forces people to their knees. So I go to my knees to be with them, to pray with them. In this sense, Jesus was God’s prayer.

  • mona

    This is fantastic…. again…

  • mona

    Well, you didn’t really win. She calls them the “three essential prayers”. Not types. HELP, THANKS, WOW. Just for clarification. :)

  • BarbaraR

    Shhh. I already told John he won. I can’t take the prize away from him now.

  • mona

    Ha! Okay, they both win… Different catagories…

  • Sheila Warner

    I’d say the two types are extemperaneous (sorry can’t spell that one) and prepared. One is from the heart, spontaneous, and one is written out. My two cents. Either one can be intentional or contemplative: it’s the intent of the heart that matters.

  • Guy Norred

    This is going to take some time to sink in, but I think it might be very beautiful.

  • Mary

    Not to split hairs, because I think this is a wonderful thing you wrote, but Thanksgiving is not actually “God, you rock.” That is Adoration which is actually a fifth kind of prayer. Thanksgiving is specifically gratitude about the blessings in our lives, including life itself. I believe this is sort of an important distinction, since you are, in fact, splitting hairs about different KINDS of prayer. Thank you for all you do!

  • Cranky

    I thought the two types of prayer were Kataphatic and Apophatic?

  • http://brmckay.wordpress.com/ brmckay

    Nice.

    Remembering. Return to wakefulness. Respect.

    The rudiments.

    Awe. Wonder, Love, Hope

    The reward.

  • http://www.theunderstandingapp.com Kevin Osborne

    Very nicely said.

  • http://i3.kym-cdn.com/photos/images/original/000/644/102/7af.gif Michele-Michel

    Meditative prayer is the very first one I learned to complete before 9 years of other people’s “stuff” got in the way.

    When I left jaded, and got back into that, I spent some years cleaning out said “stuff”.

    I have to wonder if me being able to sit still for 5 minutes and just “be” also counts as a miracle of God, as They got me to sit still for a whole 5 minutes without my brain buzzing like an angry and slightly confused hornet’s nest.


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