Prayer is speaking to God and asking Him for things. There are three main Greek words that are used and they all refer to the act of asking, requesting or seeking for something from God. In his 1662 book entitled simply, ‘Prayer’ John Bunyan, the author of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ defined prayer in the following way,
‘Prayer is a sincere, sensible, affectionate pouring out of the heart or soul to God, through Christ, in the strength and assistance of the Holy Spirit, for such things as God has promised, or according to His word, for the good of the church, with submission in faith to the will of God’.
This is a definition taken from the chapter ‘What True Prayer Is’, Prayer, Banner of Truth Trust, pp 13-22. As definitions go, I think that’s a pretty good one. He identifies seven key components in his definition. Let’s look at those in turn.
1. Prayer is a sincere pouring out of the soul to God
Prayer that is sincere is honest and genuine. When we pray sincerely we simply open our heart to God and to talk with Him plainly about the issues at hand. And so we need to be warned that the Lord will not be taken in by pretence. He won’t listen to the prayers of hypocrites. So we need to beware of praying to be seen, to be admired and to be applauded by others. Bunyan writes, ‘Sincerity is the same in a corner alone, as it is before the face of all the world. It knows not how to wear two masks, one for appearance before men, and another for private use. It must have God, and be with Him in the duty of prayer. It is not lip labour that it regards, for sincerity, like God, looks at the heart, and that is where prayer comes from, if it be true prayer’. Sincerity matters in prayer because it’s what we really are and it’s not something that can be manufactured. It comes from the heart. Those of us who pray publicly need to be warned.
2. Prayer is a sensible pouring out of the soul to God
Authentic prayer Bunyan writes, ‘is not, as many take it to be, a few babbling, prating, complimentary expressions, but a sensible feeling in the heart’. His point is that prayer is a sane, level headed and rational response that comes from the heart. It’s caused by a deep conviction of sin. It’s caused by the wonderful experience of God’s mercy. And it’s caused by excitement at the anticipation of what God has promised for us in the future. We don’t need to worry about working ourselves into a frenzied and heightened emotional state. We just sensibly respond to what we’ve heard in God’s word, what He’s laid on our heart or what we’ve found ourselves pondering.
3. Prayer is an affectionate pouring out of the soul to God
But lest we think that the affections are to be emotionally disengaged Bunyan continues. He writes, ‘when the affections are indeed engaged in prayer, then the whole man is engaged, and that in such a way that the soul will spend itself, as it were, rather than go without that good desired, even [namely] communion and solace with Christ’. In other words, unless we’re emotionally involved in the activity of praying, we won’t pray. And so, in his view, ‘There is in prayer an unbosoming of a man’s self, an opening of the heart to God, an affectionate pouring out of the soul in requests, sighs, and groans’.
4. Prayer is through Christ in the strength and assistance of the Spirit
We can only pray to God through the cross work of Christ and the work of His Spirit in applying spiritual life to us. Bunyan writes, ‘Christ is the way through whom the soul has admittance to God, and without whom it is impossible that so much as one desire should come into the ears of the Lord of the Sabbath’. What a thought! Not a single word would come befiore God were it not for the work of Christ. What a privilege we’ve been given.
5. Prayer is for those things that God has promised
Bunyan is clear that when we pray, the content of our prayers is to be guided by our knowledge of the scriptures. He writes, ‘Prayer is only true when it is within the compass of God’s word; it is blasphemy, or at best, vain babbling, when the petition is unrelated to the book’. But before we panic we must be reassured that the category of things ‘unrelated to the book’ allows a bit of leeway in those things we pray for!
6. Prayer is for the good of the church
According to Bunyan we’re to pray for, ‘whatsoever tends to the honour of God, Christ’s advancement, or to His people’s benefit’. Therefore we ‘must pray for the abundance of grace for the church, for help against all its temptations; that God would let nothing be too hard for it; that all things might work together for its good; that God would keep His children blameless and harmless, the sons of God, to His glory, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation’. I wonder whether those sorts of things have occupied our prayers for those in our small groups and our leaders.
7. Prayer is in submission to the will of God
‘The people of the Lord in all humility are to lay themselves and their prayers, and all that they have, at the foot of the their God, to be disposed of by Him as He in His heavenly wisdom sees best. Yet not doubting but God will answer the desire of His people that way that shall be most for their advantage and His glory’.
This is a terrific definition. There’s much to be thought through. But lest we drown in detail let’s remember that prayer is in essence speaking to God and making requests of Him.