Prayer is a huge subject, and it will not be possible to give more than a very brief outline in this article. We will simply refer to some of the passages (mainly from the New Testament) that deal with prayer, and learn some lessons from them.
The expectation of prayer (Mt 6.5)
It is expected that every believer will pray. Our Lord did not say, "if thou prayest", but rather, "when thou prayest". Note also that on another occasion (Lk 18.1) He taught that "men ought always to pray". This does not mean, of course, that every second of our lives ought to be taken up with nothing but prayer, but it means that prayer should be a characteristic feature of every believer. Is this true of each of us? One of the evidences that Saul of Tarsus had been born again was, "Behold, he prayeth" (Acts 9.11). Because our minds can be easily distracted by other things, it may be helpful to have a specific place (Mt 6.6) and time for prayer in order to minimise outside disturbances.
In the public gatherings of the assembly it is only the men who pray audibly (1 Cor 14.34; 1 Tim 2.8), but this does not mean that the women are not to pray. Their silent prayers are every bit as important as the humanly audible prayers of the men. Let each one of us challenge ourselves as to this - "Am I fulfilling my responsibility to not only attend the weekly prayer meeting, but also to engage in prayer while there?".
The example of prayer (Mt 6.9-13)
In this section, the Lord Jesus is not giving us a piece of religious poetry to be recited unthinkingly in our prayer times, but rather is telling us the sort of things that we should pray about. Notice some of the features of the Lords pattern prayer. First, it is based on the fact that God is our Heavenly Father. When we come to Him, we do not come to a distant God who must be browbeaten into giving us what we want, but to a Father who loves to hear and answer the prayers of His children. Second, note that a desire for Gods glory comes before the presentation of our needs. It is easy to become selfish in our prayers, and merely to present a list of requests to God, but the Lord Jesus here shows that we should rise above this. The believer who has a desire for the Lords interests to prosper is the believer who will have power in prayer. Having said that, the Lord Jesus then goes on to show that nothing is too small for us to pray about - even our need for the most basic daily necessities of life can be brought to God in prayer. Finally, the one who is praying has a conscious awareness of his or her own weakness and dependence upon God - there is no attitude of spiritual pride in this prayer!
It is also very interesting to notice the ten occasions in Lukes Gospel when the Lord Jesus Himself is praying (3.21; 5.16; 6.12; 9.18; 9.28; 11.1; 22.32,41; 23.34,46). If the Lord found it necessary to pray, how much more should we!
Endurance and expectancy in prayer (Col 4.2)
Sometimes God does not always give us an answer to our prayers immediately. It may be necessary to continue praying, perhaps for many years in some cases, until the answer comes. We can be sure, however, that God never neglects or ignores our prayers. He may not always give us what we want, but He will always answer in His own time. The important thing is to persevere in prayer, to continue asking (not in a spirit of selfishness or petulance, but reverently and persistently) until God gives us the consciousness in our souls that He has responded to our request. Some find it helpful to keep a record of things that have been prayed for, in order to help them watch for the answer. We must of course remember to give Him thanks when the answer does come!
Energy in prayer (Col 4.12)
Prayer can be a struggle, requiring a great deal of energy. Epaphras laboured fervently in prayer; in Gethsemane the Lord Himself was "in an agony". The poet has described the prayer life of the Apostle Paul like this:
How have I knelt with arms of my aspiring
Lifted all night in irresponsive air;
Dazed and amazed with overmuch desiring -
Blank with the utter agony of prayer! 1
How many of us know anything of this sort of praying? Notice that we are not thinking here of mere emotionalism, but of the intensity of our spiritual desire in prayer. If we can apply Psalm 126.5-6 in this context, it is the man or woman who has wept in prayer who is promised results. Many a saint has known what it is to lie on his or her tear-stained face in prayer before God before they have seen their prayer answered. If there is a particularly urgent need for prayer it may be necessary to fast (i.e. to miss a meal in order to pray) - see Ezra 8.23; Neh 1.4; Acts 13.3, etc.
The extent of prayer (1 Tim 2.1-3)
Notice that prayer can take many forms:
supplications: asking God for something;
prayers: general "conversation" with God;
intercession: praying about the needs of others;
thanksgiving and praise: for what God has done;
worship: for what God is.
Notice too that we should pray for "all men" - Christians, unbelievers, those in authority, those in need, friends and family, etc. How extensive are our prayers? 2
The effect of prayer (James 5.16)
The Bible clearly teaches us that prayer works! This assumes that I am praying according to the will of God, and that there is no unconfessed sin in my life (see James 4.3 and Ps 66.18-19). Prayer has effects outwardly: in James 5.17-18 we read of the whole climate of the nation of Israel being changed by the prayers of one man! It also has effects inwardly (see Phil 4.6-7). Note that the effectiveness of prayer can be enhanced by the righteous character of the one who is praying (James 5.16). The Lord Jesus was always heard by God (Jn 11.41-42). Note also that collective agreement in prayer (Mt 18.19) enhances its effectiveness. This is one of the great benefits of the assembly prayer meeting!
The evidence of prayer (1 Sam 1.27)
Hannah is a woman who in many ways brings together the things we have been speaking about. She has prayed out of a deep earnestness of soul, and God has answered her prayer. Now she is returning to fulfil her vow, and to present her child to God. It is a wonderful thing that for the rest of his days Samuel would stand as a living testimony to the faithfulness of God: every time his mother looked on him she would remember this - God answered my prayer! What evidence is there in my life that God answers my prayers? Can I point to someone and say, "For that child (or adult)... I prayed"?
Thus we have seen in these seven articles that there were a number of features that marked the early church; these features ought to mark us as well. What a wonderful thing it would be if the Christian life of every believer could be summed up this way: "They gladly received the word of God, and were baptized, and added to a local assembly, and for the rest of their lives continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine, and in the fellowship, and in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers". May God help us all to do this, for His glory.
1 From St. Paul, by William Henry Myers. This wonderful poem is now out of print, but interested readers should be able to track it down on the internet.
2 Note that this is in the context of private prayers. The prayer meeting ought not to become an opportunity for me to demonstrate that I can recite the name and work of every missionary in every country in the world!