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.