FAQs of a Theologian: Can you explain to me what prayer means to a christian?

I’ve had for sometime the idea to write posts based on questions I am asked via email or questions that people ask google and somehow land on my site. In fact I’ve been compiling some questions since early this summer on my Theo.edit (my wiki). Thus I am going to begin a bi-monthly segment answering some of these question or “Frequently Asked Questions of a Christian Theologian.” Then once I am done, I will either link to or post the answers on the wiki for later use.

Ben Gray, a friend of mine via the web, has been doing something very similar with what he’s calling “Ask A Minister,” he podcasts questions people ask him. In fact, he recently answered a question I sent in. I have cleared this FAQ idea with him a while back and we both recognize that we’re doing similar and yet different things with this idea.

So essentially, the way this segment will work, is I will gather questions people send me via email or my site, I will gather questions based on web searches that have brought people to my site and I will also respond to things readers submit for my commentary.

Ultimately this is meant to be something helpful, a resource that is accessible to everyone.


The question I offer today came via an email from my site, and the inquirer’s name will remain anonymous.

Question: Can you explain to me what prayer means to a Christian?

Response: This of course is a huge question, because of the variety of types of prayers and theology behind them. The simplest, most standard form of prayer is the one said quietly or silently and offers a request, lament or thanksgiving concerning some issue.

Other groups of Christian such as Quakers, though they too say various
types of prayers, tend to focus on silence, which is also called
contemplation. It seeks to find God and hear God in the midst of being
quiet; instead of uttering requests and thanksgivings and laments it
seeks to listen.

Often times prayers are said in repetition – such as the Lord’s Prayer. Stanely Hauerwaus says in his book on the Lord’s Prayer,

“Some things in life are too important to be left up to chance. Some things inlife are too difficult to be left up to spontaneous desire – things like telling people that we love them or praying to God. So we do them out of habit.”

I’ve written extensively on the Lord’s Prayer, which I doubt you have time to read, but in those posts I talk about the importance of saying that particular prayer regularly. And how prayer can often times change our disposition towards a situation or person.But we don’t just pray for ourselves, prayer is communion with God and often done for others.
A common form of prayer found in the bible is intercessory prayer, this is where one prays on behalf of another in who is in need. You can find this form in the Lord’s prayer (according to my reading of it), “give us this day our daily bread” and “forgive us our debts as we have forgiven our debtors.”
Therefore prayer is communicating with God in some explicit form. It is directing our actions, our voice or our thoughts to God in a manner that seeks for God to respond to us. Classic Christianity and prayer assumes reciprocity with God, a give and take, we believe that in praying God hears and acts.
John Goldingay, an Old Testament teacher at Fuller Seminary, has written about prayer and argues that it can and should be understood as God giving us the gift of helping God in the healing, forgiveness and creation of the world. That in some way, we act as a “rector” of sorts when we pray. That is, God allows us to give feedback into the way the world is working, and even argue our points, so much so that God hears and at times changes his/her mind accordingly.
I hope that this answers some of your questions and brings up more, for this is a huge area of the Christian life and therefore much can be said. Let me know if you have any other thoughts or questions.
Peace and Light,
C. Wess Daniels

9 responses to “FAQs of a Theologian: Can you explain to me what prayer means to a christian?”

  1. An important book for me in understanding prayer was DZ Phillips book The Concept of Prayer where he tried to unpack what it meant from a philosophical position. Its out of print which is a serious tragedy I think.

    It fails to address one area of prayer however which came up at our bible study on Monday night. We were looking at Jesus blessing the little children: and someone asked — what is blessing? What’s going on when someone blesses?

    I gave a partial answer but I’m not happy with it. I said, in prayer we ask God to do something. In blessing we speak with authority. I also pointed out that greetings were blessings but we just have lost sight of it — they’ve become automatic responses.

    My guts tell me there’s more behind the practice. And more behind why that practice has faded from Christian practice (outside of liturgy where only the priest blesses). But I’m not sure what it might be.

  2. Ha! That’s a great idea. I still get asked if I’ve read the Da Vinci Code when I’m on planes. In my head, I’m thinking, “Ummm…no, that’s not what I do.” That being said, most questions that I’m often asked are in fact quite good questions, so I’m sure you’ll have some great material.

  3. Dan – thanks for the comment I do hope that it will be useful in one way or another. I’ve been thinking and I am going to expand the questions to guest-theologians. So that should add to the resourcefulness.

  4. I’m up for it if you send something my way or ask if I have anything cogent to add. Can’t promise I can add a ton on any given topic, but happy to pinch hit if you want.

  5. This is a timely post on your part, for my life. Thanks…

    Question… In you opinion whats the shake on asking God for protection? Protection from acts of evil. It seems to me to be inbounds but someone I respect recently said that protection wasn’t quite the right prayer. That we should pray more for God’s “presence” then for protection. All this seems above my pay grade and confuses my puddin head. I’d love to get your opinion?

  6. Hi steve, good question.

    It seems that protection can often be self-direction, whereas praying for GOd’s presence is directed at God himself.

    But self-directed prayers aren’t to be rejected, just subordinate to other-directed prayers. So I think that it’s okay to pray for protection so long as we understand that we may not be protected, or so long as our own self-worth doesn’t become more important than other’s.

    So I pray for protection over my wife all the time, but I also pray that I can be peace to others, and that God’s presence will always help me to understand the difference.

    I find Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer to be telling of this process of praying for our needs, the needs of others, all while focusing on God.

  7. […] It’s only been a week since I did my first Q & A here, but the response was great and everyone seemed to be pretty excited about having basic questions answered here. So I’ve gone and changed it a little to make it a bit more interactive, and hopefully even more resourceful than my original plan. […]