“Dear Lord God, I thank you my Jesus, that you Lord are just… [long pause]… so Amazing Heavenly Father. And Lord God I just pray God, that you come into this place Lord Jesus God, My God…”
Sound familiar? I can relate.
In this post you’re going to learn:
- What prayer is really about and why it’s important
- Why prayer can be so hard (even when you really do love God)
- Does God answer prayer?
- Actionable tips to help you pray more and with confidence
This is the largest, most comprehensive and most practical post on the web about Christian prayer.
- A Little Background
- What is Prayer?
- The Importance of Prayer
- Why is Prayer so Hard?
- Does Prayer Work?
Part 1: Understanding Prayer
At the heart of your prayer life, is a proper understanding of the purpose of prayer.
So part 1 of this prayer guide is all about:
- What is prayer?
- Why is Prayer important?
- Why is prayer so hard (for some of us)?
- Understanding the question: Does God really answer prayer?
But first, a story.
How Not to Pray
I suck at praying.
Oh no no. I mean, I really suck at praying.
Let me just give you one example (just one… there are many more).
Some time ago I was at my Bible study group, the early morning kind, and we were just wrapping things up.
On this particular day, as usual, I laid out my prayer points for the week to the other guys, and then my mate sitting across the table, started sharing his.
Almost immediately I got distracted by my own thoughts (not uncommon for me) and completely missed his entire monologue.
You know what? It’ll be fine, I figured, I’ll just get the gist of it from someone else’s prayer.
“Geoff, can you kick us off today?”
“Sure.” I said.
The room started shrinking.
Do not miss the gravity of this predicament.
It’s hard enough praying at the best of times.
But I had no idea what I supposed to be talking about. Not a clue.
For a nanosecond I contemplated doing the right, and humble, thing and asking him to quickly refresh me on his prayer points.
I did not.
I slowly closed my eyes (to hide the tears), and began.
“Dear Lord,” I began.
[can you open up a hole in floor under my chair?]
“We thank you again as always for the opportunity to come together and to learn more about you.”
[Lord, PLEASE! Tell me what did he say? Anytime now.
No? That’s cool. Have it your way.]
I fumbled through my generic introduction, which was even more stuttered and incoherent than usual thanks to the black thunder cloud, looming over my head.
I knew I eventually had to address my mates prayer points; I couldn’t avoid it forever.
I paused, and sat in silence, as if to convey my somber thoughtfulness and reflection.
An eternity passed.
I had to say something.
The clock was ticking and I was freakin out.
Finally, I took a deep breath, and I readied myself. Then, barely above a whisper, I continued…
That was it! I had NOTHING!
Nothing but the crushing despair of a thousand lifetimes of sorrow and regret as I sat, wallowing in self pity.
With grace and charity, my mate chimed in without skipping a beat, and then my pastor finished off.
As I made my way out of the Church office meeting room, head hanging low, I had one last opportunity to apologise. Just as I was walking out the Church office door, I paused for a heartbeat…
“Catch you later mate”.
I quickly shuffled over to my car hanging my head and drove home, and that was that.
My prayer was not answered that day.
The Lord saw fit to teach me a lesson instead.
Maybe I blew it out of proportion a little. But I felt terrible.
I left the meeting, and I knew in that moment what my next blog post would be about.
I had to figure out this prayer thing.
And I mean really figure it out.
So that’s what I’ve done.
This prayer guide has been put together off the back of my own successes and failures, towards changing my prayer life, and choosing to put God first.
And now I’m sharing it all with you.
UPDATE: almost a year since I published this post, I have been consistently praying alone almost every day (not including every night with my kids, and at the dinner table), and feel far more relaxed, and at ease when praying in small groups. I pray that if you read on, and put these tips and advice into action, it will help you overcome your own prayer jitters.
What is Prayer?
Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace
– Tim Keller, Prayer
Simply put, prayer is exactly what you would think.
Prayer is just you talking to God.
Prayer is a direct, conscious address to God which can be out loud, or quietly to yourself.
Anyone can pray.
You can pray alone, or in a group.
You can pray in song. You can pray in the car (with your eyes open!).
You can pray long prayers, or short prayers.
You can pray the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13).
You can sing Psalms.
There are prayers of submission, confession, praise and adoration.
There are books of common prayer, and there’s the rosary.
There are prayers at the dinner table, and prayer meetings.
There are prayer groups and prayer warriors.
There are many different types of prayers.
There’s happy prayers, sad prayers and angry prayers.
There are prayers of praise, prayers of hope, and prayers of desperation.
There are prayers for healing, and prayers for money.
There is the ‘I-just-can’t-even’ prayer.
There is everyone’s favourite – the ‘why-aren’t-you-answering-me-God?’ Prayer.
And then there’s the almost legendary past time of giving thanks before a meal.
Prayers really come in all shapes and sizes.
Some say if you’re not a Christian or you haven’t had your sins forgiven, God won’t listen to you, or can’t hear your prayers.
God is omniscient. God hears all prayers.
The eyes of the Lord are in every place,
Watching the evil and the good.
Proverbs 15:3 – via Bible Gateway
I mean, He may not grant your every wish and desire.
However, there’s nothing standing in your way when it comes to just talking to God, about whatever is on your mind. Although it does beg the question…
What is on your mind? What is your hearts desire?
So I can’t emphasise this enough: If you want to pray, just pray.
The Importance of Prayer
6 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.
Matthew 6:6 – via Bible Gateway
Well, we all know prayer is important.
If nothing else, we pray because God tells us to.
But this isn’t very helpful.
Why does God want us to pray?
I could talk about how prayer is important because God loves us, and loves to hear from us.
I could say that prayer is complementary to reading the Bible. God speaks to us through His word, and we then respond in prayer.
But I think we can go a little deeper.
I really want to know, what makes prayer important in a way that is unique?
What makes prayer different from reading the Bible, or spending time with other Christians, or praise and worship, or whatever else?
Here’s what I think it is:
Prayer makes God real.
When we pray, God is present.
Prayer can feel a little abstract; it can feel weird, like you’re just talking to yourself.
But prayer is actually extremely concrete.
Reading the Bible, listening to a preacher, talking with others about God… these are all very passive activities.
God is the subject in all of these cases. With prayer God is an active participant.
When we pray, we are actively addressing God, and acknowledging that He is (actually) there and He can (literally) hear us.
This is what makes prayer so crucial to the Christian life.
And if God can literally hear you, then prayer demonstrates your faith, because you are explicitly communicating with the object of your faith.
And if God is actually there, then prayer establishes your standing with God.
You are explicitly identifying Him as the hearer of prayer. The same God that’s in the Bible, is right there listening to you, the one who is above all things.
When you pray, God listens.
Yeah that’s nice Geoff, but it’s still really hard to pray everyday.
Yeah I know. Let’s talk about that some more.
Why is Prayer so Hard?
Does the very idea of praying in large groups fill you with dread?
On a good day you may be able to stumble through something semi-coherent, and spit out a sentence or two. But most of the time you struggle to string two words together.
It doesn’t seem like it should be that hard, but (for people like me at least) it is!
Prayer is Hard, and that’s OK
All of us have days when prayer seems to flow effortlessly, spontaneously. At other times the burden of our hearts needs help in finding its way to our lips
– Catherine Marshall, Adventures in Prayer
Prayer is such a powerful human instinct that even many non-believers are known to pray, or call out to God, in their times of greatest pain and struggle.
Yet somehow many Christians struggle immensely with the practicality of daily prayer.
‘Prayer is easy! Just pray from the heart!’
How many times have you heard this?
What? Pray from the heart?
You know what’s usually on my heart when I’m expected to pray in a large group?
‘Dear Heavenly Father… get me out of this!’.
Oh and don’t forget pray-from-your-heart’s evil twin: ‘be led by the Holy Spirit’.
Oh sure no problem. No need to put the effort in, just let the Holy Spirit speak for you.
Note: Being led by the Holy Spirit, or guided by the Holy Spirit, does not mean the Holy Spirit will just tell you what to pray, or fill your head with thoughts and ideas.
These vague statements imply prayer should be easy and spontaneous, but for many Christians it’s not.
But if you really love God, shouldn’t it be easy?
Shouldn’t prayer be the most anticipated, and happiest part of your day?
Many Christians really love God, but struggle to get through their whole Bible even once, let alone multiple times, let alone do it with enthusiasm, let alone put in the time and effort to study it well and understand how to read it and interpret it properly.
We’re all still sinners, even though we all wish we weren’t.
Humans are messy and flawed.
Prayer is no different.
Martin Luther prayed for several hours everyday. But he firmly acknowledged that prayer is no trivial thing.
Luther understood that prayer is not some simple, easy thing for a Christian.
Resolve to pray earnestly, and no doubt you will see how large an assortment of your own thoughts will rush in on you and distract you, so that you cannot begin aright.
– Martin Luther, Prayer: does it make any difference? (as quoted by Philip Yancey)
Finally, saying that prayer is not easy is not the same as saying that prayer is not a joy. However, in order to really enjoy prayer you have to pray.
Prayer should not be easy, because you love God.
Prayer should be done, because you love God.
So if you’ve struggled immensely, like I have, to pray regularly, then you need to know, that that’s OK.
Why Prayer is Hard
So why is prayer hard?
Many well-intentioned Christian resources will say you struggle with prayer because you’re a sinner, and because you resist God, and the devil tempts you away because he doesn’t want you to succeed in following the Lord with all your heart.
While there may be some truth to this, it is really only part of the problem.
There are multitudes of Christians in the world, who love God and really want to pray, but struggle to pray regularly.
I’m convinced the real issue is far simpler, and more practical.
Prayer is hard for the same reason anything worth doing is hard.
Prayer is hard because it requires effort. We need to talk to God, sometimes in front of others.
Prayer is not a passive activity – you need to think.
In order to pray in any capacity, you need to form coherent thoughts.
This requires practice.
It’s one thing to know what it is you really care about. It’s another thing entirely to be able to put it into words, and form sentences, especially if you tend to get nervous when you’re put on the spot.
This requires confidence.
In order to pray regularly, you have to set time aside, and give that time to prayer, and not something else (like Facebook).
This requires a schedule.
Learning how to pray everyday, is as much about building the habit, and learning to pray, even when you don’t feel like it, as it is about the actual words you say.
This requires systems.
The good news is these are all obstacles that can be overcome. They are very real and concrete.
If you pray everyday, just like anything else, you’ll get lots of practise.
The more you pray, the more the words will flow, no matter how shy or introverted you are. This will build confidence.
If you set time aside, you’ll always have time to pray.
If you commit, and put systems in place to make it easier, prayer will become a habit. Eventually it’ll feel weird when you don’t.
In other words, prayer is a skill; a skill that can, and must, be developed.
This is true of any skill. Prayer is no different.
Finally, and this is a big one.
Prayer is hard, very often because of unrealistic expectations!
Imagine you’re in Church, and it’s prayer meeting time. Karen kicks things off. Karen always kicks things off.
Karen prays for world peace, and then others chime in declaring protection for the persecuted Church, and food for the hungry, and on an on.
And everyone seems to have something to say. Something valuable, and sincere.
Meanwhile you’re standing (or sitting or kneeling) there like an awkward Llama, chewing your lip, hands in your pockets, with no idea what to say.
Worse still, if they’re being led by the Holy Spirit (as they will often want you to believe), it will create feelings of guilt, and doubt, just because your prayers are not as bubbly and vivacious.
So you start thinking to yourself…
What the hell is wrong with me? Why I can’t I think of great stuff like that?
Do I not care as much? What’s wrong with my heart?
In other words, if you’re too focussed on praying from ‘the heart’ (or comparing your heart to others), it creates terribly unrealistic expectations.
Here are 3 big, easy to believe, myths about prayer:
- Prayer must be completely spontaneous every time – myth!
- When we pray, God will reward us for taking it to the next level – myth!
- Prayer is supposed to be easy – myth!
This can make prayer really hard, and cause it to become a course of anxiety rather than a joy.
BTW I’m not criticising these seasoned prayer warriors.
In fact, they probably make is look easy because they have confidence, and they have had a LOT of practise!
But if you want more confidence in your prayer life you must not compare yourself to others, and you must set more realistic expectations for yourself.
Does Prayer Work?
We should pray and when our prayers are answered or are not answered remember this: If we knew what the Lord knew, we wouldn’t change a thing.
Be honest, this is the only question you really care about right?
If God is really there, and really loves us, then shouldn’t prayer just ‘work’?
It’s a fair question.
When you pray with all your heart and consistently fail to see results then regular, confident prayer will be all but impossible.
I also realise that any answer starting with: ‘Well… God does answer prayer, but…’, already sounds like a cop-out. I get it.
Like, God either answers prayers or He doesn’t.
And if He doesn’t… well… then… maybe it’s because He isn’t really real, and Christianity is all hogwash.
So how do we answer this question?
Consider this. Imagine you’re on your hands and knees, asking God for a magical fairy to appear in the sky and grant you a new Ferrari, or a boyfriend or something.
Chances are you’re going to end up being disappointed.
This is a good thing really (sorry ladies).
Bruce Almighty illustrates this point perfectly (and hilariously) when Bruce is given God’s powers and answers ‘yes to all’ prayer requests, and the world quickly descends into chaos.
- If millions of people all won the lottery, nobody would get any money
- You can’t have to competing political candidates both win the same election when both have scores of voters praying for them to win
- People pray for relationships and marriage proposals to people who (eventually) probably turn out to be a terrible match for them
And so on.
So hopefully we can agree that we actually wouldn’t want God to answer all prayers, all the time, no matter what, especially since some things are logically impossible, or mutually exclusive.
But of course I know what you’re really wondering is, what about the prayers that seem actually very reasonable or straightforward, even noble?
What if I’m asking God to heal my son/daughter or close relative of some extreme form of suffering?
Shouldn’t God be more willing to answer a prayer like that?
And what does it say about Him, if/when He doesn’t?
Let’s talk about three important considerations.
God Knows Best
We all have an idea of the kinds of requests that we personally think God should (and shouldn’t) grant. Therefore our expectations about God answering prayer, is very closely linked to our own personal preferences.
The problem here is we are building our expectations of God around the ‘god’ of our own personal preferences (which would be different for every human on earth), not the God of the Bible.
Not only that, we tend to assume that our prayer requests are the most urgent and important. We don’t just want God to answer our prayer, we tend to have a ‘sooner rather than later’ attitude about it.
We also have an extremely narrow, biased perspective on the world around us.
We may pray for the healing of someone’s physical body for emotional reasons, while completely neglecting the unconfessed sin in that persons heart. Just as one example.
Just to clarify: I don’t mean that sickness is caused by the person’s sin. All I’m saying is that it is very intuitive for us to see someone suffering, and in great pain and think yes, that’s the most important thing they need right now (and alleviating their suffering IS a very important thing), but if that person is not a Christian then, literally, the most important thing is saving their soul!
So the first point is to ensure that we are not letting our preconceptions about what prayers God should answer, determine our expectations of God… We should also not let our expectations regarding Gods answer discourage us, or lead us to question our faith in a God who we know for many other (better) reasons, is wiser, and knows better than us.
On the morning of his eleventh birthday, in 1937, [James] Packer awoke hoping to find a bicycle waiting for him—a traditional coming-of-age gift for which he had dropped hints. Instead, his parents gave him an old heavy Oliver typewriter in excellent condition. His biographer Alister McGrath notes the spiritual lesson: “It was not what Packer had asked for; nevertheless, it proved to be what he needed…. his best present and the most treasured possession of his boyhood.” – Justin Taylor, The Gospel Coalition: J. I. Packer (1926–2020)
God Has Nothing To Prove
Secondly, for many prayer requests, the question ‘Does prayer work?’ is really this question in disguise: Will God perform a miracle, if I ask Him to? Or, will God impress me?
Which means our prayer isn’t really a request; it’s a test. This is crucial.
God is not some magical wish-granting fairy god-mother, nor should He be.
God is all-powerful and can answer any prayer, in any way that He chooses. Yet He also has an immutable plan for eternity.
If that plan does not include a burning bush for you (my dear friend), then no amount of praying for one is going to bring it about, no matter how much you’re hoping to see one (or how much your faith may apparently depend on it!)
Another problem with this attitude, is that many of the most spectacular, impressive and glorious miracles, are ones that we cannot see:
- the salvation of a soul
- the internal change of someone’s heart when they give their life to Christ
- God’s forgiveness of our sins, when we place our faith in Him
- receiving wisdom, or patience, or strength, or self-control, etc.
These are certainly the miracles that are the most spectacular, and worthy of celebration in God’s eyes.
I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.
Luke 15:7 – via Bible Gateway
So the second point to consider about prayer requests, is ensuring that we are not letting our desire to boast, or our (very human) wish to be impressed, determine the effectiveness of our prayer life.
God can (and has) performed miracles which would be by our standards quite impressive and spectacular.
But He seldom performed miracles for the sake of their impressiveness (for the most part), and he understood that their ‘impressiveness’ would never be enough on its own to lead anyone to faith in Him.
‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead.’
Luke 16:31 – via Bible Gateway
God is Worthy
Finally, prayer is about so much more than just asking God for stuff.
It’s very natural for us to tend to gravitate towards ‘asking’, even for things that seem ‘unselfish’ and obviously good. God is all-powerful, and God is perfectly good, so why shouldn’t He want to answer my prayers which I know are ‘good’ and well-intentioned?
Well, we already know from the first point, that we need to be really careful about making grand declarations about what is ‘good’ based on our own perceptions and our own (very) narrow perspective.
But more than this, we need to recognise that our (flawed) instinct to treat God like a personal assistant is to miss the real purpose of prayer.
If our motivation to pray, begins and ends with our desire to receive something from God (for free, btw, with effectively no effort on our part), then we are not praying for God’s glory, we are praying for our own personal gain, based on our own personal perceptions about what is ‘good’ for God to do, based on our own deeply flawed and narrow lens, and are probably seeking some self-fulfilling need to be impressed by God.
The key here is that prayer is not so much asking God for stuff, as it is talking to God about stuff.
Prayer should be motivated by our desire to communicate with God for its own sake, for the sake of our own spiritual nourishment, without any hope or expectation, just because God is good, and it’s good to talk to Him.
God deserves our adoration, and our thanksgiving, for what we already have.
Of course we can, and should, ask God for things in prayer. Absolutely.
The question I really want you to wrestle with though, is why? What are you really asking for?
Sharing the desires of your heart really only forms one aspect of a more wholesome conversation that starts by putting God as the focus, and puts us in our rightful place, on our knees (figuratively and/or literally) in full submission to Him.
The advantage of directing our prayer towards God, and doing it for His glory, and then framing our request in this context, is that it allows us to really evaluate the desires of our heart, and the things we should be praying for.
Furthermore, we acknowledge that if God answers our prayers (in whatever way He decides to do), the answer to our prayer has much more to do with God’s glory, than it has to do with the outcome itself.
Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego replied to the king, “Nebuchadnezzar, we are not in need of an answer to give you concerning this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to rescue us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods nor worship the golden statue that you have set up.” [spoiler alert: He totally rescued them!]
Daniel 3:16-18 – via Bible Gateway
When we pray with the intention of glorifying God – the very act of petition itself will glorify God.
Even if He doesn’t answer our prayer in the way that we hope He will still be glorified because we’re not asking Him to do something great for us, we’re asking Him because we love Him and trust Him, and this brings Him glory.
So hopefully, what we can come to understand is that to answer the question ‘does prayer work?’, we must first answer the question: Does my prayer bring glory to God?
If we can understand and accept that prayer, fundamentally, is (or should be) devoted to bringing God glory, then we can understand what it really means to pray ‘according to His will’.
When someone says that God answers prayer according to His will, they are not trying to avoid the discomfort of explaining why prayers often go unanswered (or why God often says ‘no’), they are trying to emphasise the purpose of prayer, and true heart behind it.
Not only that, they are saying that whatever answer God gives you, He gives you because He has a plan.
Finally, and most importantly, there is at least one prayer request God has promised He will grant absolutey without exception:
“Lord, I come humbly before you, and ask that you forgive my sins, in Jesus’ name.”
Praise God for that.
Part 2: Prayer in Action
So we’ve talked about what prayer is, why we think prayer is important, and have a better understanding of the purpose of prayer (and why it is about more than just God giving us free stuff).
We have also talked about some of the more practical reasons for why it is difficult for many Christians to maintain a consistent prayer life.
Now it’s time to take action.
In Part 2 we’re going to cover:
- What to pray
- How to (finally) build a daily prayer habit – and stick to it
- How to build confidence in public/corporate prayer settings
What to Pray
Before we get into this, I just want to reiterate something I said earlier: there are no hard-and-fast rules when it comes to prayer.
You don’t have to follow any particular formula (but you can if you want!).
This is especially true if you’re a new Christian or non-Christian who is curious/open to Christianity. So I will say it again:
If you want to pray, just pray.
If you pray on your own terms, without any motivation to impress anyone, just to speak to God, you’ll pray with more confidence; your prayers will be more natural and conversational.
If you pray honestly about what you really care about (dare I say, if you pray from the heart), rather than what you think others are expecting to hear, your prayer will be more satisfying.
God knows your heart and your intentions, and He will hear your prayers, no matter how dark, or desperate, or incoherent, or accusatory.
You will go through periods where all you can do is cry out. There is a time and a place for really just giving God a piece of your mind. If anyone can handle it, God can. The prophets knew this.
How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord? for ever? how long wilt thou hide thy face from me?
How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily? how long shall mine enemy be exalted over me?
Psalm 13:1-2 (KJV) – via Bible Gateway
But making prayer an important part of your everyday life means having the discipline to give God your time, all the time, not just when you have something to ask for, or complain about.
Real prayer remembers who God is, and how much we need Him.
Whether you’re praying privately, or with others, the ability to form coherent thoughts, and translate them into a genuine prayer is really important.
The easiest way to overcome any difficulty with finding the right words, is to at least have a rough idea what you want to talk about when you pray.
7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.
Matthew 6:7 – via Bible Gateway
You don’t need to say a lot for your prayers to be sincere, or heard.
So don’t ever let anyone make you feel like you don’t have enough faith, or cause you to second guess yourself, just because you don’t prattle on.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with long prayers, but there’s nothing necessary about them either.
The goal of your prayer life should be consistency and sincerity, not volume.
So on that note, I will say your prayers can be any length. You can pray anywhere, anytime.
9 After this manner therefore pray ye:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name.
10 Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil:
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
Matthew 6:9-13 (KJV) – via Bible Gateway
We’ve talked about how prayer is a means to better understanding God’s glory, and also a means to bringing God glory and putting Him first. So when we talk about ‘what to pray’, we’re really just putting these concepts into action.
Following a particular format for your prayers, is not about setting rules, and saying ‘you must pray this, or God won’t listen to you’.
Following a format for your prayers, is about recognising that God is worthy of our most sincere praise and worship. It is more about guiding your attitude to prayer, than it is about guiding your words.
More importantly, for the purposes of this practical guide, having a particular format can be enourmously helpful for you, if you’re someone who gets nervous and tongue tied during group prayer, or even when praying alone if you often struggle to find the right words.
Following a guide for prayer can help you when you just don’t feel like you have anything to offer, or when you don’t feel like it.
Adoration, Thanksgiving, Confession and Petition are the cornerstones of the Lord’s prayer – the ultimate prayer.
Let’s talk about each one in a little more detail.
In coming before God, we must adore and reverence his name.
– Dwight L Moody, Prevailing Prayer
To adore God, is to give full credit to His holiness and submit to Him fully.
We pray more than anything, to adore God and to lift Him up. To give Him praise.
This should bring us joy, but it is also important for establishing our proper standing with God.
Christian humility is moulded by acknowledging that God is perfectly holy, and worthy of all of our praise and devotion, and we are by contrast broken sinners entirely dependent on Him.
By beginning prayer with both our words and our attitude focused on honouring Gods holiness, it sets up the framework and context for the rest of our prayer, and leads naturally to a deep sense of thankfulness that we are able to have an audience with God at all.
If you have nothing else to say, either privately or in the presence of others, you cannot possibly go wrong with a few simple words which will demonstrate how Holy God is, and how worthy He is of all praise and adoration…
The benefit of starting every prayer, whether verbally or in your heart and attitude, by acknowledging God’s holiness and praying first and foremost for His name to be glorified, is how seamlessly thankfulness follows from it.
I always feel a bit weird about approaching subjects like ‘thankfulness’ and ‘God’s blessings’.
I am a contemptibly over indulgent first world suburban 90’s kid. I know almost nothing of real suffering.
To experience even a taste of the true horror of the effects that sin and the evil of the human heart have wrought on mankind can leave any sane person wondering what they could possibly have to be thankful for.
And yet there are many who have endured the most horrendous suffering imaginable and still found the capacity to show gratitude to God.
The apostles and other early church fathers, most of whom suffered intense persecution, continually reminded us to stand firm in God’s promises and to be thankful for what Christ has done for us.
There are things that we can all be thankful for, no matter our lot in life.
Christ’s death and resurrection, for us, is the most obvious thing that we all have to be thankful for. He suffered the most of all of us, and paid the ultimate price, and He did it for us.
God is perfectly holy, and we are sinners. Before you ever ask God for anything, remind yourself what a privilege it is in the first place, just to have His ear.
Christ died to ensure that none of us need to endure the suffering and hardship that this life has to offer, permanently. No matter how much any one individual must suffer in this life, we have an eternity, with God, to look forward to. What could possibly be more deserving of our gratitude?
One of the easiest things to do when you’re struggling to find the words to pray, is to just be thankful. Remind yourself that God loves you, and Jesus Christ died for you, and that you sins are (or can be) forgiven, and be thankful.
I know I am.
Ah good old confession. Sin is icky, and talking about it doesn’t sell concert tickets.
Sin separates us from God.
We all sin, even if we are saved. We still live in this fallen world and are still tempted and still fail, everyday, in ways which may seem trivial to us, but are not trivial to God.
To confess and repent daily is not to ask God into your heart or to expect Christ to die for your sins every day.
Confession is acknowledging your need for God’s grace. Confession invites you to be honest with God, and yourself about your sin, and your inability to live a life of righteousness, in the absence of God’s grace.
It is only natural that to adore God, and be thankful for who He is, is to be confronted with the reality of your sin. It makes no sense to think that you could truly worship God, and show genuine gratitude for His grace, if you were not deeply aware of your own sin and the reason why His grace is so necessary in the first place.
Does prayer ‘work’?
We’ve already discussed this in detail. Prayer to God is not some genie in a lamp kind of thing. However, I also briefly explained that we can and should ask for things.
However we don’t pray primarily to just ask God for stuff. We pray to worship God, acknowledge our sin, and generally just have a good chat.
Putting the petition in the context of the prayer format however, helps to create some perspective, and set us up to approach God with our requests in the right way.
Approaching God with the reverence and adoration that He deserves, fully aware of what He has done for us and how unworthy we are of that, can (or should be, if it is sincere) extremely humbling.
The last thing we want to do is approach the throne of grace like a petulant child ready to make demands of God, ready to impose our will on Him.
Our prayer requests are the ultimate litmus test of our faith.
Do you pray, expecting God to grant your wishes, believing that you know what’s best for yourself and others?
What you ask God for, the requests that you bring to Him, reveal a lot about the state of your heart, and your true desires.
Giving thanks at the dinner table is such a time honoured tradition, that it deserves its own special treatment.
It also gets a bit of a bad rap too. Being overly repetitious in prayer is apparently bad. I get it.
Maybe you grew up in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, whatever.
Maybe you sat down every night to a delicious home cooked meal, you all put your hands together, and you began: “Dear God, thank you for this food, may we be ever grateful, Amen”.
The years go by and eventually the humble giving of thanks loses all meaning.
I have two things to say about this.
Firstly, this routine of sitting down, and giving thanks, no matter how repetitive and vacuous it seems is still better than nothing.
In fact it’s probably doing more than you might realise. There’s really something to be said for consistency.
Praying everyday, no matter how repetitive, means consciously and verbally acknowledging God, everyday.
It means never forgetting that God is there, even if you’re being completely insincere in what you say, you’re still mindful of the fact that God is in your life, and that means a lot.
Moving past the rote repetition is an important step to take. But even if it’s just for a few moments in your day, it’s more than nothing, and that will have had an effect on you in ways you probably don’t even realise.
Secondly, if you grew up saying grace every night before a meal and it was a truly empty and lifeless experience, then it’s almost certainly not the prayer that is the problem.
If you sit down to say grace every night, but in no other area of your life are you making an effort to honour God, then your prayer is going to feel empty. It will feel totally fake, because it is.
You see, it’s not about saying the same thing every night, or being overly repetitious.
It’s about sincerity.
When Christ was chewing out the pharisees for praying ‘in the synagogues’ and using their ‘many words’ He didn’t care how many words they actually used, or how often. It was their sensationalism that bothered Him.
Jesus knew their self-centred grandstanding had nothing to do with connecting to God. He knew all they wanted was to garner the admiration of the people.
Christ doesn’t care if you say the same prayer every night, and he doesn’t care if you pray small prayers, or long prayers.
He doesn’t care if you’re long winded, or well rehearsed, or if you stutter, or don’t know what to say – He cares that you care
So on that note. Go right ahead, if you don’t already, and give thanks to God for your food, every night. Don’t be afraid to sit down and drum out the same tune night in, night out. The point is you’re giving thanks to the Lord (whilst actually being thankful) for His abundant provisions, when you could just be not saying it at all.
How To Pray
If you have struggled to pray alone regularly, even though:
- You really love God
- You have a heart to reach the lost
- You read your Bible regularly, etc.
then you’ll love this section.
Prayer requires commitment. It is a habit.
I’ve already talked about the importance of habit forming in Bible study. Specifically I talked about the importance of:
- making your habit a priority
- creating incentive to put it into practise
- maximising your chances of success by making it extremely achievable
The advice I offer here will reiterate this, but is more specific to prayer. I also go a lot further.
Praying everyday requires making a habit out of it, but prayer is also hard for other reasons which we’ve already talked about. So in this section I’m going to offer some really concrete tips to get the most out of your prayer life.
Praying alone, and praying in groups each have their own challenges, so we’re going to talk about each in turn.
Setting time aside
You should aim to schedule prayer time in. Once per day is great, and this should be an eventual goal, but even once per week is great. Anything, is better than nothing.
The key when it comes to creating a habit in your life, any habit, is ensuring you explicitly set time aside, time that you know you can afford to give to it. In other words, you have to explicitly prioritise it.
Prayer is no different. Prayer warriors who have been praying daily for years, in almost every case, are going to have specific times of the day set aside for prayer. They have probably also been doing it for so long now that it’s second nature to them, and it would feel weird not to.
That is the dream – doing something so consistently for so long that it feels weird not to.
But at first, it’s impossible to maintain consistency, and build a habit without a clear schedule.
If you’ve read my earlier post about building a daily Bible Reading habit, then you’ll know I’m a big advocate of getting up as early as you can in the morning, and dedicating the beginning of your day to whatever habit you’re trying to build in your life.
First thing in the morning is concrete. It starts as soon as your alarm goes off, or as soon as you splash your face with some warm water.
You can make yourself a cup of coffee, breath in the fresh air, and be completely free from any distractions.
For prayer though, right before bed can also be ideal. The only real setback here is that you may be tired, and ready to go straight to sleep. However, if you already have some other kind of bedtime routine, then prayer should fit quite neatly into it. At the very least you have to physically crawl into bed.
Mealtime is also (not surprisingly) a really great time, if you don’t already give thanks at the dinner table.
The best thing about prayer is you don’t need anything with you. It’s just you and the Lord. You can do it anytime, anywhere. But if you want to make it a regular habit, then you have to pick a time, and a place, and stick to it.
If you already have a morning routine, especially if that routine includes reading the Bible, then making time to pray is as simple as slotting it into this routine, and creating some sort of reminder, or trigger.
One of the most effective ways to create a consistent habit out of anything, is start off really, really, slow.
If you’ve struggled to make prayer a daily habit in your life, then committing yourself to 1 minute or less a day is an enormous improvement. This also means that, at first, it will not dramatically impact your schedule, especially if you already get up early for something else (like reading the Bible!).
This is also extremely beneficial if one of the limiting factors, is that you just struggle to find the words. You’d be surprised how long even just one minute can feel when you’re used not doing it at all.
Ideally you won’t just pray for 1 minute, every day, indefinitely, but if you’ve struggled until now to make it a habit, then it’s really important to ensure that you start slow.
You don’t need to pray for 3 hours everyday. You need to put God first, acknowledge and glorify Him, and submit yourself to Him.
More importantly, what you’re aiming for is getting the heavy wheels rolling, on a lifelong habit that will eventually gain momentum as you get more acclimatised to the activity being a part of your life, and you gain confidence.
But you absolutely can, and should, focus on building consistency before you start worrying about depth.
Praying with others is just as important as private prayer.
If you’re anything like me, socializing is hard enough. But praying in groups without feeling awkward and stumbling through everything you say? Forget about it.
In this section we’ll cover some really simple, actionable tips (that I found helpful) to help build your confidence in group prayer.
If you want to learn to pray in groups, without getting tongue tied, or feeling really awkward and insecure, then you’ll love this section.
If you want to improve your public prayers, the first and most important thing to do is get lots of practise.
The best way to do that is to (you guessed it) join a prayer group and show up, every time, no matter what.
Be proactive about seeking opportunities to pray with others.
If you’re in a Church that doesn’t already have a regular prayer meeting then start one.
If you feel comfortable, let them know your reservations. Tell them that you’re nervous and they will almost certainly be very understanding.
Another way to improve your consistency, and get more practise is to pray alone more regularly too! The more you pray, the better you will develop the skill of translating your thoughts into words. Doing this in private will help your confidence and ability in groups also.
The next best thing you can do after getting yourself set up to pray with others is to be more prepared. Yes, you can prepare ahead for group prayer. Being more prepared has had the most significant effect on my confidence when it comes to praying with others.
By far the simplest thing you can do is to take some notes.
In many group prayer settings you will take turns to raise some topics for discussion. If so then no one will (or should) have a problem with you just keeping a short note of the points raised.
If your prayer group is more impromptu in style, you can still think ahead of time about some points you want to raise.
Keep it simple
Remember that the golden rule of prayer is God’s glory. Before you just blindly dive into prayer requests, put the focus on God and His glory.
Also, don’t feel like you have to address every single prayer point raised.
I like to try to find broad themes, or ways of connecting peoples prayer points together.
The practical side of this tip is to listen to how others pray, and make a note of what they say.
How do others go about their group prayer?
Think about the words they are using. Use their prayers for guidance and inspiration.
But there’s the more relational aspect too of course.
Listen to the prayers of your group. What is on their heart?
Make an effort to be present with them, to empathise with them.
If you get really anxious in group prayer settings, don’t let it be because you’re too fixated on what others are thinking of you. An easy to way deal with this is to make a real dedicated effort to just listen to others.
Finally, remember to stay calm. Do your best to just relax and enjoy hanging out with other Christians, all praying and honouring God together.
If you find yourself getting nervous or you start to blank, just stop. Embrace the silence.
Take a breath and remind yourself that:
- No one is making you pray
- You’re not obligated to invent things to pray about
- There’s nothing wrong with going slowly, being thoughtful and taking pauses every now and then to clarify your thoughts
- You’re not trying to impress anyone, and you have nothing to prove
Remember that even if you stumble occasionally, or you get stuck for words, or you stutter and are anxious – that’s totally fine.
Your prayers are going to be valued, enjoyed and respected, no matter how short.
Remember that God is the focus, not the other people in the room. That’s really all that matters. That’s what prayer is all about – giving God all the glory, honour, love and respect that He deserves.
Has prayer been something you struggled with as a Christian? How so?
Leave a comment below and share your story!
Thank you so much for reading.