What’s prayer? How do I pray?
Updated: Nov 18
Have you ever tried praying? What is it? Does it even work!? Do you feel comfortable praying with someone else? Having a good understanding of prayer can help you as you enter into a personal life-giving prayer life, or begin praying with and for others.
Jesus’ disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying, “This, then, is how you should pray: Our Father in heaven… Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:9,11).
What is prayer?
When teaching how to pray, Jesus invites his followers to come to God as beloved children approaching their dear heavenly Father. Just as a child tells their father about their needs/wants/desires, we too are invited to talk with our Father in heaven with the same candour and honesty, to tell him like it is, and ask him for help. Yet, a father knows best. A loving father gives good gifts (Luke 11:11–13), but will not give everything. That is, a loving father will withhold from a child who asks for unhealthy candy and endless toys. So, prayer is sitting on the lap of God our Father, talking with him, receiving the gifts he choses to give out of his infinite grace and wisdom. Yet a father doesn’t really want their child to sit on their lap with a shopping list of requests to tick off! If we treat prayer like that, then it won't “work.” Rather, prayer is an activity of faith — we come to our heavenly Father, trusting that he will hear and act according to his fatherly wisdom.
Prayer is sitting on the lap of God our Father.
What is prayer not?
First, God does not need our prayers. Think about this carefully. Our prayers are not righteous works that accomplish the Father’s will. God’s kingdom will come, his will be done on earth, without our prayers. Therefore, our prayers do not somehow twist God’s arm to respond, or magically effect his will here on earth. God can (and does!) do whatever he wants without our prayers. Rather, prayer is an invitation to present our needs to God and receive the good gifts he wisely bestows. So, our prayers are not efficacious because we pray, but rather because God has already chosen to give out of his grace and mercy.
Second, prayer is not talking to the person/people we are praying with. Rather, prayer is directed to God: we can direct our prayers to God the Father, Jesus the Son, God the Spirit, and God as One. Prayer is not meant to be a “pep talk” for the other, but asking and receiving from God himself. God is gracious and compassionate, willing to enter into a real relationship with us, his children.
What does God promise to give through prayer?
The so-called “Lord’s Prayer” (the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, see Matthew 6:9–13 and Luke 11:2–4) is helpful to learn about the promises God offers in prayer.
Your kingdom come — God promises that his kingdom comes to us, and that we are given strength to believe in his Word (often despite appearances to the contrary) and to live holy, God-pleasing lives.
Your will be done — God promises to help us to do his will here on earth; he strengthens us and keeps us steadfast in his Word and faith to the very end.
Give us this day our daily bread — God promises to help us be thankful for the many gifts he gives without our knowing or asking: our body, food, clothes, house, home, money, property, work, spouse, children, good government, order, good weather, peace, health, true friends, good neighbours. God promises to give what we need (“bread”) at this very moment (“this day”).
Forgive us our sins — Through the death and resurrection of Christ, God promises to wash us clean, make us new, rescue us from the pit, cancel our debt, take away our shame, heal our spirit, restore our relationship with him, adopt us into his family. Forgiveness of sin means we have eternal life and salvation — hope for a new future. Forgiveness of sin does not mean the consequences of sin will be taken away — these we still need to live with, just as the risen Christ lived with scars in his hands, feet, and side.
Deliver us from the evil one — Christians are caught in the middle of a cosmic battle between God and Satan. The devil is no myth or medieval idea, the devil is not some generic force or symbol for the “will to undo.” No! The devil is a real person. He is a “sour spirit” and “parasite-person,” feeding off the misery of others. The devil is a liar and murderer (John 8:44). He is evil. Yet he is the prince and ruler of this world (John 16:11; 2 Corinthians 4:4), and we are merely his “guests.” That said, even the devil and his evil ways are bound to God. Satan is pressed into God’s service. When Satan attacks the conscience, this is a mark that we belong to Christ. When the devil tries to tempt our heart and soul away from Christ, the devil himself provides experiential assurance that we are on the right and victorious side — the devil attacks God's children. Spiritual attack is proof that faith in God is present in you. In fact, the godlier someone is, the more they will be attacked. What a sweet paradox! This brings comfort in affliction! Being attacked is proof we belong to God. No wonder the devil is a “sour spirit,” for he’s tricked into doing God’s work of comforting and helping those who trust in Christ. So, we can boldly pray against the evil one. We can ask that our afflictions be taken away. Yet we also know that any afflictions we do suffer, drive us to seek help from God and God alone, for we are powerless to stand against the evil one in our own strength.
How to pray?
Pray boldly. We are invited to approach God’s throne of grace with confidence and boldness (Hebrews 4:16). This means we can “rub God’s nose” in his promises, so to speak. God has promised to give in prayer, so remind him of what he has promised! Ask for mercy, forgiveness, strength, hope, love, joy, peace, patience. (But be careful to not overreach, and ask for things not promised, for then we become like disappointed children asking their dad for ice cream or fairy floss for dinner). In prayer we have the privilege to partner with God in his work here on earth. “God you promise forgiveness, so let me receive and know your forgiveness.”
Pray simply. Pray what God has promised i.e. that he hears, strengthens, helps, keeps, gives, forgives, etc. Use simple, everyday words. Don’t tell God exactly how he should act, leave that to him — his answers are bigger and better than we can imagine!
Pray truthfully. God does not always promise the miraculous here on earth. It may be his will that miracles happen, but that is up to God! Jesus promises, “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do” (John 14:13), but this does not mean we can ask for anything (“name it and claim it”) — to do something in another’s name is not an invitation to claim our will and desires, but their will and desires. So, we ask God for help, and then leave it in his hands. His answer to prayer is always the right answer, even if we don’t understand.
Keep it short. God is not impressed with our babbling and long prayers (see Matthew 6:7; Luke 18:9–14). He hears humble and honest cries for help.
I want to learn more about prayer?
Prayer is something to be learnt. One never “arrives” at prayer, but one is always a student and learner (the word “disciple” literally means “learner”). There are plenty of good resources out there on prayer, but like a food buffet, not everything is healthy!
Here are a few good resources for further learning:
Richard Foster, The Celebration of Discipline, chapter 3.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, chapter 3 (The Day Alone).
Robert Baker (ed), Lutheran Spirituality: Life as God’s Child, chapter 2 (Prayer).
LCA Commission on Theology, Spiritual Warfare and the Ministry of Deliverance, https://lca.box.com/shared/static/2qweqtfz4lkhfr0p3x192ljhqnp8uvw7.pdf