When churches introduce the topic of prayer, people often experience anxiety in two areas. They fear someone will ask them to pray in a small group or another public setting and/or they feel guilt and shame for how infrequently they pray. What most people don’t consider is the connection between the essence of our prayers and the content of our theology. Simply put, we pray what we believe about God.
There are three areas where the content of our prayer exposes our theology:
1. Prayer reveals what we believe about who God is and what he has done.
There are a few different ways this comes out through our prayers. How we refer to God shows us what we believe about him. The Psalms provide a variety of images and names for God such as the “Strong Tower,” “Shepherd,” or “God Almighty.” The array of names in Scripture reminds us God is larger and greater than we can imagine. No name can summarize him. Images seek to apply God’s person to our circumstances, but they do so for the purpose of worship and comfort.
We acknowledge our belief about God by the descriptions or attributes we use. A.W. Tozer wrote, “What comes into our mind when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” Prayer moves our theology from our mind and heart into our mouth. When we pray, it is an opportunity to recount and praise God’s “holy” name as we address him as “Our Father” (Matt 6:9). Prayer that begins with God’s eternal and holy love, grace, goodness, justice, and mercy ought to inform what we pray. It should embolden our faith in his powerful response to prayer because of his character. Our corporate prayers are not the place for a concordance of God’s attributes. Rather, our prayers, whether corporate or private, will remind us of God’s faithfulness and sovereignty because of who he is.
We declare our theology through prayer. Take the Trinity, for instance. The Father sent the Son to this earth to reconcile and redeem all things in creation (Jn 3:16-17). The Son willingly and gladly lives with full obedience to the Father—throughout his life on earth, in his atoning death, and victorious resurrection—making full payment for sin (1 Cor 15:3-4; Col 1:13-20). The Spirit seals and confirms what Jesus has done for us as we await the fullness of redemption in our lives and in creation (Rom 8:12-27; Eph 1:13-14). A deeply ingrained understanding of the Godhead expresses itself in the content of our prayers. Prayer is theology’s true test and it is an opportunity to praise the distinct persons of the Trinity, particularly with each member’s work in redemption.
When we pray with the Trinitarian perspective, we will remind ourselves of the Gospel. The Father sent the Son in the past and will send him again in the future to bring the fullness of redemption. We wait with empowered eagerness by the Spirit to live confidently and obediently in the present until Christ returns. A Trinitarian prayer is an opportunity to recount God’s redemptive work in past, present, and future. Prayer reveals what we believe about who God is as Father, Son, and Spirit and what he has done through the images and descriptions we use.
2. Prayer reveals our priorities in life.
If I examine my prayers from this past week in light of the Great Commandment (Matt 22:37-40) and the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20), how much did my prayers center upon God’s wisdom and power to obey these commands? If I’m honest, my prayers often focus on the physical realities of life with food, clothing, housing, and health. Jesus does not prevent us from praying for these things but reminds us the Father “knows” and “sees” all of our needs (Matt 6:25-32). Jesus challenges us to move beyond seeking and growing anxious over physical realities to focusing our primary efforts and affections on God’s kingdom (Matt 6:33).
Don’t get me wrong. We don’t need to avoid praying for our physical needs. The early church prayed “earnestly” for Peter’s release from prison (Acts 12:5). When we pray for God to answer our prayers for physical needs, we do so asking that God’s healing and provision would be the doorway to greater obedience in the Great Commandment and Great Commission. The physical needs are not the end in themselves but simply the continuation or beginning of our obedience. God invites all of our prayers, big and small. C.S. Lewis reminds us, “We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us” (italics mine). Perhaps we need to recognize that sometimes our prayers are nothing more than the American dream with a little bit of Jesus mixed in.
Prayer is one of the ways God reveals whether our lives align with Jesus’s commandments. Look at how the apostle Paul prayed for eternal matters throughout the epistles. He pulls back the curtain to reveal his prayers for various churches and prays for them to remain “on guard” against attacks (Acts 20:28). Paul prays that believers would know the “hope of his calling,” the “glory of his inheritance in the saints,” and “the surpassing greatness of his power” in Christ (Eph 1:18-20). Paul continues that followers of Jesus would “comprehend” the “breadth, length, height, and depth” of God’s love (Eph 3:14-19). Paul prays that their “love may abound” toward one another (Phil 1:9-11). Paul even asks the church to pray for God to “open to us a door for the word” to share and spread the Gospel (Col 4:2-4). Prayer is meant to be “great” by focusing on the commandment and commission of Jesus. Our physical needs and prayers flow from and towards the Great Commandment and Great Commission.
3. Prayer reveals our view of self in relationship to God and others.
Prayer is certainly one area where we can promote ourselves. We read Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount condemning those who pray with the goal of being heard and heralded by other people (Matt 6:5-15). There’s certainly the temptation to misuse prayer as self-promotion. A self-focused prayer misses what prayer is meant to accomplish. Prayer is, according to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the “antithesis of self-display.” In prayer, God’s holiness confronts us, and we see ourselves as we truly are.
Our understanding of God’s person and work directly relates to how we see ourselves. We approach the Holy God of the universe with “confidence” not because of our worthiness but because of his grace given to us through our “great high priest” Jesus’s full and final sacrifice on the cross (Heb 4:14-16).
The more active our prayer becomes, the more actively aware we are of our ongoing need for grace and mercy. In prayer, we discover our true needs, namely forgiveness of sin and empowerment to live righteously. Jerry Bridges writes, “Our worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.” If this is true for us, how much more for those around us?
Prayer leads not only to personal introspection but leads toward corporate intervention. We recognize we need God’s grace so we pray for his grace to permeate our relationships, our church, our community, and our workplaces. We pray for our enemies and those who wrong us because we recognize our failings before God (Matt 6:11; Eph 4:32). The active intercession for our brothers and sisters in Christ is the overflow of a heart enamored with God’s love. When we struggle to love those around us, the most loving thing we can do is pray. Prayer lays the foundation for unity because we pray to the eternal three in One. When we pray, we will see ourselves and others more clearly as people both in need of God’s grace and love.
Prayer is the fruit of our theology. We don’t need to fear because prayer is a wonderful opportunity and privilege given to God’s children. It reveals what we believe about God, our purpose in life, and how we see ourselves in relationship with God and others.
Here are a few practices to help you reflect on your prayer life:
- Write out your prayers. Your prayers do not need to be elaborate or lengthy. However, as you write them out, they will show you what you believe—about God, your purpose, and what you focus on in your relationships.
- Ask others how you can pray for them. You can do this on a regular basis at church, in small group, or even in your workplace. Listen for the physical needs and pray for others as the doorway to applying the Great Commandment and Great Commission.
- Pray with others in person. Once you ask how you can pray, take the time to do so at that moment. If you are angry with the other person or do not know them well, prayer is the pathway to healing, hope, and healthy relationships. Prayer is love set to words.