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Foundations Lesson 4: What is Prayer?

Updated: Feb 12, 2020

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What is prayer?

The New City Catechism that we have been using addresses the question, “What is prayer?” The answer given is, “Prayer is pouring out our hearts to God in praise, petition, confession of sin, and thanksgiving.”

Before we go too far into the content of our prayers, I want to address an important question, “Why do we pray?” Here are a couple of reasons we don’t pray that may answer this question. We don’t pray to change God. We might make requests about certain things that are happening in the world. We may ask God to intervene, but in every prayer the foundation is set with the words of Jesus, “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. You’re not asking for God to conform to your will, but rather, “God, will you conform my will to yours?” Prayer begins humble submission to the sovereign God and the changing power of prayer begins with God changing us.

A second reason we don’t pray is to get God on our side. This is a serious temptation and guilt many Christians face. They desire to pray more and rarely pray as much as they would like. Then, they feel a sense of guilt out of not praying, and so prayer becomes a kind of guilt removal mechanism. We may fear that if we don’t pray, then God won’t bless our day. We may be overcome by this sense about prayer that if we pray, we think that somehow we can get extra favor from God or we can somehow get our sins almost mechanically removed. The only thing which can remove our sins and cleanse us before God is the finished work of God the Son and the Father accepting that work. When you believed in Jesus and confessed his Lordship over your life, he became your righteousness and peace. We can say with the apostle Paul, “What will we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us?” God is for us because Jesus died for us. In prayer, we acknowledge our sins and confess to God our need for Jesus, but we begin from the good news that Jesus saved us by his life, death and resurrection. We may attempt to add our fallible prayers to the work of Jesus. God doesn’t flip day to day in his love for you based on your time in the prayer room. In fact, prayer is a way you get to fellowship with God and enjoy the real peace you have with him through Jesus Christ. You don’t go to prayer as grounds to deserve and obtain peace with God; you trust in Jesus for that. You come under the invitation that God has reconciled you to himself and this great God and Savior invites you to commune with him.

What is at the heart of prayer?

It’s to commune with God, to fellowship with him by speaking to him our messages of praise, dependency, needs and so on. We want to see more of God, and taste more of his value and all satisfying worth. We ask with Moses, “Show us your glory.” We don’t just want to learn more about God as trivia. We want to know propositional truths about God. Theology matters. What makes the God of the Bible different than Allah, Krishna or Zeus? The answer is found in the statements in scripture about God, that he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the only true God. We must see that the propositional truths for knowing the true God depend on us knowing some things about Him. However, when you’re praying, you have opportunity to respond to God, and respond to what he has revealed about himself.

What does praying look like?

The New City Catechism tells us what prayer looks like. “Prayer is pouring out our hearts to God in praise, petition, confession of sin, and thanksgiving.”

Another way we can put this is to replace praise with adoration, replace petition with supplication, and form the acronym, ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Here in this acronym, we have a guide that shows us how to pray. Often it has been said that the two most primary ways God makes his people look more and more like Jesus is by the word of God and prayer. So, prayer must be seen as essential to us as reading the Bible. If all you do is read and don’t pray, you might become a trivia guy who comes to know a lot about a God he never talks to. If you pray and don’t read, you might forget to whom you’re praying.

The model for prayer that scripture gives us is found in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus teaches the people how to pray: “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” You can split the prayer up in different ways, but the ACTS acronym seems helpful for summarizing it.


Prayer or communication with God rightly begins with the worship of God. God is lovely; he’s delightful. He’s not just a giver of goods, but he is the highest of goods. He is not just a giver of grace, but is gracious and merciful. To love God and adore him is to see him as glorious as he is. Another word for adoration could be praise, as The New City Catechism puts it. In adoring God, you are not adding to God’s value. You’re not boosting God’s confidence. Praise and adoration are the expression of hearts longing to see God and praising him for who he really is. Adoration affects us in prayer, because it shifts our attention from earth to heaven, from our lowly estate to the divine, from dust to glory. We focus our attention beyond man and on God who made man.

1 Chronicles 16:29

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.”

Psalm 29:2

“Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.”

Colossians 3:17

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

This sets the attitude of your heart in the right place, because when you start with “hallowed be your name,” you set God’s name apart, because it’s holy! That attunes your heart to see your need for God and dependence upon him. You praise him for how he’s good, always good, 24/7. You realize how flimsy your own goodness is, both its durability, and also its quality. You’re not good like God and whatever good you have is never good enough, long enough.

Confession of sin

When you honor the transcendent triune God, often it leads to confession of sin. This is an important aspect of prayer. There is never a day that a Christian does not sin, until the day we are in heaven or at the return of Jesus. In fact, much of spiritual maturity is developing an awareness of sin. Romans chapter 7 is a classic description. Mature Christians are not those who have won the race and have little areas to grow in, but those who recognize the gap between what they ought to be and what they are. Paul also recognized this in Philippians 3. Now, I’m not drawing these comments about mature Christians because I am mature (God knows that I am not.), but because the apostle says that the mature Christians should think this way. So, I bow immaturity before the scriptures and say, “If I were to be mature, may I count myself among the least, and as one who has not yet reached it.” Never permit me, God, to be comfortable with where I am, but may I be as a runner. Runners don’t sit down while they’re in a race. They don’t stop running until they reach the goal. Until we each reach the goal of looking like Jesus, we’ll keep running. And, when you begin by proclaiming and worshiping God for how great and wonderful he is in his holiness, you cannot help but see the gap.

Confessing sin is sorrowful acknowledgement before the face of God that you’ve committed sin against him and offended him with how you thought, and with what you did. 1 John 1:9 is our guiding text in our understanding of confession. John teaches us that those who are true Christians, who walk in the light, do not hide or conceal their sin, but bare themselves before God. The result is the promise of forgiveness and cleansing.

To confess is to acknowledge. Romans chapter 10 tells us about confessing Jesus as Lord. You can rephrase “confessing” Jesus as Lord and say “acknowledge” or “profess” that Jesus is Lord. You’re saying that “Jesus is Lord” is a true statement. So, when you say, “I confess my sins,” you’re saying, “I have sinned” is a true statement. The acknowledgement that we’re making in confession of sin is that our thoughts, words or deeds were contrary to God, actually sin. John is saying that confession is when you see your sin in the same light as God does. We don’t see sin as a mistake, or a bad mood, or just being grumpy, but as an offense to God. When we’re tempted and give into sin, we’ve rebelled against God, disbelieved his word about what we’ve done, and devalued God. We’ve valued something else above him. We’ve spit on his glory, told him that he’s a liar, and claimed lordship over our own lives. Confession is the heart turning in repentance, seeing God’s glory and grieving for spitting on it, professing the truth of his word, and hating the lies that we believed in sinning. It’s humbling ourselves before the mercy of the true Lord and disowning our own self autonomy.

Confession is not just negative, but also positive. When you acknowledge the lowness of your sin, you say something of the highness of the one you’ve sinned against. So, even he who is contrite and trembles at God’s word has nothing to give to him. To whom will he who has all power in Heaven and Earth extend fellowship? To those who know that they don’t deserve anything, to those who depend on and revere his words.


n a court of law, confession happens not when a criminal is proven guilty, not when he knows he’s guilty, but when he admits he’s guilty. God knows we are guilty, and he has no need for us to tell him. However, Christians love God and hate what offends him, and so before God they say, “Lord, I’ve been really prideful today. I was in conversation with someone and I was short with them, and I think it was because I was too prideful to hear what they were saying. I was at a red light and I was tired of waiting, so I got angry sitting there for the light to change. It was taking forever, and then I was just impatient.” You call your sin what it is and you say, “God would you forgive me for offending you and would you cleanse me and root this pride and impatience out of my life?” His promise in scripture always says to the contrite in heart, “I will.” Confession is not you trying to get God to be willing to forgive you. The willingness of God to forgive is never in question. To any who ask in faith, he freely gives. And, I think we insult God if we think of him as someone we must sway to our side through pleading and begging. We have reconciliation and peace once and for all through the work of Jesus. However, as children of God, we can grieve the Holy Spirit, offend God and displease him. It does not remove our status as reconciled or make us less his children. God’s children admit their sins before him not to earn salvation, but to experience the fatherly forgiveness that restores broken communion. Jesus taught, “Father, forgive us our trespasses.” Confession is not just confessing moral failures, but expressing dependency on God, which is a big part of the next section.


In prayer, giving thanks is of high importance, because it expresses the origin of every blessing, and gives credit to who credit is due. When you and your friend sit at your table at home and enjoy a meal that your mom cooked, you don’t turn to your friend and say, “This meal is amazing! Thanks!” Your mom cooked the meal. You don’t thank someone for someone else’s work. When you give thanks, you’re giving credit, acknowledgement that whatever you’re thanking the person for depended on them. Paul says, “Give thanks to God for all things.” In the book of James, James says, “Is anyone cheerful, let him sing praises.” We praise God because he is the source of the cheer. Nothing good can befall any of us apart from the will of God. Salvation itself is a gift from God, and so Paul says in Romans 6, “I thank God that you who once were slaves of sin, have become obedient from the heart.” He gives thanks because it was from God. And, he didn’t thank him for ‘helping’ bring about obedience, but for doing the whole thing! “But I will sing of your strength; I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning. For you have been to me a fortress and a refuge in the day of my distress.” Psalm 59:16. When we give thanks, we express the inherent dependency that we have upon God. Thanksgiving reveals that we are dependent upon God and owe all to Him.


Under this heading, I wanted to address a few common questions about prayer such as, “Why do we need to pray if God already knows everything?” “If God is sovereign, why do I need to pray?” These are important questions that I think would prove helpful to discuss here at the end of this lesson. “Do my prayers actually do anything? I can get the praise part. I can get the adoring God, renouncing my own self-dependence and self-righteousness, and acknowledging my need for God, but when I make a request will it actually change what God will do?”

The old question always reads like a script, “Why pray if God is sovereign?” If God is in control, why do I need to pray for kings, and governors, as 1 Tim. 4:1-2 says? If God sets up kings, tears them down at his pleasure as he says he does in Daniel chapter 2, why pray? Why must I intercede for other saints, praying that God sanctify them? Paul prays for the Thessalonians in chapter 5, “May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely.” He ends the prayer, “God is faithful, he will surely do it.” God’s faithful; he’s going to sanctify his people. So then, why is Paul praying for something God has already said he’s going to do? If God wills what he does and is totally free to do as he pleases, what does my input and my feeble prayers have to do with the divine? Can I, a human being, deter or alter a course God has chosen to take? Or, if God is a hundred percent committed to sanctifying his people, what will prayer for him to sanctify his people do? Will it make him 101 percent committed? No.

First, God is sovereign. In the book of Proverbs, one of the most intensely practical books in the Bible, some of the most astounding accounts of God’s sovereignty is explained. One of the Proverbs says that a king's heart is like a channel of water that he turns wherever he wishes. God is sovereign over the dictator of North Korea, whose heart is like a channel of water. God is sovereign over wicked rulers and upright rulers alike. He turns their heart where he wishes. Another says “Man casts the lot, God determines its decision.” This is incredible! This business of casting lots translates in our day as rolling dice, random, arbitrary. The point of this is that the choice is completely removed from us, so we call it random. Nobody at the table gets to decide who lands a lucky 6. The reality is that not even chance and random things escape the determined, intentional, intelligent and meaningful will of the Sovereign. The Proverb asks us to think of the most random thing. Do you have the most random thing in your mind? That is also determined by God. The hearts of kings are in his hands and so are the dice. From the highest monarch hailing self-autonomy and authority to the random, humanly unintended, God is sovereign.

So, Sovereign God hears the prayers of one of his servants, and then responds as he pleases. And, we stand confused and shout, “Why?” If he’s determined to do x, then why do we pray for x? Or what if we’re praying for z and he’s set on doing x? The claustrophobic contours of our finiteness often start kicking in at this point, but bear with me. First, we must always put our hands over our mouths and refuse to allow ourselves, the clay, to challenge the Potter. Second, we must embrace that God has a reason for this whole universe. He has a purpose, a plan. He’s not winging it or playing on a big chess board hoping for a checkmate. He created the universe with a purpose in mind. And, when he created it, he determined that he would accomplish that purpose. To accomplish it, God is pleased to make us of various “means.” Means is a tad odd sounding, but all it means is that God uses events, people, and things people do which he ordained to accomplish his divine purpose. God is on a mission to glorify himself. That's the end of all creation and our own salvation: the glory of God. He’s got a reason for everything that happens. But, where does prayer fit in? It fits in as a “means” God uses in his plan to Glorify Himself. God has ordained that prayer, you speaking to God, is a means for him to do things. God responds to prayer because he set it up that way. No one knows what God has determined to do except what he’s revealed in his word. So, our hearts should be at ease when we pray, knowing that God can do some extraordinary things. Jesus invites this kind of bold praying, “Ask and you will receive, seek and you shall find.” Now, Jesus has of course tethered this boldness to the humble, “Your will be done.” There’s no context and pretext acceptable for prayers that don’t end in “your will be done.” This shapes what we seek and what we find. But, the point of it all is that God responds. James 5:13-16.

God has ordained the purpose and the means he uses to accomplish his purpose, and so God uses prayers he ordained to accomplish his plan which he ordained. Prayer is part of the grand orchestra that God has set up and ordained with each part playing as he determined and prayer has a part to play in the melody which is a necessary part of the song. Prayer is a means in the plan of God to glorify God, and so we pray.

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