Articles abound claiming ways of improving our prayer lives. Some tout titles encouraging us to try new or ancient “forms” of prayer, as if an improved prayer life is a matter of certain words in a certain order. Others proclaim “Five [or however many] Prayers to Unleash God’s Power in Your Life,” as if we have God on a leash.
I’m concerned when improving our prayer lives seems to be a matter of trying different fads or rituals.
We tell unbelievers that Christianity is a relationship with God to help them realize it’s not just a set of certain behaviors. But sometimes we forget the relationship in our own practices. Spiritual disciplines are a means to an end, not an end in themselves. Improving prayer, Bible study, or any other facet of Christian life needs to be a matter of enhancing the relationship, not just finding a better form of practice.
Granted, most of us change and grow in how we practice these disciplines over the years. And different personalities gravitate to different “styles.” I attended a prayer meeting that was so regimented, it seemed to me to choke the life out of what we were doing. I felt constricted, burdened, and frustrated. But perhaps that style of prayer was deeply meaningful to the person leading the meeting.
What helps me most is remembering that prayer is just talking to my Father. Like any relationship, hopefully communication improves over time. But He doesn’t wait for me to get just the right form. He hears my heart.
The best place to learn how to pray is the Bible. God’s Word gives specific instructions about prayer. Just a few:
- Don’t use “meaningless repetition.”
- Don’t pray hypocritically or “for show.”
- Pray for those in authority.
- Pray with holy hands.
- Pray according to His will, which we find in His Word.
- Pray persistently.
- Pray humbly.
- Pray in faith.
- Pray forgiving others.
- Pray with right motives.
- Pray in the Spirit.
God also gives us wonderful examples of prayer. Some of my favorites:
- Nehemiah’s quick prayer before answering the king.
- Hezekiah’s prayer when threatened by the Assyrians.
- Daniel’s prayer of confession and repentance on behalf of Israel.
- Jesus’ “high priestly prayer” for us before His crucifixion.
- All the highs and lows of the psalmists’ prayers: some in desperation, anger, confusion, joy, or praise.
- Paul’s prayers in his epistles.
From the examples in the Bible, we see how people prayed, in what attitudes and circumstances, and what specifically they prayed for.
One of my favorites of Paul’s prayers is Colossians 1:9-14:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
While it’s fine to pray for health and financial needs, how much more do we need to pray for these kinds of things for ourselves and each other.
Following a certain form would seem artificial to me. I don’t talk to anyone else in my life via specific forms. On the other hand, because we’re talking to someone we can’t see and who doesn’t answer us audibly, sometimes our minds can wander. So in some ways it does help our feeble flesh to have something to corral our thoughts and keep on point. Some use acronyms, like
When my thoughts seem too scattered to pray, most often I use what we call “the Lord’s prayer” as a jumping-off point. It might go something like this:
“Our Father in heaven.” Thank you that I can call you Father, that you loved me and saved me and brought me into your family. Thank you for forgiving, leading, and guiding me. Thank you for being a kind and gracious Father.
“Hallowed be your name.” You’re not just my Father, but also my King. Help me not to forget your greatness and holiness.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” I pray for Your perfect will to be done in these various situations I bring before You.
“Give us this day our daily bread.” I’m grateful You know my needs before I even ask. I praise You that I can trust You to provide for me and those I pray for.
“Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” I confess these sins to You (naming them individually) and ask Your forgiveness. Help me to forgive others just the way I want to be forgiven.
“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” You know what’s ahead this day. I pray for your protection from evil that may come my way and from the temptations of my own heart.
“For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever. Amen!”
I’ve made a list of different prayers in the Bible that I like to use in praying for myself and for others. Many of them are from the epistles, like the one from Colossians mentioned above or from Philippians. When we pray God’s Word, we know we’re praying according to His will. But, again, it’s not just a matter of praying certain words rotely: it’s talking with our Father.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote once of waking up in the morning, cold, fuzzy-headed, not feeling very spiritual, stumbling into another room to spend time with the Lord. She felt she needed help putting her own heart in the right frame of mind, so she started her prayer and devotional time either reading or singing psalms or hymns (from the chapter “Meeting God Alone” in On Asking God Why). Many hymns are wonderful prayers, like:
Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but Thou art mighty,
Hold me with Thy pow’rful hand.
Bread of heaven, Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more;
Feed me till I want no more.
(William Williams, 1745)
Be Thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night;
Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my light.
(Dallan Forgaill, 6th century; translated and published 1912)
Modern hymns like Speak, O Lord and O Great God are prayers meaty with Scriptural truth and greatly meaningful to me.
I also used to think I hadn’t “officially” prayed for something unless I mentioned it in my devotional time. But I learned we can talk to God all through the day. When my first clear thoughts form in the morning, I try to remember right then to give Him the day and ask His help for it. When I hear a bit of good news or find something that perfectly meets my needs, I can thank Him on the spot. When I come across a prayer request, I try to pray for it immediately.
Like with other relationships, we can touch base with God off and on all day. But then we also need times of setting aside everything else just to focus on each other.
And when we have no words, “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” (Romans 8:26).
In the chapter I mentioned by Elisabeth Elliot, she said:
My own devotional life is very far from being Exhibit A of what it should be. I have tried, throughout most of my life, to maintain a quiet time with God, with many lapses and failures. Occasionally, but only occasionally, it is impossible. Our Heavenly Father knows all about those occasions. He understands perfectly why mothers with small children bring them along when they talk to him.
If hers was not Exhibit A, how much less is mine! I started to take all personal references out of this post for that reason (and due to length). But it has helped me to read others’ experiences with prayer, so maybe this might be a small help to someone else.
What I mainly wanted to share with you is this: if we feel our prayers need livening up, perhaps the first place to start is to remember who we’re talking to and why. Then, as we read His Word, we can take note of what it teaches about prayer and learn from examples there.
(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Kingdom Bloggers, Literary Musing Monday,
Tell His Story, Purposeful Faith, Let’s Have Coffee, Recharge Wednesday, Anchored Truth, Worth Beyond Rubies, Woman to Woman, Grace and Truth, Faith on Fire)
I like this a lot! During the nicer part of the year (like now), I often have my best prayers while riding my bike — just talking to the Lord in my head. Just the other night I was thinking of the points you raised: how many books I’ve read about “how” to pray and various formulas, when in reality my favorite type of praying is just talking to God in my mind as I’d talk to a friend. Imagine reading a book about how to talk to a friend: how mood-killing that would be! I do agree that there are times when prayer doesn’t seem to come easily. I love the idea of singing through a few verses of a hymn at those times!
Thanks, Susan! That’s my favorite type of praying, too.
I loved reading your article! Having just recently published a series on the 5 Questions of Prayer, it was interesting to see you mentioned several things I didn’t. (And I thought I’d exhausted the subject!) One thing, I will stress the next time I write about prayer would be your point that prayer is a conversation with your Friend, not a formula to be followed. I would never want to give that impression. I’ve always enjoyed the illustration of pulling an empty chair up and imagining Jesus sitting there having a conversation with you. He really is there listening anytime you choose to participate in prayer.
It’s a big topic–the more I wrote, it seemed like the more there was to write about. I like the idea of imagining Jesus in the next chair. When Amy Carmichael was little, she used to pat the bed beside her when she prayed, as an invitation to Jesus to sit with her.
This is such a thorough and beautiful post on many aspects of prayer. My prayer life changes with seasons of my life, so I like seeing all the variety of ways to pray that you share here. I had to smile at your mention of not talking to people in real life with a formula. 🙂 I do sometimes use the ACTS format as a jumping off point. But to use such in conversations with Jeff or my kids would be odd, so I see your point.
Thank you, Lisa. In some ways, using the Lord’s prayer as I mentioned could be considered a formula, too. I think God understands the weakness of our flesh and the need for something to help guide our thoughts. It’s probably better to use a help like that than to drift off into a hundred other thoughts, which I’m too prone to do. But we can so easily fall into just getting through the form rather than really praying, too. We need God’s guidance for the right balance.
You know how I love a bit of Elisabeth Elliot wisdom!
Paul Miller’s The Praying Life has been so helpful to me with its simple and straightforward thoughts on prayer. I just loaded his new book J Curve onto my Kindle, but better to spend time praying than just reading about it.
This is a great round-up of so many different types of prayer and ways to pray. I love how Scripture is full of such varied examples for every circumstance and for different personalities. I love using prayers from the Bible or using songs as prayers and also chatting to God as I go about my day.
Barbara, there’s so much truth in this post! I’ve found praying God’s word back to Him helps me direct my prayers and it reminds me of His faithfulness. I like your list of different prayers in the Bible. You share so many great applicable points! I think Hezekiah’s is one of my all-time favorites.
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Thank you so much for this post! Prayer can be so intimidating for some who are new to the faith and dont yet understand that it is merely a conversation with our Father and doesn’t have to fit some mold! I also love the examples of biblical prayer you shared! Thank you so much for linking up @worthbeyondrubies
Sharing your post!
Hymns are certainly some of the most beautiful prayers put into words. I have often longed for the ability to express my heart like a songwriter does! Thanks for including the links to some prayers contained in scripture. Definitely a good place to start:) I look forward to reading them again.
Enjoyed your post – have a great week!!
I love when we can have honest conversations about prayer!
I try to remember that there isn’t a wrong way to talk to God. He can handle all of the things I bring Him, but also, all of the ways I come to Him.
Beautiful thoughts on prayer! I am grateful that God continues to teach me how to pray. I continue to grow daily in what this looks like. I tend to be more of a conversationalist in prayer as I go through my day. How wonderful that God hears and is always with me.
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