All human beings have some knowledge of God available to them. At some level, they have an indelible sense that they need something or someone who is on a higher plane and infinitely greater than they are. Prayer is seeking to respond and connect to that being and reality, even if it is no more than calling out into the air for help. That is, I believe, the common denominator of all human prayer.
However, because our definition understands prayer as a response to the knowledge of God, it means that prayer is profoundly altered by the amount and accuracy of that knowledge. While everyone may have a “sensus divinitatis”, Calvin observed that we all refashion that sense of deity to fit our own interests and desires unless through the Spirit and the Scripture our view of God is corrected and clarified.
Prayer, then, is a response to the knowledge of God, but it works itself out at two levels.
At one level, prayer is a human instinct to reach out for help based on a very general and unfocused sense of God. It is an effort to communicate, but it cannot be a real conversation because the knowledge of God is too vague.
At another level, prayer can be a spiritual gift. Christians believe that through the Scripture and the power of the Holy Spirit, our understanding of God can become unclouded. The moment we are born again by the Spirit through faith in Christ (John 1:12–13; 3:5), that Spirit shows us that we are not simply God’s subjects but also his children, and we can converse with him as our Father (Gal 4:5–6)
John 1 v 12 – 13
Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
Galatians 4 v 5 – 6
to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father”.
The clearer our understanding of who God is, the better our prayers. Instinctive prayer is like an emergency flare in reaction to a general sense of God’s reality. Prayer as a spiritual gift is a genuine, personal conversation in reply to God’s specific, verbal revelation.
Packer, in his famous work “Knowing God”, writes:
“Knowing God is a matter of personal dealing. … Knowing God is more than knowing about him; it is a matter of dealing with him as he opens up to you, and being dealt with by him. … Friends … open their hearts to each other by what they say and do. … We must not lose sight of the fact that knowing God is an emotional relationship, as well as an intellectual and volitional one, and could not indeed be a deep relationship between persons if it were not so.”
What is prayer, then, in the fullest sense?
Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him.