"Teach us to pray"By Nathan Mates
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples." [Luke 11:1]
Prayer is one of the disciplines of the Christian life that is essential for all to practice. Merely sitting in Church staring at your shoelaces saying "Yeah, God, what the pastor just said" isn't the the peak of one's prayer life. It is possible to do better, it is possible to pray just as well as your pastor, and it is possible to pray for more than thirty seconds without falling asleep.
As the quote above from Luke details, even the disciples recognized that they weren't very good at prayer, and needed instruction from the master. But, notice the wording: it is not "teach us how to pray," it is simply "teach us to pray." The disciples saw that Jesus prayed often, and they recognized that they didn't have that will or desire to do the same as Jesus. And so, they asked for that. If you're in the same situation, it's perfectly acceptable to say the same thing to Jesus: "teach me to pray."
At the most basic level, prayer is talking to God. In doing so, you obviously need to know who you're talking to-- you're not talking to empty space, or some half-realized form, you're talking to the creator and sustainer of the universe. Like talking to another human, it really helps to know who you're talking to, what their likes and dislikes are, and how they react. Thus, as you want to talk with God more and more, you should be reading his word (The Bible) in order to discover his character, and receive his words. Reading the Bible is not a requirement before your first prayers, as God still hears them, but as time goes on, getting to know God helps tremendously.
Going beyond that basic level, Jesus's response back to the disciples had a model for prayer: "He said to them, "When you pray, say: "'Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.'" [Luke 11:2-4]
In addition to this model, prayer should be a habit, as Jesus demonstrated. Mark records this as a habit from very early on in Jesus's ministry: "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed." [Mark 1:35] The gospels record many other times where Jesus left the disciples to spend time with God-- it was a regular habit for him.
So, it should also be a regular habit for the rest of us. Pick a set block time that everyday, you can give to God in prayer. Many follow Jesus's example and make it early in the morning. However, some people (myself included) are barely functional in the mornings. Thus, I believe should give prayer time to God from our best times, our most alert times, our most spiritual times. For you morning people, those times are early in the morning. Those of us needing a cup of coffee to be useful, I'd recommend some other time. Praying before going to sleep may be an iffy time, as sometimes you may find yourself too exhausted to give to God of your best.
Hope Chapel, where I attend, has a 24-hour prayer cycle, where each month, people can sign up to pray during a specific 15-minute block of time. When I was trying to get into a regular habit of prayer, I used that as a way of starting to dedicate over a specific time. You may not want anything this formal, but the process is still valid of picking a time. Yes, it can be difficult at first to get into the habit of praying for a block of time every day, but it is a good habit to acquire.
Jesus also had other specific comments on praying: "And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him." [Matthew 6:5-8]
Basically, as Jesus says here, public prayer is its own reward. But, private prayer to God is even better. Some forms of public prayer are quite good and necessary-- such as a pastor at a service. Those prayers are instructional to others, and proclaim God's words as well. But, there are very few pastors (if any) who neglect the private prayer as well. And also, Jesus says that we don't need to worry about using lots of fancy words or long prayers like others, as God sees our hearts. But, we shouldn't necessarily think that thirty seconds of listing off a few things is a good prayer either.
If you've got nothing else to say to God, you can always repeat the Lord's prayer-- it has a number of specific requests and actions that can be used as the basis to attach other prayers to. The first request to God is not 'your kingdom come.' It's 'hallowed be your name' -- i.e. "God, make your name Holy." God is maligned by so many people these days, and his last name is not 'dang.' This is a specific breaking of the third commandment-- "You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name." [Exodus 20:7] So, in addition to this part of the Lord's prayer, you can pray for everyone (possibly including yourself) who's misused, profaned, or tarnished God's name.
Next up in the Lord's prayer is 'your kingdom come.' So many people regard Jesus's return as an inconvenience, a problem, a bother. Some would rather prefer Jesus's return not to happen until after they get back from a planned cruise, or moving into a new home, or any other event. Still others look at the events of the tribulation in Revelation and say "Lord, I don't want to be around when most of the world's wiped out by many painful methods." [Some believe the rapture will be before the tribulations, others after. Taking 'the first shall be last, and the last shall be first' with a bit of cynicism, a friend of mine commented that those who think they'll suffer on Earth after the rapture will be raptured, and those expecting a free ride out won't get raptured. But I digress...] There's nothing here on Earth that can compare with God's riches and majesty in Heaven once he arrives. There's nothing worth sticking around here on Earth for-- Heaven is just so much better that we should all be praying for its arrival as soon as possible.
'Give us this day our daily bread' is what Jesus said, not 'give us this day our daily caviar and pheasant under glass.' We are to be glad with what God has given us, and trust in him for the basic necessities of life-- our needs, not our wants. Too much time spent thinking about the wants of our flesh can lead you into financial debt, idolatry, and worse. [Not to mention being simply overweight, as one of my cats has proved.] So, we are asking God to be content and joyful in what he's given us.
'Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us' explicitly details out what we need to do in response to the prayer, as opposed to the implicit parts as above. As John noted, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." [1 John 1:9] So, we can be forgiven of our sins, as we confess them to God (and hopefully also to everyone involved in the sin). But, we are also to forgive all those sins against us-- this is quite often, the harder thing to do, as our flesh cries out "Hey! They sinned against us. Judge them now, God, as I'm in the right." [For an example of this, see "Rise up, O Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve" from Psalm 94:2, and many other Psalms.] So, we are to continually search our minds for cases in which we were sinned against, forgive them, and move on-- not dwelling in anger, resentment, or bitterness.
Finally, at the end of this quote from Jesus, we see 'And lead us not into temptation.' This stands along with "No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it." [1 Corinthians 10:13] Basically, God will not lead us into temptation, but he will let us stray off his path into the traps of temptation that lie just off of it. We are to pray that we continually are reminded that in any tempting situation, God's promised a way out. It may not be pleasant [Genesis 39:7-18], it may not be what we think we want, but God has promised a way out, and it's our responsibility to find that escape hatch and use it.
The above is an short analysis of just a few short sentences in the Bible of a prayer by Jesus. Whole books can be (and are) written on each short phrase, but the above was done as an example of how to take Jesus's short words, and use them as a framework to hang your own prayers onto. For each of them, you may be convicted by the Holy Spirit to do something, pray for a specific example of that in your life, or anything else.
There are many more prayers in the Bible that you can study, and use as the basis for your own prayers. You can start by reading the book of Psalms, which is full of prayers for all sorts of different circumstances and situations. Or, you can go through the Bible, looking at every instance of the word 'pray', 'prayer' and all other forms of that word. (A concordance is useful for this kind of study-- it's every word of the Bible in alphabetical order, noting where each instance can be found. Bible software on the computer is also useful for such searches, and I use such programs to help in my writings)
The prayers found in the Bible range from the short and direct to the extended acknowledgments: "Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the LORD, "Remember, O LORD, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes." And Hezekiah wept bitterly." [2 Kings 20:2-3] is one of the shortest and most direct in the Bible, while Solomon's prayer of dedication over the Temple (1 Kings 8:12-53) is a larger prayer that glorifies God.
In talking with God, remember that God is omnipresent-- i.e. everywhere. God's there to listen when you pray in Church. And before a meal. And while driving. And while at work. And at all other times. Paul reminds us to "pray continually" [1 Thessalonians 5:17], something that is greatly helped by God's omnipresence. There are lots of small breaks during the day-- at a stoplight, waiting for the microwave, between tasks at the office, or anything else. Those are great opportunities to slip in a few words of prayer to God, and not just along the lines of "God, hurry up this stupid traffic light." If you need subject material to pray for, just look around-- there's bound to be someone else needing prayer, some action that needs doing, or just about anything else. If necessary, ask the Holy Spirit to point out what to pray for. This is not to contradict the set times of prayer mentioned above, but prayer time in addition to the fixed times.
While praying, if we do so silently, many people (myself included) have the annoying tendency of our minds wandering all over the place. I can be praying for those at work, and a few seconds later, wondering how the next parts of the project at work will be implemented, to getting annoyed at the buggy software we have to use due to some monopolies, to whether deregulation would work for the taxi market in Outer Mongolia. Then get back on track for a few more seconds, and spend a minute not praying off on tangents again. Praying out loud is a good way to keep focused-- you're concentrating more on what comes out of your mouth, and less on all the random things that pop into your head.
In forming a regular prayer habit, many find that some sort of prayer diary is helpful. Around church, work, home, and the like, you can very easily get deluged with prayer requests. You can bet that there's at least one thing that every person you know needs prayer for, and most of us know a lot of people. Keeping track of all of the requests from those we know to things we should pray for (our government at all levels, fulfilling the great commission, etc) can easily pile up. Writing things down in a somewhat organized form helps you keep track of them-- and also lets you see in a concrete way later on which prayer requests have been answered. It's sometimes very rewarding to see how many requests were answered, as we see God's work, as opposed to forgetting we ever prayed for certain things.
As commented on above, God doesn't really mind if we borrow some prayers from his word-- in fact, I believe it pleases him to see our treating his word with enough respect to memorize it. So, it is possible to use his words during a prayer. In fact, as a sorta habit I've picked up from others, is to try and weave a Bible verse or two into prayers. For example, if I'm praying for someone who's undergoing temptation, I try and quote 1 Corinthians 10:13 (see above) in the prayer. This takes a Bible verse that wasn't a prayer to begin with, and reminds the other person that there always is an escape route. As you grow more and more in the knowledge of God's word, appropriate verses will spring more and more readily to mind while praying.
This may seem rather old-fashioned, but I do believe that posture helps us pray. Sitting back in a reclining chair is a great way to fall asleep, while kneeling in prayer shows respect and honor that's due God. Yes, it's harder to get down and kneel as you wait for a stoplight to change, but for your set times of prayer, I recommend such an setup.
For a slightly different pattern of prayer that I've heard, and is somewhat useful, try 'ACTS' - Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Each of these 4 building blocks can be expanded out to fill a few sentences, or much more. Adoration is simply acknowledging that God is God. He's the king of all, the creator of the universe, the Holy one, the omniscient omnipotent one, and many other adjectives. Basically, you're putting God first in the prayer, and putting him in the proper place in your life.
Next, as confession, confess your sins to God. This should be fairly self-explanatory, and yet not excessive either. Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, before he broke off from the Catholic Church, spent hours per day in the confessional, confessing every last little misguided thought, every possible problem. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we shouldn't be trying to pretend we don't sin. John says "If we claim we have not sinned, we make him [God] out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives." [1 John 1:10] So, some time spent confessing sins, and receiving forgiveness does a lot to help keep us humble and right before God.
Thanksgiving is also self-explanatory-- you thank God for what he's done. This can be answered prayer requests, blessings for things you didn't pray for, thanks in advance for the good works he's got planned out for us to do, and everything else. Basically, you spend time in your prayers acknowledging all that God's done in your life, and thanking him for it.
Supplication is your requests for yourself and/or others. Notice that it's not the majority of the prayer time, as many get in the habit of doing. ["God you're great. Now, listen to the 5,000 things I've got written down in my prayer diary here" is how the all-supplication prayers tend to go.] And, in supplication, while you may have specific requests for yourself, there should also be a number of prayers for others. It helps is to pray for others, sometimes to the exclusion of self, as it gets our focus off of ourselves and our needs (and wants), and onto how others can be helped.
Some months ago, I felt like my prayers weren't very effective, were monotonous, and short. God put it on my heart that I could do better, that I could learn more from those in the Bible and others around me. So, I started off doing what I detailed above: I read over prayers in the Bible. I'd already read the Bible cover to cover twice, so I kept that up. And, I set aside a regular time to pray every day, in addition to the prayers I normally have before going to sleep. It's taken some time, and I still think a whole bunch of others can "out-pray" me, but I've learned enough to pass on specific tips and ideas related to prayer.
Finally, prayer is a habit and a discipline that we develop throughout our entire lives. We don't just get good at it for a while, and then leave it to others, nor should we get discouraged by an initial inability to pray effectively. It may take days, weeks, or even months of constant prayer to develop good habits, and sometimes even years for specific requests to be answered. But, in all things do so with the attitude that you're in this for the long run-- a marathon of prayer, not a short sprint.