I grew up in a home of praying parents. Mom had (and still has) a special prayer chair in the corner of our living room. Next to the chair was a little ottoman wither her Bible and a notebook containing a prayer journal and a list of people and things to pray about.
Dad’s place of prayer wasn’t as fixed as mom’s. Sometimes he would pray in his bedroom and sometimes in the family room. Like mom, he always had (and still has) a list of people and things to pray for. To this day he reminds me frequently, “I pray for you guys every morning!” I know that my family in Haiti is right at the top of his long list of names of people to pray for.
What do you typically pray for? Is it family? Friends? Things? Healing? Wisdom? Strength? Money? A job? Justice? Grace? Love? Mercy? Forgiveness? Political leaders? The list of things to pray for is forever long in a world like ours.
Surprisingly, prayer does not appear all that much in the first five books of the Bible (Genesis–Deuteronomy). Even more surprising is that prayer doesn’t appear at all, not even once, in the book of Leviticus. This is surprising because the book of Leviticus is the handbook for priests. You would think that there would be something about prayer in the pastor’s handbook!
When prayer does appear in the first five books of the Bible, however, it is referred to as calling upon the name of the Lord (Gen 4:25-26). In all the events in which someone calls on the name of the Lord in the Pentateuch it is to ask God to do what he promised to do. God promised Abraham a child. After waiting for more than a decade for God to fulfill his promises, Abraham calls upon the name of the Lord to do what he said he would do.
In the early chapters of Exodus, the Israelites call out to God for their deliverance from Egyptian slavery (Ex 2:23-25). Yes, they call out to God for help because the burden of their slavery is unbearable, but the text explicitly states that God responds to their cry because of his covenant promises to Abraham (Ex 2:24). God promised Abraham both a family and land. God delivered on his promises of a big family, but they have not inherited the promise of living in Canaan. God responds to their cry because what they are asking is directly in line with his promise and plan to rescue the world.
This theme of prayer as asking God to do what he promised to do is consistent not just in the Old Testament but in the Bible as a whole. When people pray in the Bible they are saying, “God, please do what you promised to do!” This is one of simplest, Bible-based definitions of prayer.
There is yet one more aspect or layer to this definition, however, and it is wrapped up in the phrase “what God promised he would do.” All of the instances of prayer is in one way or another linked up to God’s gospel promise. God made a covenant in which he promised that he would rescue the world. He promised that he would restore the broken relationship between himself and humanity.
Going back to God’s promise to Abraham, God didn’t promise Abraham a child simply because Abraham wanted one. God promised Abraham and Sarah a child because he first promised Abraham that he would rescue his fallen creation through Abraham’s family. The child was one aspect of that greater promise. Abraham called on the name of the Lord because the gospel depended on it.
If you’re anything like me, you often times don’t know what to pray for. I’ve been in my share of prayer meetings where nearly every prayer request is health related. “Please prayer for aunt Susie’s ingrown toenail.” These things are certainly good prayers and worthy of God’s care and attention. However, the pattern in Scripture for prayer is to ask God to fulfill his gospel promises. The prayers of his saints should always–in one way or another–concentrate on the advancement of the Kingdom of Heaven and push back the gates of Hell. There is a war raging in the unseen realm. God has enemies and they will do whatever it takes to prevent the visibility of the Kingdom of Heaven and blind eyes to Christ the Victor. Our prayer lists should be centered on people, places, events and concerns for the redemptive work of God in the world. Our prayers must go beyond our concerns for creature comfort and personal wishes.
As Jesus said, of prayers should rise and fall on “they Kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
So, I ask again, what do you typically pray for? Focus your prayers on the work you see God doing to fulfill his promise to bring the reign of Christ into the world starting with the thoughts, desires, and attitudes of our hearts, and reaching to the preaching of the gospel to the ends of the earth.