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How to pray

I’ve had a number of conversations the past couple of weeks, and the most common theme, by far, has been prayer. Not so much “will you pray for me?” or “should I pray for you,” but more asking how to pray.
People just don’t know how to pray, mostly because nobody ever taught them.

I struggled with this as well. A few years ago, I was hanging out with a new crowd, a group of people who didn’t just go to church together, but they did just about everything else together too. It wasn’t a cult; it was a bunch of people who figured, I guess, that they might as well get to know the person sitting next to them, and–big surprise–they became friends.

But it was intimidating. These people knew the Bible really well. For a lot of people, that in and of itself is really intimidating. For me, theology had been my best subject in high school, so that wasn’t intimidating. But the way everyone prayed was. Everyone knew just the right thing to say.

And I’d grown up around pastors who had dozens of memorized prayers for exactly the right occasion, so they always had something to say that was smooth and polished and eloquent and written by someone famous.

I couldn’t ever be like that. And it bothered me a lot. I’d ask people how to pray, and I’d never get a straight answer. At best, they’d say, “It’s the Holy Spirit.” Well, I didn’t want anyone to say, “It’s the Holy Spirit,” because that didn’t tell me how it happened. What if an airplane’s flying overhead and I ask how that got there, and you say, “It’s an airplane?” If I don’t understand what an airplane is, your answer was just meaningless. And if I ask how I can get in the air like that and you just say, “it’s an airplane,” I’m going to get really frustrated really fast.

But I think I’m getting ahead of myself.

Memorized prayer

I don’t like structured, memorized prayers. I’ve had at least two people ask me about them in the past week, and I can’t remember what I’ve said to either of them. But I’ll gladly tell you what I don’t like about memorized prayers.

I’m Lutheran, so I know about prayer books. Lutherans love those. So do Catholics and Anglicans. But you lose something with them.

In one of those conversations I had in the past week, the person asking the question happened to be a woman, so I asked her to think back to dating. What if she were on a date, and the guy never said anything other than lines he read in some men’s magazine? She doesn’t want to hear lines out of a men’s magazine; if she wanted that, she could go buy that magazine herself. She went on that date to try to get to know something about the guy. And if all he does is recite lines out of a men’s magazine, well, what does that say about what she’s finding out? Chances are there won’t be a second date. And if there is, he’s just defined the relationship. It’s not ever going to be very deep or personal.

Me reciting a memorized prayer is just like that. Yes, very frequently Saint Augustine or Martin Luther were more eloquent than me. But when I use a historical prayer that “worked,” what am I accomplishing? It sounds like I’m trying to manipulate God. God won’t do what I want if I say it in my words, but if I say these words from St. Augustine, maybe he will? Suddenly, my faith’s not in God, but it’s in those words from St. Augustine. And suddenly, the only way God ever gets to hear my voice is when He eavesdrops on my conversations with someone else.

God wants me to tell Him what I think about the world around me. God wants to know what’s bothering me. I’ve got a friend who has cancer and I have another friend who doesn’t know what’s wrong with her but she’s sick more than she should be, and on top of that her boss seems to like making everything difficult for her. You bet I want God to know about those two situations. And you bet I’ve got some ideas of what I’d like God to do about those situations.

I prayed with both of them last Sunday. I remember the look on her face after one of them. After she flashed me a smile that would keep the room at a comfortable 78 degrees even in the dead of winter, she gave me the biggest, most grateful hug I’ve gotten in a very long time. One of those hugs that lasts you a month. Obviously something I said warmed her heart.

I don’t think turning to a canned prayer by Martin Luther would have had the same effect. Her reaction was at least partially a result of her realizing that someone cared about her. Words that someone else wrote centuries earlier and thousands of miles away can’t convey that.

When I want God to know about a situation and do something about it, the best thing I can do is just tell Him about it. Think about the simple, innocent prayer of a child:

“God, my friend has cancer and Mommy says people die from cancer. I don’t want her to die, God. Please make her better. Amen.”

That’s a better start than you’ll ever find in any book. And as an adult, you’ve got a full range of emotions to share, knowledge to share, and questions to ask. So do it. God already knows, but He wants to hear it. From you.

How long do I wait for an answer?

That’s an easy question. You should keep on praying about something incessantly until one of three things happen:

1. God says yes
2. God says no
3. You change your mind

When God says no, it’s usually pretty obvious. Four and a half years ago, I was praying that God would restore a relationship I had been in. She married someone else. That’s a pretty clear no.

Now, if I hadn’t gotten that answer, eventually I probably would have changed my mind because in the time since, I’ve met numerous girls who are just as smart and just as pretty as she was, and they let me be me, which she wouldn’t. So when God said no, He knew what He was doing. Of course you couldn’t have told me that four and a half years ago. I’m not sure if you could have told me that three and a half years ago, for that matter.

Sometimes God answers really fast. I went on a mission trip two weeks ago. I found out one Sunday that the absolute deadline for the trip was a mandatory meeting the following Tuesday. Well, I didn’t know if I could get the time off, I had a big project I had to work on that Tuesday night if I didn’t get it done sooner, and other assorted obstacles. That prayer was really simple: “Lord, I think I want to go on this mission trip. There are a lot of things that can keep me from going. If you want me to go, please open those doors and remove those obstacles. If you don’t want me to go, then don’t.”

Within a day, everything was cleared up.

Sometimes God doesn’t answer right away, and His reasons vary. Sometimes He’s giving us time to change our mind. Sometimes He wants us to learn something first. And sometimes what we’re asking for isn’t good for us, even though we can’t see it at the time. That relationship I wanted God to restore was a good example. There was nothing ungodly at all about that relationship, and she was everything the Book of Proverbs tells you to look for. But she was about as good for me as heroin.

He always has a good reason. And He’s patient enough to keep on saying no or not yet in those cases when we insist on asking for something that isn’t good for us. He finds that greatly preferable to not hearing from us at all.

Praying with others

Praying with other people can be a tremendous source of strength. I cited an example earlier where someone completely lit up and changed visibly after I prayed with her. It’s always encouraging when someone understands us.

I like to pray with other people. A few months ago, when I was struggling with something (something I still struggle with, though not as badly as then), I asked a couple of different guys to pray with me and make me accountable to them. It’s a lot easier to ignore a God I can’t see than it is to ignore them.

Praying with other people gives us support and accountability, which we need, because by nature we’re weak. There’s strength in numbers.

I’m not big on praying to (or more accurately, with) dead saints because there are plenty of living saints all around me. If I’m going to pray to something I can’t see, I might as well pray directly to God. Asking St. Mary or St. Jude to pray for me feels like asking one of my friends to ask a girl out for me. No girl is going to say yes to a third-party ask-out; she wants to hear directly from the guy who likes her. God wants to hear from me.

Plus, when I ask St. Mary or St. Jude to pray for me, they have no way of voicing their support to me–I can’t hear what they’re saying–and I don’t get any accountability either. I won’t deny that people get results by praying to saints, but I wonder how much more effective those prayers would be if third parties didn’t get involved.

As far as praying with other living people just like you, don’t lean too hard on it. I remember on Friday feeling nervous before I was going to lead a Bible study. The message was important, I was doing things differently from how I usually do them, and I wanted everything to be perfect.

So I called one of my friends to ask him to pray with me. He wasn’t home. And I realized that I was acting like God would listen to him more than me. So I prayed myself. And things went well.

What about that Holy Spirit thing?

Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit prays with us when we pray. Scripture also tells us there are times when we’re talking and the Holy Spirit will give us words to say. The Holy Spirit is God’s presence in our daily lives. There’s nothing particularly scary or mysterious about it–certainly no more mysterious or scary than the very concept of a God.

So what’s that role in prayer look like? Often times there are no symptoms; the only reason you know He’s there is because the Bible says He is. Sometimes when you pray, you’ll say something and wonder where that came from. And sometimes, I’m convinced, you’ll say something but the people you’re with will hear something different. If I’m babbling along like an idiot and everyone there thanks me and tells me that was brilliant, then the Holy Spirit’s been up to something.

You don’t have to do much of anything to put that to work. God is always working in all of our lives. But His work in our lives is more effective when we give Him as many avenues as possible–going to church on a regular basis, praying every day, reading the Bible–even just a chapter or a couple of verses–every day, belonging to a small group of some sort, making yourself accountable to one or two others, and going on the occasional mission trip are all good examples.

Prayer will change your life. It won’t give you any more control over it than you had before, but you’ll feel a lot better about the circumstances you’re in.

If you found this post informative or helpful, please share it!

22 thoughts on “How to pray”

  1. I must say you have an awesome way of expressing your beliefs without all the religious lingo most “believers” tend to use. Somehow, when asked about their faith, most people tell you using what I call “Christianism” rather than their everyday language. Tell it like it is, don’t complicate it (I always think to myself).

    If God is who most people say he is, then what he wants is a relationship and involment with us. He’s not just watching a game on a big screen tv called earth. I must say my issues with religion have never really had anything to do with God himself but rather people.

    My sister, who is constantly challenging me through the way she lives, fully committed to a cause, told me recently I shouldn’t be disappointed by Christians. She said the bible only mentions that particular word 3 times. Christians is what observers called those who followed Jesus around. The crowds who wanted to see and experience miracles. She continued, “there was only 12 disciples”. It is much harder to walk with Jesus than to follow him. Does that make sense? It kinda did to me. It definitely gave me a different perspective on things.

    So what does this have to do with prayer? Well prayer now makes more sense to me now. If I’m to walk with Jesus, then I must talk to him…I must get to know him…I must build that relationship you so eloquently spoke of in your entry. If I’m just an observer, following from a distance, then I might need a book of prayers. After all, I feel uncomfortable talking to people I don’t know. The common lines are “hi, how are you doing?” etc.

    Ummm, I might need to start there.

  2. Kira “sis”, you never need stop with the words! You have a heartful of wisdom in whatever you do. Course, you could start your own journal/blog again.

    Dave, this is a wonderful post. You have a way with words as Kira put it. I’m so glad I met you through Dan. *hugs*

  3. What a lovely young man you are ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thank you for going through the variety of options and areas on prayer – the hows and the how longs. I so appreciate your honesty and forthrightness on your beliefs and how others can take your concepts and encorporate that in their own spiritual lives…

  4. A very thoughtful essay (as usual ๐Ÿ™‚

    As far as “memorized prayers” go, I’m not sure I entirely agree. The Anglican Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is full of beautiful language, and there can be a great comfort in familiar ritual. Also, your analogy of memorized prayers being like a bunch of guys all reciting lines from men’s magazines to their dates, while humurous, doesn’t quite fit. God, after all, knows what’s in our hearts as we pray, so we can’t use “lines” on Him whether they are from a book or made up on the fly ๐Ÿ™‚ None of this precludes praying anyway you wish, of course – it’s the doing that matters. I just wouldn’t want other folks put-off about investigating pieces of liturature like the BCP.

    Asking St. Mary or St. Jude to pray for me feels like asking one of my friends to ask a girl out for me.

    LOL! I love it… ๐Ÿ˜‰

  5. Although it’s an inflammatory example (why use a subtle example when you don’t have to?) the results are similar. It’s exceptionally difficult to build a meaningful relationship using someone else’s words.

    I’ll concede that using something published is akin to dedicating a song to someone, and I’ll admit that there have been times when, say, an Aimee Mann song captured my mood as well as anything I could have said myself. But am I being completely vulnerable to God when all my communication with Him is in someone else’s words? I’ve still got a screendoor there.

    Learning to express ourselves to God is more to our benefit than to God’s. But the benefit is tremendous.

    It brings to mind the words of Harry Blackaby in Experiencing God: Don’t short-circuit the relationship. Our friends can’t solve all of our problems but our relationships with them make our problems a lot more bearable. God can fill that role too.

  6. Since God knows everything about us, all our hopes, needs, wants, regrets, shotcommings and strenghts, why do we need to pray? I believe it’s to become closer to Him. Prayer forces me to be honest with myself. This inspires humility that leads to change.
    I can understand how a memorized prayer could inspire faith. There are words to Hymns that are basicly prayers that mean a lot to me. But to recite them as my personl prayer seems unnatural. Dave the story you related about your sick frien was a perfect example. That’s exactly what prayer is for. I do believe in a structure to prayer, this is what has worked for me.

    1: Address our Heavenly Father (It’s who you are praying to, hopfully!)

    2: Thank Him for the things for which you are grateful (It’s just polite)

    3: Ask Him for what you need

    4: Close your prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.(He is the mediator between us and our God 1 John 2:1)

  7. commentI am not a surfer i just cam on to find out about emachines, but boy was it nice to see that their are beleivers out there, may Jesus bless you in all your outreach. And dont forget anthonys 4th point.

  8. Prayer: I just say thank you every now and than. I believe God doesn’t have an ego…the trappings of organized religion lead more towards ego gratification for the human than towards real help for others. I was once taught that religion helps us deal with the unknown. (birth, death, taxes). I’m a scientist and I believe there is a supreme being. The more I do research, the more I belive this. The univese is essentially lazy. Entropy rules. Energy is not spent unless there is a significant advantage/positive outcome. The creation of life for one (I mean the big one…the one that started it all). What on earth would possess the universe to make as complicated a being as any animal is…we are very energy inefficient…or are we. However, a supreme being (God, Allah…whatever yours is), would have an easy time of forcing the transfer of energy that yields a dog, a cat or a human. It’s amazing.

    Back to prayer…I prefer to show respect by thanking the supreme being every now and then…once in a blue moon I’ll ask for something, but I try not to be selfish. I try to ask for someone else.

    Just my two cents.


  9. Hello Dave, came to your site for xserver info and here I am reading about prayer — you have quite a range — makes for fantastic reading for those of us who ‘dabble here and there’.

    Have you any space for lit appreciation/discussion — can I expect some comments from you on Graham Greene, maybe Flannery OConnor?

    Glad to have found you,


  10. Well, Dave, I was looking for some instruction on how to pray because I was pretty sure “Hi, God, it’s me again and this week I need [fill in the blank]” was not what God wanted to hear from me. But on the other hand the people I fellowship with sure know some good words and they sure sound pretty and I wanted to know how to sound pretty, too. Thanks for being plain spoken while at the same time being articulate and eloquent. I found what I needed to know in words that make sense. What you said at the beginning of your blog, about “It’s the Holy Spirit” is so true. It sounds so much like the “God will give you the right words” answer I had gotten from well meaning clergy. Well, darn, why would God give me the words, when it’s Him I’m talking to in the first place?! Now I get it. When the Holy Spirit moves you to pray about something or you pray stuff you hadn’t thot about praying or you think you sound dopey but it’s not, that’s God giving me the words!!! Goodness. Anyway, thanks for your edyfication (sp?) Glad I came across your blog.
    Trueheart AZ

  11. Dave, you are searching. When people search they search for different things. You search for the right
    way to pray. I too went through the motions and ended
    up, after 50 years of various churches, to ask:
    “Who can I believe?” and “Am I even in the right religion?”

    A computer whiz like yourself is capable of thinking
    with cold hard logic. Now ask, who is willing to tell AND (absolutely) knows what he is talking about?

    He spoke in mysteries however, and will reveal it to those who search. But you have to know WHAT he said first. Makes sense? That is a prerequisite and if you are not willing to take the time, you might as well forget it.

    Read, analyze and ask.Imagine to be among them when He said it and ask your own questions. Dont read things INTO it. If it is hard to swallow, swallow. If it seems odd shaped, hang on to it; It is a piece of the puzzle.


  12. Hi i just read your excellent posting regarding praying. I too wonder what proper praying is, is it saying thanks for what we have, or can i also be angry for thing that have happened to loved ones, is it praying when i question God’s actions? I have one question why is it that the TV evanligist hardly mention God but always mention Jesus, Isn’t God bigger than Jesus?
    Just wondering

  13. How’s this for a way to pray

    1. Think of something God has promised to do or something the Bible has taught you about God then
    2. Ask God to intervene in yrou life or the life of someone else because He is that kind of God
    3. Give thanks to Him for all He has done
    4. And admit you trust His guidance and answer, even if it is no or later or something else instead.

  14. I ended up on your site throught a search for a 100-watt power supply for a friend. I noticed the heading “How to pray” and was interested in what you had to say. (I know I’m this topic was written quite awhile ago, but I just came across this site for the first time.) You had many good points but there was one issue I had a little trouble with. When you talked about bringing our requests to God, it sounded a little like I want my way and will not accept any other way. I might have misunderstood this point, and I’m sorry if I did, but we need to remember that God is in control and things don’t always work out the way we expected(as you mentioned). I think we need to remember to concede to God that we will accept what happens and pray that He would have his way, and if that means that a friend dies of cancer(just an example), that we would find comfort in Him in this situation.
    What it kind of sounded like to me as I was reading others comments was that prayer was some kind of ritual. I have always been taught that it is a way to communicate with God; just a conversation with Him. I think this is the best way to approach it – just like He is your friend (which He is) and you are talking to Him. I agree with you about memorized prayers and how they are impersonal and not the best method for praying. If you were talking to a friend, you would just let him know what is on your mind; it should be the same way with God, talk to Him, pour out your heart to Him, but to qoute lines to Him. He wants to have a personal relationship with you, not hear you quote somebody else’s lines.
    As far as how to pray – my youth minister gave a good acronym that serves as a guide.

    P- Praise
    R- Repent
    A- Ask
    Y- Yield to God

    This is just a guide and is by know means a standard that everyone should use (remember, prayer is a conversation). As we grow closer to God, I think we will spend more time with the P because we realize how awesome God is and we will want to tell Him that more.

    This is just my comments and thoughts on the issue. It is nice to find a site like this on the web.

    In Him,

  15. Seems no need to opt for one form or another: conversing with God or voicing a common prayer. Why not both? Clearly He want to hear from us… our thanks, our praise, or worries, or sorrow about some misdeed. But sometimes, finding an expression to open our hearts, insisting on selecting our own words (words so often fail us) returns to us a sense of futility. Not that we shouldn’t try, but it’s OK to hum a tune we didn’t compose. At least it serves to set a tone (no pun intended) that uplifts us. And besides, He knows.

    Then, too, when I resort to “prescription” and/or group prayer, litanies, rosaries, the Lord’s prayer etc., I have chosen to crowd out the otherwise foolish thoughts and distractions that the world regards as so “important”. (Note how many joggers need earphones, presumably so they can hear someone else and escape their own thoughts.)

    Care about someone you love? Just be with them, and give them some of God’s precious time. Carry it up a notch: Just be with Him. Return some of His precious time. On whatever terms you can muster.

    God bless you and all who have sincerely entered this forum.

  16. I love this thread, Prayer hmmmm, something we don’t do enough. Suppose it was taken away from us. I mean our right to freely pray. Would we pray then? I bet we would. How about the Ten Commandments? Anyone aware of the battle raging in Alabama to remove a monument bearing the Ten Commandments? I was dissapointed to see that less than 100 people are protesting the removal of this monument. Our main attitude toward prayer is the same attitude we have with everything. It’s called apathay. Let someone else pray about it. When the Ten Commandments are routinely removed from public places, literally without a fight, I wonder how long it will be before they take away our right to freely pray. Will we do anything to stop it? Naw, we will let someone else pray that they don’t. So when will we pray a fervent prayer? When we lose the right to.

  17. What a fantastic amount of time wasted on an activity that has no meaning or bearing on anything, and never has.

    You are all insane, constructed, mindless minions, and you dont know it. Moreover, you will consider me the stupid one, but then, as discussed, you are insane.

    Consider me this: I am a person that believes an invisible man that nobody can see, who talks to me, and I talk to him, I also believe he is everywhere, controlling everything, and ultimately powerful. There is no evidence of this individual. Clinical insanity, interleaved into your being since birth, and you lack the exterior perception to realise the truth, so deep is your delusion.

  18. POL, It sounds like you protest too much. An “invisible man that nobody can see”? I’ll pass on the obvious redundancy, and note that God (if true) would almost by definition be beyond our understanding, “unseeable” by our limited abilities, and most certainly beyond our ability to actually describe. “Controlling everything and ultimately powerful” are pretty crude statements from beings such as ourselves, infinitely small when compared to the whole universe, most of which we can’t even imagine. Some hold we are made in “his” image. I have an image of my wife in my wallet and have never confused that image with the real woman who has blessed my life. Does God talk? I don’t think so, but I would say God communicates. And what God’s tried to teach, I’ve most often learned the hard way. Personally, I find most churches and organized religions as confusing and distracting as they are helpful when it comes to appreciating God. But they never disturb my faith in a God with whom I find much comfort. The proof? that depends on the evidence you require. The rules you establish as a sort of cosmic lawyer or scientist, may not adequately apply to a God you’re not capable of understanding. In the end, our belief or non-belief will not change the status of God’s existence. Never the less, what cannot be argued is that faith in God, and the ability of prayer to focus thought and action have repeatedly and profoundly influenced individuals and the course of history. To disregard that observation would not be logical.

  19. Person of Logic. I see no LOGIC in a person who is so ashamed of their beliefs that they won’t even post their name or email addy.
    It’s the age old argument. You either believe in God or you don’t, You either believe in the power of prayer or you don’t. I find it ironic that certain people in this country feel so threatened by prayer. I mean if it truly is….in your word a waste of time….. why are so many people trying to take that right away from us? I mean, It’s our time we are wasting right?
    Same with the Bible, you either believe it or you don’t. How about another irony? Weather you belive it or not, I submit that the world would be a whole lot better place if everyone in it just did what the Bible says. You know, help your neighbor, do not kill, etc. etc. But for a PERSON OF LOGIC, you will never believe in prayer or the bible, simply because you are to into yourself, and you want to do your own thing, and admitting to the power of prayer might interupt your selfish lifestyle.

  20. I won’t make a blanket statement, but many persons I’ve met who profess not to believe in God, base their reasoning on the absence of a God that meets their expectations. Typically, Why if there is a just God do so many bad things happen? Why can the followers of some religions do so many evil things? Or why do the literal words of the sacred texts seem to make no sense in light of modern science?

    It is difficult to accept that as much as we think we know, it is still very little in comparison to the whole universe of things that are. And that however much God may like or love us – God is not answerable to us for his actions. Through whatever means, God made us and gave us life – and by loving the life we have been given, all of it – I believe we get closer to God – which I also believe God wants. But our part of existence is too small, our vision too limited, to ever presume we have even a slight idea of what God is or what God intends. Even to knowing completely within the scope of our own lives.

    Still we can appreciate that if God created all things in existence then God also created the processes that govern them. The mechanicisms of science are also God’s work. That’s why arguments of creationism versus evolution strike me as arguments about specific religious points and not arguments about God.

    I only know that I believe in God, and that God gave me (and all mankind) the ability to love. It may be the most unique and least quantifiable of our abilities. From what I can tell real love does not exist without free choice or free will. And though free choice/free will may be cause of most of the inhumanity we see, it remains our best vehicle for change and salvation. So perhaps, (not meaning to be presumpuous) that is why God grants mankind his sins because in the end what God wants is our real love, and that is only possible through free will.

    As for prayer – I suspect prayer is properly measured by the honesty of the intent behind it rather than the form it takes. I think all honest prayer, even a prayer for release from pain, is an affirmation of the value of life and life we want lead. In affirming life, we show love for life and hence God. Hard to imagine that would diplease God – Kisses from kids and dogs are wonderful no matter how sloppy. Cynics point out that when God wants to punish us – he answers our prayers – good advice to be careful what we ask for. I’ll paraphrase a Lincoln observation from the Civil War. – So many on both sides of this conflict are comforted by claiming that God is on their side – But I think it wiser to pray humbly that we are on God’s side”. Apologies for being so long winded.

  21. As you pointed out, memorized prayer or formal prayer in a worship book is great for those group prayer times. We’re all together in this, and though we’re all together under God’s hand, it helps to see and feel our fellow Christians. It’s also handy for those times when I just don’t know what to say or how to get started. At the very least, the formal prayer provides something to get the ball rolling.

    On the other hand (quote intended), I’ve always admired old Tevye in "Fiddler on the Roof" for his ongoing, comfortable conversations with God. God’s presence and readiness to hear were a fundamental part of his life. I should be so close.

    And to the person of logic–it’s not about logic, it’s about faith. Faith is the only way to see beyond the limitations of logic (Hebrews 11). But that would be a whole other thread…

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