There are a number of ways people categorize types of prayers. One of the more popular ones I’ve come across is the four-fold reckoning summed up with the acrostic ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. But sometimes it helps to go a little deeper and sort out more specific categories (or subcategories if you care to be picky), and get a stronger sense of the rich breadth of prayers that God’s people have, can, and should be offering to Him. So it’s worth looking at a seven-fold categorization of prayer: adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition. I’ll give a quick definition of each, and examples in and out of Scripture.
Prayers of adoration are primarily about our lifting ourselves to God, seeking to enjoy His presence, and asking for nothing. This may well be linked to contemplation, and some of the more mystical aspects of Christian piety. Scriptural examples include much of Psalm 8 and Psalm 84. Interregnum-era Anglican priest, Jeremy Taylor, wrote this morning prayer of adoration:
Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come:
heaven and earth, angels and men, the air and the sea,
give glory, and honor, and thanks to him who sitteth on the throne,
who liveth for ever and ever.
All the blessed spirits and souls of the righteous cast their crowns before the throne,
and worship him that liveth for ever and ever.
Thou art worthy, O Lord, to receive glory, and honor, and power;
for thou hast created all things, and for thy pleasure they were and are created.
Great and marvelous are thy works , O Lord God Almighy:
just and true are thy ways, thou King of saints.
Thy wisdom is infinite, thy mercies are glorious;
and I am not worthy, O Lord, to appear in thy presence, before whom the angels hide their faces.
O holy and eternal Jesus, Lamb of God, who wert slain from the beginning of the world,
thou hast redeemed us to God by thy blood out of every nation,
and hast made us unto our God kings and priests, and we shall reign with thee for ever.
Blessing, honor, glory, and power, be unto him that sitteth on the throne, and to the Lamb, for ever and ever.
Prayers of praise are primarily about glorifying God for who he is. The key here is that God’s very being is what draws us to worship and praise him. Examples in the Bible include Psalm 150 and Luke 19:37-40. The classic Doxology is a great example of praise:
Praise God from Whom all blessings flow;
Praise Him, all creatures here below;
Praise Him above, ye heavenly hosts;
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Prayers of thanksgiving are primarily focused on God’s works. We thank God for what he has done for us in creation, in redeeming us, and for all the little ways that he works in this world that draw us to him. Examples in the Bible include Psalm 139:13-14 and Jonah 2. Jeremy Taylor wrote a great example in one of his books, Holy Living (which is where the first example also originated):
Sing praises unto the Lord, o ye saints of his,
and give thanks to him for a remembrance of holiness.
For his wrath endureth but the twinkling of an eye, and in his pleasure is life;
heaviness may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.
Thou, Lord, hast preserved me this night from the violence of the spirits of darkness,
from all sad casualties and evil accidents, from the wrath which I have every day deserved;
thou hast brought my soul out of hell; thou hast kept my life from them that go down to the pit;
thou hast showed me marvelous great kindness, and hast blessed me for ever:
the greatness of thy glory reachest unto the heavens, and thy truth unto the clouds.
Therefore shall every good man sing of thy praise without ceasing.
O my God, I will give thanks unto thee for ever. Hallelujah!
Prayers of penitence focus on our unworthiness to come before God, acknowledge our sinful nature, confessing them openly before God, and resolving to make amends wherever possible to enact reconciliation (not to pay off our sins, but to express the sincerity of our repentance). Examples in the Bible include Psalm 32 and Psalm 51. Once again, Jeremy Taylor has a great example of what a “repentance or contrition” prayer can look like:
For, as for me, I am not worthy to be called thy servant;
much less am I worthy to be thy son: for I am the vilest of sinners and the worst of men;
a lover of the things of the world, and a despiser of the things of God;
proud and envious, lustful and intemperate, greedy of sin, and impatient of reproof,
desirous to seem holy, and negligent of being so; transported with interest;
fooled with presumption and false principles; disturbed by a whole body of sin and death.
Lord, pardon all my sins for my sweetest Savriour’s sake:
thou, who didst die for me, Holy Jesus, save me and deliver me:
reserve not my sins to be punished in the day of wrath and eternal vengeance;
but wash away my sins and blot them out of thy remembrance,
and purify my soul with the waters of repentance and the blood of the cross;
that, for what is past, thy wrath may not come out against me;
and, for the time to come, I may never provoke thee to anger or to jealousy.
O just and dear God, be pitiful and gracious to thy servant.
Prayers of oblation primarily focus on self-offering, where we place our entire selves (body, mind, heart, and spirit) before God, seeking to work His will, not ours. Jesus had a fantastic prayer of oblation in Gethsemane, and Psalm 130 also has some good examples for us. One more time, an example from Jeremy Taylor:
Most holy and eternal God, lord and sovereign of all the creatures,
I humbly present to thy Divine Majesty myself, my soul and body,
my thoughts and my words, my actions and intentions, my passions and my sufferings,
to be disposed by thee to thy glory; to be blessed by thy providence;
to be guided by thy counsel; to be sanctified by thy Spirit;
and, afterwards, that my body and soul may be received into thy glory:
for nothing can perish which is under thy custody;
and the enemy of souls cannot devour what is thy portion, nor take it out of thy hands.
This day, O Lord, and all the days of my life, I dedicate to thy honor,
and the actions of my calling to the uses of grace,
and the religion of all my days to be united to the merits and intercession of my holy Saviour Jesus;
that in him and for him I may be pardoned and accepted.
Prayers of intercession are about lifting up the needs of others to God. John 17 is a great example of Jesus’ intercessions for us, and most of Paul’s epistles contain snippets of his prayers for the people to whom he was writing. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer also has a good example of intercession, in this prayer “for all sorts and conditions of men.”
O God, the creator and preserver of all mankind,
we humbly beseech thee for all sorts and conditions of men;
that thou wouldest be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, thy saving health unto all nations.
More especially we pray for thy holy Church universal;
that it may be so guided and governed by thy good Spirit,
that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth,
and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life.
Finally, we commend to thy fatherly goodness all those who are in any way afflicted or distressed, in mind, body, or estate;
that it may please thee to comfort and relieve them according to their several necessities,
giving them patience under their sufferings, and a happy issue out of all their afflictions.
And this we beg for Jesus Christ’s sake.
Prayers of petition focus on bringing our own needs before God. Philippians 4:6 tells us that we can (and should!) bring everything to God in prayer. Nothing is too small or too big, we should keep in mind. There aren’t any classic examples of petitions in Christian literature that come to my mind quickly, probably because these are, by nature, personal prayers that don’t generalize well (otherwise they’re essentially the same as group intercessions). So for an “example,” I’ve picked the Anima Christi, which is primarily petition in tone, but touches on most of the other sorts of prayer too.
Soul of Christ, sanctify me.
Body of Christ, save me.
Blood of Christ, inebriate me.
Water from the side of Christ, wash me.
Passion of Christ, strengthen me.
O good Jesus, hear me.
Within Thy wounds, hide me.
Permit me not to be separated from Thee.
From the wicked, defend me.
At the hour of death, call me, and bid me come to Thee,
that with all the saints I may praise Thee forever and ever.
As a postscript to this post, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the prayer which Jesus taught to the disciples, known to the Church since as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Let’s see what we can identify of these seven genres of prayer within the Lord’s Prayer…
Our Father, who art in heaven, (adoration)
hallowed be Thy Name. (praise)
Thy kingdom come, (thanksgiving, inasmuch as we’re affirming God’s kingdom work)
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (oblation)
Give us this day our daily bread, (petition/intercession)
And forgive us our sins, (penitence)
as we forgive those who sin against us. (penitence/oblation)
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (penitence/petition/intercession)
The popular post-scriptural ending, For thine is the kingdom and the power and glory for ever, is another burst of praise, and a logical conclusion to a prayer like this.
The point of this is not to attempt to validate these seven categories of prayer by identifying them within the Lord’s Prayer, nor to attempt say that the Lord’s Prayer is the perfect ideal balance of them, but simply to point out that they’re there. When we pray, these various genres of prayer ought to be regular parts of our diet, and if we omit any of them for too long, our spiritual health may suffer as a result.
Too little adoration – potential loss of interest in seeking God as the purpose of our lives
Too little praise – potential disconnect between our knowledge of God and our prayer life
Too little thanksgiving – potential loss of respect for God, feeling like we do all the work
Too little penitence – potential loss of perspective, forgetting that we’re still sinful
Too little oblation – potential disregard for what God is calling us to do
Too little intercession – potential narcissism, turning the faith into individualism
Too little petition – potential loss of the individual relationship with God
Of course, overemphasizing any of these at the expense of the others can be similarly bad:
Too much adoration – potential disregard for the more objective knowledge of God
Too much praise – potential disregard for the role of creation in God’s purposes
Too much thanksgiving – potential forgetfulness regarding what God has yet to do
Too much penitence – potential forgetfulness of God’s grace and forgiveness
Too much intercession – potential belief that it’s our prayers that accomplish God’s will
Too much petition – potential narcissism, excluding the needs and callings of others
So once again, the key is to forge a healthy balance among these genres of prayer. Of course, one of the best ways to help people develop a balanced prayer life is to model it in corporate worship. How do our local churches represent each of these on a weekly basis?