What do I believe about prayer? It seems like a simple question, but it’s not all that easy to answer! In a book that I am currently reading (A Praying Congregation by Jane E. Vennard), I was invited to ponder this question. So I did – I put down her wonderful book and began writing out what I personally believe about prayer. And now that I have done so, I thought I’d share it with you here. So here goes:
I believe, first and foremost, that all prayer is grace. Every prayer is a gift, and every time we pray is a gift. It is all grace. When our thoughts turn to God, whether in desperation or gratitude, it is a gift. We were created to be in a relationship with God, but it is easy to forget this! – to get so caught up in the day-to-day challenges, frustrations, and joys, that we neglect our primary relationship, with the One who created us and who loves us and who wants nothing more than to hear from us and be with us. Every prayer is a response to this love and draws us deeper into this love. So, what I believe more than anything else about prayer is that it is all grace.
All prayer is grace.
But I believe that prayer is also work. Hard work. Important work. But work that is easy to neglect. It is hard because we don’t always see immediate results. And it usually seems like it would be easier to just do something than to pray about it. Prayer takes time – time that takes us away from everything else that is urgently demanding our attention. But prayer for Christians is important work, and it is important for many reasons – first and foremost because God wants us to do it. Jesus teaches us to pray always and not to lose heart (Luke 18:1), and he models the importance of doing this by regularly taking time away from his ministry to spend time with God in prayer (Mark 1:35, Luke 6:12, etc.). Prayer is clearly important to Jesus, and so it should be important to his followers as well.
I believe that all prayer is also response. We are always, when we pray, responding to the one who initiates this conversation and this relationship. We never initiate, but always respond. Or, as Robert Capon put it, “Prayer is just talking with someone who’s already talking to you.” Not that prayer must always include words. We can simply be with God. And that, too, is prayer. But it is still responding to the one who initiates this relationship.
I believe that prayer is rooted in faith, even when we doubt. We pray as an act of faith, trusting that God is listening. Even when we doubt this, we pray. Lord, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
I believe that prayer is equally rooted in our helplessness, as O. Hallesby puts it in his classic book, Prayer. If we didn’t feel helpless, we wouldn’t feel the need to pray. Helplessness, Hallesby writes, “is unquestionably the first and the surest indication of a praying heart. As far as I can see, prayer has been ordained only for the helpless … We try everything before we finally resort to prayer.” How true that is!
I believe that we learn to pray through Scripture, and that we also pray with Scripture. We pray the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, and other prayers in Scripture. But we also let Scripture lead us into prayer. We read a passage, and think about it, and apply it to our life, and respond in prayer, and rest in God’s presence, just as the monks of old did when they practiced lectio divina.
Finally, I believe that prayer is a mystery. The great mystery of this life, in fact. Because it draws us into a relationship with something that cannot be seen, but only believed. It is as Jane Vennard puts it in her book: “Prayer often surprises us. Just as we think we have figured it out, something new and different emerges … In prayer we are in relationship with a mysterious God, because God can never be fully known.” And for that reason, I believe that in prayer we are always beginners, but beginners who are in very good hands!
A Few of My Favorite Quotes about Prayer
Over the years I have collected quotes about prayer that help me to articulate what I believe about prayer. Here are a few of my favorites:
I believe that “true, whole prayer is nothing but love.” – St. Augustine
I believe that “prayer is not something you do. It is something, finally, you are.” – Richard Rohr
I believe that “if you want a life of prayer, the way to get it is by praying.” – Thomas Merton
I believe that “prayer is not an escape from the world but an entrance into it.” – Ann & Barry Ulanov, Primary Speech
I believe that “the only way to pray is to pray; and the way to pray well is to pray much.” – Dom Chapman
I believe that when “prayer is the test of everything; prayer is also the source of everything; prayer is the driving force of everything; prayer is also the director of everything. If prayer is right, everything is right.” – St. Theophan the Recluse
I believe that “every religion that is worth its salt has taught people how to pray.” – William Johnston
I believe that “prayer changes the world because it first changes us.” – Laurence Freeman
I believe that “if we wish to pray with confidence and gladness, then the words of Holy Scripture will have to be the solid basis of our prayer.”- Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I believe that “whoever does not pray at determined times does not pray at undetermined ones.” – Claus Harms
I believe that “there is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful than that of a continual conversation with God.” – Brother Lawrence
Finally, I believe that “to clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.” – Karl Barth
Do you have a favorite quote about prayer? Feel free to share it here!