What Is the Definition of Prayer?

Jesus taught His disciples and followers that prayer takes persistence. He taught them to ask, seek, and knock. The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

Crosswalk.com Contributing Writer
Updated Apr 15, 2021
What Is the Definition of Prayer?

What is prayer? Simply put, prayer is conversing with God. Not just talking to the Lord but listening. The latter is easy (being quiet before God). The former is easy as well (saying what’s on your heart). Merriam-Webster defines prayer as "an address (such as a petition) to God in word or thought.

The shortest prayer is: “God” or “Lord.”

Beloved Scottish author George MacDonald wrote: “‘O God,’ I said, and that was all. But what are the prayers of the whole universe more than expansions of that one cry? It is not what God can give us, but God that we want.”

Jars of Clay sings about this in its hauntingly beautiful song, “Oh My God,” one of my favorite tracks on the artistically amazing and widely acclaimed Good Monsters album.

The longest prayer in the Bible is Psalm 119 (all but three verses are addressed to the Lord Himself).

What’s more, Solomon, Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites all offered lengthy prayers to God.

What Prayer Is Not

Prayer is not restricted to the elite few. Yes, the great prophet, priest, and judge Samuel told God’s people: “I will certainly not sin…by ending my prayers for you” (1 Samuel 12:23).

And, the Apostle Paul told believers: “We always thank God for all of you and pray for you constantly” (Philippians 1:2).

Then again, the Bible makes it clear that prayer isn’t restricted. It’s for everyone.

Prayer is not always appropriate. The Lord told Jeremiah to stop praying for His people (Jeremiah 7:16; Jeremiah 11:14; Jeremiah 14:11).

It’s rare, but if you listen to God, He may tell you things you might not want to hear.

Prayer is not always rewarding. After the terrible fall of Jerusalem, Jeremiah said: “And though I cry and shout, he shuts out my prayers” (Lamentations 3:8).

Did God really stop listening to Jeremiah? No, not at all. But it felt like that to Jeremiah.

Often, we need to persevere in prayer precisely when it feels like God isn’t listening to us.

Prayer is not restricted to believers. When God sent a terrible storm at sea, the pagan captain woke Jonah and commanded, “Pray to your god! Maybe he will have mercy on us” (Jonah 1:6).

After Jonah explained who he was, who the Lord God is (maker of heaven and earth and the seas), why the Lord had sent the terrible storm, and what they had to do before He would stop it, “they cried out to the Lord, Jonah’s God. ‘O Lord,’ they pleaded, ‘don’t make us die’” (Jonah 1:14).

As soon as they threw Jonah overboard, the storm stopped. “The sailors were awestruck by the Lord’s great power, and they offered him a sacrifice” (Jonah 1:16).

Prayer is not restricted to church and other holy places. Don’t forget: “Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from inside the fish” (Jonah 2:1).

What Prayer Is

In both the Old and New Testaments, prayer often starts with worship, praise, and thanksgiving to the Lord God. In both Testaments, prayer is sometimes associated with fasting from food or food and water for a specific time.

Jesus taught His disciples and followers that prayer takes persistence. In particular, He taught them to ask, seek, and knock (Matthew 7:7-8). The early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

The Apostle Paul taught: “Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6-7, NLT).

He added: “Devote yourselves to prayer with an alert mind and a thankful heart” (Colossians 4:2, NLT). He affirmed: “Always be joyful. Never stop praying. Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, NLT).

He asked: “Pray first that the Lord’s message will spread rapidly and be honored wherever it goes” (2 Thessalonians 3:1, NLT).

He commanded: “I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:1-2 NLT).

The half-brother of Jesus, James, taught: “Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective” (James 5:16).

The Apostle John told a dear friend: “I pray that you may enjoy good health and that all may go well with you, even as your soul is getting along well” (3 John 1:2).

Biblical Truths to Affirm

I believe God hears the prayers of sinners who call out to Him (Psalm 51:17; Psalm 145:18; Luke 15:10; Luke 24:47). I confess my sins when I pray to God (Ezra 9:6; Ezra 10:1; Nehemiah 1:6; Nehemiah 9:1-3; Isaiah 59:12-13; Daniel 9:4-5; Daniel 9:20, Matthew 6:12; Luke 11:4).

I pray to God alone (Exodus 23:13; Isaiah 17:7-8; Isaiah 44:9-20; Jeremiah 7:18; Jeremiah 10:14; Jeremiah 14:22; Revelation 21:27). I pray in times of crisis (Exodus 2:23; Judges 4:3; 2 Kings 19:1; 2 Kings 19:4; Ezra 9:5-15; Nehemiah 9:1-38; Psalm 5:2; Psalm 30:10; Psalm 55:1; Psalm 71:2; Psalm 109:21-31; Psalm 141:1; Daniel 9:1-19; Matthew 26:42).

I participate in public prayer on special occasions (1 Kings 8:30; Ezra 10:1; Acts 3:1). I believe God answers prayer (Genesis 20:17; Deuteronomy 9:20; Psalm 34:17; Psalm 55:17; Psalm 69:33; Psalm 116:1; Psalm 145:18; Proverbs 15:29).

Biblical Commands to Obey

I pray privately (Matthew 6:5-6; Matthew 14:23; Luke 9:18).

I pray concisely and thoughtfully (Ecclesiastes 5:1-5; Matthew 6:7-9; Luke 11:2).

I do not make rash promises to God (Judges 11:30-35; 1 Samuel 14:24-45; Ecclesiastes 5:2-6).

I pray regularly (Daniel 6:10; Romans 1:9; Ephesians 1:16; Philippians 1:4; Colossians 1:3; 1 Thessalonians 1:2; 1 Thessalonians 3:10).

I pray for others (Genesis 20:7; Exodus 8:9; Numbers 21:7; 1 Samuel 12:19-23; 2 Kings 4:32-35; 2 Chronicles 30:18; Job 42:8; Acts 6:5-6; Acts 12:4; Acts 14:23; Acts 28:8; Romans 1:9; Ephesians 1:16-19; Ephesians 6:18; Philippians 1:3; Colossians 1:3; Colossians 4:3-4; Colossians 4:12; 2 Thessalonians 3:1-2; 1 Timothy 2:1-2; 2 Timothy 1:2; Philemon 4; Hebrews 13:18-19; James 5:14-16).

I pray about my own needs (Matthew 6:11-13; Luke 11:3-4; Philippians 4:6; James 5:13).

Biblical Examples to Heed

Like Enoch, I can walk in close fellowship with God through prayer my entire life (Genesis 5:22-24).

Like Abraham, I am the recipient of incredible blessings when I listen to God and believe Him wholeheartedly (Genesis 15:1-6). Like Miriam, I lead others in praise to God for His tremendous answers to prayer (Exodus 15:20-21).

Like Hannah, I am confident God brings joy out of sorrow when I pray (1 Samuel 2:1-10). Like Samuel, I listen to God and say “yes” no matter what my age (1 Samuel 3:1-21).

Like Elijah, I know God will meet my needs even in the most desperate of circumstances (1 Kings 19:1-18). Like Jabez, I know God wants to prosper me no matter how humble my birth (1 Chronicles 4:9-10).

Like Jehoshaphat, I face trials and danger with songs of praise for God's faithful love (2 Chronicles 20:1-28). Like Manasseh, I know it's not too late to turn back to God, repent, and ask for his forgiveness no matter how horrible my past sins (2 Chronicles 33:10-13).

Like Ezra, I pray to God for safety and protection (Ezra 8:21-23). Like Nehemiah, I seek God’s very best despite the obstacles in my way (Nehemiah 1:1-11). Like David, I tell God what’s on my heart in any and every circumstance (half of the book of Psalms).

Like Asaph, I turn to God in prayer when something shakes my faith (Psalm 73:1-28). Like Hezekiah, I go to God in prayer when I am attacked, and the Lord is blasphemed (Isaiah 37:1-20). Like Daniel, I will remain true to God and pray in the midst of crisis situations (book of Daniel).

Unlike Zechariah, I do not want to doubt God’s answers to my prayers (Luke 1:5-23).

Like Simeon and Anna, I believe I will experience tremendous answers to prayer in my lifetime (Luke 2:21-38). Like the Syrophoenician Woman, I persist in seeking the Lord, believing in his power and willingness to meet my greatest need (Matthew 15:21-28; Mark 7:24-30).

Like Blind Bartimaeus, I’m confident God delights to hear and answer my prayers (Matthew 20:29-34; Mark 10:46-52; Luke 18:35-43). Like the Poor Widow, I know God will bless my gifts a hundredfold (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4).

Some Great Prayers of the Bible

David’s prayer of thanks to the Lord (1 Chronicles 17:16-27). Solomon’s marvelous prayer dedicating the temple to the Lord (1 Kings 8:15-53; 2 Chronicles 6:12-42).

Daniel’s prayer of repentance to the Lord on behalf of God’s people (Daniel 9:3-20). Ezra’s prayer of repentance to the Lord on behalf of God’s people (Ezra 9:5-15).

Nehemiah’s prayer of repentance to the Lord on behalf of God’s people (Nehemiah 1:4-11). The Levites offer in a great prayer to the Lord (Nehemiah 9:5-37).

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/rubenhutabarat

headshot of David Sanford new 2020The late David Sanford’s book and Bible projects were published by Zondervan, Tyndale, Thomas Nelson, Doubleday, Barbour, and Amazon. His latest book was Life Map Devotional for Men published concurrently with his wife Renee’s book, Life Map Devotional for Women.

This article is part of our prayer resources meant to inspire and encourage your prayer life when you face uncertain times. Remember, the Holy Spirit intercedes for us, and God knows your heart even if you can't find the words to pray.

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