What Is Prayer? Part One

Last time we met here at Sisters in Study, we began a journey — that of delving deeper into our understanding of prayer with the desire of deepening our prayer lives. Nearly all of what I share today comes from what I’m learning in J.D. Walt’s The Daily Text series on prayer (see Seedbed.com).

J.D. asserts prayer is a lot like walking with God. Similar to our spiritual journeys, prayer is a lifelong adventure. Just as our spiritual journeys should deepen as we go through life, so should our prayer lives.

Therefore, it helps to know where we’ve been and what has influenced us so that we have an idea of a) where we are currently, b) how we got here, and c) where we should or need to go next on this prayer journey.

For those very reasons, I hope you’ll take some time, if you haven’t already, to brainstorm a list of those influences and experiences in your life that have shaped your understanding and practice of prayer. If you’re like me, you’ll come away from the experience enlightened.

On this quest to better understand prayer, let’s start at the beginning — quite literally, as in the beginning of Creation (re: Genesis 1), and in the basic sense with “What Is Prayer?”

It’s important, if not imperative, to start with this basic question. What I’m discovering is that most of us are woefully undervaluing the purpose and, hence, power of prayer. Let’s change that today. Let’s start to unwrap the layers of prayer.

I polled the Sunday morning class I’m humbled to lead on how they’d define prayer. We had comments as “talking with God,” “drawing closer to God,” and “asking God for our needs.” And they’d all be right.

And yet…prayer is so much more!

I’m discovering this as I process and try to put into practice what I’m learning through J.D.’s series, so I’ll unpack some of what he says about “What is prayer?” here today.

Prayer Begins with Faith

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said… (Genesis 1:1-3b)

What do we have at the beginning?


Now, you may be asking yourself, what does this have to do with prayer? Surprisingly, a lot.

Do you, like me, spend a lot of time and energy voicing your problems to God? That’s not a bad thing in-and-of-itself. But as I’ve really thought on this, I’m pretty shocked at the truth and power of what I hear J.D. trying to get us to consider.

Hear it with a Genesis 1:1 filter:
We spend a lot of time and energy voicing what is not (ie: formless, empty, dark, deep). As a result, we end up magnifying the problems… The family conflict, the work challenge, the sickness, the pain…

We even spend a lot of time trying to convince others just how formless, empty, dark, and deep our problems are.

Guess who does not do this?


Consider the power God’s spoken word has. The Bible doesn’t begin with God rehearsing the problems of the not-yet universe. In fact, if God were to say, “formless, empty, darkness, and deep,” it would only multiply them exponentially. (Daily Text, May 14, 2018)

Can you picture that? If not, try saying out loud in your deepest, most thunderous, God-like voice possible: “There is so much darkness!” “What a lot of chaos!”

What would happen if God had spoken those kinds of words? God speaks, and His words make things “become,” so there’d have been more darkness and chaos. J.D says, “Rehearsing the reality does not reorder it, neither does denying the problem diminish it” (Daily Text, May 14, 2018).

So, if we look at prayer as only reciting our problems to God, OR, on the other end of the spectrum, if we deny our problems completely — where’s our focus? Where’s our faith? Where’s our hope?

Instead, we can look to God and His Word for what our prayer lives can look like. Doing so gives us a biblical foundation.

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1)
Believe it or not, our biblical foundation for prayer is found here…in Genesis 1. It tells us that our foundation is…

  • Not nothing-ness or brokenness.
  • But the reality of Divine action.

Therefore, prayer begins with faithnot faith as shown by human activity, but faith as seen in the reality of Divine action.

“Faith is the willful decision of a community of people to live the totality of their existence in the light of God and in the world of God’s making.” (Daily Text, May 14, 2018)

This particular quote really caused our group to pause and ponder. We processed together for quite a while that morning, coming to some conclusions —

  1. that as Jesus-followers, we intentionally choose to live our lives in His light (rather than in the darkness and chaos of the world around us)
  2. and that as His followers, we need to engage in the world around us…because He made it, just as He made us.

I’m pretty sure as we continue into this series, these points and purposes become more clear. But chime in! I’d love to hear what you think J.D. meant.
Let’s apply this to our prayer lives. If we’re praying with faith:

  • Are we asking for something then hoping for it to happen?
  • Or, are we learning to speak as God speaks?

Prayer is Learning to Speak as God Speaks

Prayer starts with faith.

Not giving more focus to what is formless, empty, dark and deep, but putting our focus on the God who spoke the creation of the heavens and the earth. Prayer is learning to speak as God speaks.

When God speaks, He creates a new reality. Pause there. Let that sink in. Then think on this — In what way is your vision limited by what you see instead of being anchored in the greater realm of the unseen?

My vision is almost always limited to what I see, but I long for that “anchored” feeling, practice, and reality. I want to trust God and to pray as He speaks. Because when He speaks, a new reality is created.

Which takes us straight into J.D.’s next idea…

Prayer is Divine Speech

To pray as God speaks implies that prayer is Divine speech.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning–the first day. (Genesis 1:3-5)

God speaks into the formless, empty, dark, and deep — J.D. calls these three words the Bible’s first prayer:

“Let there be…”

These three words can be distilled to AMEN, meaning yes, we agree, let it be so.

“Amen, light!”

Just over two decades ago, I was taking seminary classes, and one in particular had an immense amount of New Testament reading that had to be done each week. At the time I was married, had a child, and was teaching full-time, which meant spare time for reading was not in abundance.

So I bought the Bible on cassette tape. (yup, you read that right)

I popped those tapes into my car’s tape player and listened to a Charlton Heston’eque voice bolt out the King James’ Version of Jesus’ words as I drove to the school where I taught, waited in traffic on Houston freeways, and toted my 3-year old around as we ran errands.

I have a vivid memory of this “Jesus” voice speaking, “Verily, verily, I say unto you…” And I laughed every time. What in the world? “Verily, verily?”

Well, it turns out that Jesus was adopting His Father’s speaking style. Hear it in the NIV:

“Truly, truly (Amen, amen) I say to you, whatever you ask of the Father in my name, He will give it to you.” (John 16:23, parenthetical addition mine)

And we are to model this speaking style, too! Specifically, speaking like God can begin with these three words: “Let there be…” (Daily Text, May 15, 2018)

Let’s Pause Here

As I presented all this to the sweet, trusting group of people at my church, I spoke with a nervous confidence. Nervous because, well…I was speaking before my peers, many of whom could be (and have been) teaching me. Confident because I sensed God’s hand and leading in what I was presenting.

But as soon as I was done, I was flooded with doubts. Did I overwhelm them? Did it make sense? Had I heard God correctly? Was I crazy to go this direction in a class on prayer?

Luckily, I recognized what was happening — my human insecurities were being magnified by an enemy who wanted me to be full of doubt…so that I’d quit leading.

And that’s not what God wanted, so I leaned into Him and tried praying with those three words, that first prayer of the Bible.

“Lord, let there be light in the hearts and minds of all who heard Your words today — even if they sounded like my words.”

“Lord, let there be life and hope and truth in each person’s life this week. Give them the opportunity to put into practice one thing they heard from You today.”

“Lord, let there be light in the dark places of our minds and hearts. Help each of us to see the places that need your presence and healing SO THAT we can take Your light to others.”

Amen and amen!

My heart started changing. Instead of being paralyzed with doubts, my mind started whirling with ideas for the next class. I was being transformed by the power of what I was learning about prayer!

But that wasn’t the end of it. First, I got a text. Then an email. Then face-to-face conversations with people in this class who were also being transformed by these teachings.

What. is. prayer?

It is to speak with faith into situations that seem hopeless and dark.

It is to learning to speak as God speaks — to recognize prayer for what it is… Divine speech.

To do so is to release a power far greater than anything we can muster ourselves. To do so is to let go of our human worries and trust a God who loves us dearly.

Believe it or not — this is only the beginning of learning what prayer is. We’ll pick this thread back up next time we meet here.

Learning to speak light into the dark places,

Shelley Johnson

Published by Shelley Linn Johnson

Lover of The Word. And words. Cultivator of curiosity about all things Christ. Lifelong learner who likes inviting others along for the journey. Recovering perfectionist who has only recently realized that rhythms are so much better than stress-inducing must-do's.

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