What is prayer really? People from many cultures pray to their gods. However, that covers many different meanings. We need to clarify our definition right at the beginning for Christian prayer so we are talking about the same thing.
For all the books written about Christian prayer and explaining what is prayer, it cannot be studied like a science. True Biblical prayer has definite principles for how it is to function, and these can be learned. But prayer is a spiritual activity. Spiritual things have some mystery about them that are easier felt and experienced than described.
You can best learn what is prayer by praying much and often.
Many Christian writers list four or five basic types or categories of prayer. They use words like petition, intercession, confession, thanksgiving, praise, adoration. These are all good words we find in the Biblical examples of such prayers, and they show us the most basic elements of prayer. Prayer is:
Adoration - is worshipping and adoring God for who He is.
Praise - is telling God how great He is.
Confession - is confessing sins to God - it should come before asking anything at all.
Petition (or Supplication) - is asking God for something for yourself.
Thanksgiving - is thanking God for answers and gifts you see as coming from Him.
Intercession - is asking God for something for someone else.
Some people are unabashed beggars when talking with their friends or strangers, but when they come before God they go shy and are too proud to name their needs as direct requests in prayer.
Jesus Himself urged us to ASK; "Ask and it will be given to you; see and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened." (Matthew 7:7 NIV)
Also He said, "If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer." (Matthew 21:22 NIV)
It doesn't matter whether you use the particular words like 'petition' or 'supplication' or 'requesting your daily bread' - it all comes down to this; you must come to God ready to confess you are a helpless sinner and only He can forgive you and make you a new person. What's more, every good gift comes from God above. If God was willing and loving enough to give up His very own dear Son, Jesus, to die in your place on the cross, then surely He loves you enough to hear your requests for help with all the problems, and the questions and needs in your life. Ask away and believe He will answer!
If you are asking for things that are not good for you, God is wise enough and strong enough to refuse to grant your request. After a while of that, you will catch on and change your prayers, or you will seek to get to know what He wants most for you, and ask for those things. When you start praying according to God's will and your prayers are answered you will get so excited that you will do more of such praying. That is called growing in your prayer life!
Some conservative Christians get rather uptight when they hear people talk about having conversations with God. That just means they have not grown far enough in their prayer life to experience this.
(That is not to say there are not some kooks out there with wild imaginations; they may say God talks to them, but those who know the Bible well can tell - well, let God deal with them.)
The point is that when you really learn to love and worship God, you also study the Bible to find out God's character and plan for the world, and for you, and your work. The more you understand God, or at least honour Him as God, the more likely God is to start speaking to your spirit by His Holy Spirit to reveal specific things He wants you to do or not do, and people you should talk to and so on. As you continue to ask your questions and humbly lay out your requests before God, and as He continues to show you what to do and say, and grants your requests - what else can we call that but a type of conversation with God?
Dr. Sweeting, one time President of Moody Bible Institute, told a story about the famous preacher, D. L. Moody. Mr. Moody was busy writing in his study, when his five-year old son came into the room and sat down. "What do you want, son?" asked Moody, rather gruffly.
"Nothing, Daddy," the boy replied. "I just want to be where you are."
When we get to where we just want to be close to God, and adore Him, then we are praying too!
Fanny Crosby, the prolific blind hymn-writer wrote in one stanza on prayer;
Oh the pure delight of a single hour
That before Thy throne I spend.
When I kneel in prayer, and with Thee my God,
I commune as friend with friend!
Adoring, worshipful prayer flows quickly into praising God, and thanking Him for the many blessings you see coming from Him.
Thanksgiving, or naming the specific gifts you see God has already given you, naturally arises from this too.
So then, true Christian prayer is a time to adore and worship our precious Lord and Saviour. If you are afraid God is not hearing your prayers, perhaps it is because you have neglected to worship Him. True worship will cause faith to grow in ou hearts and minds that He does hear and answer us. Begin your prayer time with adoration and worship, and make your requests after that. If there is no sin in your heart blocking it, your faith to receive will increase.
When your worship and thanksgiving has tuned your heart to believe, it becomes easy to ask God for the things you need, but with a heart or spirit that knows beyond any shadow of doubt that He is hearing you and will grant your request.
If the request you had in mind now look foolish or wrong as you are in the presence of God, then simply confess it and don't ask for that.
On the other hand, you may now have a fresh persective on what you really need from God to further glorify Jesus' name. You will see what would please Him, what He wants you to ask for - pray for that now.
Intercession is when we earnestly pray for others. True adoration and worship and faith in God will cause a yearning for others to know God like this too. We are likely to be praying for others before we know.
But some people make this a special spiritual work that they do, knowing that God's plan and way of doing powerful spiritual work on this earth is through the faithful prayers of intercessors. God limits Himself to the things His people, the Church, accomplishes through prayer!
Spiritual warfare praying often arises from intercession, although we usually do it for ourselves first.
Not every Christian learns to do this kind of prayer well. Spiritual warfare is a type of praying where we unite with the Spirit of God to resist the work of the Evil One, Satan. We cannot do this alone, but must truly abide in Christ and He in us, by the Spirit of God.
Spiritual warfare praying calls for a maturity in your relationship with God, and a good knowledge of the Bible. Still, it can be done by brand new believers who grasp and use, perhaps even unwittingly, the principles for effective prayer.
(Other articles will go into more detail on this and many other aspects of prayer).