Christian Spirituality: How Significant Is Prayer to the Christian Life?

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Christian Spirituality Essay
1. How significant is prayer to the Christian life? What lessons can we learn from Jesus’ practice of prayer?

In beginning this essay, I think it is only sensible to get the the root of the question. To start with, what exactly do we mean by “prayer”? The Oxford English Dictionary defines “prayer” as:
“1) a request for help or an expression of thanks made to God.”[1] Other dictionary definitions follow the spirit of this definition:
“a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship...[2]”
“to ask for with earnestness and submission... petition and thanksgiving...”[3]
“a devout petition to God or an object of worship.”[4]

Admittedly these definitions seem incredibly simplistic and remarkably similar. This is may well be because the word “prayer” originates from Old French preiere, based on Latin precarius “obtained by entreaty”[5]. To me, these definitions rather seem to promote the wider secular view that prayer itself is merely an “ask-get-thank-you” exchange between human and God. However, contemporary Christian spiritual writers and mystics through to the present day seem to take on a much more deeply relational angle to the definition and practise of prayer. They refer to prayer as transforming encounters of communion with God, which we will look into in more depth presently.

I have been hard pressed to find any writer of the Christian Faith that will say explicitly that Prayer is not a vital part of the Christian Life. So instead, to get a quick idea of the general response to prayer within Christian circles, I felt it appropriate to consult a few Christian “thinkers” about why in their view prayer is important.

Author and Theologian, Dr Martin Robinson[6], summarises the two-fold benefit of prayer – regarding personal formation and prayer's wider impact for spiritually influencing matters of the World in which we live: “It is important because it keeps me tuned to hear God’s voice, because I know God answers prayer and because it advances the Kingdom of God.”

Trevor Miller[7], one of the leaders of a New Monastic Contemplative Community in Northumbria, looks to the significance of prayer in the ordinary rhythm of the devoted life. He writes: “Prayer is important because at its heart is awareness of God in all and every aspect of life as it is for us, enabling us to respond relationally, emotionally and spiritually with heart, mind and will so as to be actively involved with God in all and every aspect of life as it is for us.”

Birmingham Pastor and Community Networker, Rev. Paul Clarke, emphasises prayer as the key element to a Jesus Follower's relationship with God: ”It's the fuel... though it we know and are known. By it we speak and are heard. Though it He hears, and answers.” This highlights a key aspect of Christianity we cannot fail to touch upon in this essay; Christians are the only faith-group who put emphasis on the possibility, nay – the necessity, of the individual developing a 'personal relationship'[8] with God, encompassing growing levels of interaction and 'intimacy'. For the record, a basic definition of 'intimacy' would be: “closeness in friendship... private... personal... loving”.

Richard Foster states that: “To pray is to change. Prayer is the central avenue God uses to transform us... when we pray God slowly and graciously reveals to us our hiding places, and sets us free from them.”[9] In his book entitled “Prayer: Finding The Heart's True Home”, Foster goes on to elaborate on the many different ways we can pray, encompassing many stages of a person's spiritual state. He includes prayers that are of our own expression towards God[10], but also emphasises the vital importance of prayer as a discipline[11] – something we Christians should do in various capacities even when we 'don't feel like it'. Yet in all if these the theme continues to arise regarding the state of our hearts...
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