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.
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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.