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The Language of Prayer (Part One)

Language Rules

Prayer is the language of heaven. From the very moment we close our eyes and breathe “Heavenly Father”, “Dear Jesus,” or “Almighty God,” we trigger an interaction with God on a level that transcends human understanding. Yet, although we know what prayer is, we often fail miserably in actually knowing how to do it. Is it even possible for us to know the who, when, where, why and how of prayer? We must try. Anyone who wants to pray effectively needs answers to these basic questions. Without this fundamental knowledge, we are like the owner of a fine car who doesn’t know how to operate it or where to go. Likewise, dictionary definitions of prayer fall short of expressing everything we need to understand about it.

As a language, prayer is subject to the rules of language. We may determine this by breaking prayer down into the parts of speech. This enables us to cast prayer in precise Biblical usage and allows us to see major distinctions in kinds and styles of prayer, some apparent and some subtle. For example, we find that specific prayers govern certain outcomes, that there are well defined ways to pray for narrowly defined purposes, and that Biblical prayers observe special do’s and don’ts. The purpose for this study is not necessarily scholarly analysis, but to give a practical format to those who deeply yearn to enrich their prayer lives. To glean the most from this study, you must put these insights into real use. You will enter into a dimension of power in prayer that you never knew existed.

Prayer Nouns

Whatever exists can be named, and that name is a noun. By rote, most of us can still say “a noun is the name of a person, place, thing, or idea.” Nouns help us avoid calling everything a “whatchamacallit” or “thingamajig.” In order to communicate meaningfully, we have to be much more precise in our language. Nouns help us to define and refine our speech until we know exactly what we are talking about. We even include words in our vocabulary that refer to the same general things, but reveal subtle differences. For example, we can call a book a volume, a tome, a work, or if it is unfinished, a manuscript. A special book may be a text, a biography, a novel, a log or a dictionary.

Prayer, as a part of speech, is a noun. If we just call it “prayer”, however, we lose important distinctions that add to our understanding of prayer. Using precise prayer nouns from the scripture helps us to see these differences and we can focus on specific purposes for our prayers. Let’s look at the most common of these nouns.

Prayer as Supplication

Supplication often appears in scripture as a prayer noun, especially in the Old Testament. It means humble entreaty, with greater emphasis on humble. Daniel gives us an excellent context for this word. “O my God, incline thine ear, and hear…for we do not present our supplications before thee for our righteousnesses, but for thy great mercies.” Daniel 9:18. Supplicants lay aside all arrogance and pride. We come before God’s throne intensely aware of our humanness and lowly state of being and make our supplications known to him. This word reflects the attitude with which one prays more than the content of his or her prayer. A demanding attitude never prevails with God.

We should dedicate the beginning moments of any prayer to supplication. “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men.” (1 Timothy 2:1). This establishes our position before God. We may then go on to other forms of prayer, but not before we expressly humble ourselves in his presence.

Prayer as Petition

Many prayers burst forth spontaneously as needs and circumstances pop into our lives. Often, they are based upon sudden impulse---or even panic. To petition God, however, is to present a formal request to him. In the legal profession, attorneys petition the court by making a serious, deliberate and well-considered case to the judge. In prayer, there are times when we need to go solemnly before the throne of grace, not impulsively or in haste, but with premeditation. We must adopt the Ezra mode of praying. “And at the evening sacrifice I arose up from my heaviness; and having rent my garment and my mantle, I fell upon my knees, and spread out my hands unto the LORD my God. And said, O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift up my face to thee, my God: for our iniquities are increased over our head, and our trespass is grown up unto the heavens.” Ezra 9:5-6. Other prophets, like Nehemiah, Daniel, Isaiah and Jeremiah also prayed with petition prayers. It is not praying on a whim, but it ascends up from the depths of the soul, fashioned in the vortex of deep and abiding convictions.

A petitioning prayer requires preparation. First, prepare your own heart. Then, consider the true legitimacy of the need. Verify its scriptural foundations, look at the circumstances that call for it and weigh out its consequences. When you put your petition through these stringent prerequisites, you can then pray with authority and determination. Your faith becomes a powerful force and you will persevere because you are invested in your prayers. John wrote, “And if we know that he hear us, whatsoever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we desired of him.” John 5:15

Prayer as Intercession

An intercessor acts on another’s behalf or asks in favor of another. Intercession requires empathy, compassion and a willingness to concern oneself with another person’s spiritual welfare. Again, our reference is 1Timothy 2:1, “I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men.” The intercessor assimilates the needs of others into his own being as he cries out in their stead. He prays their prayers for them because they cannot or will not pray for themselves. The true intercessor does not gauge the worthiness of those for whom he intercedes. He does not act out of anticipated pay back. His motive is selfless, his understanding is pure and his cause is rooted in love.

Jesus Christ was the greatest intercessor the world has ever known. It can be said that intercession embodied the whole purpose of his earthly mission. He summarized this mission in his High-priestly prayer of John 17:9, “I pray for them.” For them! Not for himself, but for them! In a twist of high irony, the one who deserved all glory stripped himself of that very glory on our behalf---so that he would become exceedingly glorified. “Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God…he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” Philippians 2:6-8.

The work of the church goes beyond simple evangelism. We are also called to intercessory prayer because it works in tandem with the preaching of the gospel. Intercession calls for a depth of care that the world has no capacity to give to people. Every saint of God must hear the cry of the lost and then carry that cry to the throne of grace. Meditate on the following verse and take it into your prayer closet. “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation; To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them; and hath committed unto us the word of reconciliation. Now then we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God did beseech you by us: we pray you in Christ's stead, be ye reconciled to God.” 2 Corinthians 5:18-20.

Prayer as Communion

The word communion does not appear in direct association with prayer, even though it comes from the same root from which we derive communication. We can trace its meaning in practice back to prayer as we examine the scriptures. Technically, communion refers to participation and sharing. The Bible uses the word in reference to receiving the Lord’s Supper. “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” 1 Corinthians 10:16. But, what is eating and drinking if not ingesting into oneself something that is outside of himself? Through communion, we ingest into our hearts the very presence of God.

From this thought of communion, we go to Revelation 3:20. “Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with me.” Sup means to drink in or swallow up. When you allow this picture to fully form in your mind, you see a person and Christ, in the same room by themselves, communing with each other. This is a perfect description of prayer.

Prayer can and should be more than the purposeful exchange of words and ideas between man and God. Prayer is a divine, awe-inspiring and life-changing experience that transcends words. It is something to be felt as well and heard and spoken. I believe Adam had this with God before the fall. “And they heard the voice of the LORD God walking in the garden in the cool of the day.” Genesis 3:8. Adam enjoyed a rich relationship with Jehovah as they walked together in paradise. If Jesus Christ restored that which was lost in Adam, and according to Romans that’s exactly what happened, then we can recreate the relationship that sin suspended in Eden in our closet of prayer. Another beautiful example of communion presents itself in the concept of marriage, as expounded in Ephesians.

How can you turn your prayer time into communion with God? It may be simple, but it’s not easy. It takes slowing down and savoring the moment. Anyone who has ever visited an exotic island wants time to stand still in order to soak up the atmosphere. It’s like basking in the warm sunlight, breathing in the fragrant air after the rain. For those who love the wintertime, it’s like letting the snowflakes fall softly and melting on your face. It means attuning your sensitivities to the heart and desire of God. Prayer as communion can only happen by having a full consciousness of his presence. God must become our chief joy and love. “If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy.” Psalms 137:6.

Prayer as Worship

John 4:23-24 But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

Worship is extravagant admiration. The human spirit seeks out icons, heroes and celebrities to fawn over and adore. It is our nature. All the components of prayer work together to become a total act of worship---not to a worldly icon---but to the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords. In order to enhance this aspect of prayer, we need to rehearse all the glorious names and titles of God and speak them out to him in prayer. We need to exult in him as Creator, Redeemer, Altogether Lovely, Rose of Sharon, Lily of the Valley, Bright and Morning Star…on and on it goes. And, when you exhaust the scriptural designations of God, you can compose your own. Lose yourself in the worship experience that prayer presents.

Worship demands ego-demotion. God must be the focus of your love and affection. This requires you to deviate from your personal agenda of wants and needs, and enter into the throne room of the presence of God. This is the place where you forget yourself and truly stand in awe of the One who has no equal in the universe. Psalm 95:6-7 says, “O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the LORD our maker. For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”

Prayer as Praise

Hebrews 13:15 “By him therefore let us offer the sacrifice of praise to God continually, that is, the fruit of our lips giving thanks to his name.”

Praise means to attribute or express glory to a deserving individual. It can be either general or specific. Praise seeks out an aspect of character, a notable display of talent, a memorable deed or a significant word that has been spoken and makes a huge deal about it. Praise acknowledges excellence, concedes superiority and demonstrates credible appreciation for who someone is or what they’ve done.

1 Chronicles 16:4 illustrates the importance of praise. “And he appointed certain of the Levites to minister before the ark of the LORD, and to record, and to thank and praise the LORD God of Israel.” The only job of certain priests in the Old Testament was to offer up praise to God.

Today, in order to praise God in prayer, we must find delight in every aspect of God and tell him about it. Generally, praise him for his excellent greatness, praise him for his tender mercy; specifically, praise him for the way he answered your prayer last week, or for baptizing you with the Holy Spirit. Once you get started, you’ll find it nearly impossible to stop praising him for the multitude of things he has done for you. Make praise a vital part of your prayer.

Prayer as Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a primary component of prayer. Colossians 4:2 says “Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving.” In Psalm 100:4 we read, “Enter into his gates with thanksgiving, and into his courts with praise: be thankful unto him, and bless his name.”

Thanksgiving means to show sincere gratitude for an act of kindness or generosity. This display of thankfulness resonates so deeply within our conscience that North American governments have set aside a special day on the yearly calendar devoted to this very purpose. Without thanksgiving, we become exploiters, users, selfish takers and manipulators. We tag thankless people as obnoxious and rude.

We must not be spoiled brats in God’s presence, presuming upon his goodness and demanding his generosity. Yes, we are his children, and we have been graciously received into the family of God, but we still should not think of ourselves as having any entitlements with God. We have no legal, moral or actual authority over God which makes him subservient to us. Our relationship with him is predicated solely upon his goodness to us.

Make your prayers rich with thanksgiving. Show great appreciation for the fact that he even notices you, let alone the fact that he died to save you. As you offer up thanks to God, you will situate yourself in a place of great spiritual advantage. Psalm 69:30-31 says, “I will praise the name of God with a song, and will magnify him with thanksgiving. 31 This also shall please the LORD better than an ox or bullock that hath horns and hoofs.”

These are the nouns of prayer: supplication, petition, intercession, communion, worship, praise and thanksgiving. As you understand these aspects of prayer, you will pray with more purpose and you will see greater results than ever before. You have only just begun to experience everything God wants your prayer to be.

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