In the Christian life, prayer is like breathing. Prayer keeps us connected to God, tunes our attention to Him, forces us to pause our busy lives, to open our hearts and minds to the presence of God, and to listen for His guiding voice.
But how exactly are we supposed to pray? Is there a right way to do it? We’re often told to pray, but are often left to figure out how to pray on our own, by guessing or imitating the way others do. Thankfully, the Bible can show us how to pray, and there are many options for how to approach prayer. Here are a few ways:
Praying Silently (In Your Head)
One of the shortest prayers in the Bible happens in Nehemiah chapter 2 (Nehemiah 2:1-6). Nehemiah is about to make a bold request of the Persian Emperor, and quickly offers a silent, internal prayer that is so short that it has no words at all. He only tells us that in the middle of a conversation, just before responding, he prayed. God accepts even the shortest, seemingly invisible, silent prayers.
Christian meditation is different from meditation in other religions because it involves mentally focusing on a person outside of oneself: God. Psalm 63:6 describes a person lying on their bed late at night, just thinking about God and reflecting on what he has done. Psalm 139:23-24 shows us that we can invite God into our thoughts and ask him to show us things in our lives that need to be fixed.
One of the simplest forms of prayer is simply saying "thank you" to God for things He has done. For many people, this often done before meals - thanking God for providing basic needs. Interestingly, there are no examples in the Bible of people asking God to add a special “blessing” to the food. What we do see is people saying "thank you" for food that is already a good gift from God (Luke 24:30, Acts 27:35).
Petition is any prayer that involves asking God for something. This is what most people commonly think of when they think of prayer. Many parts of the Lord's Prayer are petitions. (Matthew 6:9-13)
Intercessory prayer is the act of praying on behalf of someone else, possibly someone who cannot or will not pray for themselves. In this type of prayer, you stand before God in that person’s place and ask for help, mercy, forgiveness, protection, and so on. (Genesis 18:16-33, Exodus 8:28, Acts 12:1-19, 1 Timothy 2:1-5)
Journaling & Writing
Humans tend to forget very easily. Keeping a journal is a good way to remind yourself where you have been in your life, and the things you have gone through. It can also be helpful to write down the things you have been praying about - because you may read back later on and realize how God has answered your prayers in unique and unexpected ways. While not exactly an example of journaling, the Kings of Israel were required to write their own copy of the entire Torah and to read from it every day in order to stay grounded (Deuteronomy 17:18-20). Keeping a journal can be a similar practice.
Prayer is not just a solo activity. Certainly anyone can pray on their own time, in their own space, but it is also an important group activity for the church overall.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: “No matter what objections there may be, the fact simply remains that where Christians want to live together under the Word of God they may and they should pray together to God in their own words. They have common petitions, common thanks, common intercessions to bring to God, and they should do so joyfully and confidently.” (Life Together, p. 62)
There are many prayers in the Bible. Some of them are records of things people prayed spontaneously, in the moment. Others are examples of carefully crafted poetry, written with an artistic purpose in mind. Reading or reciting these prayers from memory is a real, acceptable, and helpful form of prayer. Prayer doesn’t have to be spontaneous. The Psalms give us profound examples of beautiful poetic prayer. Jesus himself prayed the Psalms when he was being crucified (Matthew 27:46, Luke 23:46). He also gave us The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) and taught us to pray that way. Starting with these written examples, the scriptures can help you learn how to pray.
Some conservative Protestants tend to favor spontaneous, original prayers. The idea is that praying in one's own words is more sincere and authentic, and forces each individual to think and say what they really mean in God's presence. That being said, only praying spontaneous prayers can sometimes be exhausting, and oddly enough can become shallow. Sometimes, it doesn't feel like there's anything good to say, or anything to ask for. Or maybe, we're said all of ours thanks already.
This is where praying scripture becomes incredibly powerful. The scriptures can help express things that otherwise might not even be thought of, and the language of scripture can be engaging and reinvigorating for an otherwise stale prayer life.
On the Psalms, N.T. Wright says:
"The Psalms are there for every church to use in public worship, in creative and imaginative ways but also in ways that become familiar and traditional in the best sense, so that the worshipers can slip into them as one would into a comfortable suit of clothes. They are also there for every Christian - child, woman, and man - to use in their private prayers, both in the regular discipline of morning and evening worship and in the thousand moments during the day when something happens to which the first response should be prayer, whether in praise or in panic." (N.T. Wright, The Case for the Psalms, p. 26)
J.D. Walt puts it well: “The Psalms are the praying and worshipping voice of the people of God at all times and in all places” (Inside Out Worship, p. 104). Some people may worry that praying a pre-written prayer eliminates the honestly of the prayer. While this may sometimes be the case, who could be better at teaching us how to pray than God himself, and the people who have already walked with God?
The song "Contact" by As Cities Burn contains some painfully honest confessions about how prayer can sometimes seem aimless and ineffective:
Remember we used to speak
Now I'm starting to think
That Your voice was really my own
Bouncing off the ceiling back to me
It is very possible to find that prayer can seem like a chore, or like it has no effect. Sometimes it feels like it's hard work to pray, or like you really don't know what to say. Having a game plan, a structure, the tradition, history, and experience of those who have come before, and beautifully-written poetry is one way to counteract the sometimes frustrating and unnecessary task of having to "re-invent the wheel" in your prayer life.
“The Psalms are not the prayers of nice church people. They are the heartfelt, gut-wrenching cries of people like us. The Psalms contain the full range of human emotion and feeling, [...] “the Psalms exegete the depths of the human heart, mind and soul. [...] “Christian in all times and all places have learned to pray and to worship with the Psalms. The Psalms give a vocabulary and a voice for faith. They provide syntax and grammar for communicating the depth of our being to the listening, living God. They unearth the full range of the human condition. Whether we are thirsting like a deer for the water brook (see Ps. 42) or burdened under the crushing weight of unconfessed sin (see. Ps. 51), we will never learn to worship or pray until we have learned to be honest with ourselves before God.” (J.D. Walt, Inside Out Worship, pp. 103-105)
There are many ways to approach prayer, and endless things to pray about. The journey of personal spirituality is life-long, so there will always be more to try and learn. Don’t worry about being “spiritual enough,” doing things the “right way” or comparing yourself to others. God’s Spirit will lead you on your own journey. Let your heart follow Him.
O Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:1 ESV)
- Read Nehemiah 2:1-6. How long - or short - do you suppose Nehemiah's prayer was? How could you apply this kind of prayer into your own life?
- Read Psalm 63:5-8 and Psalm 139:23-24. How would these verses contribute to learning how to practice meditation?
- Read The Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13. Identify parts in this prayer that you yourself have prayed for many times, as well as parts that you don't pray as often.
- Read Genesis 18:16-33, Exodus 8:28, Acts 12:1-19, 1 Timothy 2:1-5. Given these examples of intercessory prayer, can you identify times in your life when you either have or could have prayed in this way on behalf of someone else? Or are there instances where you know somebody else prayed for you like this?
- Are there any other ways of praying that you know of or practice yourself that you didn't see mentioned in this study?