We pray because our deepest desire is to know God and yet one of the biggest struggles in Christian spirituality is prayer. What is prayer? What is its purpose? How should I pray?
The good news is that we are not alone in this struggle. Over the centuries the people of God have developed a holy language of prayer.
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
to the breaking of bread and the prayers. - Acts 2v42
In Acts 2 we see the early church devoting themselves to prayer, but not just prayer, we’re told that they devoted themselves to ‘the prayers.’ Definite article, in the plural.
Notice the difference! One is abstract, open-ended, and really gives us no idea what they are doing or how to get started. But when we read that they devoted themselves to ‘the prayers’ our first question is ‘what prayers’?
The answer is the Psalms (the ancient prayer book of the Jews), the Lord’s Prayer (the prayer Jesus specifically gave to his disciples), and other great prayers of the church. The purpose of these is to form us in the vocabulary and the grammar of prayer. When you pray these prayers with depth and intentionality it will transform your life!
"The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what you think God ought to do, but to be properly formed". - Brian Zahnd
Prayer is about spiritual formation and therefore how we pray is how we are formed.
The Hindu is formed by Hindu prayers.
The Jew is formed by Jewish prayers.
The Muslim is formed by Muslim prayers.
The secularist is formed by not praying.
And the Christian is formed by Christian prayers.
"Prayer is a personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God." - Tim Keller
Because prayer is a response to the knowledge of God, it means that prayer is profoundly altered by the amount and accuracy of that knowledge. The power of our prayers lies not primarily in our effort and striving, or in any technique, but rather in our knowledge of God. The more clearly we grasp who God is, the more our prayer is shaped and determined accordingly. We should not decide how to pray based on the experiences and feelings we want. Instead, we should do everything possible to behold God as he is, and prayer will follow.
God talks to us through the voices of his prophets, through the witness of the Holy Spirit through Scripture, through the words of Jesus, his disciples and those who have told his story through the Gospels. - James W. Sire
Eugene Peterson says that your starting point for prayer must be immersion in God’s Word. “Left to ourselves, we will pray to some god who speaks what we like hearing, or to the part of God we manage to understand. But what is critical is that we speak to the God who speaks to us, and to everything that he speaks to us. . . . There is a difference between praying to an unknown God whom we hope to discover in our praying, and praying to a known God, revealed through Israel and Jesus Christ, who speaks our language. In the first, we indulge our appetite for religious fulfillment; in the second we practice obedient faith. The first is a lot more fun, the second is a lot more important. What is essential in prayer is not that we learn to express ourselves, but that we learn to answer God.”
In Acts 4v23-35 we find the early believers lifting their voices in an unscripted, spontaneous prayer. It is a truly powerful prayer and the place where they are gathered is shaken, they are filled with the Holy Spirit and we’re told that despite threats from the religious leaders they continue to proclaim the gospel with boldness (v. 31) and radically share their possessions with those in need (vv. 32-35).
However, if you look closely you will see that the foundation of this spontaneous prayer is actually a direct reference from the second Psalm.
Why do the nations conspire,
and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
and cast their cords from us.”
- Psalm 2v1-3
In other words, the believers are utilizing a liturgical form of prayer. They are not making up this prayer out of thin air, they are drawing upon their prayer book (the Psalms) and creatively applying it to their present circumstances.
In Scripture we find both the formation of liturgical prayer and the spontaneity of improvisational prayer or praying from the heart. These are not pitted against the other, the both dance together. As we are formed by liturgical prayer we begin to gain the capacity to pray well with spontaneity.
When you devote yourself to the prayers - the Psalms, the Lord’s Prayer and other great prayers of the Church - the holy language of prayer begins to form you. The prayers become a part of you and then you can begin to creatively compose your own prayers.