Prayer Basics: How to Pray and other FAQs

How to Pray

Let's get right to the question I get most often: "Is there a right way to pray?" The short answer to this is no. Prayer is our time with God. The words can be out loud, in your head, a thought of gratitude, a cry for help etc. In fact John Wesley says this, "God will do nothing but in answer to prayer. Whether we think of, or speak to, God, whether we act or suffer for him, all is prayer, when we have no other object than his love, and the desire of pleasing him. Proceed with much prayer, and your way will be made plain." (“The works of the rev. John Wesley”, p.383)

what is prayer?

We can talk about "what God does in prayer" in another post but I feel like this quote answers the question about "the right way" or "wrong way" to pray. We can't pray incorrectly because prayer is a part of who we are. Prayer is our communication with God and because of that intimacy (whether it is with a group of people or an individual), each encounter is unique and precious. We may not always be attentive of our connection with God but that doesn't mean it isn't there.

Steps to Prayer

That being said, I do think there are frameworks to prayer that can help our prayer time be more
How to Pray
meaningful. I don't always practice my prayer in this way. While I like to think of God in a linear way, I know God doesn't work that way. I have, however, found this framework useful when the words are hard for me to get out and I need a place to start.

Step 1: Praise

Start by telling God all the things you love about Him. Make a list of all the things you are thankful for. Or at least the top three things at the moment. Studies have shown that when you write down three different things every day that you are thankful for (for at least 21 days), you change the way your brain processes the world so you begin to look for positive things in the world because you have built a habit. To learn more about the power of positivity in relation to happiness, watch Shawn Achor's TED Talk.

Step 2: Refer to Scripture

I'll be honest. Sometimes I don't know what to say. My friends who have been around me after a couple of cups of coffee may find that hard to believe but its true. Sometimes, words fail us. In those times we have the gift of Scripture to lean on and it should be one of the first places we start. The problem is that there are a lot of words in the Bible and it might overwhelm you to try and find where to start. So here are a few tips about how to find the right passage: (this is not an exhaustive list)
  • Psalms - the book of Psalms is the ancient Hebrew prayer/song book. I say prayer/song because for some the difference is minimal. Jews have a cantor that leads in worship that will sing or "cant" or "chant" the words to a Psalm. We often sing words that have a prayer-like feel to them. Pray through the Psalms for strength (Psalm 46), lament (Psalm 22), and rejoicing (Psalm 103). There are more than just those three. You'll find multiple examples of all of those types of Psalms in that book of the Bible.
  • Philippians - this book is one of the shorter ones that Paul wrote. It is also his most joyful. I use each chapter for a different kind of prayer. Chapter 1 can be used to give thanks for other people in your life and to pray for them to thrive in their faith (Phil 1:3-11). I use Chapter 2 when I desire to be more Christ-like especially when I need to practice humility (Phil 2:1-11). Chapter 3 is a helpful reminder of sacrifice, hope, and perseverance (Phil 3:7-14). Chapter 4 reminds us to rejoice and to put our faith into practice (Phil 4:4-9)
  • Ephesians - Another time that Paul prayed for a church. The prayer in Ephesians 3:14-20 shows the power and strength of God's love.
  • Jesus' words - while the Lord's Prayer might be recited more, Jesus also prayed for his disciples and for us as well. You can find that prayer in John 17.
  • More of Jesus' words - I'll spend some time in another post to specifically talk about the Lord's Prayer and why it is so powerful. You can find it in Matthew 6:9-13. Watch what Christine Caine has to say about prayer and specifically The Lord's Prayer...

Step 3: Ask

In James 4:2-3 the writer says that, "you do not have because you do not ask." We often think about prayer as asking for something. Healing, happiness, wealth, love, wisdom, etc. You name it - someone has probably asked for it. While I do believe that we should take the desires of our heart to God, we should never fool ourselves to think that this is the purpose of prayer. The purpose of prayer is about transformation. Most often the person praying is the one transformed. Answered prayer is not the proof of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “A god who let us prove his existence would be an idol.” Instead, prayer is the proof of your belief in God. Even if you don't think your faith is strong, your prayer life is acknowledgment of belief, no matter how large or small that may be. So ask. Ask God through prayer for the deepest desires of your heart, but be prepared for God to shape and transform what those desires are.

Step 4: Listen

We often forget this step. If we ask but fail to listen, do we really believe that God will answer? I believe that God answers every prayer in God's way and in God's time. Sometimes the answer is "yes." Sometimes the answer is "no." Sometimes the answer is "not yet." And sometimes we lose the desire or need we asked for. In theory this seems simple but it gets complicated when we pray for things we truly believe to be in God's will for people we believe to be worthy. Why do thousands of people pray for a child with cancer and yet the child still dies? Why does a virus turn into a pandemic when the world was praying? I don't know. I know this is a deep and complicated question that often halts someone's prayer life. But I also know that if I knew what God knew, then I would be overwhelmed (to put it mildly). I want to be wise but I cannot handle the knowledge God has. One day perhaps. Once I've made it to heaven. Until then I must live in the uncertainty of faith and listen for the certainty of God. This "certainty" comes through other people, through walks in God's creation, through scripture, and through that "still, small voice" that nudges me to know that God is with me, leading me, and ordering my steps.

I'll close with Andy Langford's prayer from a post I did in 2011 when Hurricane Irene was wreaking havoc. I feel this could apply as a COVID-19 prayer as well.

O God, you divided the waters of chaos at creation.
In Christ you stilled storms, raised the dead,
and vanquished demonic powers.
Tame the earthquake, wind, and fire,
and all the forces that defy control or shock us by their fury.
Keep us from calling disaster your justice.
Help us, in good times and in distress,
to trust your mercy and yield to your power, this day and for ever.

Until Everyone Hears,

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