Troublesome Topic: What Prayer Is and What it Isn’t

There are several things we call prayer, but only some of them fit the description of true prayer given above. Let’s take a look at several categories to get a better handle on what prayer is and what it is not.

Asking for Favors

Most of us use prayer to ask God for favors. In so doing we have made prayer about us and what we want. Most of what we pray for has to do with us and our problems.

Most of us have asked God for things, or for help, and when that request is not answered we think God is not doing His part, or that prayer does not work. How self-centered! It’s amazing that Satan tempts us to focus on ourselves even during times of prayer! But we have all grown up thinking that asking God for favors is legitimate prayer, and we are confused because sometimes it seems to work, and other times it does not.

If we ask God to cause things to go smoothly because we don’t like problems, hassles, headaches or setbacks, we are asking for a something that may be contrary to His will. If we ask for an event or an endeavor to be “successful,” we may be asking for something outside His will. These are definitely not prayers, they are requests for favors, which may even be dangerous to our spiritual growth, and God cares more about our spiritual growth than about our comfort or “success.”

The fact that parents sometimes give their children things they ask for does not mean that the parent is obliged to give the child whatever he asks for, or that there is some magical power in asking. The love we have for our children is the very reason we say “no” to some of their requests. It is the same with God.

I ask God for favors every day, but now I know they are just favors, and I am trying to be more careful about what I ask for. Also my attitude about the possibility of those requests being answered is different than before. Sometimes I tell Him I will ask him a favor before I do so; I let Him know I recognize it is just asking for a favor, not true prayer.

There are even some things that we think are quite legitimate that fall under the category of asking for a favor. I may ask God to keep my children, who can now drive, safe as they drive about, but that is not true prayer, that is just asking God for a favor. I may ask God to take away a headache while I am at work, but that is also a request for a favor.

True prayer is dangerous. True prayer does not ask God to keep my children safe as they drive about; true prayer asks that God draw my children to Himself, that He manifest Himself to them. That is dangerous because God can use any number of hardships (including a car accident) to teach them greater faith and bring them closer to Him. True prayer requires that we trust God fully. Rather than telling Him what we think would be best, we need to trust that He knows best. Bill Mutz summarized this beautifully when he said, “God will not protect us from that which He will perfect us through.”

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Mt 13:58 tells us that Jesus “did not do many miracles there because of their unfaithfulness.” (The Greek word can be rendered unbelief of unfaithfulness.) The previous verse tells us that they were offended by him. The problem was theyy were trying to manipulate God! They wanted things their way and were not willing to submit to the authority and will of Jesus. Preachers have often used this verse to tell us that some prayers are not answers because of a lack of faith. While prayer does require faith and trust, the context of this verse tells us that faith is closely tied to a willingness to submit to God’s way of doing things because He knows what is best.

All this is changing the way I pray. Although I am a slow learner, I am trying to learn to pray with God’s glory as my priority and focal point. I imagine that most of us need to relearn this thing we call prayer. We need to pray with Him in mind, not ourselves. We need to be willing to pray dangerous prayers and leave the results up to God, rather than telling Him what we want the outcome to be. We need to focus more on His glory than on our desires.

When God does grant our requests for favors we need to be good about giving Him praise and glory. We should do this, not by telling people that asking for favors works, but by telling them we have a loving God who is often good to us beyond what we deserve. He does not enjoy seeing us suffer, although He will use suffering for our good when that is needed. When God answers our requests for favors it says more about His loving nature than it does about the effectiveness of making requests for favors.

 To put it as plainly as I can, our confusion about whether prayer works comes from the fact that we often ask for a favor and think it is true prayer. Asking for favors sometimes works, but real prayer always works.

You can still ask “Daddy,” with a capital D, for favors. I just want you to realize what you are doing. When you ask for a favor, do so knowing that it is a favor and not true prayer. As I said above, I still ask for favors quite often, but now I know the difference and my expectations are different.

Calling out to God

This refers to the desperate cry of an anguished heart. We see this often in the Bible. The Children of Israel in Egypt cried out to God and He heard their cries. He loves to come to our rescue (usually at the last moment and not one moment before). He is thrilled to be our rescuer, or savior, our help in times of trouble. The fact that God often honors these requests goes to show us what kind of a God He is.

But this is not true prayer in the purest sense of the word because it is still centered, in part, on us. These cries for help emanate from times of trouble, so in part they are focused on our problem; but they focus on God in that we are acknowledging that we have no ability to get ourselves out of the situation. So in a way these cries for help qualify as prayer and in a way they don’t, it depends largely on whether our focus is on ourselves or on God. God is not bound to answer these cries, but He often does because of His loving nature.

Expressing Gratitude and Asking for Forgiveness

Expressing gratitude and asking for forgiveness are obviously examples of true prayer because they put the focus on God and they glorify Him.


The Hebrew word for prayer teaches us that intercession is a key aspect of true prayer. However, that is only true if we go about it in the right way. We think asking God to save someone is true prayer. But here is the problem: God never forces anyone to follow Him, so asking Him to save someone actually goes against His character and His will. Intercession should be asking God to draw that person to Him. He will always answer that prayer. Or we can ask that God make someone miserable in his sin, and know why he is miserable. That one also fits within the realm of what God is willing to do, and it is sometimes the tactic He chooses.

We should ask God to bring revival, and to use us any way He desires. This puts the focus on Him and His plan; our inclusion in it is only a P.S., a post script.

Seeking God’s Glory by Joining in His Great Work

This is the true task of prayer.

This is what God has called us to. This is the front lines of the battle field. God is seeking more men and women to fill out these ranks.

It is worthwhile to take a look at how the disciples prayed in Acts 4, after Peter and John had been imprisoned, beaten and then released.

Having heard this, they lifted their voice with one accord to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, You made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything that is in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

‘Why do the nations rage

and the peoples devise vain plans?

The kings of the earth take their stand,

and the rulers band together

against the Lord

and against Christ, his anointed one.

Indeed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city [to conspire] against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, to do what your hand and your purpose had determined beforehand should happen. And now, Lord, consider their threats and grant to your servants [the ability] to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus” (Acts 4:24-30).

Notice that, although they had gotten into a tight spot, they kept their focus on God, not on their situation. They concluded their prayer by saying, in essence, “and Lord, you know those things we did that got us into trouble the first time? Help us do them again, just better!” They had this attitude because those things that brought hardship on them had brought glory to God, and that was the main priority. They knew it wasn’t about them.

Oh, that we would respond to our problems with such an emphasis on God’s glory!

True prayer is so much more sublime, so much more energizing, so much more glorious than just asking for favors.

In Luke 11 the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Teach us to pray.” When speaking about true prayer this means, “Teach us to think like you think.” True prayer requires that we think God’s thoughts.

The prayer we call “The Lord’s Prayer” is a prayer that seeks God’s name to be lifted up and held in high regard; it seeks God’s will and God’s kingdom, which are His authoritative reign, to be evident on this earth; it asks for forgiveness; it asks for protection and deliverance from the tempter and his temptations; it also asks for God to show Himself to be the provider of physical needs—“Give us today, today’s bread.” Is the request for bread a favor rather than true prayer? In one way it is just a favor because God is not obligated to answer it and He has not always answered it for everyone down through history, although He usually does provide for our needs. He will always provide for our spiritual needs, but not always provide for material needs. In another way it is deeper than just a favor. First it shows us that God does not mind us asking for material things as long as that is not the only thing we do, as long as we express proper trust in Him, and as long as we know the difference between favors and true prayer. In this prayer the request for bread is combined with trust—“Give us today, today’s bread,” not food for a week or a month. That is as much a statement of trust as it is a request. So in one way this is asking for a favor, which is okay, and in another way it is deeper than that because it is not just about us, it is a statement of trust. Remember, however, that the rest of the prayer focuses on God’s glory, His will and His authority.

As long as there is balance, our Daddy accepts whatever requests we bring to Him. But I fear that most American Christians today lack balance in their praying.

The next lesson is What Does it Mean to Pray “In the Name of Jesus”?



Bill Mutz in The Art of Marriage DVD, Session 1, 2011.