“Prayer” by Dr. O Nichterlein. Essay presented at the South Australian District Convention, ELCA, held at Adelaide, South Australia, March 3-9, 1949. Proceedings, pp. 14-30.

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Essay Introduction

We are here a Christian assembly gathered in the house of God. God’s house is a house of prayer. This assembly would not be a Christian assembly if it did not also engage in prayer. We commence our sessions with prayer, we close them with prayer. We pray for God’s blessing, His guidance, and for wisdom. We thank Him for His goodness, for all success that attends our efforts. We all feel instinctively that without prayer we could not be doing the work of God.

Since, then, prayer is such an essential thing in our Christianity, we shall do well to spend a little time in considering and learning what in His Word God tells us about prayer, so that we may pray in a manner acceptable to Him. Prayer, therefore, has been chosen as the subject for the doctrinal part of this convention. In dealing with this subject we shall proceed on the lines as followed by our catechism. In the first place we shall ask:

What Is Prayer?

Many definitions of prayer may be found. A dictionary may say that prayer is a solemn petition for benefits, addressed to the Supreme Being. Or we may read this definition: “Prayer is an act of supplication to a divinity, especially to the true God.” Bible dictionaries are more concise. Cruden’s Concordance tells us that prayer is “the offering up of our desires to God for things lovely and needful with the humble confidence to obtain them through the mediation of Christ.” Another one says that prayer is the lifting up of the heart unto God. The following are definitions found in Lutheran books of catechetical instruction: “Prayer is a service in which we not only call upon the true God in faith through our Mediator Christ, in order to obtain all those good things that we stand in need of, but also to offer praise and thanks for the good things we have received.” Zorn defines prayer as follows: “To pray means that we as children of God take all our troubles to our heavenly Father and lay them before Him, as children on earth take all their problems to their father and their mother.” The definition given in our catechism is probably as concise and comprehensive as we could wish. It reads:

“Prayer is an act of worship wherein we with hearts and lips bring our petitions before God, and offer up praise and thanks to Him.”

An Act of Worship

Prayer is an act of worship. There are also other acts of worship, but prayer is the primary, the chief, the fundamental one. To worship God is to call upon Him, to pray to Him. The words, “Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God,” can only mean, Thou shalt call upon Him in prayer. As it is natural to the human heart to know that there is a Supreme Being, so also it is natural to the human heart to call upon Him in danger and trouble. “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved” – these words mean simply that whosoever shall worship Jehovah shall have a place in heaven.

And so throughout the Bible the people of God are represented as a praying people, as people who bow their knees in worship to their Creator.

Prayer in the Old Testament

When at the end of Genesis 4 we read, “Then (in the days of Enos) began men to call upon the name of the Lord,” that must not be taken to mean that previously, for the first few hundred years of the existence of man, no one had thought of such a thing as calling upon the name of the Lord in prayer. When Abel brought his offering to the Lord, he must surely have combined some word of prayer with that act of worship. The words quoted from Gen. 4 may be translated, “In those days men began to proclaim the name of the Lord.” (These words are frequently used in Genesis to refer to public preaching of the Word of God, GLW) …. When in the days preceding the Flood God saw that the wickedness of men was great in the earth and that men resisted the Spirit of God, it was just this that He saw, namely, that men did not deign to call upon the Most High in prayer.

Noah, on the other hand, is described as a just and perfect man, that is, he led a life of prayer before God. The sweet savour that arose to heaven from Noah’s sacrifice after he left the ark must surely have been the prayer of Noah indicated by the rising smoke of the sacrifice. And so on. Abraham, Moses, David, the prophets and the great unnamed multitude of the people of God of the Old Testament were such as called upon the name of God in prayer.

Prayer in the New Testament

And so also the people of God of the New Testament are those who bow their knee unto the Father of their Lord Jesus Christ.

Jesus left us an example of a prayerful life. We are told that He spent much of His time in prayer. And those who would be followers of Jesus must follow the example He set. His every act was sanctified by prayer.

  • He prayed as He stood in the Jordan River about to be baptized.
  • After a hard day’s work of preaching and healing He took a short night’s rest and in the morning, rising up a great while before day, He went out and departed into a solitary place and prayed.
  • Before He engaged in the important work of choosing His twelve apostles, He spent the night in prayer.
  • He prayed on the mount of transfiguration when that great change in appearance came over Him.
  • He prayed before multiplying the loaves and fishes.
  • Often, before performing His miracles He looked up to heaven and raised His voice to His father in prayer.
  • We know how, just before He went to the cross on Calvary, He prayed not only for His disciples but also for all those who through their word would believe in Him.
  • And we know also how He prayed whilst hanging on the cross.

jesus praying

How, then, could any man be a follower of Jesus, a Christian, if he did not spend some time in prayer. By this it was to be manifest to Ananias of Damascus that Saul Of Tarsus had embraced the Christian faith, in the street called Straight he would find him praying.

A Proof of Faith

Prayer is the pulse-beat of spiritual life. A man is found lying on the road. Is he dead or is there still life in him? A doctor proceeds to feel his pulse. If the pulse is still perceptible, he is not yet dead. A man claims to be a Christian. Is he really one? The criterion to be applied is this, Does he pray? If he tells us that he does not believe in praying and practices no praying, he is not a Christian. The Lord does not recognize him as one.

Prayer is an act of worship. But those who worship God must worship Him in spirit and in truth. Prayer must proceed from the heart. Hence David prays, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer.” The Lord looks to the heart. The Lord looks to the heart also when we are saying our prayers.

Merely to repeat the words of a prayer is not praying. A parrot might be taught to repeat the words, “Lord, bless us,” but you could not say that the bird was praying. You might have a gramophone record with the Lord’s Prayer as said by some eminent divine, but when you put it on your gramophone you could not say that the machine is praying. And yet, how often are Christians just like a bird or like a gramophone when saying their prayers. How often has not the Lord to lay this charge against them. “This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips; but their heart is far from me.” Shakespeare is right when he has one of his characters say with regard to his prayers, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below; words without thoughts never to heaven go.”


Merely to repeat the words of a prayer, or to sing them in public worship, while the heart is occupied otherwise, is mockery. The Second Commandment says, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord Thy God in vain.” It is taking the name of the Lord in vain if we pretend to be praying, although having no intention of holding communion with God. It is pure hypocrisy.

Rome may say that as long as you get the prayers off of your lips, you will get credit in heaven for the numbers of prayers you have said. Hence the use of the beads in praying. Say a prayer for each bead on the string, and if you want to do particularly well, go around the string a few times. But that is not much different from the praying mill used by the monks in Tibet. Instead of a string of beads they have a cylinder with written prayers attached to it. A handle turns the cylinder and each revolution offers the prayers affixed to it to the gods. So if he has turned the handle for half an hour the Tibetan has repeated his prayers a goodly number of times and hopes his gods should be duly impressed.


Of such a manner of praying our Lord says, “While ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do; for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.” The prophets of Baal kept yelling from morning till late in the afternoon, “Baal, hear us! Baal, hear us!” But there was neither voice nor any to answer. It is not the much speaking that makes the prayer. No,

Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed:
The motion of a hidden fire
That trembles in the breast.

Prayer is the burden of a sigh,
The falling of a tear,
The upward glancing of an eye,
When none but God is near.

A Conscious Action

Is it sufficient, then, when in danger or tribulation, to harbour the desire in the heart that help might come from above? No, of the fullness of the heart the mouth speaketh. It is true, as the psalmist says, that God hears the desire of the humble, and hence His promise that before they call He will answer, and while they are yet speaking He will hear. But David asks the Lord to receive not only the “meditation of his heart” but also the “words of his mouth.” Some people say they never say prayers, they deem that unnecessary, because the Lord knows the desire of their heart. But wherever the Word of God shows us praying people, it shows us them as people lifting up their voices unto the Lord. Nevertheless, the dumb man or one whose tongue has been paralysed is not debarred from praying. His heart may cry unto the Lord. There is also the silent prayer, although therein, too, the mind will frame the sentences in which the thoughts express themselves.

There are especially three matters on which the Christian should desire to hold conversation with his God. In his prayer he brings before God:

  1. his petitions,
  2. his praises, and
  3. his thanks.

The petition is that form of prayer in which we ask God for something. In the Lord’s Prayer we have seven petitions, that is, seven requests are made to God, seven things we ask Him for. The prayers of some people consist only of petitions. They pray only when they have requirements they want God to fill. But so many model prayers recorded for us in the Bible and so much instruction with regard to prayer given there show us that our prayers should also be praises and giving of thanks.

It has rightly been said that if you know of nothing else to pray about, think of all the blessings you enjoy day by day, and tell God how much you appreciate them. To praise God is to extol His goodness and greatness. With such praises God is well pleased. It pleases parents when their children tell them how highly they think of them and how much they appreciate all that their parents have done for them. And our Father in heaven assures us that it pleases Him when His children show forth His praise. The angels in heaven do that, and we whom the Lord has redeemed at so great a price have much more reason for doing it.

We should not be slothful in proclaiming the honour of our God. And in their prayers Christians must not forget to sound a note of gratitude. We do not like ungrateful people, and God does not like them either. If we have done someone a good turn, possibly at some expense to ourselves, we do not think much of him if he accepts our kind services without a word of acknowledgement. That is God’s complaint against the heathen, they failed to thank Him. What then if His children simply accept His mercies and blessings with never a word of gratitude to the Giver of all good gifts? But even when we do give thanks unto God we are obliged to say with the poet,

Weak is the effort of my heart,
And cold my warmest thought,
But when I see Thee as Thou art,
I’ll praise Thee as I ought.

Reprinted by kind permission of Openbook Publishers, Adelaide, by the Evangelical Lutheran Congregations of the Reformation (ELCR), 1995. Contact: P.O. Box 692, Kingaroy, Qld. Aust. 4610.