Dr. Layton Talbert, Seminary Professor
The Westminster Catechism created what has become one of the most well-known definitions of prayer: Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of his mercies. It is simple, memorable, succinct, portable, and covers most of our praying.
My only quibble with this is that it seems to overlook the very dimension of prayer I’m specifically focusing on in this post. Indeed, this definition does not seem to include prayer passages like these: Psalms 8, 15, 23 (vv. 4-5), 32, 42, 45 (vv. 6-7), 48, 63, 65, 66, 67, 73, 76, 77, 92, 93, 94, 104, 131, 145. Every one of these passages are prayers. Many of these psalms are occupied purely with praise; some are psalms of complaint, or questioning, or resolve. But none of them offer up any requests to God at all; and yet they are clearly prayers, conversations with God—some of them being extended conversations which occupy the entire psalm. That’s an awful lot of biblical praying for a definition of prayer to leave out.
But there is another historic definition of prayer. Though not nearly so old, it nevertheless comes from a long-time classic, 19th-century Bible dictionary by Matthew George Easton. And it provides a broader framework for the more specific catechism definition: Prayer is converse with God; the intercourse of the soul with God, not in contemplation or meditation, but in direct address to him—whatever the nature of that address may be.
The definition is clearly drawn from an older conception of the conversational nature of prayer that shows up much earlier in the literature. In fact, it even shows up in Charles Hodge’s 1865 Systematic Theology. That’s significant because Hodge adhered loyally to the Westminster Catechism. And yet, he begins his discussion of prayer not with the Catechism’s definition, but with this one: “prayer is converse with God.”
Granted, the language is a little bit dated; we’d say it more like this: Prayer is conversation with God, the communion of the soul with God…in direct address to him. It’s this conversational nature of prayer that I’m focusing on here. And by “conversational” I don’t mean laidback or irreverent or casual. But I do mean familiar, relational, personal communication that covers all the same kinds of conversations we have with people we see and hear every day.
One way to go about identifying “kinds” of prayer would be to explore the various words for prayer used in the Bible. But using vocabulary words as an organizational rubric for discussing kinds of prayer is prone to leave too much out. There are lots of prayers in the Bible where a specific technical term for prayer doesn’t even occur.
So I want to propose another organizational approach by building on the basic premise that prayer is conversation with God. Based on the kinds of conversations we can have with other people (who are, themselves, in the image of God), some prayers are supplication (asking)—including confession (asking forgiveness), petition (asking for some divine favor for ourselves), and intercession (asking on behalf of others). Some praying focuses on worship—including both adoration (for God’s glory) and thanksgiving (for God’s gifts). But there is a third category of praying that I will call simply communion—simply fellowshipping with God. About what? About anything and everything you care to talk to God about: fears, questions, uncertainties, joys, experiences.
It is the concept of prayer as communion or fellowship that I especially want to commend as a means of increasing our intimacy with God in prayer. John writes that the apostles have declared what they themselves saw and heard so that we might share in their fellowship with the Father and with the Son (1 Jn 1:1-3). Fellowship is more than conversation; but there is no meaningful “fellowship” where there is no conversation.
In the prayers of those who pray most and best, petitions proper, I venture to say, occupy only an inconsiderable place. Much of prayer expresses the fullness of the soul rather than its emptiness.… Prayer at its best is … conversation with God, the confidential talk of a child who tells everything to his father…. (James Stalker, “Christ at Prayer” in Imago Christi: The Example of Christ).
Stalker notes the example in the Confessions of St. Augustine, written “in the form of a prayer, from beginning to end; yet it narrates its author’s history and expounds his most important opinions. Evidently the good man had got into the habit of doing all his deepest thinking in the form of conversation with God.”
One of my favorite prayer quotes underscores this dimension of prayer as conversation:
Tell God all that is in your heart, as one unloads one’s heart, its pleasures and its pains, to a dear friend. Tell Him your troubles, that He may comfort you, tell Him your joys, that He may sober them; tell Him your longings, that He may purify them; tell him your dislikes, that He may help you conquer them; talk to Him of your temptations, that He may shield you from them; show Him the wounds of your heart, that He may heal them; lay bare your indifference to good, your depraved tastes for evil, your instability. Tell Him how self-love makes you unjust to others, how vanity tempts you to be insincere, how pride disguises you to yourself and others. If you thus pour out all your weaknesses, needs, troubles, there will be no lack of what to say. You will never exhaust the subject. It is continually being renewed. People who have no secrets from each other never want for subjects of conversation…. Blessed are they who attain to such familiar, unreserved intercourse with God.
This widely quoted appeal is attributed to a 17th century French Catholic mystic named Francois Fénelon who, interestingly, had a profound influence on A. W. Tozer. Why, you might ask, would I quote a Catholic on prayer? One simple reason: because I haven’t found a Baptist who says this, or says it this well. Fénelon’s theology was probably defective on important points (though to his credit he was condemned by the Pope for some of his writings:). But when it comes to articulating this biblical philosophy of prayer as conversation, he’s spot on. It is profoundly scriptural counsel. The psalmists themselves model this kind of praying. It is a kind of praying that can transform a duty (and prayer is a duty) into a delight, a rite into a genuine relationship.
Matthew Bohin, Seminary Student
We often look at successful people and wonder how they’ve achieved their notoriety, influence, or wealth. We devour their blogs, books, and articles to get a glimpse into their “secret” of success.
In the Christian world, Paul was arguably the greatest Apostle. Paul authored at least thirteen books of the New Testament, established many churches, journeyed throughout Asia and Europe as the Apostle to the Gentiles, and even encountered the risen Christ. Yet, these accolades paled in comparison to his main desire: to know Christ and to be like him.
Paul describes the one driving principle of his life this way: “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord… One thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:8, 13-14). Here, Paul states that all his accomplishments, both the spiritual accolades he once possessed in Judaism along with his accomplishments in service for Christ, weren’t of the same value as knowing and being like Christ. To Paul, knowing Christ held “surpassing worth.” Having a deep, close, and personal walk with Jesus, even after he had seen the risen Christ, was of utmost importance to Paul. Moreover, he saw Christlikeness as a “prize” to be obtained. The phrase, “upward call of God in Christ Jesus,” refers to a believer’s glorification. However, Paul knew that while on earth, he was daily to strive to be like Christ.
Paul therefore viewed knowing God as having the utmost worth, while being like Christ as a prize to be cherished.
Making Paul’s Desire Our Own
How then did Paul come to this mindset? What value did Paul see in knowing Christ and being like him? He understood three essential truths about knowing God and being like him.
But This Takes Work…
Like any relationship, knowing God takes work. I’ve been married about five months. For those of you who don’t know yet, marriage takes work. Yes, marriage is wonderful, but the blessings of marriage don’t come without putting in effort.
Likewise, we want to think that a relationship with God comes easily. We would love to think that God just instantly makes us know him. Think with me again about marriage, however. If, while we were dating, my wife put in time, effort, and energy into our relationship, yet I didn’t make an effort to take her on dates, call her when we were separated, or buy her gifts, she would eventually stop pouring into the relationship. Now, this illustration does break down eventually. Theologically speaking God does pursue believers even when we don’t naturally desire him. However, Scripture is clear that God reveals himself to those who diligently seek him (Deuteronomy 4:29, Hebrews 11:6).
Does your Bible smell like the gym? Does it smell of hard work or sweat? Is it soiled with tears, highlights, or crinkles due to the use it’s received? Knowing God takes work.
… And a Soft Heart
At the same time, knowing God also demands a soft heart. God reveals himself not only to those who diligently seek him, but to those who come submitted to him. In James 4:6, James exhorts us that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Earlier in the same book, he states that God indeed does give wisdom liberally, but only to those who are of a mind totally committed to him (James 1:5-8).
God pours himself out to those who diligently pursue him and approach him with a humble, submissive spirit.
Let’s Get Practical
By now I hope you’ve all come to understand that knowing God is the reason why we’re saved. God has called us into a relationship with him. This relationship then drives us to become more like Christ. Even as Christians we don’t naturally have a relationship with God or a Christlike disposition. As stated above, it takes work along with a soft heart. I would like to provide for you some practical ways of putting in the hard work of pursuing God through Scripture.
Just like any job you undertake, you need the right tools for Bible study. These include having the right resources, the right plan, and the right questions.
A Final Reminder
I hope these brief words of wisdom have helped to create in you a desire to be in Scripture this new year. However, I would be remiss if I did not mention one thing. In all of our Bible study, we are dependent upon the Spirit for help. None of us naturally understands the things of God. Without the guidance of the Spirit, all of our efforts to know God would be in vain (1 Corinthians 2:12-16).
This year, pursue God with everything you have. He wants to be known, and he is waiting to reveal himself to you.
Yakup Korkmaz (pseudonym), Missionary to the Muslim World
Ambassadorship and our Sanctification (2 Cor. 5:20)
You are sent to live in a city of one million people, and there is not one church. Not only that, you find out there is not one Christian in the city. Bibles or Christian materials are not sold in any bookstore. However, you are sent to this city for one reason: to be an ambassador for King Jesus.
Aside from the difficulty that you are the only Christian living in this city—King Jesus, his book, and church have been misrepresented to these people for over a millennium. They think followers of Jesus are polytheistic, drunken, promiscuous, war-mongering brutes. The city-dwellers have also been taught that King Jesus’ words have been changed and corrupted, and that churches are no different than places of idol worship. In this context what would you do to best represent your King, his church, his word, and his followers?
I have had to try to answer this question since I moved to the Muslim world in 2002. Over the years I have found that obedience to the call of ministering in whatever context God calls you to, has a direct correlation to an increase of faith and sanctification.
Sanctification through the word of God (Jn. 17:17-19)
Is the Bible your only rule for faith and practice?
As an Ambassador for the King I did not want to represent America, or American culture to those that I was sent to reach. I was made keenly aware of how important this was when my Muslim friends asked me questions such as: Do Christians drink water standing up or not? Do you really eat pork? How do you purify yourself? How do Christians use the bathroom? Afterwards why don’t you clean yourself with water? How do Christians bury their dead? How many times a day must you pray? What is and when is the Christian fast observed? Why do you believe in a book that has been changed and corrupted? Why do you believe in three gods?
I was scrutinized. Every word, action, or response was taken to be “Christian”. I was forced to examine every belief I held, and every action performed through the lens of Scripture. I began to realize that many low-level beliefs that I held were not necessarily biblical, but rather formed from my Bible-Belt upbringing. I also was challenged in my theological beliefs concerning the person and work of Jesus, and the authority and reliability of his word. I would have never been challenged to search the word so deeply concerning these, if I would not had gone as an ambassador for the King.
I also was aware that new converts could only evaluate belief, and practice from the Bible, as they had no previous Christian background to lean on. Some BMB's (believers from a Muslim background) do not have access to Christian resources in their languages. I did not want the new disciple to ask me, “I see you believe this or that, or do or do not do this or that, but I have read in the Bible here that….” As I searched the Scriptures afresh, God began to sanctify me from previously assumed doctrines and practices (or lack thereof). This removal of what I presumed to be biblical Christianity helped equip me as an ambassador to represent him better, and my culture less.
As I began to answer the “why” of each question asked, my faith was strengthened because I prayed through each and studied God’s word to find the grounds that justified my answers. I fell in love with Jesus and his word more deeply because of this. I trusted him, and his word - which empowered me, and I felt equipped to then declare him boldly, even to preach at the steps of mosques. I was more concerned about making him known than my culture or a denomination. (See 1. Pet. 2:2, 2 Tim. 3:17, Heb. 4:12; 2. Cor. 4:5).
Sanctification through Spiritual Disciplines
When you are called to serve, you do not have the luxury to have spiritual “off time”. I remember one of our interns telling me it was hard for him to have his “quiet-time”. We were in a Muslim city of 20 million people, crammed streets, and his apartment was full of people. There was no place, and no time for what he believed was “quiet-time”. He told me he did not feel prepared unless he had his “quiet-time,” and he went on to explain that is when he confesses his sins. I told him in this context, you must walk with the Lord from the time you wake till the time you sleep, and you must confess your sins and repent not during a “quiet-time”, but as soon as the sin is committed. You must be constant in prayer, have the word stored in your heart, and be prepared to give a defense to Muslims that will ask you questions (1. Thes. 5:17. Ps. 119:11; 1. Pet. 3:15). The intern had been trained to compartmentalize his spiritual life, starting with a “quiet-time”. I reminded him his entire waking moments must be quiet-times, and that many in the world do not even know this concept exists. In countries I have ministered in like Pakistan, many may live in one room with ten others, and in mega-cities there is no place to be “alone”. Cultures in the East tend to be more collective rather than individualistic. The intern needed to adjust his idea of spiritual disciplines, and make them as natural as breathing.
You will be challenged to fast because of the many burdens in your ministry. Countless times we felt compelled to declare a fast in our church, family, and supporting churches. For example, Muslim terrorists would threaten to bomb our church, or the local newspaper would write a slanderous article making us targets for extremists, or we would plan evangelistic trips to remote Muslim villages that had never seen a Christian, all would warrant a declared fast. In fact, as I write this, one of our Kurdish pastors is being targeted by extremist, and we are fasting for him and his family! This is something I was not accustomed to, until I obeyed the call to serve as an ambassador.
[Note about “quiet-time”: I am not saying we should not find time alone to pray. Even Jesus did this (Mark 1:35), but in some contexts it may not be as often as we wish.]
Sanctification through Putting the Flesh to Death (1 Thes. 4:3)
As an Ambassador for the King your eyes, ears, tongue, hands, legs - even your finger nails do not belong to you (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Every waking moment you must yield/submit the individual members of your body to God as tools, weapons, and instruments of righteousness (Rom. 6:12-14). Your calling demands this. Your obedience to Christ to make disciples of all nations must challenge you to live holy before the lost. Ambassadors must be holy (1 Pet. 1:14-16).
Stop watching pornography. Stop gossiping. Use your speech to edify and encourage. Do not be drunk with alcohol or be high on drugs, but adorn your body with eternal “accessories” (1 Cor 6:18, Eph. 4:29, Eph. 5:18; 1. Pet. 3:3-4). Use your legs to take you to bless, pray, preach, teach, and do good works. Use your hands to write/text words in a manner that edifies the body of Christ. Stop putting immoral and false teaching into your minds via the ear and eye gate, including some music, movies, tv series, and books (2 Tim. 4:3-4, 2. Pet. 2, 1 Tim. 4:1-2, Eph. 5:6; Heb. 13:9).
Daily submit your eyes, tongue, mind, ears, hands, legs, and every body part to God to be used as a tool, weapon, and instrument of righteousness, for his glory (Rom. 6:12-14).
As you seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, you will be at war with the flesh, but the daily discipline of coming to the throne of grace in your time of need (temptations) will train you to rely not on your own strength, but in Christ alone (Mat. 6:33, Rom. 7:22-23, Heb. 4:14-16; Gal. 2:20). Your salvation, and your sanctification is not in and of yourselves. It is in Jesus.
And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).
Be encouraged--King Jesus that sends you as his ambassadors, will help, sustain, and complete you. “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Php. 1:6).
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The CGO Blog
Written by the CGO staff, with guest posts from students and other faculty/staff at BJU to provide thought leadership for missions in a new millennium.