What is prayer?

Many definitions have been given; the Bible gives us none. This silence is suggestive. The Bible never proves the reality of prayer any more than it proves the existence of God. It takes the one for granted as completely as the other. Its doctrine is a simple one: God exists; He is the rewarder of them that diligently seek Him. God cannot but be; man cannot but cry to Him. And so it has no account to give of the reason why man has always prayed, or of the methods by which God has always met his prayer.

Any difficulty that may be felt by us today with respect to the origin and nature of prayer is as old as prayer itself is. Man still prays, though, after all these centuries of experience he remains quite ignorant of the root and scope and laws of prayer. He may have “no language but a cry,” but he feels he has to utter that cry, however blindly, to some one. From the first day of his existence prayer has been one of the strongest forces in his nature. It expressed itself in his recurring sense of weakness under the pressure of his ignorance. It came with his tears when sorrow struck his heart, and loss changed his home. It came with his joys when their very freshness made him sing his song of thankfulness. It has always been with him, a power as real as his power of sight and hearing and speech. It is his soul breathing in its effort to live. It will continue as long as mankind lasts. Prayer is man’s life touching its source.

Clement of Alexandria says “the prayers God hears are the thoughts within our mind.” T. H. Green defines prayer as “a wish referred to God.” The Shorter Catechism says: “Prayer is the 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.” These may not be full definitions—they may rather be descriptions of prayer—but they express what is at the very basis of prayer, a sense, not only of relationship to God in virtue of a common nature, but a sense of dependence on Him as the only source of help in time of weakness and need. The very existence of this instinct helps to explain the coarse idolatry of the savage as truly as the happy worship of the Christian. It is not a vague force that terminates nowhere. Man is what he is, a grander being than the creatures he fears or slays, simply because of this reaching out of his nature to something, or some one, beyond himself. The most foolish judgment ever passed on prayer is that which calls it a fiction, an invention, an imagination of man. It is the divinest thing man has. It is because he is a praying being that man is a religious being. A prayer-less religion is no religion. And the more spiritual the religion, the purer and loftier is the prayer, and man is never at his best and strongest as a moral creature, except in those times when prayer, “man’s rational prerogative,” as Wordsworth terms it, is simplest and most confidential.

Whatever may be the direction of the future development of the human race, it cannot have the comfort and hope of religion without the reality of prayer. As prayer lessens, the force of the unseen lessens. We are amazed at the quick progress of mankind, and never has the advance been more rapid than in our own generation, and yet with all the changes which our civilization has wrought, our common human nature in its roots and tendencies remains quite unaltered. The increase of our goods has not satisfied our hunger. The hunger indeed is the occasion of the increase, and did we not ever cry for more we should have no gladness in any gain. The most ancient thing in human life is this inner yearning. Man is not content with tilling his fields and rounding off his daily labor with nightly sleep. He associates with his fellows, but leaves them again and again, persuaded that they are as feeble and as destitute as himself. He wants something more than the joy of labor and society. He will stretch out his hands, and lift his thoughts beyond himself and his place, and believe that someone unseen takes note of all the movements of his inner life.

This haunting sense of incompleteness cannot be a vain imagination, and so strong a tendency to call on God, cannot be based on a fictitious or passing sentiment. No force in him can thrive or grow unless it have its adequate environment, and the cry that breaks so often from within his heart must have its answer from without. The eye was made for light, and the sunshine falls on sea and meadow and flower, and makes man’s spirit rejoice. The car was made for sound, and the music of bird and stream and human voice lifts him upward to wide invisible realms. The human spirit in its very make justifies the reasonableness of prayer: and the prayer it prays is as much the sign of its own natural way of living, as it is the expression of its ignorance and helplessness and its need of God.

An extract from William Watson’s Prayer: A Christian’s Guide to Communing with God

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