Author Philip Yancey spent a year and a half reading more than 200 books as research for his current book Prayer. He studied many noble Christians from the past who spent hours in prayer each day. At the same time he admits that he has always been “one of those guys who has a hard time praying more than seven minutes a day.”1 Perhaps knowing how we should pray and actually putting this knowledge into practice are two separate things.
Spending time in quiet reflection and communication with God is almost a lost art.
Many people are busy with work, children, community projects, and maintaining homes and hobbies. We are bombarded with noise from the moment we wake. Phone calls, radio news, traffic noise, and clamoring children, all affect our ability to start the day in a positive frame of mind. The stresses of modern life drain us emotionally and mentally. All this makes it even more crucial to make an effort to pray, to draw strength and guidance from God, as we face the day.
But what is prayer really? Is it some mystical experience—or a rote recitation of words? Is there a right way to pray?
One definition of prayer is “to offer praise, to make a request, seek guidance, confess sins, or simply to express one’s thoughts and emotions”2 to God. Thus, each prayer can have different forms and reasons. Prayer can be out loud, silent, in a congregation, or on our own. It can be a deeply emotional time or a period of calm contentment.
Although the earliest biblical accounts show humanity talking to God regularly and spontaneously, the first recorded prayers appear after Adam and Eve had been banished from the Garden of Eden and after Cain had murdered his brother, Abel, in a jealous rage. Genesis 4:26 says, “At that time men began to call on the name of the Lord.” In Eden, God was always close. But the arrival of sin and strife hindered people’s ability to commune with God. The descendants of Adam and Eve now had to make a conscious time for communicating with and worshiping God.
Traditional postures for prayer have often focused on kneeling as a sign of reverence to God. In the Bible, however, people used various positions as they prayed. Standing, bowing down, kneeling, looking upward, laying hands on others, and facing the temple are some of the ways the Bible mentions in connection with prayer.3 Followers of God knew that He would hear them regardless of what external posture they took. The essence of communication with God is having an open heart and a humble attitude.
Christian prayer is not a difficult task that requires special rituals or years of study. Christians rejoice in the knowledge that simply through faith in Jesus, they can become part of the family of God. The apostle Paul told the pagan Athenians that unlike the Roman gods, his God was close and accessible—One who had already made Himself known by living in the flesh as Jesus Christ.4 The Bible assures us that we can boldly talk to God and know that He hears us.
Jesus told His followers not to use lengthy, repetitious prayers like the pagans did.5 He encouraged people to speak sincerely from their hearts. Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century German Reformer, said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.”6 Luther wasn’t recommending that we rush through our time with God but to think about what we intend to say instead of rattling off empty phrases. We can spend time being still, letting our minds relax, and listening to God. His response probably won’t be an audible voice, but an impression or idea that occurs as we quietly meditate.
Jesus gave us a template for prayer, commonly called the Lord’s Prayer. This prayer has been recited for many years in churches, official gatherings, and schools. However, the best way to use this prayer is not as a recitation but as a model for our thoughts as we talk to God personally.
Another general guide for prayer is the acronym ACTS—Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.
Most prayers of worship begin with some form of adoration and praise. By addressing God this way, we acknowledge His omnipotence and appreciate His character of love and mercy. This puts us in a humble frame of mind.
Through confession, we recognize our sinfulness and ask God to forgive us for our wrongdoings. This clears the air between us and God and gives us confidence that we may come close to Him.
This, then, leads us into thanksgiving, an attitude of gratefulness for everything God has done for us, and will do for us in the future. Supplication is another word for request. We can ask God for help, for guidance, for material provisions, for protection—for help with whatever is worrying us.
We can also ask for God’s help on someone else’s behalf. Often people pray for their children, for someone who is sick, or for others experiencing trouble.
It can be hard to focus during prayer, particularly with a full day of activity ahead of us. Writer C. S. Lewis observed this common problem: “All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice, taking that other point of view, letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in.”7 It takes a deliberate decision to prevent everything else from distracting us from time with God.
One approach is to use the Bible to guide our thoughts as we pray. George Müller was a passionate man who established orphanages in England in the mid-1800s. All the funds for sheltering, feeding, and clothing the children were miraculously provided through Müller’s constant prayers for his projects. He was seen as a great man of faith who learned many things through talking to God for more than 60 years. He discovered that he could concentrate more easily when he chose a Bible verse to think upon as he began to pray. Whatever verse he chose would inspire him to praise God, to pray for others, to confess his own sins, or a combination of these. He would also trust a promise from the Bible and claim that promise in prayer.
As well as great role models from the past, Christians today have discovered various techniques that help them to pray. David is a minister with a wife and three sons. He prefers a routine of praying at the same time and place each day. He starts by thinking about God and one of His characteristics, like love or generosity. Often he finds a related Bible verse and studies that. After dwelling on the majesty of God, David says, “You must then talk to God like a close friend. Tell him everything on your heart.”
In contrast to David’s routine, Alan, a writer, prays in various places. He likes to observe God around him as he goes about his day. He says, “I pray as I walk streets littered with golden and brown leaves, which I rejoice in as they scatter around my feet.”
Leanne is another who likes to get out of the house to pray. With three school-aged children, a part-time job, and church commitments, her house buzzes with activity. She devotes time to a “prayer walk” in which she can leave the distractions of home and talk to God along the footpaths. Leanne also has started a prayer journal, using this process to focus her mind as she writes down her thoughts to God.
To some, being emotionally engaged is more important than the mental decision to pray. Wendy, a sensitive mother of two girls, likes to imagine being with Jesus and talking to Him as she would to a friend in the same room. “Although, if I’m stressed, I feel more like His child and visualize cuddling on His lap with His arms wrapped right around me,” she says. Music is an evocative medium, and Mary loves to listen to Christian songs in the car as she drives. She allows the music and lyrics to lead her into a time of praise to God.
We don’t need to keep all our prayers to a precise time of worship either. Many prayers are quick and spontaneous: a prayer for safety as we see danger on the road ahead, a prayer for courage as we go to a job interview, a prayer of gratitude as a valuable item is found. Singer/songwriter Colin Buchanan call these “arrow prayers” that we can shoot off to the Lord at any time.
Whatever method works for you, the crucial point to remember is to see any occasion as an opportunity to pray. God loves us and wants to spend time with us. Make it a practice to pray.
The Lord’s Prayer*
Our Father which art in heaven,
You are my Creator and King . . .
Hallowed be thy name.
I respect and worship You. There are so many things I love about You.
Thy kingdom come.
I can't wait for You to return.
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Do what’s best for us here on earth and please help me to accept Your plans for me and my family. Open my eyes so I can realize how You want me to live.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Thank You for all the ways You have provided for me in the past, and please help me with my needs today.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
I keep failing You, yet You give me hope. Please forgive me, and help me to extend the same forgiveness to others.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
I need Your protection from the temptations in this world. Please help me especially in these areas . . .
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever.
Again, I acknowledge that You are the Boss and have total control of my life and this world. I love You and give You all the credit for what I have.