The Direct Line

February 07 2019 | by

SINCE the Bible is God’s Word, and a record of his interaction with us, we would expect see examples of prayer in its text, and we would not be disappointed. One could speak at length of prayer in the Bible, but this month we will just examine some basic ideas.

The Church teaches us that there are four basic types of prayer: praise, intercession, thanksgiving and contrition. All four are found in our biblical texts.


Four types of prayer


There is praise of God. This is found in the Psalms which speak of God’s greatness and his goodness, as well as in texts such as the Magnificat and the hymns found in St. Paul’s letters that speak of the mystery of God’s mercy and love. Praise is a most unselfish form of prayer, for we are not asking anything from God. We are simply recognizing God’s greatness and goodness and proclaiming it to the world.

The Bible is full of intercession. Among the many scenes which show this are the prayers of Judith and Esther as they seek to save their people from the danger which they faced.

A good example of thanksgiving is the scene in which one leper out of ten who were healed return to thank Jesus for the miracle that they had received. The fact that only one returned is unfortunately an example of what we sometimes do – we can easily forget to thank God for the many ways in which we are blessed throughout the day. There is also an extensive thanksgiving at the beginning of St. Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Paul put it there for a dual purpose: to thank God, and to remind the Thessalonians that all of their successes were a gift from God and not due to their own efforts.

Finally, there are many examples of contrition in the Bible. There are prayers of contrition for one’s own fault (such as King David’s and King Hezekiah’s admission of having sinned) and also for the sins of the nation (such as when the prophets ask for a remission of the punishment due to the nation on account of their sinfulness).


Pray always


St. Paul reminds the communities to which he writes that we should pray constantly. Sometimes we do that in formal prayer (such as the Our Father or the Hail Mary), and sometimes we do it informally (simply remembering that God is present and kind). The actual form of the prayer is much less important than the fact that we are praying.

Jesus also reminds his listeners that we should be insistent when we pray. He tells the parable of the widow who demanded her rights from an evil judge (Luke 18:1-8). The judge eventually gave in to her pleas because he was tired of listening to her voice. There are times when we should let our prayers storm the heavens.

Yet, Jesus also reminds us that we should not multiply our prayers. That lesson seems to contradict what has just been said, but it does not. Jesus is warning against using prayer as a formula that we repeat over and over again, thinking that we are multiplying its effect by continually repeating it. That is magical thinking. The difference between prayer and magic is that prayer is an act of surrender to the will of God while magic is an act by which we try to control the other.


Praying with others


Prayer is an action which can and should involve others. We can think of the scene in which Israel is fighting against the army of the Amalekites. Moses held up his arms in prayer. As long as his arms were lifted, Israel was victorious, but when he lowered his arms, the Amalekites had the advantage. Two of Moses’ companions, Aaron and Hur, then held Moses’ arms uplifted throughout the battle until the Amalekites were totally defeated.

We need to ask others for their prayers. Jesus tells us that when two or more are gathered in prayer, God will listen to their voices.

If prayer is not magic, then how does it work? The easiest explanation is that when we pray, we join our love to God’s love, and that combined love visits the person or the situation for which we are praying. And love is always effective. There was an experiment some time back in which babies in a hospital were either hugged frequently or not. Those who were hugged thrived. Those who were not did not thrive. Prayer is a spiritual hug. Even if a person does not know that we are praying for that person, nevertheless, he or she can sense that something is different.

This doesn’t mean that we always get exactly that for which we pray. God is not a miracle dispensing machine that gives us the desired product when we put in the right combination of prayers. Rather, God is a loving parent who will give us the most loving answer possible. Sometimes that response is that we will receive the healing or favor for which we have prayed, and sometimes it is that we will not receive that for which we asked, but will have to meet God on the cross.


How does it work?


We could then ask whether prayer actually changes the world. Does prayer change God’s mind? This is probably the wrong question to ask. God lives in eternity and we live in time. It is so, so difficult to understand how God for whom all things are present could change, for change itself is an attribute of time (before it was one way and later it will be another). Many people say that prayer doesn’t change reality, it only changes our hearts to accept what God intended to send into our lives anyway.

Yet, Jesus insisted that prayer changes reality. Remember the story of the widow and the evil judge. How could this be?

Possibly a way to address this mystery is to remember that God has called us his friends and his children. God has invited us into the mystery of salvation (both for ourselves and to share with others). God has given us free will, but keeps inviting us into his grace.

All of these things are possible because God loves us so much that he invites us into the process of creating a new reality – for ourselves and for all of creation. It is not that God has already made up his mind. He wants us to be part of the decision making process. God and we shape a future in which his love reigns.

This is why praying is so important. Just as God created the universe with his words at the beginning of the world, so also now our words, our prayers are creating a new heavens and a new earth founded on the love of God.

Updated on February 07 2019