Do You Pray Like an Atheist?

Calling out for divine help doesn’t make you a Christian, but it does mean you’re human.

According to Tim Keller, humans throughout history, and in every corner of the world, have evidenced an “instinct for prayer.”

Prayer is one of the most common phenomena of human life. Even deliberately nonreligious people pray at times. Studies have shown that in secularized countries, prayer continues to be practiced not only by those who have no religious preference but even by many of those who [say they] do not believe in God.

Keller notes that one study found “nearly 30 percent of atheists admitted they prayed ‘sometimes,’ and another found that 17 percent of nonbelievers in God pray regularly.”

There are many people who do not pray even in times of extreme danger. Still, though prayer is not literally a universal phenomenon, it is a global one, inhabiting all cultures and involving the overwhelming majority of people at some point in their lives. Efforts to find cultures, even very remote and isolated ones, without some form of religion and prayer have failed. (Prayer, 36)

Christianity is not distinct because we call out to the divine. However, those who follow the Bible do pray in an utterly unique way, set apart from every other kind of cry toward the sky — and the implications are huge for how we pray every day.

Call on God by Name

Throughout the Old Testament, “calling upon the name of the Lord” serves as a kind of code language for prayer. The phrase appears first in Genesis 4:26, then four more times in Genesis (12:8; 13:4; 21:33; 26:25), and a handful of times in the historical narratives, psalms, and prophets. It’s important to note that the refrain isn’t simply that God’s people call out to him, but that they “call upon the name of the Lord.” This is more than the typical human instinct for prayer.

Nearly 30 percent of atheists admitted they prayed sometimes, and 17 percent of nonbelievers in God pray regularly.

Calling on the name of the Lord is no mere generic plea for divine aid. This is not groping for God as a distant deity. This is not even the admirable reverence of the ancient priest-king Melchizedek, righteous as he may have been, who blesses Abraham in the name of “God Most High” (Genesis 14:18–23), but does appear know God’s personal name, Yahweh (represented in our English translations by Lᴏʀᴅ with the small caps). And this emphatically is not the “unknown God” reverenced in Athens and referenced by Paul in his address at the Areopagus. “What you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23).

What begins in Genesis 4, resurfaces in key places in the Hebrew Scriptures, and reemerges in the New Testament, is that when the chosen people of the true God call out to him, they call out to him by name. They know him. Unlike pagan (or atheist!) cries for divine help, God’s people know him, because he has revealed himself to them, and made promises to them.

To call upon the name of the Lord is to pray to Yahweh as one who knows him by name and enjoys covenant relationship with him. Psalm 116 celebrates, in amazing terms, what it means to know the one true God, not just in concept, but by name. In only nineteen verses, the psalmist addresses Yahweh by name sixteen times — three times explicitly mentioning “calling on the name”of Yahweh (Psalm 116:4, 13, 17).

Similar expressions follow in the prophets. Even pagan Naaman rightly assumes that Elisha, as a prophet, knows God personally and calls on him by name (2 Kings 5:11). God’s chosen people not only call on God, but do so by name, as someone they know (Zechariah 13:9; Zephaniah 3:9), as Elijah does in the great power encounter at Carmel with the prophets of Baal. “You call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the Lord, and the God who answers by fire, he is God” (1 Kings 18:24). When Yahweh answers, Elijah addresses him by name three more times (1 Kings 18: 36–37), and the point is not lost on the people (1 Kings 18:38–39).

Call on Him as a Christian

However, we live in the age of the church, not the days of Elijah. Yahweh himself has come to earth in the person of Christ. Now, as we call upon the very God of the universe by name, we have at least two names that are even more important, and even more intimate, than Yahweh.

The first is Father. God’s own Son led the way (Mark 14:36), and we join with him by his Spirit: “You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15). “Because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6). Many people know me on a first-name basis, but only my children call me Daddy. It’s one thing to know God’s personal name is Yahweh; it’s even more precious to be able to call him Father.

“It’s one thing to know God’s personal name is Yahweh; it’s even more precious to be able to call him Father.”

A second name also eclipses Yahweh in the New Testament as he reveals himself to us climactically in his Son (John 1:14; Hebrews 1:1–2). When the apostle Paul writes “to the church of God that is in Corinth,” he addresses “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2). Since the coming of Christ, to call upon God by name has meant to know him in and through Jesus. God’s old-covenant people were those who called upon the name of Yahweh. His new-covenant people are those who call upon the name of Jesus.

Know Him, Call Him

Christian prayer is indeed far more than human instinct. We do not pray as pagans, or even atheists, calling out to an unknown God. Rather we address the one who has taken the initiative, revealed himself, and made promises to us. We don’t strain our voice toward a hypothetical supreme being with cosmic powers, but wonder of all wonders, we pray with confidence to the God we know by name.

We pray not as mere theists, monotheists, or even as old-covenant saints, but as those who now know our Father in and through our Lord Jesus. It is almost too astounding to even utter: we know the one to whom we pray, not because of our raw intelligence, advanced education, or painstaking research, but because he has moved toward us, spoken in history, and made himself known to us. And so we address him as Father, and in name of Jesus, with our Bibles open, in response to what he has promised in covenant relationship with us.

As Christians, what’s most exciting is not that we know God’s name is Yahweh, but that we now can call him Father. And that we know the name of Jesus.