The Real Meaning of Prayer

Define Prayer and Talking to God – Part 1

Talking to God and Prayer – Part 2.1

A person’s limitations can often be found in how one defines a thing. In fact, there’s a little known secret about abuse. Abuse occurs when the object of the abuse is used outside of its intended purpose. Abuse occurs when we forsake the definition of an object or action. Could it be that prayer is being abused because we’ve either misdefined it or incompletely defined it? In either case, we’re going to explore the definition of the word prayer. What’s interesting is, everyone believes they know what prayer is and thus know how to do it. The fact is that it can’t be further from the truth. We assume that the average person can do something that’s uncommon. Prayer isn’t a normal action, therefore it can not be an action that an average person takes. For we all agree that prayer works and if prayer works why then are we finding more limitations in its results than success stories? I think this is the perfect place to say it: this is next-level prayer.

Starting here gives us the ground level perspective we need to begin to climb higher. In other words, we will use the definitions as a baseline to take those definitions to the next level. Let’s define the words before we can begin redefining the words. We start with the commonly accepted definitions. 

How do we define the words “pray” and “prayer”?

  • What does it mean to pray?
    We posed this question to a group of pray-ers (people who pray) and we’ve asked scores of people over our lifetime and the definition returns relatively the same. I use the term pray-er and not prayer-warrior because over time, we have given this term prayer-warrior some undesirable connotations. With that out of the way, here are the most popular definitions of the word “pray”:
    • To talk to God.
      Now when was the last time you actually talked to “God?” Have you ever spoken with God?
    • A conversation with God.
      What was your last conversation with God about? Were you the only one speaking during this said conversation?
    • To listen to God.
      What’s the last thing God said to you? What was your response to what He said?
    • To obey God.
      Did you follow through with the instruction God gave you? Was his directives your highest priority?

Based on these well known definitions we can conclude that the normal definition might be summed up in this way, to communicate with God. Sounds good and I can buy that, but we need to first admit this is not something everyone does. The good news is everyone can, everyone can enjoy it, and everyone can look forward to it.

  • How do we define the word “prayer”?
    What does the word “prayer” mean then? Now that we have the word pray out of the way, let’s tackle the word “prayer”. Here’s what many just off the top of their heads had to say:
    • A list of requests to bring to Him
    • The process of praying
    • To pray

There doesn’t appear to be much to these definitions at all. It seems pretty straightforward, wouldn’t you think?

How does the Bible define the words “pray” and “prayer”?

Since “prayer” is a Bible thing, let’s take a look at a few of my findings when you research the Bible for this word.

  • “Pray” means to pray.
    The word “pray” means to pray. The word “pray” specifically can be found roughly 316 times in the Bible’s text. However, when you take a look at a few of the places it is used, a different definition from what we mention above begins to emerge. Now how about that? This shouldn’t surprise you because this is what happens once we take a step beyond normal (to be no longer common).
  • “Pray” means make an appeal.
    The first definition to emerge was pray means make an appeal. In most places we find this word “pray”, even the Hebrew (original language), it’s defined with itself, “to pray.” So defining “pray” as “pray” doesn’t help us out until we look at it in use.

    “Now return the woman to her husband, and he will pray for you, for he is a prophet. – Genesis‬ ‭20:7‬ ‭ [1]

    This phrase “he will pray for you” implies something a little different than just communicating with God on behalf of another. “Pray” in this sense implies that a person will make a plea or an appeal on behalf of another. Could this reveal that to pray or prayer taken to the next level would lead us to make an appeal on behalf of another? Notice our definition has now become more specific.

  • “Pray” means to offer.
    Above I gave you the Hebrew which is also the Old Testament and to balance it out a little, let’s bring in the Greek (New Testament). The Greek defines pray as “to pray”. Pray equal pray. Here we go again, right? When I noticed that we might be missing the definition of a word that we often use, I concluded that there is an opportunity here to take it to the next level. Here is an example verse.

    “But I say, love your enemies! Pray for those who persecute you!” – ‭Matthew‬ ‭5:44‬ ‭‬‬ [2]

    This phrase “Pray for those” implies again that we in this case get to offer something on behalf of another. We get to offer a prayer in response to something or someone.

As I have done with the word “pray”, I decided to do the same for the word “prayer.” I discovered it is mentioned roughly 154 times in the Bible. Keep in mind my searches are for the exact words and not synonyms for the words themselves. Not to bore you with that, but rather to lift your understanding, let’s start with the Old Testament or Hebrew as we did above.

  • Prayer means to make a plea.
    “Isaac pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife, because she was unable to have children. The Lord answered Isaac’s prayer, and Rebekah became pregnant with twins.” –  ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭25:21‬ ‭[3]‬

    When I viewed this particular verse I noticed something quite different and it still didn’t fit our common definition. This word “prayer” means “intercession” which could create a problem if we don’t define that. It means to intervene on behalf of another. Now, I’m not a scholar on this subject, but so far if based on what I’m seeing “prayer” or to “pray” targets others and not self.

    It’s said that Isaac pleaded (to pray) with the Lord on behalf of (interceding for) his wife. Then God answered his “prayer”, the activity of pleading on behalf of his wife. I like the word “plea” because we understand this well. We understand what it means to make an urgent and emotional request.

  • Prayer means prayer.
    This time I decided to take a definition from Jesus just to prevent any arguments on the case I’m making.

    “He said to them, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves!”” – ‭Matthew‬ ‭21:13‬ ‭[4]

    “A house of prayer” is how Jesus described His Temple. However, when I looked up this word, the same word as itself was used; prayer is prayer. Now since we have “pray” equal to “pray” and “prayer” equal to “prayer”, how, then, do you define them? So far this is what we have in our list: 1) make an appeal, 2) to offer, 3) make a plea, and 4) to intervene on behalf.

How does the Bible define the words “prayed”?
This will be the last word we define or redefine. If you keep going it only yields more of the same, but at the same time proves my case that there is more to the prayer.

  • Prayed means to intervene.
    Not to go back through the same definitions we’ve already offered, this word “prayed” means to intervene.

    “Then Abraham prayed to God, and God healed Abimelech, his wife, and his female servants, so they could have children.” – ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭20:17‬ ‭[5]
    If Abraham had not intervened, Abimelech would not have been able to have children. Abraham came between what a person should have received and altered the course of events. That’s what it means to have “prayed.” We have altered the course of events for another or oneself.

  • Prayed means to pray.
    Again we find this word “prayed” to mean “to pray, pray for, and offer prayer.”

    “Then Jesus left them a second time and prayed, “My Father! If this cup cannot be taken away unless I drink it, your will be done.”” – Matthew 26:42 [6]

Are you seeing a pattern here? The point of all of this is to not confuse you, but open the door to what prayer is and what we’ve done to limit it and abuse it. So far we have discovered that prayer by our common definition doesn’t really match how scripture uses it in context. What we have discovered are a few definitions by which we can use to begin praying at the next level. We can go to God in the following ways…

  • make an appeal
  • offer
  • make a plea
  • intervene on behalf of another
  • make an urgent and emotional request

I believe we are onto something now. Using these added definitions, we can take out prayer to the next level.

Question: how does knowing the true meaning of the words aid you in becoming a next level pray-er?

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Reference #1: Genesis‬ ‭20:7‬ ‭NLT‬‬, Bible.com, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.bible.com/116/gen.20.7.nlt

Reference #2: Matthew 5:44 NLT‬‬, Bible.com, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.bible.com/bible/116/MAT.5.44.NLT

Reference #3: ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭25:21‬ ‭NLT‬‬, Bible.com, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.bible.com/116/gen.25.21.nlt

Reference #4: ‭‭Matthew‬ ‭21:13‬ ‭NLT‬‬, Bible.com, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.bible.com/116/mat.21.13.nlt

Reference #5: ‭‭Genesis‬ ‭20:17‬ ‭NLT‬‬‬‬, Bible.com, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.bible.com/116/gen.20.17.nlt

Reference #6: Matthew 26:42 NLT‬‬‬‬, Bible.com, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.bible.com/bible/116/MAT.26.42.NLT

All Scripture references used by permission, see our Scripture copyrights.

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