What IS Prayer? John Piper on Matthew 6:1-15

By prayer, I mean intentionally conveying a message to God. It’s frustrating—isn’t it?—how unclear language can be if we are not careful. Why do I say “intentionally conveying a message to God?

Why don’t I just say that prayer is talking to God? Well, because Romans 8:26 says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.” I take this to mean that there are groans of our hearts that the Spirit inspires that are sometimes wordless. So prayer is usually talking to God, but there are times when you can’t talk and can still pray, that is, convey a message to God.

Or why don’t I just say, then, that prayer is communicating with God? Well, because that sounds like I’m talking to him and he is talking to me. But that is not what prayer is. God talking to me isnever called prayer in the Bible. When God communicates something to us, we call it revelation or illumination. It is not prayer. And we get into a big, unbiblical muddle if we use the word prayer for what God speaks to us.

Why then don’t I just say that prayer is conveying a message to God? Well, because people are conveying messages to God all day long, but we don’t call it prayer. People are conveying messages like, God is not important to me. Or, God is irrelevant to this situation. Or, God doesn’t exist. But these messages are not intentionally sent to God. They are clear, and we can sometimes discern them. God always discerns them.

Intentionally Conveying a Message to God

So I chose the words: Prayer is intentionally conveying a message to God. And that prayer can be at least five different kinds of message:

  • You can ask for something—this is the most basic meaning of prayer, and God delights for his children to ask him for help. “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Matthew 7:7).
  • You can praise him or marvel at him or give expression to your adoration of him. “Every day I will bless you and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised, and his greatness is unsearchable” (Psalm 145:2-3).
  • You can thank him for his gifts and his acts (which is not the same as praising him for his nature). “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign” (Revelation 11:17).
  • You can confess your sins and tell the Lord that you are sorry. “I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).
  • And finally, you can complain to the Lord. “With my voice I cry out to the Lord. . . . I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him” (Psalm 142:1-2). Now here, again, language frustrates. So are you saying, Pastor John, that it is good to have a complaining heart toward God? No. Philippians 2:14: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning.” It’s not good to have a complaining heart. The heart should trust God in all his sweet and bitter providences. So why then do you say we should complain to the Lord? Because sometimes our hearts do complain about the circumstances God has given us, even though our hearts shouldn’t do this, and it is better to consciously direct it toward the Lord than to think he doesn’t see it. Acting like you are not complaining is hypocrisy and will make you a very phony, shallow, plastic person in the end.

So prayer is intentionally conveying a message to God. And that message may be asking for something, praising God for something about him, thanking him for some gift, confessing your sins to him, or complaining to him.

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