Editor’s Note: This is a repost of On Prayer. It appears at GCD with the writer’s permission.

Prayer is the great privilege and joy of the believer in Christ, but it can also be a source of frustration and mystery as we seek God. In one sense prayer is quite simple to define – it is coming before God to speak with him and interact in relationship with him. On the other hand, it is hard to carve out time to pray and to understand how prayer functions. In this essay, we will look briefly at the vast subject of prayer in Scripture and in our lives. For those who want to read more, I highly suggest Paul E. Miller’s new work, A Praying Life.

For our brief purposes here, we will take the following path together. First, we will look at some pagan understandings of prayer and how believers in Jesus can at times treat prayer in the same manner. Second, we will look at a few ways in which prayer is described in Scripture. Then we’ll close with some guiding principles and practical suggestions relating to living a life of prayer.

Pagan Prayer

In many religions and philosophies of the world, prayer is used to either please or appease some deity. Those who believe in multiple gods have always believed in prayer.  If you prayed the right way, at the right times, with the right trinkets you could get a god on your side. Not a bad gig save one problem: There is one God who is sovereign ruler of the world, and he does not exist to obey our commands or be manipulated by our “prayers” and rituals. There are several ways prayer becomes pagan, even in the mouth of believers in Jesus. We’ll just look at three.

  1. Pinata Prayer. Humorously coined by Mark Driscoll, piñata prayer treats God as if he is a big piñata in the sky. If we whack him with the stick of prayer, lots of candy and goodies fall out. Prayer is not just trying to get goodies out of God, but many times we approach it this way.
  2. Dancing Prayer. When I was a little kid we had a dog — a short haired miniature schnauzer named Gretchen. My brother and I loved to make that dog dance in order to get a treat from us. We would make her jump on her hind legs, spin around and do back flips (well, maybe not). When she performed, we would give her a treat. Many times we think if we do the right things, say the right prayers and dance a little, that God will give us a reward for our performance.  This is an odd way to see God: If I pray ‘correctly’ then God will give me treats.
  3. Trading Places. In the early 1980s, there was a movie where Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd “traded places” in life. Murphy was a homeless con man who became the rich tycoon and Aykroyd became the homeless guy. Sometimes, we think by praying we can “trade places” with God. We act as if we are God and can give orders to get what we want. Remember, we are his servants and we exist for his glory, not the other way around. I know it is silly to think of prayer as telling God what to do, but that doesn’t keep us from doing it. There are even preachers on TV that encourage this sort of thing.

If we do not want to pray in these ways, we must look at how Scripture presents a life of prayer. We’ll look at this issue by describing biblical prayer then close with some practical stuff.

Biblical Prayer

In Scripture we find descriptions of people praying, recorded prayers, as well as commands and instruction about prayer. Although this will be far from complete, there are several ways we see prayer described in the Bible.

  1. Prayer is approaching God and desiring to be relationally in his presence. In Psalm 42:1-2, we read the following: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” We see the same idea in the New Testament. We are encouraged to “approach the throne of God with confidence to find mercy and help in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). So prayer involves approaching God, through Jesus Christ, in the middle of the joys, pains, triumphs, and sufferings of every day life.
  2. Prayer is seen as intercession and supplication — coming to God with petitions and requests. Philippians 4:6-7 teaches us not to be anxious about anything, “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” We must remember, we do not come into the presence of God to command him, but rather to find mercy and help in our lives. Yet prayer does include making requests of our Father.
  3. Prayer is a time to share our hearts cry with the Father. The Psalms are full of both thanksgiving and lament (sadness expressed). In 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, we are commanded to rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances, whether good or bad. We can have confidence that nothing in our life is meaningless; even our suffering or the evil done to us by others can be redeemed by God. If we belong to Him, he will work it all out for his purposes in the end. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” We need to know this truth before times of suffering come, when we are disoriented in our pain. When our friends are mourning we are instructed to “mourn with them” and not treat others’ suffering with frivolity. Yet Romans 8:28 is no trite phrase in the Bible; it is our greatest hope and his great promise in a world full of madness and sin.
  4. Prayer is confession, where we come before God to get honest about our sins and shortcomings. Confession is not telling God some secret that you are hiding from him. Believe me, God knows all things, even the mistakes we make and the sin we commit against him and others. The word confession is actually a compound of the Greek prefix homos, which means “same”; and logeo, which means “word.” Confession literally means, “to say the same word.” To confess means to agree with God about something, to say the same thing about our sin that he does, and turn from our sin. It is to come clean and experience the grace and forgiveness of God purchased by Jesus. Confession restores closeness in relationship with God and keeps us from drifting away from him over time.
  5. Finally, prayer is the fuel and language of relationship. Just as Paul begins Ephesians 1 in praise to God for his saving work, he follows it with praying for his friends that they would know God. Prayer is coming to God in hope, as he is our Father. We come near to him; he draws near to us. In the ups and downs of our lives, what we need more than anything is a close relationship with God.  He is the anchor in every story, the author of our journey and the one we trust to bring us safely home to his Kingdom in the end. Prayer is the expression of the human soul crying out for its creator. In Jesus Christ we have access to God as his kids and there is no other power who has greater control over our lives. As a brand new Christian, I found myself wanting to pray, wanting to talk with God, wanting to learn his ways. Yet I didn’t have a clue.

Prayer Principles

The following are just a few principles I have learned along the way that have helped me understand a life of prayer.

  1. The first principle to keep in mind as we pray is that we are seeking the will of God for our lives, not just our own purposes. So many times we can hear “the will of God” and immediately jump to thinking about a detailed road map for our future. This is not what I mean by “seek the will of God.” What we ought to seek is how God desires our life to be lived in whatever circumstances as well as what sort of people he wants us to be. We find the will of God in his character and commands as revealed in Scripture. Jesus taught us to pray for God’s will to be “done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-13) and 1 John 5:14-15 promises that God hears and answers prayer that is according to his will. Here are some simple examples of prayers that would be according to the will of God:
    God, make me a good friend.
    God, help me be more patient and kind.
    God, help me to serve others.
    God, help me leave my selfishness.
    God, help me be a thankful person.
    God, help me rejoice in you, even when my life seems to suck.
    God, give me wisdom for the choices and decisions I face tomorrow.
    God, provide for my basic needs.
    God, open a door for your gospel with my friends.
    God, help me be a better wife/husband, mother/father, sister/brother, daughter or son.
    God, make me more like Jesus in my character and actions.
  2. We need to come to God with the right motives. James 4:2-3 teaches us that we should not come to God with a selfish heart, simply asking God for stuff to fit our current passions. Oh God, if you don’t give me a boat, you must hate me! James teaches, “You ask and do not receive because you ask wrongly.”
  3. When we pray, we must believe. We trust he is our good father who wants to hear from us and answer in the way he deems best for us.
  4. Finally, we should not just come to God trying to get a spiritual buzz.  Sometimes there are deep spiritual experiences, other times there are not.  God’s presence is not your emotions. Paul E. Miller sums this up well in A Praying Life: “You don’t experience God; you get to know him. You submit to him. You enjoy him. He is, after all, a person.”

As we close, I want to just drop a few practical ways to help us to pray amidst our hurried lives.

Prayer in Practice

Did you know that Jesus’ friends actually asked him to teach them how to pray? His reply, found in Matthew 6:9-13, has been called “The Lord’s Prayer” or “Our Father.” Though many say this prayer from memory, Jesus’ response is actually a pattern to follow. Looking at this pattern, we find several things we can include in our prayers:

  • Hallowed be your name. We want to praise God in our prayers for who he is.  We want to love him, respect him and honor him. Tell God what you love about him as you get to know him better.
  • Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
  • Give us this day our daily bread. Thank God for life and provision.
  • Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. We ask God to lead us in what is good, right, and true.

The acrostic ACTS has helped many to remember some basics about prayer that are seen in Jesus’ pattern. The acrostic stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication, and can be helpful in praying.

  • Adoration—praising God for who he is, that he is our treasure and joy
  • Confession—coming clean with our Father and receiving grace and forgiveness
  • Thanksgiving—thanking him for good times and hard times
  • Supplication—bringing your needs and the needs of others before the Father.

To close, I want to be honest with you. Prayer is hard. We are busy people who are surrounded by the hum of cars, trains, cell phones, IM, chats, and social media. Furthermore, human beings are so intent on living apart from God that we don’t naturally want to pray. We pray when things go bad and ignore God when things are good. I am often amazed by my own self-centeredness and desire to do life on my own without the guidance and wisdom of God. Yet when I come to God in prayer, I find life, relationship, and hope for the day. I will leave you with an excellent quote from Miller about the effects of a prayerful life on the soul:

The quest for a contemplative life can actually be self absorbed, focused on my quiet and me. If we love people and have the power to help, then we are going to be busy. Learning to pray doesn’t offer us a less busy life; it offers us a less busy heart. In the midst of outer busyness we can develop an inner quiet. Because we are less hectic on the inside, we have a greater capacity to love …

When Paul began his letter to Ephesians, he reminded them of the great work that God had done in saving them. Then he prayed. He prayed that they would have the most important thing in life — depth in relationship with God and an understanding of every good thing we have in him. We ought to pray in the same way for one another — that all of us would deepen with God.

I am praying for you to that end and hoping that you seek your Father in prayer.

Reid Monaghan is doing graduate work in Applied Apologetics at Southern Seminary. With a team of friends, he is currently planting Jacob’s Well, a theologically driven and culturally engaged church in Central New Jersey. He is also a speaker, addressing students and athletes on campuses throughout the United States. He thanks God for the gift of his wife Kasey (married 1996) and kiddos Kayla (circa 2001), Kylene (circa 2003), and Thomas Reid (circa 2006). Twitter: @reidSmonaghan

To read more about prayer, check out Prayer Life, by Winfield Bevins.

Also see Bevins’s free article, Spiritual Warfare Prayer.