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Interviewing "Prayer" - What is Prayer?

Updated on September 9, 2012

Introduction

These are my notes for a class I gave in church some years ago. I post them here, with very little editing, and for you comments.

Today we are going to begin a series on prayer. Now you might ask why we're are going to talk about prayer for more than a week or two. I mean after all, prayer is just talking to God right? We do it all the time. We pray before meals (Lord, bless this food to the goodness of our bodies in your name, amen). We pray at night (now I lay me down to sleep....). We pray over the offering every service (Lord take these tithes and offerings and use them for your kingdom). We pray when we are sick (Lord, please take this illness away). We pray for each other (Lord you know the need and how best to meet it....). It seems like we pray a lot right?

I am not going to be using a book to teach out of this time which really means three different things. First, I have no idea how long this is going to go on. There are no chapters to read and no idea how many topics we will talk about. Second, it means I have to put a lot more work into this. I have a plan, but the answers I thought would simply fly out at me have not done so. I have really struggled with what I want to teach this class on, because I have a lot of questions that I don't have answers to, and I don't want someone else's answers, which brings us to #3. We will be using a technique I learned when doing a serious Bible study. It is a technique that reporters use when doing interviews. They are taught to ask one of six types of questions, Who, What, Where, When, Why and How. We will in essence, be conducting an interview of the Bible on what it says about prayer.

To start the process I did a search with my computer Bible in the NIV translation for all verses that had the word pray or some variation of the word in the verse. There are 346 verses in the Bible (NIV) that have the word pray or some variation of it in the verse. That's a lot of verses! There are 31,103 verses in the Bible. That's a lot and just 1% of these have a reference to the word pray, not including all the surrounding verses that give these context and all the verse that contain actual prayers. Now 1% may not sound like a lot, so let's compare.

  • Love: 691
  • Faith: 474
  • Worship: 243
  • Praise: 355
  • Righteous: 511
  • Saved: 108
  • Salvation: 118
  • Repent: 72
  • Forgive: 115
  • Hope: 173

So though it is not the most used, it is still significant. When a book of over 30000 verses mentions prayer in 1% of them, that is still significant.

So I began by asking questions, starting with what do I want to learn about prayer from this study? Here's what I came up with.

  • What is Prayer?
  • How do you pray?
  • Who should pray?
  • Who should you pray for?
  • What do you pray for?
  • Where do you pray?
  • Why do you pray? Why Pray?
  • How can I get my prayers answered by God?
  • What is the proper way to pray?
  • How can I be sure I am praying according to the will of God?
  • What does it mean to pray in Jesus' name?
  • What is the proper way to pray?
  • Is it acceptable to repeatedly pray for the same thing, or should we only ask once?
  • What is praying in the Spirit?
  • Is corporate prayer important? Is corporate prayer more powerful than an individual praying alone?
  • What does it mean to pray without ceasing?
  • How is prayer communicating with God?


I am sure this is not complete so I will start off this week with an offer. If you have a questions you would like to find an answer to about prayer, write it down and give it to me. I will add it to the list of questions and if God allows, I will try to find answers. (please put any question you may have in the comments and I will look into them for you)

But before we get to the question I will talk about today, let me ask a few questions of us.

  • How often do you pray? Excluding meals, who prays at least 3 days a week? 5 days a week? 7 days a week? How long are your prayers on average? 5 mins? 10 mins? 30 mins? 60 mins?
  • Do you find prayer easy? If I was to start lifting weights, would I be able to bench press twice my body weight? Not without practice. If you find prayer hard, it is an indication you need more practice.
  • Does any currently or have in the past kept a prayer journal? What is the purpose of a prayer journal? What do you right in a prayer journal? Now, this is called a class, so I am going to give you your first piece of homework. For the duration of this class I want you all to write down in a journal (it can be a simple notebook or even a document you type into the computer) each time you pray what you prayed about and how long you prayed. Also note on a scale of 1 to 5 (1 being the easiest and 5 the hardest) how hard it was to pray. Were you distracted a lot during your prayer? Do you have hard time "filling" the time? Was it hard to think about what to pray about or what to say? I won't be asking you to share this, but I will be asking who is doing it. Now there is a reason for this. Prayer is hard. If it was easy, why did the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray? This is a way to make us all think about prayer, more than just saying some ritual formula of words.


What is Prayer?

This bring us to the question of the week. There were several ideas I had, but I figured if we are going to be spending multiple weeks on prayer, we need to start with a definition. What is prayer? Specifically, what is prayer as the Bible defines prayer?

Now, this is not a lecture. This is a journey I want us all to take together. I want to here your thoughts also. In fact, I will be keeping notes as we go myself, because I am sure that even though I may have some answers that God has revealed to me, I don't have them all. Many of you will have answers and even questions I don't. So let's start here, you tell me what is prayer? (please enter any answers in the comments below)

Now I thought I was being smart. I figured this was an easy place to start because I was sure that the Bible would have a bunch of places where it would define prayer for us. I was looking for verses that would say something like "Prayer is..." Guess what I found? Four verses, that was it! And three of those had the same description! There was one other thing that was unexpected about the description of prayer in these verses, but I want to see if you can hear it.

Psalms 141:2 NIV May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

Revelation 5:8 NIV And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Revelation 8:3-4 NIV Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. (4) The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand.

Acts 10:1-4 NIV At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. (2) He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. (3) One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, "Cornelius!" (4) Cornelius stared at him in fear. "What is it, Lord?" he asked. The angel answered, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.

Ok, so given these verses, let's ask the question about, what is prayer? (please enter any answers in the comments below)

Let me ask one other question on these four verses. Who's perspective is prayer defined from in these verses? In all cases, prayer is being defined from God's point of view, not ours. I found that very interesting. These were the only places I could find a fairly clear definition of prayer. Now I had a problem. I was looking for a definition of prayer for me, not one for God. He already knows what prayer is after all. Now what to do?

Well, I started with what I had. I didn't want to give my opinion about what prayer is, I wanted the Bible's definition and if this was all I could find I was going to trust that God would reveal the truth to me. So let's look at the two definitions we have, a Memorial and Incense.

Memorial

So let's start with the one verse that is different that the others.
Acts 10:4 NIV Cornelius stared at him in fear. "What is it, Lord?" he asked. The angel answered, "Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.

So I looked at other examples of memorials from the Bible

  • The Passover - Exodus 12:14 NIV "This is a day you are to commemorate; for the generations to come you shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD--a lasting ordinance.
  • The twelve stones taken from the Jordon - Joshua 4:5-6 NIV and said to them, "Go over before the ark of the LORD your God into the middle of the Jordan. Each of you is to take up a stone on his shoulder, according to the number of the tribes of the Israelites, (6) to serve as a sign among you. In the future, when your children ask you, 'What do these stones mean?'
  • The Lord's Supper - Luke 22:19 NIV And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me."

All of these were done as a way to remember what God had done. Ok, so let's look at that in light of the question we are asking, What is Prayer? Do you think this answers that question? Do you think that maybe prayer could be a way for us to remember what God has done, as a memorial to Him? I'm just asking here.

What are some of the things we would remember in prayer?

  • Salvation
  • Healing
  • Answers

Do you really think God needs to be reminded about these things? Isn't it for us to be reminded?

Incense

Ok, so let's look at incense.

Psalms 141:2 NIV May my prayer be set before you like incense; may the lifting up of my hands be like the evening sacrifice.

Revelation 5:8 NIV And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints.

Revelation 8:3-4 NIV Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. (4) The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand.

Incense was one of the commands God made of the priest hood. Aaron was commanded to burn incense night and day before the Lord in the Tabernacle.

Exodus 30:7-8 NIV "Aaron must burn fragrant incense on the altar every morning when he tends the lamps. (8) He must burn incense again when he lights the lamps at twilight so incense will burn regularly before the LORD for the generations to come.

It was not just any incense either. God had his own formula for it.

Exodus 30:34-38 NIV Then the LORD said to Moses, "Take fragrant spices--gum resin, onycha and galbanum--and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts, (35) and make a fragrant blend of incense, the work of a perfumer. It is to be salted and pure and sacred. (36) Grind some of it to powder and place it in front of the Testimony in the Tent of Meeting, where I will meet with you. It shall be most holy to you. (37) Do not make any incense with this formula for yourselves; consider it holy to the LORD. (38) Whoever makes any like it to enjoy its fragrance must be cut off from his people."

So this was very a very serious business. Not only was the incense to be burned night and day, but it had to be a very specific formula of incense and if anyone used this incense for themselves, they were cut off!

How does this relate to prayer? How does this help us to define prayer?

  • 1 Thessalonians 5:17 NIV (17) pray continually;
  • Ephesians 6:18 NIV And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

Not only was incense an offering to be continually burned, but it was also used as a way of atonement.

Numbers 16:46 NIV Then Moses said to Aaron, "Take your censer and put incense in it, along with fire from the altar, and hurry to the assembly to make atonement for them. Wrath has come out from the LORD; the plague has started."

How does this relate to prayer? How does this help us to define prayer?

  • Repentance?
  • Is the incense in this case a form of prayer?

Let's look at again to see how incense is used

Ezekiel 8:10-13 NIV So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and detestable animals and all the idols of the house of Israel. (11) In front of them stood seventy elders of the house of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. (12) He said to me, "Son of man, have you seen what the elders of the house of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, 'The LORD does not see us; the LORD has forsaken the land.'" (13) Again, he said, "You will see them doing things that are even more detestable."

So that are these men doing? They are having a worship service, but the problem is they are worshiping things other than God. They are burning incense, which we have already seen is a designated sign of worship to the Lord, and we have seen it is how God views our prayers to Him. How dangerous is this? We have already seen that using the incense of God's house for personal use would get the person cut off from the nation. Here's another example.

Leviticus 10:1-2 NIV Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. (2) So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD.

It says that fire came out from the presence of the Lord. I wonder if the fire actually came right out of the censers they were using? The Bible is not clear on what was wrong with the fire that Nadab and Abihu were offering. The Hebrew word indicates it was a "strange" fire, maybe not using the correct incense God commanded. Either way it was serious enough that God demanded their lives at that very moment. Does that sound like another story in the Bible?

Acts 5:1-10 NIV Now a man named Ananias, together with his wife Sapphira, also sold a piece of property. (2) With his wife's full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself, but brought the rest and put it at the apostles' feet. (3) Then Peter said, "Ananias, how is it that Satan has so filled your heart that you have lied to the Holy Spirit and have kept for yourself some of the money you received for the land? (4) Didn't it belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn't the money at your disposal? What made you think of doing such a thing? You have not lied to men but to God." (5) When Ananias heard this, he fell down and died. And great fear seized all who heard what had happened. (6) Then the young men came forward, wrapped up his body, and carried him out and buried him. (7) About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. (8) Peter asked her, "Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?" "Yes," she said, "that is the price." (9) Peter said to her, "How could you agree to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of the men who buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out also." (10) At that moment she fell down at his feet and died. Then the young men came in and, finding her dead, carried her out and buried her beside her husband.

How does this relate to our question for this week, What is Prayer?

James 1:5-8 NIV If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him. (6) But when he asks, he must believe and not doubt, because he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. (7) That man should not think he will receive anything from the Lord; (8) he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.

James 4:7-10 NIV Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (8) Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (9) Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. (10) Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

Closing

Do we have an answer for the question of the week? What did we learn about what prayer is?

  • To God
  • Fragrant Incense
  • To Us
  • A memorial
  • A lifestyle
  • An attitude


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