Theologian Robert Jenson distinguishes human beings from other created entities like animals, angels, and inanimate life—and whatever else may be!—by calling us “the praying animal”: we are embodied creatures who, by virtue of being made in God’s image, have our identity and nature as ones who are oriented to God by speech. Among all of God’s material creatures, we are given to talk to God. That is what it means to be human.
This fits well with the witness of Scripture. Israel as a people, and Israel’s outstanding individuals, are uniquely characterized by a profound, pervasive, and sometimes off-putting insistence on speaking to God. The Psalms, a collection of 150 songs and hymns and prayers written and collected over centuries of experience, continue to stand as the central prayer book for both Jews and Christians. We are taken aback when we see the unharnessed honesty with which God’s people addressed their Lord: calling on him to wake up, indicting him for his absence, demanding that he fulfill his end of the deal. They confess every sin imaginable: idolatry, adultery, murder, envy, dishonesty, disobedience. They express every emotion available to human experience: happiness, anger, desire, depression, rage, arrogance, thankfulness. In stories that just don’t seem to make sense to modern religious ears, Abraham and Moses each “talk down” God out of plans to destroy entire groups of people. Apparently God can be persuaded by human talk!
Prayer can seem like such a self-evident, obvious facet of the Christian walk that at times we forget both the power and the gift of prayer. That we can speak to God openly—much less at all!—is a gift of inexpressible grace: the One from everlasting to everlasting, who neither needs nor depends on anything for his being, the One whose very word sparked the cosmos alive—this One invites us into conversation! And he does not demand some sort of moral or religious or sacrificial standard to be met beforehand; he merely invites us to come as we are, to be who we are, and to find ourselves truly as we were made to be in him and him alone.
Besides God’s own invitation, the basis for our talking with God the Father is his Son and their Spirit. The twin primal stories of prayer, in which we must always find ourselves as disciples, are the Lord’s Prayer and the baptism of Jesus. In the latter we witness, in a moment in time and space, the eternal life of God as Father, Son, and Spirit enacted before our eyes. As the Son comes up from the water, the Spirit descends as the Father speaks his loving blessing over his Son. In prayer, we partake of this reality. We are God’s child, we are given of God’s Spirit, we hear God’s word of love spoken over us. So Jesus instructs us, not to call Israel’s God by an impersonal designation or formal title, but as abba, Father, counted with Jesus as sons and daughters of the Almighty. And we are welcomed—in this life only as a foretaste, but ultimately in fullness—to step into and be embraced by the infinite love and mutual conversation of the triune God.
This is good news! But does it actually have any meaning, any import, any impact on daily life, in a world dominated by distrust, division, and dishonesty? Any practical application for a world so overrun with words that we can’t believe anything we hear?
On the one hand, of course not. From the world’s perspective, by the world’s definitions, prayer is the least effective, most foolish activity we could ever dream up. Sit still, be quiet, and “think stuff” to yourself? Quite a bit of nonsense.
On the other hand, Christians believe that God actually listens to prayer. Which means that in prayer, the lowliest sinner, the poorest man, the shyest woman who prays in the name of Jesus is more powerful than leaders of nations and armies and corporations. Prayer is power. Prayer is real power.
Not only that, but prayer transforms, and it embraces all of life. As we will see, prayer is not relegated to an activity in the closet, or a quick word spoken in a church assembly. If prayer is what it means to be human, and if as Christians we walk in the Spirit of the Son of God, prayer is the very substance of our lives. We literally cannot live without it.
In truth, then, we can say that prayer is indeed the most practical of all practices. In step with the Spirit (Gal 5:25)—apart from which “all flesh would perish together and man would return to dust” (Job 34:15)—we attend to that which created, orders, sustains, and brings all things to completion in Christ. We walk in the world as God’s friends. And it is only as prayerful friends of God that we will be capable of the back-and-forth, push-and-pull of life with one another, of following Jesus into the world he died for, a world saturated by a God who sings over it in love.
Therefore our working definition will be:
Prayer is the ultimate name for human-divine interaction: it is (1) unceasing speech with the Almighty, (2) intercession for others and ourselves, (3) boundless celebration of the glory of God, (4) real and reliable rest in a violent world, (5) listening in silence to the Word and to the Spirit, (6) groaning in utterly honest lament to God for the pain of a broken creation, (7) mystical communion with the One beyond words, and (8) loving inclusion into the eternal conversation of Father, Son, and Spirit.