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Learning to Pray

From the series: Basic Christian Discipleship

Have you ever struggled to know how to pray? I remember meeting my best friend in college, Manny from Puerto Rico. He prayed all the time alone but had never prayed in a group. We became prayer partners. Prayer, in some ways, is like breathing for the Christian. It’s something we do automatically when we come to know Jesus. One very helpful verse on prayer is Romans 12:12, “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.”

What’s remarkable about this concept “constant in prayer” is how often it is used of prayer. God’s people are to be constantly devoted to praying.

Acts 1:14 │ These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren. (cf Acts 2:42)

Acts 6:4 │ But we will give ourselves continually to prayer, and to the ministry of the word.

Colossians 4:2 │ Continue in prayer, and watch in the same with thanksgiving.

Are we devoted to praying? Are we a believer devoted to carrying prayers to God? Are we constant, continuing, and consecrated to the work of prayer? Ask yourself: “Am I devoted to prayer?” What does it mean to be “constant in prayer”?

It does not mean that prayer is all you do – any more than being devoted to a wife means all the husband does is hang out with his wife. But his devotion to her affects everything in his life and causes him to give himself to her in many different ways. So being devoted to prayer doesn’t mean that all you do is pray (though Paul does say in another place, “pray without ceasing,” 1 Thess 5:17).

What it means is a pattern of prayer that looks like devotion. It won’t be the same for everyone. But it will be something significant. Being devoted to prayer looks different from not being devoted to prayer. And God knows the difference. Not devoted to prayer looks like: only praying when problems come, only praying short rote prayers like mealtime or bedtime, or only pray for immediate necessities (i.e. “help me Lord find a parking spot”). These things are not wrong—they are very good, but if that’s all you’ve got, you are not what Paul describes “devoted to prayer.” But there are those who are devoted to prayer. When people speak of you, do they say – he or she is a person of prayer—or they know how to pray?

 There are many questions concerning pray. WHAT, WHY, HOW, WHEN, AND WHERE to pray? I think the most practical is how. We will get to that, but first we are going to ask ourselves the question:

What is Prayer?

Prayer is personal communion, fellowship, and communication with God. Prayer is a result of the abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in you (Rom 8:15). Prayer is described in all kinds of different contexts: we pray as we worship and adore God. We give thanks to God. We pray in faith. We pray interceding on behalf of others. We pray corporately and individually. There are various types of prayers in the Bible.

The Types of Prayer

Adoration. We are called to live a life of worship and adoration to God.

Psalm 148:13 │ Let them praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his splendor is above the earth and the heavens.

Thanksgiving. We are called to be gratefully aware of God’s work in all circumstances.

2 Chronicles 16:34 │ Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.

1 Thessalonians 5:18 │ Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.

Confession. It is vital to confess our sins to the Lord and keep close accounts and close fellowship with God (cf 1 Jn 1:9-2:2).

Psalm 32:5 │ Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity. I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord.’ And you forgave the guilt of my sin.

Reflection. We are to turn every moment, both sacred and secular, into worshipful reflection on God. This can happen during a silent walk or lying on your bed at night or anywhere at all.

Psalm 63:6 │ On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.

Healing. When we are sick physically or spiritually, God is glad to comfort us and heal us. The ultimate goal is spiritual healing, since we are predestined to be conformed to Christ’s image. Holiness and Christlikeness is the ultimate healing.

Jeremiah 17:14 │ Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed; save me and I will be saved, for you are the one I praise.

Help and Deliverance. Troubles come every day. Various trials and difficulties are ever present on earth. We are called to ask God for deliverance, and he will deliver and grant help when we need him.

Psalm 107:6 │ Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress.

Hebrews 4:16 │ Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Intercession. A family member faces a deadly disease. Your neighbor desperately needs Jesus but turns away every time you try to share Christ. A nation begins to crumble because its people follow their own evil ways. But what can you do? Often, the problems we face seem too big for us. No matter how much we try, we cannot solve them on our own. It’s times like these when we need to turn to the Lord in intercessory prayer. Intercession is prayer that pleads with God for your needs and the needs of others. But it is also much more than that. Intercession involves taking hold of God’s will and refusing to let go until his will comes to pass.

1 Timothy 2:1 │ I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people.

Supplication. This prayer is asking God to supply what we need in the moment.

Philippians 4:19 │ And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.

Supplication often refers to physical needs, but it can also refer to spiritual needs as in Ephesians 6. After describing the need to take up the “full armor of God” (Eph 6:13-17), the apostle Paul exhorted the Ephesians (and us) to remain alert and to pray in the Spirit, “making supplication for all the saints” (Eph 6:18). One example of a man who took this seriously in the church at Colossae was Epaphras.

Colossians 4:12 │ Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God.

Because of Epaphras’ prayers of supplication, the church was standing “mature and fully assured in the all the will of God.” God loves to answer those kinds of prayers (Eph 3:14-21).

The Content of Prayer

What should your prayers consist of? What should you ask for? It can be intimidating knowing what the content of our prayer. The Bible says we are to pray according to the will of God.

1 John 5:14-15 │ And this is the confidence that we have toward 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.

God’s will is for us to know him in a personal way and to live for him and his glory. When we pray God’s will for our lives, we are setting aside what we want and desire, and we’re asking for what he desires instead. When we pray according to God’s will, he gives us an amazing promise.

Ephesians 3:20-21 │ Now to him who is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, according to the power at work within us, 21 to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen.

The Attitude of Prayer

It is vital we come to God with a humble, childlike attitude.

Matthew 18:3-4 │ Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Why Pray?

Let’s start with three brief answers to WHY we should be devoted to prayer.

1. God says so!

If we do not pray, we are disobedient! Is it hard to pray? Of course! Welcome to fallen humanity! Fight your flesh! Do it because God says so! God says, “Be devoted to prayer.” Be intentional about prayer in your life.  

1 Samuel 12:23 │ Far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by failing to pray for you.

 2. Prayer Changes Things

James 5:16, NKJV │ The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

The difference between praying and not praying is heaven and hell. Remember Paul’s grief and anguish for his perishing kinsmen in Romans 10:1, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved.”

3. Prayer Demonstrates God’s Power

Jeremiah 33:3 │ Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.

God can do more in five seconds than we can do in five years. So many times, when I get up, I want to go immediately to work because I have so much to do! No—we must put God first. God can do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. I don’t mean that God spares us hard work. I mean prayer can make your work 5,000 times more fruitful than you can make it alone.

 4. Prayer Grants God’s Peace

Philippians 4:6-7 │ Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

In plain language we are to talk to God “in everything.” We are to ask for his supply “in everything.” This is the walk of faith. Worry about nothing; talk to God about everything. It’s a moment by moment trusting in God. Anxiety leaves when we are intentionally aware of God’s love for us, his power on our behalf, and we talk to him in everything. God wants your heart. He wants to rule your heart by his love.

How to Pray?

We must remember that as believers, we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit works prayer in us and through us.

Romans 8:15-16 │ You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

Remember that you have unlimited access to God by the Spirit. We can come “boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).

Pray Freely

You are free to speak to God, anytime, anywhere, and you should be talking with him constantly. Martin Luther said that for a Christian prayer is like breathing.

To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.[1]

You need to go to God sometimes without any paper, and without any form or agenda. Pray until you cannot pray anymore. Pray until your heart breaks for your own sin! Pray until you break through to heaven! Paul instructed us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17).

Ephesians 6:18 │ Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication. To that end, keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints.

Speak to God wherever and whenever. Be aware of God’s presence. Sometimes we pray without any words. There is an “abiding” kind of prayer where you are walking with God without words, fully aware of his presence.

Pray with Form and Structure

Formed praying is another way to say structured prayer. We must have some kind of form or structure to our prayers at times. If our prayers were always without form, we would neglect many areas of prayer. The Bible gives us many formats and structures for our prayers.

Structure #1

Pray the Bible.

Psalm 1:2 │ His [the blessed man’s] delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.

Pray biblical prayers. Meditate on the Bible and pray it back to God. Our prayers should be saturated with the Scriptures. As you read the Bible, pray through the verses you are reading. In Genesis 1, you might pray, “Thank you Lord for creating all things.” In Ephesians 2 it might be, “Thank you for saving me when I was dead in my trespasses and sins.” Pray God’s thoughts after him.

 Structure #2

Pray through lists.

I have in mind lists of people to pray for and lists of needs to pray about. Only God can remember all the people and needs you should be praying for—without a list, you would be lost. You must have lists like:

  • Kings (elected officials, 1 Tim 2:2)
  • Needs (Phil 4:19)—These change constantly.
  • Places (2 Thess 3:1, “that God’s word may spread.”)

 Structure #3

Pray with the help of books, websites, or apps.

I can’t know everything about every country in the world and how to pray for each place, but others have put together valuable resources so we can pray intelligently. Operation World is available in various forms (book, web, app) about all the countries of the world. It gives you daily prayer requests and needs.

Christian biographies are a wonderful way to see how others prayed through difficulties and saw God break through. Reading of their lives is a wonderful way to grow your prayer life. Several to read are:

  • The Autobiography of George Mueller
  • From Disgrace to Amazing Grace (John Newton)
  • The Hiding Place (Corrie Ten Boom)
  • Here I Stand (Martin Luther)
  • From Mecca to Christ (Ahmed Joktan)
  • 50 People Every Christian Should Know (Wiersbe)
  • Evidence Not Seen (Darlene Deibler Rose)
  • Through Gates of Splendor by Elisabeth Elliot
  • Tortured for Christ (Richard Wurmbrand)

Ask God to help you to remember what you are learning about prayer from these dear saints who have gone before us.

Structure #4

Pray through concentric circles of relationships.

I can pray in concentric circles, beginning with myself, and then my wife (if married), my family, my church, my contacts and friends, the government.

Structure #5

Pray using patterns given to us by Scripture.

The Bible gives us various patterns we can follow in our prayer life. It tells us when to pray, how to pray, and what to pray for.

  • Confession for our Country

Daniel 9:20 │ While I was speaking and praying, confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my plea before the Lord my God for the holy hill of my God.

  • Morning, Noon, and Evening

Psalm 55:17 │ Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.

  • The Lord’s Prayer

Matthew 6:9-13, KJV │ Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. 10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors. 13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil: For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.

Take a moment and think about how you would pray through the Lord’s prayer. “Father in heaven, you are in control over everything in my life. Your name is holy, and therefore I want to live holy. May your kingdom come through my life as I do your will on earth as if I was already with you in heaven. Provide for all my needs: my food, clothing, job, and housing for my family and my loved ones. Help me to forgive as you have forgiven me. May your kingdom ever expand through my witness. I pray for the many lost in my family and community. Yours kingdom is coming soon, so help me to be ready. I rely on your power. My you get the glory from my life. Amen.”

Structure #6

Counsel yourself through your prayers to God.

When you are anxious, ask God, “Why am I so anxious?” Perhaps you are afraid of losing your reputation, or losing a friend, or losing your health, or your security in your job or family. David would talk to himself through prayer to God, applying the word of God to his life and walking in the word.

Psalm 42:5-6 │ Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. My soul is cast down within me; therefore I remember you.

Like the Psalmist, counsel yourself through praying to God. You might say something like this: “O Lord, I know I am anxious. I fear because I’m loving something more than you. Forgive me for desiring a friend, a job, my health, etc., more than you. Help to live in the joy of being free to trust only in you.” Counsel yourself. “I need to hope in God, not in my circumstances. Help me Lord to do that!”

Pray According to God’s Will

Some are discouraged at a lack of answered prayer. God tells us there are reasons we do not get an answer. The main reason is we do not pray according to God’s will.

When to Pray?

Regularly

As God’s children, we make it a habit to pray regularly.

Psalm 55:17 │ Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud: and he shall hear my voice.

Early

God’s people are thirsty, hungry for God! We seek him early and earnestly.

Psalm 5:3 │ In the morning, O Lord, hear my voice. In the morning I lay my needs in front of you, and I wait.

Psalm 63:1 │ O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.

Psalm 143:8 │ Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you. Show me the way I should go, for to you I entrust my life.

The Beatitudes also speak of having a hunger thirst after righteousness. When you are hungry you seek God early!

 Matthew 5:6 │ Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Always

1 Thessalonians 5:17 │ Pray without ceasing.

Luke 18:1 │ Men ought always to pray, and not to faint.

Where to Pray?

Alone

You need a place where you can be alone.

Matthew 6:6 │ When you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Matthew 14:23 │ And when he had sent the multitudes away, he went up into a mountain apart to pray: and when the evening was come, he was there alone.

 Luke 6:12 │ And it came to pass in those days, that he went out into a mountain to pray, and continued all night in prayer to God.

Go somewhere people cannot get to you. Perhaps you need to get up early before everyone else. Get alone with God. No distractions.

Together

Matthew 18:20 │ For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.

Conclusion

Paul says, “Pray without ceasing.” Your life should be a spirit of prayer. We are all different, but we all should have a life devoted to prayer, since we are the temple of the Holy Spirit. Prayer changes things, but most of all it changes us. Prayer is the heart language of every Christian. God is sovereign, but his sovereign hand moves through finite people! Let us continue in prayer!

[1] From “The Large Catechism” by Martin Luther (1530), published in Triglot Concordia: The Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, trans. F. Bente and W. H. T. Dau (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921), 565–773.