What Do We Mean When We Speak of Prayer?

The Bible speaks a great deal about the topic of prayer. Time and time again we read that Jesus prayed, Peter prayed, Paul prayed and so on. We are given examples of their prayers as we examine God’s word, and the writers of Scripture encourage all believers to pray.praying-hands

The same carries over into churches today, and even in the culture at large. Thoughts and prayers are offered up in remembrance of those who have passed, or in support of those who have suffered great tragedies. Pastors tell the congregation that they need to be praying and even hold prayer meetings (which have become known as the lonely stepchild of the church) and even preach sermons on how to pray.

However, in all my years as a follower of Christ I cannot recall having heard anyone speak about what prayer actually is. Of course, I’ve heard the trite statement that, “Prayer is simply talking to God,” which is true, but I’ve never heard anyone actually discuss what someone like Paul was actually saying when he talked about praying or prayer.

Today we are going to focus on Paul’s opening statement found in Philippians 1:3-11 where Paul uses two Greek words for prayer as well as a third word that exhibits the content of his prayers.

In Philippians 1:3–11 (NASB95) Paul writes:

    3      I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,

4      always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all,

5      in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.

6      For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

7      For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me.

8      For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.

9      And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment,

10      so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ;

11      having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

In verse three Paul begins with the phrase (my translation) “I give thanks to my God upon every remembrance of you.” The word translated “I give thanks” means to express gratitude for benefits or blessings and is not exactly equal to the words he uses for prayer. But what we see in that statement is part of the content of Paul’s prayers for the Philippian believers.

If we follow Paul’s example understanding what motivates many of his prayers, we learn that when you and I pray we ought to give thanks, express gratitude to God. Paul gave thanks to God every time he thought of the Philippian church. For whom, or for what do you give thanks to God? Thanksgiving is in itself a form of prayer.

I love the old hymn entitled, “Count Your Blessings.” The first verse and chorus read like this:

When upon life’s billows you are tempest tossed,

When you are discouraged thinking all is lost,

Count your many blessings – name them one by one,

And it will surprise you what the Lord has done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one;

Count your blessings, see what God has done.

Count your blessings, name them one by one;

Count your many blessings, see what God has done.[1]

When we take time to actually consider the people that God has placed in our lives and the work that He has done in, through and for us, we should be able to begin to give thanks to God.

So, one aspect of Paul’s prayer, or better said, what motivated Paul to begin praying was his thanks to God for the Philippian believers.

In verse four Paul uses the first of two words that are translated as pray, or prayer. The word he uses here is the Greek δέησις, which is derived from the word meaning “to plead, to beg.” The word itself means “to present an urgent request to meet a need, an asking, entreaty.” (BDAG & MGLNT) Paul’s love for the Philippian believers moved him to call out to God with pleadings on their behalf for God to meet their needs as they were attempting to meet the needs of others.

Again, if we take Paul’s pattern as an example, what it means for you and me is that when we pray, we ought to be pleading on behalf of others, and even for our own needs. How long has it been since you really pleaded with God for someone? Paul says that he did it every time that the Philippians were brought to his memory.

Finally, in verse nine Paul uses another word for prayer, προσεύχομαι. Simply put, Paul says that he speaks to God on their behalf and makes petitions to God on their behalf. And in the verses to follow he gives the content of those petitions. This is not to say that the content of Paul’s prayer is all that we should petition or ask God for when praying for others or our own needs. But making requests of God is always a central focus of the Apostle’s prayers.

This brings us back to the beginning of our conversation. This simply word for prayer means to speak or talk to God as well as to ask God for certain things. So that trite answer that I spoke of earlier does have biblical support. You and I have the privilege of speaking directly to the Creator of all things, the Ruler of the universe.

Do you take advantage of this privilege? We are promised that because we are His children, He will hear us and answer when we pray in accord with His will (Jo 9:31; 1 Jo 3:22).

Paul demonstrates for us what prayer means: giving thanks, urgent pleading, and talking to God making requests of Him for others and ourselves.

Paul also provides an example for us to follow. The only question left to answer at this time is, will we take advantage of this great privilege that we have.

[1] Johnson Oatman, Jr. and Edwin O. Excell, Count Your Blessings.

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