When I previously wrote on what prayer is (the summary statement was “prayer is a spiritual communion with God as in supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, confession, or intercession”) I left a big, gaping question begging – what makes Christian prayer different than any other religion? Most religions have prayer as a normative practice. It’s popular for even self-professing, non-religious people to “send positivity out to the universe”. It’s common for unbelievers to let those experiencing difficulties know their “thoughts and prayers” are with them. If prayer is simply supplication, thanksgiving, adoration, confession, or intercession, don’t Muslims do that? Don’t Hindus give thanks to their gods? How is Christian prayer any different? That is the question I seek to unpack in this article – and I trust you will agree the difference is immense.
But first, a couple qualifiers…
What I mean by Christian Prayer
Before we delve into answering the question at hand, it’s important to know what I mean by the phrase – Christian prayer. Is it a prayer offered up by a professing Christian? Is it a prayer offered up in a particular way that’s deemed Christian? In short – yes to both. For the sake of clarity, I am defining Christian prayer as being (1) offered by one in right standing with God, (2) in a way God has prescribed through scripture as acceptable.
God might not be listening
It is also important to know the bible clearly teaches that God doesn’t see all prayers as equal.
On the one hand…
“…The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective”. James 5:16
“Cast your cares on the Lord, and he will sustain you…” Psalm 55:22
“…whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours” Mark 11:24
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. Philippians 4:6
And there are dozens of other such verses encouraging us to pray, giving us the assurance that God is gladly eager to listen and answer from heaven.
On the other hand…
“When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” James 4:3
“If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened…” Psalm 66:18
“if anyone turns a deaf ear to my instruction, even their prayers are detestable.” Proverbs 28:9
“Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor his ear too dull to hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; your sins have hidden his face from you, so that he will not hear.” Isaiah 59:1-2
There are dozens of other such verses warning against the futility of praying with the wrong motives, with lack of faith, with sin in your heart, etc. Feel the weight of Isaiah 59. It isn’t that God is deaf and cannot hear – He actively chooses to hide His face against those whose sins have separated them from God.
So, no – not all prayers are equal. God gladly accepts and answers the prayers of some, while ignoring (and even despising) the prayers of others. But again, the question is begging – what makes Christian prayer different? I believe scripture teaches at least 4 key distinctions of Christian prayer.
1) The One To Whom We Pray
Not to us, Lord, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. Why do the nations say, “where is their God?” Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, noses but cannot smell. They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them.
It should go without saying, but not all prayer is equal because not all gods are equal. There is one God who is sovereign over all, and who alone holds the power to answer prayer. Those praying to false gods are trusting in futility. Isaiah 44:9-20 is another passage worth reading about the vanity of praying to false gods…
“all who make idols are nothing, and the things they treasure are worthless. Those who would speak up for them are blind; they are ignorant to their own shame”
Isaiah continues with an elaborate story of one who cuts down a tree, burns it for fuel, cooks his food with it, and then makes an object of worship.
“From the rest he makes a god, his idol; he bows down to it and worships. He prays to it and says, “save me! You are my god!” They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand.”
I believe this passage is not confined to idols we make with our hands; it includes those we make in our minds. One might think they’re praying to the God of the bible but know nothing about Him. Many have fashioned a god in their own image. Making a god of your own imagination and calling him Jesus doesn’t make it less of an idol.
“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…”
2) The Name By Which We Pray
And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son.
In that day you will no longer ask me anything. Very truly I tell you, my Father will give you whatever you ask in my name.
What does it mean to pray “in Jesus’ Name”? Most my life I thought “in Jesus’ Name” was just the way you are supposed to end a prayer. Almost like a magic phrase you’re supposed to tack on the end of a prayer to suddenly make it count. John 15 gives us further insight into what it means to pray in Jesus’ Name.
I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing…
You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last – and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you.
John 15:5; 16
Here we see that praying in Jesus’ Name is the result of abiding in Christ and bearing fruit. It is impossible to pray in Jesus’ Name if you are not connected to Jesus in the same way a branch is connected to the vine. Abiding in Christ (being connected to the vine) qualifies us to pray in Jesus’ Name.
However, this doesn’t mean every prayer made by one who abides in Christ is always praying in Jesus’ Name. In the same way a King’s messenger can issue a decree “in the name of the king”, a Christian can pray “in the name of King Jesus”. Rather than a magic catchphrase to pin at the end of our prayers, praying in Jesus Name means to pray by His authority, for His glory, and according to His will. That is what it means to pray in Jesus’ Name.
For more on this, read this article from Got Questions.
3) The Motives For Which We Pray
Motives matter to God.
You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. James 4:2-3
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us – whatever we ask – we know that we have what we asked of him. 1 John 5:14-15
John gives us a clear qualifier for what is deemed an acceptable prayer – “that if we ask anything according to his will”. Not our will, but His. This is why Jesus taught us to pray “your kingdom come, your will be done…” (Matthew 6:10). We don’t spew out every random inkling of our will – our duty is to know and pray according to God’s will. We know God’s will through His word. Therefore, the more you read the word the more effective your prayers will become.
Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart. Psalm 37:4
When we read passages (like Psalm 37) that seem to say God will give us whatever we desire, it would be irresponsible to read them in a vacuum. All scripture is to be read in context. The Psalmist is not saying “if you really want something, then delight yourself in the Lord and He’ll give you that thing”. The encouragement of this passage is that when we take delight in the Lord, He will give us the desires of our hearts. In other words, the closer we are to Him, the more our hearts will reflect His. Our desires will be His desires. When we have His desires, we can have confidence in prayer.
4) The Faith With Which We Pray
God desires us to approach Him in prayer boldly, confidently, and with faith.
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. Hebrews 4:16
If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer. Matthew 21:22
Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. Mark 11:24
Many pray with a false sense of humility, offering up faithless, doubtful, unspecific prayers under the guise of “whatever you will, Lord”. God constantly encourages us to approach Him boldly in faith. In fact, “without faith, it is impossible to please God” (Hebrews 11:6). When we abide in Christ, know His will, and pray in Jesus’ Name, we can have confident assurance when we pray to Him.
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do. James 1:5-8
Does this mean we must have perfect faith for God to answer our prayers? By no means. We are told of a man whose child was possessed by demons, robbing him of his speech and throwing him into seizures. The boy’s father exclaimed “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24). This man believed, yet his faith was imperfect and polluted with doubt. Jesus met the man where he was in his faith and healed the boy. No, our faith doesn’t have to be perfect. He can even use faith as small as a mustard seed to move mountains (Matthew 17:20). The exhortation of the bible is simply to believe God. Take Him at His word and pray according to His will.
If you want to grow in your faith, read the Bible.
Consequently, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message is heard through the word about Christ. Romans 10:17
A Little Caveat
Praying in faith does not mean there is no mystery in prayer. Not everything we might ask God for has a clear biblical directive. For example, it is appropriate to pray in faith for:
- This particular home
- My child to be accepted in this certain college
- Me to get that job
- This specific ministry to thrive
- That business to succeed
… The list is infinite, and the Lord’s will for those things may be uncertain. In these cases, we test our motives, we check our hearts, then we pray in Jesus’ Name – leaving the results to God and trusting the outcome to His wisdom.
Not all prayer is acceptable to God. Acceptable prayer is offered by one in right standing with God, in a way God has prescribed through scripture as acceptable. What makes Christian prayer distinct from all other prayer is the one to whom we pray, the name by which we pray, the motives for which we pray, and the faith with which we pray.