"How do I pray" "Why do I pray" are topics that come up regularly, and we have taught on them quite a few times over the years at FBC. Here is a very, very brief summary of what we have taught about prayer at FBC. I still have to come back and insert all of the verse references!
Why do we pray? This starts with what we believe about God. Even after much debate, I think we can agree on this:
God truly loves us and wants what is best for us.
God comprehensively cares for all of creation.
God has authority over everything, including nature and spiritual beings.
But humans are truly free beings and fully responsible for all of our actions, which means that asking God to “change someone’s mind” is an easy way out and not how God seems to work. Further, God has many more ways to act in history than we realize, so telling God what to do is just not an effective strategy. So here’s a brief summary of everything we can say for sure about prayer:
God would not tell us to do something for no reason.
God has chosen prayer to be a means by which He accomplishes His will.
In prayer, we do not seek to change God’s mind but to discern His will.
God does not need us in order to act but delights to respond to our prayers.
There is something valuable behind true corporate prayer.
With respect to the content of prayer, here is what we can gather from the Bible. In the Old Testament, God answered prayers with respect to
victory in battle,
Many people who prayed did so with the understanding that God’s attentiveness would be in part based on the quality of their heart and lives, but that did not stop anyone from praying what was on their heart. The most humble prayers seemed to emphasize God’s keeping His promises.
In the New Testament, here are the types of prayers mentioned favorably:
blessings on evangelists, missionaries, and children,
desire for unity, mercy, spiritual maturity, enlightenment, gospel boldness, patience, wisdom, and healing, and
prayer for the government and the gospel.
Most of the New Testament prayers focus on seeing God’s will done, and there is one prayer for prosperity. More of the New Testament has to do with the pray-er (not the prayer, if that makes sense). These are the characteristics of the right heart of a pray-er:
praying in mutual agreement with other believers,
praying in belief and faith,
praying for the Spirit’s help,
being willing to hear “no”,
praying with right motives, and
walking in righteousness.
Here’s my summary: if we pray
in repentance | with humility | focused on God | intentionally/purposefully | with forgiveness | persistently | honestly | in unity | fervently | in the Spirit | with joy | in thanksgiving | constantly | boldly | reverently | without doubt
then we never have to worry about praying “for the wrong thing”. Besides, God would never do the wrong thing, even if we asked Him persistently for it! Jesus’ model prayer (“The Lord’s Prayer”) is built with these head-and-heart matters in mind. Its outline does us a world of good to follow (which is why Jesus told us to pray in that way!). For even more content, we can go to the “high priestly prayer” of John 17 for excellent guidance.
David has taught the Lord’s Prayer with the acronym ACTS:
A—Adoration (Your name be glorified, Your kingdom come, Your will be done)
C—Confession (Forgive us our debts)
T—Thanksgiving (For Thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever)
S—Supplication (Give us our daily bread, lead us not into temptation)
Every time we pray (except in the case of little one-sentence prayers), we should try to incorporate all of these elements. Of the characteristics Jesus did not mention in His model prayer, here’s what we do with them:
Honestly. There are times when we know we aren’t being honest with ourselves or with God. Invoke the Spirit’s help! “Spirit, sort through my heart, show me who I am and who You’re making me to be, and give me peace.”
With joy. Sometimes it’s hard to pray joyfully. But there is always one thing that must give us joy, and in that we pray as David did in Psalm 51, “Restore the joy of Your salvation to me and give me a willing spirit.”
With thanksgiving. Again, sometimes we don’t feel thankful. Paul wrote, “(1 Thessalonians 5:18) Give thanks in everything, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Say those words, tell God what you are thankful for, and let Him restore your heart to thankfulness for the blessing of salvation in Jesus.
Without doubting. This might be the hardest one of them all. I can only offer this very earnest plea from Mark 9, “I do believe! Help my unbelief.” I have prayed that many, many times.
Intentionally and fervently. No one can force you to do these things. When you notice that your prayers have become flippant, predictable, or without any real meaning, stop what you’re doing and look through a prayer book.
Persistently. Unless you have a great memory, there’s only one way I know to pray in this way: keep a prayer journal. Write down the things you are praying about with the dates you started. Keep praying until God answers.
Constantly. How do we pray without ceasing? This is a matter of awareness—God is always listening to your thoughts. Just remember that! You can also use an ancient method called a breath prayer; just Google that for more information.
Prayer in Crisis
Everything I just said is all fine and good. But what about in a time of crisis, like losing your child, or receiving a terminal diagnosis, or losing a job, or your home, or any other of significantly traumatic life events? How can we pray when we can’t even think rationally? That’s beyond tough; here’s what I can suggest:
Ask the Spirit to pray for you.
Surround yourself with Christians who can pray for you.
Have a short list of Bible verses you can call on for such awful times. I suggest Psalm 27: David was in an awful way, and this psalm wobbles between having confidence in God and asking for confidence in God. It’s real.
Importantly, do remember that trauma is no excuse to abandon your Christian principles. God can handle your anger, but don’t let anger get ahold of you.