What Is Prayer?

(and Does God Answer)?

You may have heard of a man named George Mueller who once ran an orphanage. Though accustomed to lacking material things, one evening there was no food whatsoever available for dinner. When the children asked Mr. Mueller what to do, he said, "Prepare the table. God will provide."

They set the table, prayed for food, and then heard a knock at the door. It was a bread delivery man whose cart had broken down. He said he would be unable to deliver the bread, and he wondered if Mr. Mueller could use it.

Prayer is a powerful tool. We cannot expect God to always answer as timely and as powerfully as He did for Mr. Mueller. However, the Bible commands us to pray.

In the midst of instructing the Philippians on how to be happy, Paul told them, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God" (Philippians 4:6). As Christians, we are charged to pray, and we are assured of God's blessings through prayer. We have access to God through Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:18), the Spirit intercedes for us (Romans 8:26), and we are to draw near to the throne of God (Hebrews 4:16).


Prayer is simply letting our requests be made known unto God. It is telling God your needs, and asking Him to grant your requests to address those needs. James 5:13-14 says, "Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray . . . Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord." Suffering and sickness are obvious reasons to pray, but as we shall see, we should pray for the general well-being of ourselves and others, by addressing specific situations or individuals.


As we saw in Philippians, thanksgiving is an essential aspect of prayer. We should thank God for previous answers to prayer, as well as his unsolicited blessings of grace which he showers upon us even when we neglect prayer. We should express thanksgiving for others as well as ourselves (1 Timothy 2:1-2). We are always to maintain an attitude of thankfulness (Colossians 4:2).


As we speak to God in prayer, we are to confess our sins to Him (1 John 1:9). This just means identifying and naming our sins to God. We simply need to recognize our sins, and remember God's forgiveness and the need for it. This restores our temporal fellowship with God, and it reminds us of our dependence on God as well as the areas where we need improvement. It wouldn't be a bad idea to follow-up our confession with a request for power over that sin in the future. Also, confession includes completely forgetting about that sin!

Who to Pray For

We should pray for all people, but especially "all those in authority" (1 Timothy 2:1-2). Obviously our leaders need prayers so that they will be able to properly exercise their God-given authority in making important decisions on the behalf of many other people. The higher the position of leadership, the more difficult the decision-making process is, the more people are available for prayer, and the more prayers are needed. James 5:16 says we should pray for each other, and Ephesians 6:18 says to pray for all the saints. There is no better source of strength for a Christian than to know that his name is included in the prayers of the other members of the body of Christ (Hebrews 4:16) through the power of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:26).

When and How to Pray

Ephesians 6:18 says, "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints." We are to be in a constant attitude of prayer. We are to remain alert and sober for the purpose of prayer (1 Peter 4:7), especially in times of trouble. Colossians 4:2 says, "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful." Prayer will take time, effort, and energy, but we are charged to pray, even though God already knows our needs (Luke 12:7), and we are to pray in faith and expect God to respond (Luke 11:9, John 15:7). Jesus taught that prayers are to be made with an attitude of quietness and humility, which corresponds exactly to the whole attitude of the Christian mentality. Jesus condemned prayer by memorization (Matthew 6:7), and He suggested that a solitary place is a good location for praying (Matthew 6:6). This is not to say that we should not practice corporate prayer, but even when praying with others, we should approach God with a quiet and humble spirit.

School Prayer

All citizens and students should be allowed to pray publicly in their community or schools. This right is suggested by our freedom of religion as specified in the U. S. Constitution, as well as in the Bible. Without Benjamin Franklin's call for prayer during the writing of the Constitution, we probably would not even have a constitution. Our own Declaration of Independence recognizes God as our sovereign creator. The U.S. Congress begins their daily sessions with fervent prayer. The men who first engraved "In God We Trust" on our currency, and a biblical call for freedom on the Liberty Bell, certainly would not have favored the exclusion of public prayer in schools.

However, when the right to public prayer is terminated by some level of government, we Christians can still take comfort and consolation in prayer, indeed, even in school prayer. Perhaps public prayer can be dictated by the state, but prayer cannot be! Prayer is a free privilege from God, not a right granted by the government! Christians can pray anywhere, including any school in the world. Just because public prayers cannot be offered in some classrooms does not mean that God has revoked Ephesians 6:18 where He calls us to "pray on all occasions," no matter where we are! Yes, the Bible says that we should be able to pray freely in public, but when we are restricted by the government, we must remember that it is probably more important to pray privately, no matter where we are. The government cannot end school prayer--only PUBLIC school prayer.


When we do obey God by praying, he does promise to answer our prayers. John said in 1 John 5:14-15 that we can be sure 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." James 5:15-16 says, "And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up... The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective."

Asking Amiss

James 4:3 says that when our prayers are not answered, it's because we "ask with wrong motives," and we're not praying in God's will and in submission to the Holy Spirit. We can't guess about God's will for things such as the size of a church budget or the membership growth of a church. We must be sure that any goal-setting we do is truly inspired by the Holy Spirit. We sometimes have to be less specific and simply pray for discernment.

We must be careful what we ask in prayer. For example, if we have a fear or a burden, we shouldn't necessarily pray that it be removed. God may have a purpose for us which we can only realize through that situation. Maybe He is trying to teach us endurance, patience, or simply not to worry. Furthermore, prayer should never be used lightly as a token to pacify a demanding congregation, or as an excuse for fellowship.

Many of us have had one or more experiences when it seemed like our prayers were unanswered, in spite of making sure that we weren't asking amiss. Perhaps we have prayed for healing for someone who was sick, but that person died of their illness. It makes us want to ask, "What is the point in praying for someone if God already knows what He is going to do?" I'm not completely at ease about my own understanding of this, but I'll share some thoughts, although I may not be able to provide a definitive answer.

In 1978, my mother was diagnosed with inoperable heart disease when she was only 55 years old. She had been a strong Christian all of her life, and we prayed for four years for her healing. Instead of being healed, her condition continually worsened until she was completely confined to her bed and an oxygen bottle.

During the four years of praying for her healing, I claimed John 14:13-14, which says, "that the Father may be glorified, you may ask anything in my name, and I will do it." Seeing that my prayers were unanswered, I decided that it must be God's will for my mother to die, so I reluctantly changed my prayer and asked God to end her suffering, thinking that maybe that was God's will. It was, and He answered, quite quickly, and she died in 1983.

Here's what I learned: I was asking with wrong motives, as James 4:3 explains. When I was praying for her healing, I was asking according to my own will; i.e., what was selfishly best for me. When I considered what was best for her, and what God's will might be, I essentially asked for her death, and God answered that prayer. I wish I had a more objective explanation, but I don't completely understand prayer. I'm convinced that it's a very powerful tool, but one that I haven't yet fully learned how to use.


Believers are charged by God to pray, although God already knows our thoughts and needs. We are to boldly approach His throne with specific requests, in an attitude of thanksgiving, confession, and reverence. This doctrine of prayer is widely taught, but greatly overlooked in practice. There have actually been occasions when Bible churches have cancelled prayer meetings due to the telecast of the Super Bowl! How much of your day is devoted to quiet, fervent prayer?

Owen Weber 2008