In my previous article, I made a case that decreeing and declaring is not prayer. At least not if we’re operating with a biblical definition and understanding of prayer. The natural question for the curious reader, then, is probably: what is biblical prayer?

Prayer as Humble Speech

In the Bible, prayer is very simply talking to God. It is never communication with spirits—good or bad. Nor is it ever giving instruction to God. In the New Testament, prayer is simply a direct address to God in the name of Christ.

A useful passage that helps to understand prayer is Philippians 4:6–7. Paul teaches us that prayer is the right way to address our anxieties about the future to God. We don’t need to issue any commands as God is the only one who has the authority to command his creation.

Prayer is very simply talking to God.

Paul instructs us Christians to do everything with “prayer and supplication.” What is supplication? One definition says it is “the action of asking or begging for something earnestly or humbly”. Paul is describing the Christian’s attitude to God in prayer. They humbly and earnestly beg him for his help. There are not authoritative commands when we, frail children of dust, come before our Creator.

Two Ways to Pray

In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus tells a parable that illustrates this spirit of humility in prayer. We might call it the “parable of two prayers,” contrasting humility and pride. For Jesus contrasts two separate attitudes that we can approach God with, when we come to pray. The central question that the parable seeks to answer is: which attitude does God commend?

The first example of prayer which Jesus describes is the prayer of the Pharisee. This was someone who trusted in himself (Luke 18:9). The Pharisee came to the temple to thank God, but ironically all that he thanks God for is how good a person he is (Luke 18:12)! His prayer isn’t centred on God but himself. He lists his achievements, reminding God how much he has done for him. Worse still, he despises those he believes are not trying as hard as he does (Luke 18:11).

The tax collector appeals to the mercy of God. This is biblical prayer.

The Pharisee had a mechanical idea of how prayer works. His unspoken assumption was that because he had lived a certain way, then God must answer his prayer. Sadly, this same attitude is one that too many of us also have when we come to God. We come to him based on what we think we have done for him.

Contrast with the Pharisee, Jesus points to a second example, a better example of prayer. This is the prayer of the tax collector. This man cannot even come properly into the presence of God. He stands on the fringes of the temple because he is too timid to approach God as he is keenly aware of his flaws (Luke 18:13). Since he knows that he cannot come to God based on his own merits, he appeals rather to the mercy of God. This is biblical prayer.

We Come to God as Beggars

Why does God seek such an attitude of humility in prayer from us? The answer Jesus gives in this parable is that God rewards humility. It is the one who knows that he brings nothing to God that God delights to answer. Prayer is supplication and a supplicant must make her appeals without any preconditions or demands.

It is always a fascinating experience going anywhere in the city of Lagos with white visitors. As soon as the beggars on the street lay their eyes on these foreigners, they flock to them like moths to a lightbulb. What is it that attracts Lagos beggars to white people specifically? It is because they know that white foreigners are typically much richer than the average Lagosian. They’re also more likely to show mercy than a hardened Lagosian.

When we come to God, we stand as beggars before him.

This depicts the heart of prayer. When we come to God, we stand as beggars before him. We come to him with our rags and empty bowls, bringing no merits beyond our pleas. We come, trusting that he is a loving father who will show mercy towards us and who will richly bless us beyond even our petitions. As Jesus put it: “Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:14).