What Is Prayer? How Do You Pray?

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Image by Reenablack. Adapted for Redemption of Humanity. Used under licence.

Last edited on 28/Mar/2021

The Bible’s Answer

Introduction

The Bible says that the Lord Jesus’ disciples devoted themselves to prayer (Acts 1:14). We are told to be watchful and steadfast in prayer (Colossians 4:2, ESVUK), to pray “in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20–21) and that God’s will is for us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16–18). So, what exactly is prayer? Why is it important for Christians?

What Is Prayer?

Prayer, in a broad sense, is talking to a deity, heavenly being, or someone in Heaven. In the Christian sense, prayer is talking to God. God speaks to us through his Word, the Bible (Hebrews 4:12; 2 Timothy 3:16), and we respond to him through prayer. Whether you are talking to him out loud or in your mind, thanking God for a blessing in your life or asking him for help, prayer is any act of us communicating with God. St Paul tells us: “do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6) We see from this verse that God allows us to talk with him about anything that is on our hearts. St Peter takes this a step further when he says to cast “all your anxieties on [God], because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:6–7) Our prayers matter to God because he cares for us.

Christian prayer is done in the Holy Spirit, that is, by the power and help of the Holy Spirit. This is because he acts as our intercessor in prayer. The Bible says: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26–27) This is why the Bible says “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.” * (James 5:16)

Christian prayer is also done in Jesus’ name and is usually concluded with the word “amen”. To pray in Jesus’ name means that we pray with his authority, in accordance with his will and teaching, and it reminds us to rely on his power and give him glory.¹,² Jesus said: “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me for anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13–14) Jesus also teaches that we “ought always to pray and not lose heart” and said “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily.” (Luke 18:1–8) Amen simply means “so be it”.

Most Christians pray with their hands folded and eyes closed. Sometimes Christians pray on their knees like Paul (Acts 20:36), bowing face down like Ezekiel (Ezekiel 11:13), or standing lifting their face to Heaven like Jesus (John 17:1). The Bible does not instruct us to pray in any type of position; these are simply done out of an act of worship or to help keep our minds focused on God. So, what should we say when we pray?

How Do You Pray?

One of the Lord Jesus’ disciples asked him this very question in Luke’s Gospel. We are told: “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1) In Luke’s Gospel Jesus answers by giving a shortened version of what Christians call “The Lord’s Prayer”, while in the parallel passage of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus gives us the full version of it.

And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation. (Luke 11:2–4)

Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9–13)

If we are ever unsure of what to say when praying, the Lord’s Prayer is always a great prayer to start with. As we pray it, we may be reminded of the things that are on our hearts right now that we’d like to bring before God. Moreover, the Lord’s Prayer is a great guideline for the things that we should be praying about.

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” The first part of the prayer starts off with a statement of praise: God’s name is holy, that is, good and set apart from evil. Prayer is a time when we should praise God for who he is, for his righteousness, and his good deeds. Moses praised God for rescuing him and his people from slavery (Exodus 15:1–18) and David praised God for promising that his kingdom will endure forever (2 Samuel 7:18–29).

“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” The second part is about humbling ourselves before God. When we pray that God’s will and kingdom, which is his rule in this context, be done, we are leaving our requests in God’s hands rather than demanding from him, and thus letting him do what he knows is best. Whenever we pray we should always seek God’s will above all, not our own (Romans 12:2; Luke 22:41–42).

“Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” The third part is about asking God to provide us with what we need, asking for his forgiveness, and forgiving those who have wronged us. Note that “our daily bread” doesn’t include all the things that we may want because God is concerned above all with what we need most. We should seek God’s provision daily in prayer because he is the one who gives us everything we need (Matthew 6:31–33). As sinners, we should also ask God to forgive us when we pray, since sin without repentance can cloud or even destroy our faith (Hebrews 3:12–13). At the same time, we should forgive those who have sinned against us, because God forgave us in Christ even when we didn’t deserve it, and we are called to imitate God (Ephesians 4:32; 5:1).

“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The fourth part is about seeking God’s guidance and protection in life. Temptation is anything that entices us into sinning; when we pray, we should ask God to help us so that we do not get tempted into sinning, because we are to walk by the Holy Spirit, not the flesh (Galatians 5:16–17). In prayer we should also ask God to save us from any physical or spiritual harm and danger, because God is our refuge, stronghold, and fortress in times of trouble (Psalm 18:2). He will deliver us from every evil deed and bring us safely into his kingdom in Heaven (2 Timothy 4:18).

Other Bible Passages on How to Pray

The Bible tells us that we should pray for all people to lead peaceful and godly lives, because he desires all people to be saved:

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 1:1–4)

Since God wants all people in the world to be saved and have eternal life, we should also pray that all people may receive faith in Jesus that leads to eternal life (Acts 16:31) and that our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ may grow in their faith (Colossians 1:9–12). The Bible also tells us that we should give thanks to God when we pray. We saw this in a passage quoted near the beginning of this article:

… do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:5–6)

Another Scripture says: “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Colossians 4:2) In both passages, Paul tells us to pray with thanksgiving. We should make sure that we’re not just asking God for the things we want, but that we’re also thanking him for all the good things that we already have. The Bible tells us that every good and perfect gift comes from our Heavenly Father (James 1:17). All the good things that we have in life were graciously given to us by God, so we can’t take credit for anything. When we give God thanks in prayer, we honour him and learn to be content with what we have. Prayer is also a time in which we should confess our sins to God. The Bible tells us that if we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive us:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

Confession takes a lot of humility to do. In it we acknowledge all the wrongs we have done in our thoughts, words, and deeds, in addition to the sins we have committed that we are not aware of, and ask God for forgiveness. However, the benefit of this is that it gives us assurance of God’s grace and mercy on us. The Bible says that if we lack wisdom, we should ask God for it in prayer without doubting:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. (James 1:5–6)

Very often we say or do things that we regret later. It’s an inevitable part of human nature. Because we’re always prone to sinning like this, all of us should ask God for wisdom every time we pray. This means asking him to help us both think and behave more like him, rather than the natural desires of our flesh, so that we live more in line with his will. We should pray for this without doubting because God is always faithful in his promises to us (see also Mark 11:23–24). One final thing that’s important to know in prayer is that when we pray, we should do so in accordance with God’s will. The Bible says:

And this is the confidence that we have towards him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. (1 John 5:14–15)

You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:2–3)

Therefore, Jesus taught us to pray “your will be done” in the Lord’s Prayer. God does not always answer our prayers in the way we would like him to because we do not always pray with his will in mind. Sometimes we may even think we’re praying for the right thing but still get an outcome that we don’t want. However, we should be assured that no matter what happens, God works all things together for good for those who love him (Romans 8:28). Whatever the outcome of our prayers may be, God is always for us, not against us (Romans 8:31). He knows everything, including all the possible outcomes of every situation, and always does what is right (Psalm 145:17; 1 John 3:20). Sometimes the Lord’s wisdom is too deep for us to understand at the present time so we must simply leave matters in his hands until he reveals the answer to us (Romans 11:33).

Notes

* A righteous person, in this context, refers to one who has been declared righteous by God through faith in Christ.

References

1. What Does It Mean to Pray in Jesus’ Name?, Christianity.com, last accessed on 5 Feb 2020, <https://www.christianity.com/jesus/following-jesus/discipleship/asking-in-the-name-of-jesus.html>

2. Engelbrecht, E A (Ed) (2009). John. The Lutheran Study Bible (p. 1811). St Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

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