Confession. I had major writer’s block whenever I tried to write this particular blog post. I made a list of possible directions to take and even searched other blogs and books on prayer to get the juices flowing, and nothing bubbled to the surface. So I decided to take the topics from my list and create a Q&A for today’s post. While each of these questions could easily be a blog post (or a book) in itself, I’ve attempted brevity in the responses. So know that there’s way more that could be said - and maybe even should be said, but it’s a first step. I also try to provide some resources throughout the post in case you want to know more (like this article on “8 Questions about Prayer You Were Probably Too Embarrassed to Ask”).
Why should I pray?
What contributes to a healthy relationship between two people?
Hopefully, communication was somewhere in your response because two people cannot have a healthy relationship if they do not talk to each other and listen to each other. The same goes for your relationship with God. We speak to God in prayer, and the main way we listen to Him is by reading what He has given to us in the Bible. The Bible contains commands to pray and instructions for how to pray, but this relationship with God provides the background for why we should make time to talk to God and to listen to Him. Prayer is one way you can grow your relationship with God.
Prayer also expresses our dependence on God. Even this week, I was convicted about my self-reliance, and one of the ways this manifested itself in my life was some things that I failed to pray about. I just acted, planned, and tried to make them happen on my own. Prayer reminds me of my own insufficiency and God’s complete sufficiency, and it cultivates greater trust and reliance on Him instead of on myself.
Who should I pray to?
God the Father? Jesus? The Holy Spirit?
The pattern we see in the Bible is praying to God the Father. Jesus directed His prayers to the Father, and He taught the disciples to pray to “Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). However, it is not wrong to pray to Jesus. In Acts 7:59, Stephen directs His dying prayer to “Lord Jesus,” and Paul notes that he prayed to “the Lord” about removing his thorn in the flesh (2 Cor. 12:8). It is because of Jesus, our great high priest, that we even have access to God (Heb. 4:14-16), and because He’s fully human, He understands our weaknesses.
While we do not see examples in the Bible of people praying to the Spirit, this does not mean that doing so is wrong. The Bible clearly communicates about the Spirit’s personal involvement in our lives as Comforter and Counselor (Jn. 14), and as Wayne Grudem states, “Therefore, it does not seem wrong to pray directly to the Holy Spirit at times, particularly when we are asking him to do something that relates to his special areas of ministry or responsibility.” For more about this particular question, I recommend reading Wayne Grudem’s chapter on prayer in his Systematic Theology.
What should my prayer time look like?
There are so many ways to respond to this question that I hardly know where to start, and even the question itself presupposes a structured, longer time of talking to God when prayer is also an ongoing conversation with God throughout the day. You might talk to God while you’re getting ready in the morning, driving in your car, while you’re at work, etc., but you can also have extended or focused times of prayer as well.
When a disciple asked Jesus to teach him to pray, Jesus responded with the Lord’s Prayer (Lk. 11:1-4; Matt. 6:9-13). Based on the outline of the Lord’s Prayer, you might be familiar with the acronym PRAY (Praise, Repent, Ask, Yield) that can be used to structure a prayer time. This recognizes that prayer is more than treating God like a vending machine or Santa Claus where we’re just asking Him for stuff. Instead, we praise Him for Who He is, confess our sin to God, ask for particular needs for ourselves and others, and trust Him to know what is best for us.
At the same time, prayer can look any number of ways. You can talk out loud, draw your prayers, make lists or outlines, web or diagram, etc. You don’t have to use complete sentences. It doesn’t even have to be in English! (Had that question once from an international student.) Be creative. Be you. Don’t feel like your prayers have to fit a certain mold or include certain words. You don’t have to start a prayer like you do a letter. Just communicate and be yourself with God.
“We know that to become a Christian we shouldn’t try to fix ourselves up, but when it comes to praying we completely forget that. We’ll sing the old gospel hymn, 'Just as I Am,' but when it comes to praying, we don’t come just as we are. We try, like adults, to fix ourselves up. Private, personal prayer is one of the last great bastions of legalism. In order to pray like a child, you might need to unlearn the nonpersonal, nonreal praying that you’ve been taught.” -Paul Miller, A Praying Life
My mind wanders when I try to pray. How can I pay better attention when I pray?
My guess is, we all struggle with this to some degree. My to-do list and my grocery list are usually what inconveniently surface and vie for my attention when I’m trying to pray. So I try to mind-dump on the Reminder app on my phone before I sit down to have my quiet time. You might use sticky notes instead of your phone, but get those thoughts recorded so you can attend to what’s in front of you. And turn the phone off - don’t let it be a distraction to your time with God!
Writing is how I process, but writing my prayers also helps me to focus. I don’t use complete sentences since my mind works faster than I can write. So I write key words and have developed my own shorthand. I also know someone who types their prayers since they can type faster than they can write. That might work for you, or it might not. But give it a try.
Sometimes, mind-wandering can lead to praying for other things or people, so it might be helpful just to sit in silence and see what or who God brings to mind.
Here’s a helpful article if you want more ideas about paying attention when you pray.
I feel overwhelmed about prayer because there’s just so much to pray for! How do I balance it all?
One idea is to create a list or category for each day of the week or day of the month. So Mondays might be “The Lost,” Tuesdays might be “Brook Hills,” Wednesday might be when you pray for your family, etc. Or you could assign particular people to certain days. I do that with the girls I disciple. I’ve assigned each one of them to a different day of the week.
Some families and even small groups have created prayer calendars or have put our missionary prayer cards on a ring that they flip through together during family worship (see an example here). Or they use resources like Operation World or the Joshua Project to pray for unreached people groups.
You might create some schedule or already have one, but feel the freedom to set aside the schedule. Don’t become legalistic about it. Some days, I completely set it aside because of a particular burden or something that has come up. And that’s okay!
Will God answer my prayer?
Short answer, yes. He will answer. Just be prepared that you may or may not get the answer you want. “No” and “wait” are also answers.
It comes down to whether or not we trust God and the answer that He provides. Do I trust that He is good? Do I trust the love and goodness behind His “no” or His "yes"? Do I trust His timing? Do I trust Him with my unanswered questions - when I don’t know why certain things have happened? Do I trust Him?
How do I know if I am praying God’s will?
There have been several times in my life when I just didn’t know what to pray for, in the sense that I didn’t know what would be the best outcome. Have you ever felt like that? And in those moments, I usually tell God that. I tell Him that I don’t know what’s best in this particular situation, so I pray for His will to be done.
We also see from Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane that we can pray for what we want but pray submitted to God. Jesus asked that “this cup” - the cross - pass from Him, but He followed that request with “nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will” (Matt. 26:39). Again, this goes back to trusting God’s wisdom in knowing what should happen and what is best. Jesus wanted God’s will to happen in His life, even if that involved the agony of the cross.
We can also know that we are praying God’s will when we pray God’s Word. We should be careful not to twist the Bible to try to make it say what we want it to say, but if God commands something in the Bible, then praying for obedience to that command or for the fulfillment of His plan is biblical. As I counsel or meet with the girls I disciple, I regularly pray asking for wisdom in accordance with James 1:5-8 because I want to point people to God in these conversations and need His direction and discernment. This is praying according to God's will because I'm praying something the Bible tells me to ask Him for.
For more about God’s will, listen to “Finding God’s Will” by Jim Shaddix (January 4, 2015) and read this portion in Wayne Grudem’s chapter on prayer in his Systematic Theology.
Other Recommended Resources: