Prayer

We are often exhorted to pray.  As children, our parents teach us to pray before we go to bed.  We say grace before every meal.  When we find ourselves in a difficult situation, we are encouraged to pray.  Whatever situation we are in, prayer is the most simple solution.

People often tell us to pray, but no one bothers to tell us what prayer actually is.  We are not taught why we should pray, how we should pray, when we should pray or even to whom we should pray.  We are simply commanded to “pray.” 

I have had many new believers come to me, asking me the simple question, “How should I pray?”

In elementary school, my teacher taught me that to learn about a subject in its entirety, you must learn the answers to the following six questions: Who?  What?  Where?  When?  Why?  How?  Thus, in this basic overview about prayer, we will cover the answers to these questions in an attempt to discover the meaning of prayer.

WHO 

According to the Bible, our prayers should only be offered unto the true and living God.  He alone is worthy of our praise and worship.  He is our Heavenly Father and in Him there is no lack.  The Bible says that He is a jealous God.[1]  See Exodus 20:5.  He will not share His praise and worship with others.  I often share this analogy to help people understand this concept.  Suppose your earthly father is extremely wealthy.  Whenever you ask for money, he provides for your every need.  And if he does not give you money on certain occasions, there is always a valid reason.  Now suppose you need twenty dollars and you ask your neighbor for the money instead of your own father.  Would not your father be hurt?  In the same way, your Heavenly Father says that if He is there to meet your every need, you should turn to Him in your time of need, not any other.

The Bible also specifies that we should pray to the Father in the name of Jesus.  In John 16:23-24, the Bible says:

23 Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. 24 Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. 

(Emphasis added).  The power is in the name of Jesus.

In Exodus 20:3, the First Commandment is: “You shall have no other gods before me.”  The Lord wants to be number one in our lives.  We are not to place anyone nor anything at a higher place than Him in our lives.  Sometimes things or people in our lives can also start to take the place of God.  Through our actions and the importance we give these people, we begin to “worship” and/or “serve” them.  For example, money or career often becomes “god” as we pursue greater wealth and greater success.  Every decision we make revolves around making more money or advancing our career.  Day and night, that is all we think of.  We neglect other aspects of our lives, putting them on hold, in pursuit of money or career.  Or, as another example, sometimes a loved one can become our “god.”  An only child can become the apple of his parents’ eyes.  Their lives can revolve solely around this child, jumping to answer every whim the child has.  Or a newly found girlfriend or boyfriend can take the most important place in our lives.  We can bend over backwards in order to please this person, to the detriment of everyone and everything else in our lives.

We need to be careful to make God number one in our lives.  He needs to be the driving force behind our decision.  He needs to be the object of our deepest devotion and affections.

The Second Commandment requires:

4 You shall not make for yourself a carved image—any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; 5 you shall not bow down to them nor serve them.

Exodus 20:4-5.  Thus God prohibits idol worship.  No one has seen God, so how can we make His likeness?  Furthermore, when we make idols of stone, wood or paper, we often begin focusing on the discrete item we have made, rather than on our infinite God.  We bathe the idol.  We clothe the idol.  We care for the idol with the utmost gentleness.  Often we begin to believe and act as if God actually lives in the idol, that the idol itself is all powerful.  Our focus turns to the idol rather than the true and living God.  Thus, to avoid this, the Lord has told us to worship Him alone.

WHAT

What is Prayer?

Prayer is not a show for others.  Prayer is not vain repetition.  Prayer is more than asking God for miracles and the desires of our heart.  Prayer is spending time with God.  The Lord knows what we want or need even before we ask.  Yet, He wants us to pray because He longs to have communion with us.  He wants us to talk to Him, to spend time with Him, to develop a relationship with Him.  The Bible in Revelation 3:20 says: 

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. 

Jesus is standing at the door of our hearts and knocking.   But it is up to us to open the door and to let Him enter in.  And if we open the door, God will enter in.  And He will not just enter in, but He will spend time with us.  He will dine with us. 

And it says in that verse, if any man open the door, “I will come in to him and will sup with him and he with me.”  Not only will Jesus eat with us, but He wants us to eat with Him.  Jesus wants this to be a two way dialogue.  Not just one way.  Not only does He want to spend time with us.  But He wants us to spend time with Him.

Until you spend time with God, you cannot really know Him.  It is like any person you meet.  The more time you spend with the person, the more you get to know the person; the closer friends you become.  If you limit your interaction with a person merely to “hi” or “hello” whenever you see them, you never really get to know the person. 

It is when we spend time in prayer, seeking Him with our understanding, praising Him in the Spirit and reading His word,[2] that we will truly come to know Him.  And it is as we come to know Him that we will begin to operate in His power. 

What Can We Pray About?

The Bible tells us that we are to pray in all things.  In Philippians 4:6, the Bible says:

Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God. 

(emphasis added).  Again in James 5:13-16, the Bible commands:

13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing psalms. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. 16 Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.

Thus, we are to pray in all things, big and small.  I think a lot of times, even as Christians we forget that we can do nothing on our own, but all things through Christ who strengthens us.  Philippians 4:13.  If we learn to trust God in the small things, it helps build our faith to trust Him in the big things.  A few years ago, I saw an interview with Denis Byrd on television.  Denis Byrd was a famous football player who broke his neck and the doctors told him that he would never walk again.  But God healed him and he was up on his feet within one month.  During the interview, someone asked Byrd, how he was able to turn to God at a time when many people would have questioned God and would have asked “Why did you let this happen to me God?”  How was Byrd able to pray and turn to God, when in the natural it appeared that God had abandoned him. 

Byrd’s answer was that over the years he had developed a relationship with Jesus.  He had prayed for “the little things” and his prayers had been answered.  So now, when he was facing the biggest obstacle of his life, rather than questioning the existence of God, he knew that God was there.  He knew that he could depend upon Jesus.  Through experience, he knew that God would see him through.

If we ask Him to help us with the little things, we can probably prevent them from escalating into the big things.  It is like preventative medicine.  If you have a small cavity you should go to the dentist before it turns into a big cavity and you might need a root canal or something worse.  In the same way, if your are facing a mole hill, you should turn to God before it turns into a mountain. 

God is there to help us always, even with the little things.  My mother prays before going grocery shopping and the Lord leads her to the bargains.  If she is running late, she prays that the person she is to meet also falls behind schedule, so they do not have to wait for her.  Inevitably, even the most punctual person will be late that day.  My mother hates to parallel park.  Since the day we came to the Lord, she has not had to parallel park even once.  God cares about the details of our lives and he is there to help us all we have to do is call upon his name.  The mighty name of Jesus.

WHERE

We are often taught that prayer should be offered only in certain places such as temples, before idols, or in “clean” places.  However, the Bible teaches that we are to pray anywhere and everywhere.  The Lord has made all things, so nothing is unholy.  When my family first came to know Jesus, my five-year-old brother used to sit on the toilet and read his Bible.  At first my mom was uncomfortable with that.  But then the man who lead us to Christ explained to us that it is better he read the Bible on the toilet, than not read the Bible at all.

Whether we are in the most beautiful mansion, or the lowliest prison, we should pray.

There are three places in particular that we should pray.  First, we should pray in fellowship with others, such as in a church, youth group or prayer meeting setting.  There is power in collective prayer.  The Bible says, “For where two or three are gathered together in [His] name, [He is] there in the midst of them.”  Matthew 18:20.

Second we should pray in our secret place.  The Bible teaches in Matthew 6:6:

But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.

We discussed earlier that prayer is spending time with God.  But if you limit your interaction with a person to big group settings, you never get to know the real person inside.  You have to spend time with someone one on one in a personal setting to get to know him or her.  Similarly, if you just spend time with God whenever you come to church on Sundays or Wednesdays or attend Bible studies, you do not get to know Him on a personal level.  To really get to know God, you need to spend time with Him alone.  It needs to be just you and Him, so you can give Him your undivided attention. 

When I was in law school, there was a young woman whom I had talked to on several occasions for maybe ten or fifteen minutes at a time.  I thought I knew who she was and what she was all about.  But then one day, we got to talking and talked for several hours.  It was then that I realized that I had not known her at all.  During our conversation, I was amazed at how much I learned about who she was.  I discovered that this woman had lived in Africa, she was part of the peace corp, she was one of six children, and she had spent one semester studying abroad.  That one conversation completely changed my perspective on who I thought she was.  I gained a deeper admiration for her as a person.  In same way, I think, the more time we spend with the Lord, the more we will begin to understand who He really is.  We may think we know Him, but I bet there is so much more to Him than we realize.

Third, we should pray with our family.  It is often said: A family that prays together, stays together.  No one else can pray for your loved ones with the same zeal, passion and earnestness than you. 

WHEN

We are called to pray at all times: day and night, in happiness and in sorrow, in sickness and in health.  Hebrews 13:15 exhorts us to, “continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God.”

Prayer often requires perseverance.  Everyone likes a “quick fix.”  We are a “drive-thru” society.  We do not want to waste even five minutes getting out of the car to run into the fast-food joint to pick up a burger and fries.  We want it now.  And although at times we see immediate results to prayer, many times we need to pray through to victory.  It is the “praying through” that many of us find difficult.

When we pray and do not see the result immediately, we give up.  Sometimes we continue to pray for a while, but slowly we stop praying from our hearts and the prayer becomes a routine prayer, almost like reciting a pre-written script.

It is okay to pray more than once for something.  Even Jesus prayed twice for the blind man in Bethsaida.  The scriptures say: 

22 Then He came to Bethsaida; and they brought a blind man to Him, and begged Him to touch him.  23 So He took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the town. And when He had spit on his eyes and put His hands on him, He asked him if he saw anything.

24 And he looked up and said, “I see men like trees, walking.”

25 Then He put His hands on his eyes again and made him look up. And he was restored and saw everyone clearly.  26 Then He sent him away to his house, saying, “Neither go into the town, nor tell anyone in the town.”

Mark 8:22-26.  So, if Jesus can pray twice for a miracle, then why can’t we?

I have found that as we pray for the sick, we often have to pray three or four times before we achieve a complete healing, especially when praying for healing from pain.  We often say a short prayer and then ask, “Is the pain more, less or the same?”  Generally, the person will answer that the pain is less.  After hearing the answer, we pray again.  Again we question.  After a few short prayers, the healing is complete.  But, we have to pray through for the complete miracle.  If we stop after one or two prayers, a portion of the pain remains.   

A friend of mine who was on a missions trip in Puerto Rico had one of the worst things happen to him that can happen while traveling.  His wallet got stolen.  His wallet had all of his money, his credit cards, and most importantly, his identification.  At a loss for what to do, where to begin his search, he began to pray.  He prayed that the Lord would miraculously restore his wallet.  He did not know how that was possible.  But he prayed for a miracle.  Day one passed. Nothing happened.  My friend continued to pray.  Day two passed.  Still, nothing happened.  My friend continued to pray.  Day three passed.  Again, nothing happened.  My friend continued to pray.  On the fourth day, a haggard looking child, in his early teens ran up to my friend and thrust the wallet back in his hands. 

“I do not want this wallet!” the boy exclaimed.  “It is haunted.”

Apparently, since the day the boy had stolen the wallet, every night he had been having nightmares.  He knew the only way to stop the nightmares was to return the wallet.

When should we stop praying for something?  The Bible’s answer is pray until something happens.  Along these lines, Jesus shared the parable of the persistent woman:

1 Then He spoke a parable to them, that men always ought to pray and not lose heart, 2 saying: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. 3 Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ 4 And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, 5 yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me.’”

6 Then the Lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge said. 7 And shall God not avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them? 8 I tell you that He will avenge them speedily.”

Luke 18:1-8.  As a child, my little brother knew how to get something from my parents.  He would not take “no” for an answer.  He would sit next to my Mom, repeatedly asking for whatever new thing he was desiring.  The moment he woke up, he would be in her room, at her bedside asking her to grant his wish.  He would follow her to the bathroom as she brushed her teeth.  From there to the kitchen, while she prepared her breakfast, he would be right there next to Mom, pleading his case.  Throughout the day, he would follow her from room to room, explaining why he needed the new toy, begging her to grant him his heart’s desire.  By nighttime, as she prepared for bed, my brother still at her side, repeating his request like a broken record, exhausted, she would give in, promising to make a trip to Toys’r’us the next day.

Over and over again through scripture, we are exhorted to pray “without ceasing.”  1 Thessalonians 5:17; 2 Timothy 1:3.  If we would be even half as persistent as my little brother was in asking my Mom for the latest toy that hit his fancy when we seek the Lord for our needs, I am certain that we would experience amazing breakthroughs in our prayer lives.  We would begin to see answers to prayers that seemed hopeless.

In the Bible, we see example after example of people who continually called upon the Lord until He heard and answered.  Matthew 9:27-31 tells the story of two blind men who followed Jesus a long distance, crying out, “Son of David, have mercy on us!”  Even though it seems Jesus heard them, He did not stop.  He continued to walk on.  The blind men continued to follow Him, crying out to Him for mercy.  They could have become discouraged.  They could have turned away when He did not stop.  But they continued to cry out to Him until He listened and answered them, healing their eyes. 

I once heard a story about George Mueller that illustrates this point quite nicely.  Mueller, who ran orphanages in England in the eighteenth century, is known for his unwavering faith.  He never took his needs to people or those around him.  He never solicited donations.  He simply took his requests to God and He provided. 

I was told that when he was still a young man, Mueller began praying for five of his friends to be saved.  It took five years for the first one to be saved.  But, Mueller diligently continued to pray for each one of them.  Another five years later, two more accepted Jesus.  It was not until 25 years after he had begun praying for his friends that the fourth came to know the Lord.  Mueller continued to pray for the last friend until the year he died.  The man was not a Christian at the time of Mueller’s death.  However, three months after Mueller went to Heaven, the fifth friend also accepted Christ. 

George Mueller had prayed 52 years for the last friend to accept Jesus.  Perseverance is key to achieving breakthrough in prayer.

Particular times that I have found it helpful to pray are as follow:

  • First thing in the morning: We should put our day into His hands, once again surrendering our lives to Him and resolving to do His will.
  • Before leaving the home: As we step out into the outside world, we should ask for His protection around about us.  They say that most accidents happen in a one mile radius around our home.
  • Before we eat any food: We should follow Jesus’ example of offering thanks for the food before Him.  Give thanks and pray that the food will be nourishment to our bodies.
  • Before exams, interviews or important decisions: We should place all decisions in our lives in His hands.  We should ask Him to take control and help us in all things.
  • Before going to bed at night: We should thank Him for all that He has done for us throughout the day and ask Him to forgive us for the mistakes we have made.

WHY

God made man in His image.  He made man with the purpose of fellowshipping with Him.  Thus, as we pray and spend time with Him, we are fulfilling the purpose for which we were created.

Some question, “If God knows everything, then why do we need to pray and ask for anything?  He already knows our needs and desires.”  Others question, “Isn’t it selfish of me to ask the Lord for blessings?  Shouldn’t I just let Him bless me as He sees fit?”  Even the Bible says, “For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.”  Matthew 6:8.

However, the Bible clearly commands us to “ask”:

7 “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. 9 Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? 11 If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!

Matthew 7:7-11.  In another place, it is written, “[Y]ou do not have because you do not ask.”  James 4:2.

As new believers, my family questioned the Lord about prayer and asking.  The Lord explained it to us in this way:

Suppose you receive hundreds of letters every day.  They all come in white envelopes.  But, then one letter comes in a neon envelope.  Which envelope will you open first?  Clearly the neon one.  In the same way, when we verbalize our needs in the form of prayer, we are turning them into the neon envelope.

Furthermore, when we pray and ask the Lord for things and then see those things come to pass, it increases our faith.  If the Lord gave us everything without our asking, we would not necessarily attribute our blessings to him.  But, when we see the Lord blessing us in direct response to our prayers, we are clearly able to see the hand of the Lord at work in our lives.

HOW

When there is talk of prayer, one of the first questions people wonder, but often do not ask for fear of ridicule is: “How should I pray?”  It is a valid question.  Jesus’ disciples asked him the same question.  In response, He gave them the words to The Lord’s Prayer:

Our Father in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.
10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done on 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 do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.

Matthew 6:9–13.

Today we pray The Lord’s Prayer regularly in our churches, schools and homes.  It has become so familiar that, we often do not think about its meaning, but simply repeat the memorized verses.  However, the Lord never told the disciples to repeat The Lord’s Prayer like a mantra.  He warned against “vain repetitions.”[3]  Matthew 6:7.  Instead, Jesus said, “In this manner, therefore, pray.”  Matthew 6:9 (emphasis added).  Thus, The Lord’s Prayer is simply a model for how we should pray.

The Lord’s Prayer begins with, “Our Father in heaven,” a recognition that when we come to the Lord, we should come to Him as a child – His child.  He is not a distant being, sitting somewhere up in the Heavens.  He is an approachable and loving Father who listens to the prayers of His children.

Next we pray, “Hallowed be Your name.”  Hallowed means, “honored.”  We should begin our prayer by praising Him.  Honoring the name of the Lord.  In the Bible, the many names of the Lord relate to His various attributes.  Jehovah Jirah.  God my Provider.  El Shaddai.  He is More Than Sufficient.  Jehovah Rophi.  The Lord my Healer.   We should praise Him for who He is.

Our prayer continues, “Your kingdom come. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”  We are praying that Jesus should be King of our lives and King of this world.  When we pray this, we are in effect praying, “Thy will be done.”  The King has complete authority over His kingdom.  His will is the law of the land.  The Lord wants us to learn to submit our will to His, recognizing that “all things work together for good to those who love God.”  Romans 8:28.   

Then we ask the Lord to “[g]ive us this day our daily bread.”  Only after we have spent time in praise and worship, submitting to His will, should we ask for the desires of our heart.  The Lord does not forbid us from asking Him to bless us.  In fact, the Bible clearly says, “Ask and it will be given to you.”  Matthew 7:7.  In James 4:2 the Bible also says, “you do not have because you do not ask.”  The Lord wants us to ask Him, to trust Him, to depend on Him for our needs and desires.  But, our prayers should consist of more than a wish list. 

Next, we should ask Him to “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”  “Debts” basically means sins or offenses which we have committed against God and others.  “Debtors” refers to those who have done wrong to us.  Even as we must repent to obtain salvation, the Lord requires a daily repentance.  The Bible lays out God’s will regarding repentance by stating, “God … commands all men every where to repent.”  Acts 17:30.  To repent literally means to have a change of mind or spirit toward God and toward sin.  It means to turn from your sins, earnestly, with all your heart, and trust in Jesus Christ to forgive you.  But, not only are we to repent and ask the Lord to forgive us for our sins, but we must also forgive others for the wrongs they have done unto us.  “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you.  But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”  Matthew 6:14-15.  We need to live in forgiveness.  We need to maintain a clean record between ourselves and God and ourselves and others.  Our attitude toward others should be, “owing them nothing, but love.”  Romans 13:8.

Our prayer continues by imploring the Lord, to “not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”  We must pray, asking the Lord to protect us from the viles of Satan.  Many times we think we can fight life’s daily battles ourselves.  We feel that will power is a matter of self control.  However, the Lord wants us to realize that we can do nothing on our own, but “all things through Christ who strengthens [us].”  Philippians 4:13.  We must even pray for help to overcome temptation and the traps Satan lays before us.

We end our prayer by recognizing, “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.  Amen.”  We end our prayer by once again praising Him.  It is like a child who has made his requests known to his father.  Confident that his father will supply his need, the child begins to praise his father in advance.  “Daddy, you are Superman.”  “I love you Daddy.”  “Thank you.”

Every time you pray it is not necessary to go through all of these points.  However, sometime during the course of the day, you should try to touch each one of the area talked about in the Lord’s prayer.  Remember prayer is not a formula.  It is merely talking to Jesus from our hearts.  Talk to Him like you would your own father or brother.

LET US PRAY

Let us resolve to spend time in prayer.  What are you waiting for?  Why not start now?  Put aside this study and begin praying.


[1] This is a holy jealousy.  For example, suppose a mother diligently cares for her child.  She is constantly by his side.  She does everything for him.  If that child then calls someone else “Mother,” the actual mother will be jealous.  No one would fault the mother for this jealousy.  In the same way, the Lord will not share His place with any other.

[2] And one of the best ways to get to know Christ is by reading his Word.  Reading the Bible.  If you read someone’s diary, you would get to know the person in an intimate way.  You would get to know their thinking, their dreams, their desires.  In the same way, the Bible is like God’s diary and when we read it, we really come to know Him.

[3] Reciting memorized prayers is not what God intends.  He would rather you speak a few lines from your understanding than a hundred lines through rote memorization.  Prayer is talking to God.  Prayer is spending time with God.