Prayer is universal. It's practiced in Eastern temples filled with sweet incense; beneath the spires of Western Christian churches; and five times a day in thousands of minarets across the Middle East, Asia and Africa. Algonquin Indians in North America speak to God as Manitou, Muslims pray to Allah, Hindus address Krishna.
Prayer has been a significant expression of human spirituality for many millennia. Although people in the secular West pray less than previous generations, prayer pops up in surprising places. Shock-pop icon Madonna, for example, sings, “Like a Prayer,”
and a large subculture listens. Olympic medalists fold their hands and bow their heads in gratitude. Soldiers in Baghdad, Basra and Kabul pray, as do other less religious people in troubled times.
God needs no translators. He hears and understands all languages. Israelis speak to God in Hebrew, Roman Catholic priests pray in Latin, and many prayers in English are performed in the archaic words of Shakespeare. Prayers are uttered in the pidgin languages of the Pacific, the Bantu of Africa, and the Guarani of South American Indians.
The plaintive wish of a child rises to heaven in the simplest of words. God hears and understands them all.
People pray all over the world. When sickness strikes an Indian family, they burn incense as they pray. Congresses and parliaments open with formal prayers. And when a terrorist disaster strikes the West, people who haven't entered a church since they married gather to ask for divine intervention and protection. Prayers may be private, individual pleas, or they may be written impersonal expressions inherited from an age-old culture.
We pray because we sense our inadequacy and our helplessness. We pray in crises, acknowledging that we are only human and factors beyond our control impact our lives. When a Wheat Belt farmer prays for rain during a drought or an Auckland suburban housewife prays for healing from a disease, each one hopes that some Force higher and more powerful than themselves will intervene to help. Then, if all goes well, we pray to give thanks—though that is easier to forget.
So, is it worth praying?
A crisis crushes some people's faith that there is a God who hears and answers prayer, while others pray even more. The Holocaust turned some people into atheists, while others in the same concentration camps learned the blessing of prayer. Many people with a modern worldview reject the notion of prayer as childish or superstitious, yet recent studies have shown that hospital patients improve their chances of getting better when others pray for them.
So does everyone pray to the same God?
The date was August 2, 1914. War had been declared. Finally, the score was about to be settled. Like sports teams deciding a championship, the armies were ready to engage, to finally decide which nation was superior.
That day a somewhat unsuccessful young painter shared the celebrations in the town square of Munich, in southern Germany.
Later that evening, alone in his room, he wrote in his diary how he knelt and gave thanks to God for letting him experience this day.
His name was Adolf Hitler. A few years later, people everywhere were filled with horror as his Nazi regime spread its terror across Europe.
To which God did Hitler pray?
And to whom did the pagans of old pray as they sacrificed infants in their temples? To whom do the prosperous Christians in the materialistic West pray?
To whom do Muslim families, stricken by poverty and oppression in Afghanistan, pray? And to whom does the young soldier pray when, in fear for his life, he cries, “God, I haven't prayed for years; if You'll only save me now, I'll do whatever You want!” Do all these prayers ascend to the same God?
According to the Bible, God is always the same but our human concepts of Him vary with time, culture and religion. We not only call God by different names, we also perceive His nature and His character in different ways.
Some people perceive God as the Sponsor of war and vengeance, and they pray and act accordingly. Others understand God to be the Lord of their particular nation or race, and in that name, they wage war and commit atrocities—even exterminating those who do not belong to Him. Other people believe in gods or spirits whom they must fear because they are volatile, unpredictable and, at times, cruel. Christians think of God as a benevolent Father who created us and cares about our wellbeing. So which way is it?
What is God really like?
In order to understand Him, we need Him to tell us about Himself. Christians believe that God has told us about Himself in the Bible and revealed Himself in person as Jesus. To understand the Christian God then, we need to go first to the Bible and investigate the Person of Jesus. The two belong together.
A good understanding of who God really is helps us when we speak to Him in prayer. It will teach us what to expect of Him when we pray and teaches us how to pray. So if you want to pray as a Christian, you have to first go to the Bible. That is where God's character is revealed. We also see God in the Person of Jesus Christ. It's in Jesus that you'll get to know the God to Whom you pray.