Questions are asked concerning prayer which seem superficial, but concern matters which are taken seriously and give rise to rulings and customs in some churches.
We are accustomed to go deep into the subject of the importance of prayer in our Christian life, and many authors have felt the need to write on this subject. But it is also useful to reflect on some simple and practical questions to help us offer well coordinated and intelligent public prayers, for the benefit of those who are hearing us and who are expected to say “Amen” after our prayer (1 Corinthians 14:16).
In a general way, in a prayer to God we can praise, make a request or give thanks:
In prayer we “worship” Him (Philippians 3:3), for example, exalting His divine attributes, or we offer Him sacrifices of “praise” (Hebrews 13:15) when, for example, we recall the supreme mercy, righteousness and grace revealed when giving us His Son.
If we are going to request something for ourselves, we shall be making a “request”, but if it is for others we say it is an “intercession”. Sometimes we make a “supplication” for something for others that will be of benefit to us or God’s work (1 Timothy 2:1,2).
When thanking Him for his many mercies and attendance to our needs, as well as the answers to our requests it is “thanksgiving” (2 Corinthians 9:10 - 14, Philippians 4:6). We must be thankful (Colossians 3:15).
When we meet as a church, the assembly should be led in prayer by one or more brethren in succession, not all praying audibly at the same time: we believe that this is in accordance with the teaching in 1 Corinthians 14. They who speak do not do so just for themselves, but for the whole congregation (personal prayers are made “in private” - Matthew 6:6).
For there to be “one spirit, and one mind” (Philippians 1:27), prayers must correspond with the purpose of the meeting. If it is for worship, as in the Lord’s Supper, the prayer will be of worship and thanksgiving. On other occasions there could be other purposes. However, whatever the reason, worship and praise always have their place at the beginning, according to the model that our Master the Lord Jesus, taught us (Matthew 6:9).
In what position should we pray? In the Bible we find a variety of physical attitudes adopted by people who address themselves to God in prayer: falling on their faces (Matthew 26:39), bowing their knees (Ephesians 3:14), standing (Matthew 11:25), with open eyes (John 17:1), lifting their hands (1 Timothy 2:8); we do not read of anyone being seated. The physical attitude that we adopt in public announces our reverence to God to those present, and in private it reflects our submissive attitude towards Him. We know that He is aware of what goes on in our hearts, better than ourselves, and though our physical attitude and words are irrelevant to our communication with Him, it is right that they should manifest the nature of what is in our mind, like all conversation.
Verse 8 of 1 Timothy 2, has been a stumbling block for some people. It specifically deals with men who lead prayer in public. To lift one’s hands in prayer was, we are told, a common posture in those days, as well as other actions in public. We read that the Lord Jesus lifted up His hands to bless the disciples in Bethany (Luke 24:50).
Sometimes, to understand well a verse, we can take out the commas (as they are not in the original text). In this case, in a translation without commas we would read: “I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere lifting up holy hands without wrath and doubting”. According to how we place the commas, the emphasis changes. For example, it could be: “I desire, therefore, that the men pray, everywhere lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting”. Reading it like this, it can be seen that this is not a commandment to lift hands when praying. It is dangerous to be based on an isolated verse to form a doctrine, without having the support of other parts of the Bible. Unfortunately this practice has caused some people to even separate themselves from other believers because of some private interpretation.
The desire expressed by Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, was that men should have moral and spiritually pure hands, and that they should not be in anger or discord, let us say disputes (Philippians 2:14), when leading prayer in public. Whether raised or not, the important thing is that their hands are in pure condition, having been used only for good works. Some Bibles, like the NKJV given here, translate this as “holy”, and this means hands dedicated to the Lord’s service. We should not pray in public if our hands have not yet been dedicated to the Lord.
Only those who have already confessed their sins should pray in public, who have no bitterness in their hearts against God or his brethren, who come with faith, believing that God will hear and reply (Matthew 21:22).
And if we pray for something which has already taken place, what will happen? This is an incongruous, but not uncommon, situation: there may be a particular request to pray for some situation or for healing of some sort, and the brethren, sometimes the whole church, make continuous intercession in this respect in their prayers. The reply comes, but those who were interceding fail to be informed, and the intercessions continue, now uselessly.
It is important, even if just out of simple courtesy, that a prayer request is accompanied by opportune information on changes in condition and on the eventual solution, so that thanks may also be given for the reply received from God. Also, if we are praying for somebody, we must follow his situation in order to know better what to pray for.