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One of the biggest mistakes any Christian leader can make is to assume that every Christian knows how to pray. In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 11:1, we find the disciples asking Jesus to teach them how to pray. And to this day, we find Christians asking exactly how they should pray. A Christian may not have any real idea about how to go about prayer. On the other hand, a Christian may be doing something he or she thinks is prayer but for which there is no Biblical basis or justification. In fact, it may be flat out contrary to Scripture.
God does not "hear" every prayer that is addressed to Him. There are conditions that must be met for our prayers to absolutely be heard by God.
Knowing What Prayer Is
Knowing how to pray, of course, means understanding what Biblical prayer is. As shown in the "What is Prayer?" page, by the strictest Biblical definition, prayer is making petitions to God, expecting to receive what is asked. As also shown, there are several Greek words that are translated with the word "prayer" or related words like "intercession" and "supplication". Each of these words, if examined in the contexts in which they occur, can be clearly seen to be about making petitions; each word referring to a different kind of petition.
Given this, we must understand a few major underlying principles that apply to how we pray, and then we must know exactly what we should ask for. We will discuss these issues below.
To Whom Do We Pray?
It is important to know whom we should address our prayers to. Jesus told us to address our prayers to the Father (John 16:23, 26 & 27). Since we believe that God has given all authority to Jesus, it is alright to address your prayers to Jesus as well. Some teach differently, saying it is wrong to address prayers to anyone but the Father specifically, but this is Biblically unjustifiable doctrinal hair-splitting. See Acts 7:59; Stephen, with his dying breath, prayed to Jesus, "...calling upon God...". Also, by the context, St. Paul said in II Corinthians 12:9 that he prayed to Jesus. And last but not least, the famous phrase, "Amen, Even so, come Lord Jesus!" (Revelation 22:20) is a prayer addressed to Jesus. It is probably also alright to address a prayer to the Holy Spirit. You are certainly invoking the Holy Spirit when you use the words "In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen" (Matthew 28:19), and an invocation is a kind of prayer. But it is absolutely unscriptural to pray to anyone else, such as "Mary" or one of the saints. In fact, doing so is idolatry. An answer from such a source may come from Satan!
Praying According To God's Will
One of the most important promises concerning prayer in the entire Bible is found in I John 5:14 & 15:
"Now this is the confidence that we have in Him,
that if we ask anything according to His will,
He hears us.
"And we know that if He hears us,
whatever we ask,
we know that we have the petitions
that we have asked of Him."
Special Note: This verse is Scriptural affirmation of the doctrine that Biblical prayer is basically making petitions to God, expecting to receive what we ask. Anyone who teaches differently teaches insidious lies of the devil.
The question that we must ask, in reference to this passage, is; "How do we know what God's will is?" For the purpose of prayer, we can understand that knowing God's will means knowing the Bible. In particular, it means knowing the Scriptural examples of petitions made in prayer by men of God. There are many examples of this throughout the Bible. Some of them, of course, would only apply to the circumstances of the time and place where the petitions were made. But there are many others that can be applied in prayer by and for every Christian. We will discuss this further below. But first, we must address several other points.
Another important point: When you pray, mean it! Don't mindlessly recite any prayer! Never just read a prayer off a sheet of paper unless you are using your mind to make it really your prayer. Otherwise, in God's sight, you are just running your mouth and that happens to be sin. You should never even recite the Lord's Prayer mindlessly, as so many Christians do all the time. It is this writer's opinion that practice should be abolished from the Church. When you pray that prayer, you should be conscious of what those words mean. If it is not your intent to make fulfilling them a priority in your life, you are praying damnation on yourself. It is equivalent to mindlessly taking communion (I Corinthians 11:27 -31.)
An important relevant issue in prayer is the fear of God; as it applies here, coming to God with real reverence. As it says in Ecclesiastes 5:2 (a little known but important statement about prayer), "...For God is in heaven and you are on earth". The Lord's prayer does not being with the words "Our Father who art in heaven..." for nothing. When you come before God in prayer, especially when you are really in a serious prayer time, you should be conscious of who you are talking to!
A doctrine that has been promoted by lukewarm evangelicals is that the fear of God is really nothing more than having reverence and respect for him. It has been this writer's observation that those who teach this generally don't even have that. And it is contrary to Scripture. The Bible tells us that "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge" (Proverbs 1:7). In Matthew 10:28, Jesus told us this:
"Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.
But rather fear Him who is able to destroy
both body and soul in hell."
This certainly does not sound like He was telling us just to have reverence and respect for God. He was telling us to fear God on the basis of what God can to do you. Any Christian who has endured real divine chastisement and had the moral and spiritual discernment to know it for what it was has learned this. If the entire world believed in God only to the point of having Biblical fear of Him, the world would be a much better place! If you want an effective prayer life, you must learn to approach Him with godly fear.
Pray With Your Understanding
Truly Biblical prayer is a very intellectual activity. It does not include any mindless yammering of the same phrases. A Pentecostal or Charismatic-type Christian might condemn a Catholic for reciting the Rosary, which is indeed error. But then he'll go and pray in a prayer meeting and say, in the heat of religious excitement, a prayer in which he will repeat certain phrases or petitions over and over. He's committing the same basic error in a different way. You will find no prayers like that in the Scripture.
Have you ever been at a Church service, revival meeting, etc., in which Christians were laying hands on someone and praying for the person to be healed? Did you see them "laying on hands" so forcefully they were nearly breaking the subject's neck (this writer has been on the receiving end of that); like they thought that they could force the victim (really!) to be healed? Meanwhile, with the other hand they were reaching so hard toward heaven that it seemed that they expected to be able to grab God's hand and yank him down to do the healing? And they were praying so loudly and vehemently that it seemed they thought they had to wake God up to answer their prayers? Guess what: There is no real faith in a prayer like that! Zeal, yes; Faith, no! See Ecclesiastes 5:2.
Did you ever read the story of Elijah versus the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel, in I Kings 18? Did you read about how the priests of Baal prayed in verses 26-29? The kind of prayers described above are more like the prayers described in those verses than they are like the godly prayers recorded in the Bible. Compare that with Elijah's prayer in verses 36-37. If you have a wristwatch or clock that displays the seconds, read that prayer aloud and time yourself. See how long it takes to pray it. It is likely that Elijah raised his voice a bit so the people around him could hear his prayer, but that's probably all he did. He simply told God why he wanted Him to send the fire, minus any theatrics.
And the fire fell!
Consider also to the Pastoral Prayer of Jesus in John 17. This was no Pentecostal rant. Jesus prayed a list of petitions. He got right to the point. He told the Father precisely what He wanted. He told Him why it should be granted. He even defined His terms and qualified His statements (i.e. "this is why I am asking this"). He was using His understanding. When, in I Corinthians 14:15, St. Paul said that he would pray in the Spirit and pray with his understanding, he was not talking about separate activities. He was saying that he would pray using his mind with the guidance of the Spirit. It is the only way to pray in a truly effective and obedient manner.
Let's take a close look at part of Jesus' Pastoral Prayer:
"Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son..."
Reason why the Father should grant it:
"...that Your Son also may glorify you."
Qualification (justification for request):
"As you have given Him authority over all flesh..."
Definition of term:
"And this is eternal life, that they may know You..."
The same intellectual approach is repeated throughout the Prayer. Elijah use the same approach in his prayer on Mt. Carmel. Generally, most of the prayers recorded in the Bible take the form of what might be called arguments or pleas, in the legal sense. The person tells God what he wants and/or why he is asking it and/or why God should grant the petition. In Elijah's prayer on Mt. Carmel, he didn't even bother telling God what he wanted. All he did was give Him the "Why's". In the same way, to pray effectively, we should learn to present our prayers as arguments.
So here are a few guidelines for effective prayer:
Don't mindlessly repeat anything! It's sin to do it!
Don't ask for anything unless you really mean your request; "put your heart into it".
Always get right to the point and ask God for exactly what you want.
Qualify your request, i.e., give God a Scripturally justifiable reason why you are asking it.
Give God a reason, again a Scripturally based reason, why He should answer it.
Define your terms whenever a term could have several meanings.
And one other thing: Always accompany your petitions with thanksgiving (Philippians 4:6, I Timothy 2:1).
An effective Scriptural practice in prayer is giving God a reason for granting a petition by calling Him to remembrance of Biblical promises, prophecies or commandments relevant to the petition. Jehoshaphat did that, quite effectively, in His prayer in II Chronicles 20: 6-12.
Defining terms is good for your own growth and understanding. For example, for too many Christians, praying for someone is mainly a matter of saying, "God bless so and so". They may not even know what the term "bless" means. The Old Testament Hebrew and the New Testament Greek words for "bless" have different meanings. In this case, the Old Testament meaning is the better of the two. The Greek word translated "bless" in the New Testament merely means "make happy", which is too general to be a doctrinal definition. In the Old Testament, the word "baruch" refers to being favored by God, resulting in good and prosperity in every way.
But in English we can give the word another, even deeper meaning. This is a case wherein the Bible could be said to have gained something in translation. The original English meaning of the word "bless" is; "To make holy by a sacrifice and/or by covering with blood". That is to say, by the sacrifice of Jesus blood on the cross! What an insight on the part of the translators! When you ask God to bless someone - of course, it's okay to do that, but you should know what your are asking - think of the English definition! See Hebrews 12:14.
This brings us to the fundamental topic of what to pray for. As stated above, there are many godly prayers recorded in the Bible. If we look at these prayers, we will find in them many ideas for the kinds of prayers that we should offer.
One of the best examples of this is the prayer made by St. Paul in Colossians 1:9-12. Here, as in other passages, St. Paul told the Christians that he was addressing that he was praying for them, and then proceeded to expound the main topics of his prayers. These expositions constitute excellent guidelines for our own prayers. Just remember when you use them not to mindlessly recite these petitions. Rather, rephrase them to make them your own petitions. You should also study them to gain insight into exactly what your are asking, why your are asking it, and why God should grant it. And when you pray, express all three ideas. That, again, is using your understanding. It's the Biblical way to pray.
So here is what St. Paul prayed:
"For this reason we also, since the day we heard of it, do not cease to pray for you,
and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding;
"that you may walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing Him,
"being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God;
"strengthened with all might according to His glorious power,
for all patience and longsuffering with joy;
"giving thanks to the Father who has qualified us to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in the light."
Notice that St. Paul does something further here in the use of his understanding: He elaborates on his basic petitions, going into detail about how they should be fulfilled in the lives of the objects of his prayers.
First, let us point out one thing: There is not a single petition here for a material need. All the petitions are for spiritual needs. They are about spiritual growth and effective Christian living. And this happens to be a major theme in Biblical prayers, especially in the New Testament. This is not to say we should not pray for material needs. We most certainly should. But we must make recognizing and praying for spiritual needs the main thrust of our petitions. Material needs are secondary. Too much emphasis on the material tends to waste our prayer time. Focusing on spiritual needs in our prayers is consistent with the Scriptural principle of "Seek ye first the kingdom of God..." (Matthew 6:33)
St. Paul's petitions can be summarized for our use as follows:
Pray that Christians will truly know God's will. This means praying, first of all, that they will fill their heads with the Word.
Pray that God will give them wisdom and spiritual understanding. By the way, this writer defines spiritual understanding as knowing, from God's point of view, what is going on in any situation, and wisdom as knowing from Scripture what to do about it.
Pray that they will live lives that are really a testimony for Christ, which is to say, "walk worthy". Every Christian's life is a testimony for or against Christ. Do you know how Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus? By calling him Master! And by kissing him, which implied friendship. And every day Christians betray Jesus by letting it be known that they are Christians when their lives don't show it. If you are a Christian, show it by the way you live. Then you will be pleasing God. See also I John 3:21 & 22.
Pray that Christians will be fruitful. Pray that they will display the fruit of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Pray that they will do works that contribute to the building of the Church. Pray that they will lead the unsaved to Christ. In other words, pray that they will be effective as Christians.
Pray that they will be continually growing as Christians, especially in knowledge of God.
Pray that God will give them supernatural strength to do these things. (See also Ephesians 3:16, part of another good prayer you can learn from.)
Pray that they will have patience, longsuffering and joy to really "stay with it" in living the Christian life, regardless of what happens to them materially.
These examples show how you can rephrase many passages of Scripture into prayers for your fellow Christians, and in some cases, for the unsaved. If you want to be sure you are praying in accordance with God's will, base your prayers on Scripture.
See also: Eight Priorities of Intercessory Prayer
Praying For The Forgiveness of Sin
This is an aspect of prayer which you may have never heard of before, yet it is at the very core of intercessory prayer: When you pray for anyone, saved or unsaved, one of the first things you should do is pray that the Father will forgive that person's sins. We already discussed the fact that in Christ we are kings. We are also priests, and one of the main duties of a priest in the Old Testament was offering sacrifices for the forgiveness of other peoples' sins. This practice was the forerunner of intercessory prayer, which we have also said is basically prayer for spiritual needs. The need for forgiveness of sin tops the list of all possible spiritual needs. That's why Jesus used it in the Lord's Prayer as the example of intercessory prayer. We as priests can intercede for others by asking God to forgive their sins, and He will do it.
Notice again that in the Lord's Prayer, all petitions for people start with "Give us" as opposed to "Give me". This can be taken as a hint that we can pray for the forgiveness of sin for others.
You are probably aware that the Roman Catholic Church believes that priests have the authority to forgive sins. The only thing wrong with their thinking on that is seeing the priesthood as a special, privileged class. The Bible makes it plain that all Christians are priests. See I Peter 2:5. As priests, we offer up spiritual sacrifices, including intercessory prayers. For an example of this in connection with Christian ministry, see James 5:14 & 15.
Again, we do have the power to forgive sin, through prayer. In John 20:23, the risen Jesus told the disciples,
"If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them;
if you retain the sins of any, they are retained."
This shows, first of all, that when we pray for someone's sins to be forgiven, God does forgive them. It also suggests that if we don't pray for their forgiveness, they won't be forgiven. What an awesome responsibility!
An Old Testament example of praying for the forgiveness of sin for another person is found in Genesis 20:7:
"Now therefore restore the man his wife;
for he is a prophet,
and he shall pray for thee, and thou shalt live...."
In the context, Abraham had to pray for God to forgive the Philistine king for taking Sarah away from him. As mentioned in the previous page, Job had to pray for his friends, presumably for the forgiveness of their sins, before his own fortunes were restored. The Bible also shows that we aren't limited to praying for forgiveness of sins done personally to us. The Bible also shows that we can take responsibility in prayer for the sins of an entire group to which we belong. See Daniel 9:1-19. It is not stretching it to say that this could include the whole human race. In fact, St. Paul (I Timothy 2:1) suggests we should approach it exactly that way with the words "...for all men". Christians should unite in prayer in seeking God's forgiveness for the entire world. If enough Christians united in doing this, it would change the course of history.
Note that a person's sins being forgiven doesn't make that person Born Again. An Old Testament Israelite who offered the proper sacrifices had his sins forgiven. But having one's sins forgiven does remove the barrier that that sin puts between him and God, removes the person's accursed state and opens him up to God's blessings. That's what did happen in the Old Testament. In our time, for an unsaved person, it will make it more likely that he will get saved. For a Christian, it will help him in his walk with the Lord.
This is where all our prayers for others should begin.
Physical Position In Prayer
One thing that does not matter is your physical position when you pray. There have been those who have erroneously taught various things about this issue, ranging from simply saying that Christians must bow their heads and close their eyes* when praying, to dogmatically insisting that we pray in a kneeling position or stand with upraised hands, etc. The fact is, you can only rigidly hold to any such teaching if you ignore numerous Scripture references that condone other positions. The Bible shows people praying while standing (with and without raised hands), bowing, kneeling, laying flat on their faces, and even laying on a bed (Psalm 63:6). Teaching that insists on a particular position in prayer is false and divisive. It is actually a form of the egotistic fault-finding mentioned in the "What's Worth Arguing About?" page. Don't think you have to be in a special position to pray, and don't teach such an idea to anyone else! You can pray, literally, in any physical position you feel like praying in.
The circumstances don't matter much either. You may not believe this, but very seriously, Orthodox Jews have a blessing, which is a kind of prayer, that they say when they use the toilet! Seriously! You can and should pray anytime, anywhere that you feel you should.
*Closing your eyes does help to eliminate distractions. Being in a bowed position can help you to concentrate, and have an attitude of humility. But neither is a hard and fast rule.
When Should You Pray?
Like physical position, there is no specific time or place in which you absolutely must or must not pray. God can hear your prayers if you do it in the shower. See Psalm 139:7-122. However, you should make a habit of setting specific times apart for prayer. There is Scriptural precedent (See Daniel 6:10.) for saying that you should have three prayer times a day: in the morning before you start your day, during a break at midday, and in the evening. Overall, it is this writer's experience that you need to spend at least a full hour a day, net (but not necessarily all at once), in prayer to maintain a right relationship with the Lord. You should also spend extra periods in prayer on a regular basis as the Lord leads.
Instant Prayer is something like instant coffee. It is something you don't wait to do. How many times have you told someone that you would pray for them, or for a specific prayer request they gave you, but you never did? St. Paul told us to continue "...instant in prayer..." (Romans 12:12, KJV). [Never mind how more recent translations have changed the reading - the original is a good one.] The idea is that when you have something to pray for, don't wait to do it. God is always there to hear, so when you realize that you have something to pray about, pause and pray about it right then and there. If it's a prayer request from another person, pray with that person, out loud. This is an expression of Christian love. It can also be a powerful witness if you do it for an unsaved person.
You should also do what Jesus said about location: Find yourself a "closet" to go into when you pray. You may have to be creative about this. But do your best to find a time and place when you can at least be relatively free from distraction - the devil will try very hard to distract you - and turn your full attention to prayer. If you can get into a Church that is always open for prayer during the day, do it! This writer does that. But one way or another, get yourself alone with the Lord. Christian couples should pray together, but they should also give each other space to pray alone. Even to the point of one watching the children while the other prays. They should covenant with each other not to interrupt each other's prayer times except in a real emergency. What constitutes a real emergency should be defined before it happens.
It is a fact that finding the time and place in this world can be difficult, but if you make up your mind to do it, with the Lord's help, you can.
Pray Out Loud
This is not a hard and fast rule, but it may help you to pray out loud. Even if you just whisper. When you pray silently, your mind may tend to wander and you may find yourself just thinking or worrying or even daydreaming instead really praying. Praying out loud, again, even in a whisper, will help you to keep your mind focused on prayer. Silent prayer is Scriptural (See I Samuel 1) and can be effective, but you can fall asleep while praying silently! It's better to pray aloud if circumstances permit it.
Have A Prayer List
It is a good idea to have a list of persons and things you should pray for. The reason is, if you just trust your own memory, when your prayer time comes you may forget about things that you meant to pray for. But if you have things written down, it will help you to remember. You should keep a list of people you mean to pray for. This writer has a set of file cards with the names of the people he prays for, with a different card for each day of the week. You should also keep a journal of specific requests, when your prayed for those requests, and when and what you saw as an answer to your prayers. Again, use your intellect in relation to prayer if you want to be effective. This is another practical way to do that.
Again, neglect of prayer is one of the most serious and pervasive failures of Laodicean Christians. The biggest reason for unanswered prayer is not praying. You have to be a prayer warrior to be an overcomer. But again, we must also fast or do something equivalent regularly if we are to have full power in prayer. We will discuss the how-to of this in the following page:
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Contact Author, William D. Brehm