What Prayer Actually Is (and Six Things It's Not)


What is prayer? Is it different from meditation? Can one pray to any god and get the same results? Does it matter what we say when we pray? Does our physical posture matter when we pray? Who or what is to be our focus when we pray?

I’ll go ahead and give you the short answers to these questions, then we’ll unpack them together. Here are the answers: Talking to God. Yes, very much so. Nope - not even close. To some degree, yes. Not really, but also kinda sorta. Let’s talk about this one a little further down. 

What is Prayer?

A basic working definition of prayer we’ll use is this: Prayer is simply talking to God. That’s it. So elementary, but so profound. In Episode 46 of our podcast, we discussed a theology of prayer in some detail. In that episode, Kimberly Cummings said this authentic prayer is going to be an expression of our faith based on the gospel. This is a great point to make. Real, honest prayer is centered on the gospel of Christ. 

When we recognize that we are declared righteous and holy before a holy God based on the merit of Christ alone, and that there is nothing we could have done to earn righteousness or holiness, we will worship. In addition to bestowing the gospel on us, Christ also tore down the dividing wall that separated humans from God and gave us direct access to the Father through prayer (Hebrews 10:19-22). 

You can go ahead and shout Hallelujah! here!!

What Prayer is Not

But it might also be helpful to discuss what prayer isn’t. Prayer is such a simple concept, but many - both Christians and non-Christians - have tried to attach some pretty interesting, yet unbiblical assumptions to it. Maybe it’s the simplicity that causes this. 

Our finite human minds just can’t comprehend how the Holy, Triune, Almighty God would allow us such an audacious privilege as access to His throne any time we need it (Hebrews 4:16). The idea is so preposterous, we determine we must over-complicate prayer so that we can make it just a little more dependent on us. 

Prayer is not any of the following: 
Chanting/meaningless repetition
Listening to God
Demands made of God
Speaking to any idol other than the holy God of the Bible
Positive thoughts/love and light sent to another human


Many Christians will get all up in a tizzy (as we say in the south) over use of the word meditation. I understand this concern. The world has hijacked a term that began as biblical, right, and good. Most often, when you hear of meditation today, it’s with reference to mystical practices such as yoga and centering. Worldly meditation is elusive and surrounded with mystery.   

But used in the proper, biblical sense, meditation is a good and necessary practice. Meditation is not, however, the same as prayer. David spoke often in the Psalms of meditation. But what did he meditate upon? A careful study of Scripture will show you that David and others meditated upon the Word of God (Psalm 119:97; Psalm 1:2; Joshua 1:8; Psalm 77:11-12; Romans 12:2). A biblical definition of meditation, then, would be to reflect upon God’s Word and His work. Biblical meditation is firm, sure, and steadfast because of Whom is the focus. 

Chanting/Meaningless Repetition

There is a common practice in prayer today to repeat the name Jesus or certain phrases over and over while one prays in an effort to invoke some sort of deeper emotional connection with God to get the results you seek. We’ll talk more about the demands aspect of this in a minute. 

I went to Google and typed in a search that started with repeat the name Jesus in prayer for… I was immediately given the suggestions of healing, protection, peace, and prosperity to complete my search. This is what prayer has been reduced to in the world of the prosperity gospel. 

Christ taught against this in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 6:7-8, Jesus gives a strong warning against meaningless repetition. Before this warning, in Matthew 6:5-6, He warns against praying like a hypocrite, for show. If you repeat one phrase or the name of Jesus over and over again in a chant-style prayer, may I ask, do those words still even have meaning? How is that different than a hurried meal-time prayer said absentmindedly so that we can get to the real focus- the food?

Listening to God

More and more, I am hearing prayer referred to as two-way communication. Friends, this is a dangerous teaching. Listening prayer, as it’s commonly referred to, is not in Scripture. Prayer is for us to talk to God. He talks to us through His Word. Gotquestions.org does a wonderful job explaining this concept. 

The cannon of Scripture is closed. The Lord gave us 66 books through which to know and understand Him and I don’t know of one person who has exhausted the knowledge of Him in their lifetime. No one who truly knows the Lord has sat down and said, “Well, that’s it. I finally know everything there is to know about God.” It’s not possible. 

I believe we have adopted this idea of listening prayer in large part due to our laziness. God would have us do the hard work of mining the depths of Scripture to know Him more fully. Sadly, we would rather sit quietly and listen. Listen to what? The random thoughts and impressions that come into my own mind? Scripture tells me that my heart is deceitful and wicked (Jeremiah 17:9). I cannot and should not trust the random ideas that come into my mind during moments of silence. 

It is not the work of the Spirit to tell you the meaning of Scripture, and give you the knowledge of divinity, without your own study and labour, but to bless that study, and give you knowledge thereby… To reject study on pretence of the sufficiency of the Spirit, is to reject the Scripture itself.
— Richard Baxter

Listening prayer is what Sarah Young claims to have done in order to write her bestselling book Jesus Calling. Young herself said “I began to wonder if I … could receive messages during my times of communing with God. I had been writing in prayer journals for years, but that was one-way communication: I did all the talking. I knew that God communicated with me through the Bible, but I yearned for more. Increasingly, I wanted to hear what God had to say to me personally on a given day.” Do you yearn for more than God’s holy, inerrant, complete Word like Young did?

Friends, we are testifying that we believe the Bible is insufficient, rather than sufficient, when we seek for knowledge of God outside of His Word.

Demands Made of God

Prayer should begin with an awe and reverence for the One to whom we are speaking. In Jesus’ model prayer, we see a pattern for placing God in His rightful place before we make our supplications to Him. 

Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done…
— Matthew 6:9-10

Do you see in the verses above Who the focus of our prayers should be? I’ll give you a hint… It’s not you. Yet, often, Christians are told that in order to have their needs met, they must speak with authority to God and proclaim what they are seeking to be already done. Where is this practice in Scripture? 

The only proclamations made to God in Scripture are to speak back to Him what He has already told someone. A good example of this is in 2 Samuel 22:1 - 23:7 as David praises God for fulfilling the prophecy of David’s kingdom given in 2 Samuel 7:1-29. Much of this prophecy was still to be fulfilled, yet David praised God for it because He had a reverent awe for God to Whom He was speaking. 

God is not a cosmic vending machine Whom we can approach, press the right buttons, and POOF, out pops our desired treat. 

Speaking to Anyone Other Than the God of the Bible

Spend a little time on social media and you will quickly see pleas to the masses for prayer for countless causes, people, and even animals. Unfortunately, prayers to the universe or other gods are not really prayers at all. 

Only God Himself is powerful enough and able to answer prayers. And only redeemed, reconciled children of God who bear the name of Jesus Christ on their lives can approach the One and Only holy God with prayers and petitions. I always wonder - who are all these people praying to?

Positive Thoughts Sent to Another Human (or Pet)

Along the same lines as the section above - where are these thoughts going and what are they doing? The answer? Nowhere. And Nothing. See the previous paragraph. Sending positive thoughts or love and light are mystical practices that have no hope. 

Physical Posture During Prayer

Finally, while there is something humbling, memorable, and serious about kneeling at an altar to pray, it is not necessary to do so for more effective prayers. You can pray anytime of any day in any place. You must not be knelt by your bedside or at your church’s altar.  

But there is another type of posture that must always be kneeling in a manner of speaking, and that is your heart posture. I spoke earlier in this article about putting God in His proper place when you pray. This is essential. We must recognize when we pray that we are entering the very throne room of God Himself (Hebrews 4:16). 

Understanding this fact should place us in a state of holy, reverent fear. Not a fear that separates us from God, but a fear that places us on our knees in a state of submission to God, driving us to deeper intimacy with Him. Not necessarily physically on our knees, but positionally. 

God is not like us, and that is a good thing. He chose to condescend to us in the person and work of Jesus Christ so that we could be reconciled to Him and share in His holiness (1 Peter 1:14-16; Hebrews 12:10). When His children approach Him without fear of His wrath, it should be with an inward posture of gratitude. Our speech in prayer should demonstrate worship of our Father God and our King Jesus for allowing us the great privilege of access. 

Prayer is not so much an act as it is an attitude – an attitude of dependency, dependency upon God.
— A.W. Pink