You’ve seen pictures of small children doing it with folded hands while kneeling at bedtime.
You’ve heard a chorus of unison voices following the lead of the minister during a somewhat solemn religious service.
Perhaps it is part of your morning, mealtime, and evening rhythm – as normal and essential as breathing.
If you didn’t grow up attending any type of church it may be a practice you consider odd, or awkward, or mysterious.
Or maybe it’s something you did once in your life during a particularly scary or painful experience. “Dear God, if you’re up there, help!”
Prayer is an essential part of every world religion, including Christianity. Most people realize it has something to do with talking to God. Many hope that it might bring much needed assistance or comfort when facing difficult circumstances.
What do Christians believe about this near universal activity? And how can you take steps to foster a meaningful habit of prayer in your life?
What Can You Do?
WHAT IS PRAYER?
Prayer is talking to God. The God to whom we pray is the all-powerful Creator, so He is able to intervene in our lives. He is a loving Father, so He cares about our needs and concerns. And He is the all-knowing Lord of the universe, so trustworthy to say “yes” when it is best and “no” when what we request would cause more harm than good.
There are many kinds of prayer: public prayers, private prayers, memorized prayers, spontaneous prayers, spoken prayers, silent prayers, written prayers, sung prayers, and many more. All of them put words to four basic ideas.
Thanksgiving – Someone said a sad day for an atheist is when he feels deeply grateful but has no one to thank! Christians know that God is the source of all of life’s blessings. So, we use prayer to say, “Thanks!” for what we receive. Since it is impossible to be truly thankful and discontent at the same moment, such prayers lift our spirits by reminding us that, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights.” (James 1:17)
Confession – We all mess up. Deep down, we know it. That’s why we feel sorry when we’ve done something wrong or failed to do what is right. Confession is the act of admitting our guilt, regrets, and confusion to the One who wants to help us make it right or move on. We join the rest of the human race in saying “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13) And He will.
Requests – “God, help me!” is a very basic version of the third category of prayer. We need, so we ask. Be it provision, intervention, protection, or any of a million other requests, we believe God can do or provide something we can’t. In the process, we take seriously the words of scripture, “You do not have, because you do not ask God.” Of course, we can make misguided requests. That’s why the scriptures add a caution. “When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:2-3) God is not a genie granting wishes, but a Father who takes seriously the sincere requests of His children.
Worship – Prayer is also one of the ways we worship God. To “worship” means to “ascribe worth.” In other words, we give credit where credit is due. If the history of humanity tells us anything it is that we are hard-wired to worship someone or something – be it an idol made of stone or a celebrity “idol” with a million social media followers. Worship keeps us sane because it reminds us of the fundamental reality of the universe: that there is only one God, and we are not Him.
HOW TO PRAY
In the midst of one of His teaching sessions Jesus answered one of life’s important questions: “How do we pray?” He didn’t give a philosophy or a bunch of abstract principles. He gave a “fill-in-the-blank” template. It can be found in the Gospel of Matthew chapter six. You’ve probably heard it many times.
Jesus’ specific words:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
Of course, Jesus did not give us this template to constrain or restrict how we pray. Quite the opposite. He gave it to free His followers to begin talking to God in more intimate, personal ways than had been previously experienced. So, adapt it as you see fit in order to make praying a conversation rather than a ritual. A few examples…
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name
Pause. Then pray…
“Thank you for being my Father rather than a distant, uncaring ruler.”
“I need a Father right now because I am dealing with…”
Give us today our daily bread…
Pause. Then pray…
“I really need a job. Please guide me as I look for work today.”
“I don’t know how I’m going to pay the electric bill this month. Please meet our need.”
WHEN TO PRAY
So, what are some good times to pray?
You can join with other believers in public prayer during an upcoming worship service.
Private prayers can happen at any time and in any place, but many find it helpful to build personal prayer into a daily routine: When waking in the morning – before grabbing the iPhone. Pausing before a meal to quietly give thanks. Before falling asleep at night, to calm your spirit before a night of refreshment. Or while driving down the road and thinking about the needs of those you love. The conversation can go on throughout the day.
Another powerful “when” to pray is at key moments with your family. Consider some of these suggestions to launch a “praying together” routine with your loved ones.
Mealtime: Briefly give thanks for the food before you eat, then wait until everyone has eaten to have an extended family time of prayer.
Bedtime: The first person in the family to go to bed (usually the youngest) alerts everyone else that it is time for the end of day prayer together.
Wake up: Before the first person heads out the door, pray together about the upcoming activities of the day.
Drive time: As you start the engine, pause for a brief prayer together asking God to go with you and invite everyone to pray a one sentence prayer for any concern.
Special occasions: Anniversaries, birthdays, first day of school, first date, school test, job interview, or trip to camp can trigger special occasion prayers – especially with teens who encounter many “firsts” to lift before the Lord together.
Walks: Taking a walk together is the ideal time to pray – or pause at the end to pray about matters that came up during your walk.
Mirror prayers: Using a dry erase marker, write a list of prayer concerns on the child’s bathroom mirror so they remember to pause and pray after brushing teeth.
Get started by taking baby steps toward a regular prayer routine in your life. You’ll be glad you did!