So what is prayer? If you're a new Christian it can sometimes be hard to learn how to pray, and even mature Christians can get out of the habit of praying. Prayer is important, because it is the main method of communicating with God. It's impossible to be a Christian if you have never prayed, because Christianity is all about your personal relationship with God/Jesus. If you don't talk to your best friend, eventually they won't be your friend anymore. Christians need to keep in regular contact with God or your relationship will suffer, you will feel far from God, and you may start to "backslide" (fall away from God). So since prayer is so crucial, let's see what the Bible says about prayer.
How should we pray?
The best example of how to pray was given by Jesus, when the disciples asked him this exact question. Jesus replied: "You should pray like this: Our Father in heaven, help us to honour your name. Come and set up your kingdom, so that everyone on earth will obey you, as you are obeyed in heaven. Give us our food for today. Forgive us for doing wrong, as we forgive others. Keep us from being tempted and protect us from evil." (Matthew 6:9-13). This is a good outline for how to structure your personal prayers. First, thank God for who he is, what Jesus has done, and recognize that he is holy. Then ask that God's will would be done (in general, in your life, etc.). Then there are more specific requests such as daily needs (physical and spiritual). You don't have to follow it exactly, but it can be useful when you're first learning to pray.
The Bible also gives further instructions on how not to pray:
- "When you pray, don't be like those show-offs who love to stand and pray in the meeting places and on the street corners. They do this just to look good. I can assure you that they already have their reward. (Matthew 6:5) So don't try to show off and be all super-spiritual. It's better to be humble and honest than to try get attention from other people.
- When you pray, go into a room alone and close the door. Pray to your Father in private. He knows what is done in private, and he will reward you."(Matthew 6:6) Prayer doesn't have to be public to be valid.
- "When you pray, don't talk on and on as people do who don't know God. They think God likes to hear long prayers. Don't be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask." (Matthew 6:7) God still wants to hear you pray, but you don't have to pray for a long time or think your prayer was too short. God knows what you would ask for, and repeating it 15 times doesn't make him answer it any faster.
Also, one of my pet peeves is when people pray and say something like "Dear Lord" or "My God" every few words. I'm sure it's a subconscious thing, but it makes their prayers rather annoying to listen to. It's like "Dear God, I'd like to ask, Lord, that you bless this church God and forgive our sins Precious Saviour...", etc. I'm sure God knows who you're addressing - you don't have to mention His name every half a sentence just to sound "spiritual". One address at the start such as "Dear Jesus" or "God..." is good enough.
What should we pray for?
What should Christians pray for? If you look through the Bible, you can find that people pray to God for just about anything. Here are some of the most common prayers:
- For others: "Never stop praying, especially for others. Always pray by the power of the Spirit. Stay alert and keep praying for God's people."(Ephesians 6:18) "First of all, I ask you to pray for everyone. Ask God to help and bless them all, and tell God how thankful you are for each of them." (1 Timothy 2:1)
- For enemies: "I tell you to love your enemies and pray for anyone who mistreats you." (Matthew 5:44)
- Healing: "If you are sick, ask the church leaders to come and pray for you." (James 5:14)
- Forgiveness: "...wash away your sins by praying to the Lord" (Acts 22:16). "Whenever you stand up to pray, you must forgive what others have done to you. Then your Father in heaven will forgive your sins." (Mark 11:25-26)
- For government: "Pray for kings and others in power, so that we may live quiet and peaceful lives as we worship and honour God."(1 Timothy 2:2)
Also, we should pray constantly: "Always be joyful and never stop praying. Whatever happens, keep thanking God because of Jesus Christ. This is what God wants you to do."(1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). I don't think this means that every minute of every day has to be prayer, because that's impossible. But you can pray whenever you feel compelled to, and don't have to wait for a specific time on Sundays or during devotional time to do it. And don't ever give up on praying even if you think it's not making any difference.
Do we always get what we pray for?
Sometimes Christians and pastors make it sound that whatever you pray for will happen. There are verses in the Bible which support this idea, but there are also verses which put limits and conditions on when prayers will come true. It is important to know when the differences are so that you will not get disappointed if you don't get what you ask for. Pastors who support the "prosperity gospel" often ignore these conditions and assume that you can ask for riches or success and God will automatically give it to you. Let's look at these verses which indicate which prayers will be answered and which won't.
- "If you have faith when you pray, you will be given whatever you ask for." (Matthew 21:22). If we have strong faith, it makes it much more likely to get what you have asked for. Jesus said that if we have only a small amount of faith, we could do amazing things like order mountains to move (Matthew 17:19-21).
- "Everyone who asks will receive. Everyone who searches will find. And the door will be opened for everyone who knocks. Would any of you give your hungry child a stone if the child asked for some bread? Would you give your child a snake if the child asked for a fish? As bad as you are, you still know how to give good gifts to your children. But your heavenly Father is even more ready to give good things to people who ask."(Matthew 7:7-11). God will give you blessings or help if you ask for it, because Christians are God's children, but may not give it to you if it is only for selfish reasons (see next paragraph).
- "We are certain that God will hear our prayers when we ask for what pleases him. And if we know that God listens when we pray, we are sure that our prayers have already been answered." (1 John 5:14-15) Note that our prayers must please God if he's going to answer them. God will not punish someone you dislike, or do anything that goes against His will.
- "I promise that when any two of you on earth agree about something you are praying for, my Father in heaven will do it for you."(Matthew 18:19) Praying with other Christians can be more powerful than just praying alone.
Not Every Prayer is Answered
So which prayers will generally not be answered? Here are some of the reasons that prayers may not be answered, according to the Bible.
- Selfish prayers: "Yet even when you do pray, your prayers are not answered because you pray just for selfish reasons." (James 4:3). If you pray for things that are purely selfish, God may not answer them. But asking for things for yourself that you need is not selfish. Asking for God to increase your faith or help you with your hard times is not selfish either. But if you are asking God for a mansion and powerboat just to keep up with your friends, that is probably selfish.
- Praying with unconfessed sins: "Your sins are the roadblock between you and your God. That's why he doesn't answer your prayers or let you see his face." (Isaiah 59:2) and "God cannot stand the prayers of anyone who disobeys his Law." (Proverbs 28:9). If you are sinning and do not confess it, there's a good chance God might not answer your prayers until you admit it, apologize to God (or others), and stop sinning.
- Prayers without faith: "Everything you ask for in prayer will be yours, if you only have faith."(Mark 11:23) and "And because the people did not have any faith, Jesus did not work any miracles there." (Matthew 13:58). If you don't have faith that God could answer your prayer, it probably won't happen. God has the power to do anything, but if you don't believe he can, it is an insult to God and He may not answer your prayer.
- Prayers against God's will: "How I wish that God would answer my prayer and do away with me." (Job 6:8). This was during a time when God tested Job's faith. If God had answered Job's prayer for death, Job would not have passed his test and been blessed when his test was over. Also, Jesus prayed "My Father, if it is possible, don't make me suffer by having me drink from this cup. But do what you want, and not what I want." (Matthew 26:39). If Jesus' prayer had been answered and he did not have to die on the cross, none of us would be saved and able to go to Heaven. This was all part of God's plan, and could not be changed by prayers.
Sometimes Answers are Delayed
Sometimes, God does not answer prayers right away. It might take months or years before prayers are answered. I have heard of a woman who prayed that her husband would become a Christian, and finally it happened - 20 years later. Also, many Christians pray "Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven", as in the Lord's Prayer. But given the current state of the world, it is difficult to see how these prayers are doing any good. However, these prayers will be answered during the Millennium where Jesus returns to earth to rule as King. Similarly, in Revelation 6:9-11 it shows how all the martyrs in heaven pray for God to send justice on the ones who killed them, but God tells them to rest and wait a while longer. Then later in Revelation 16:4-7 their prayers are answered as God turns the sea and rivers into blood as punishment for the people on earth for killing the martyrs.
What about praying before meals?
In North-American culture we don't really see this much anymore besides at church functions. But Jesus himself showed that the practice of praying before meals is a good thing to do. "Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish. He looked up toward heaven and blessed the food. The then broke the bread and handed it to his disciples." (Matthew 14:19). Later, Paul was explaining to Timothy that Christians don't have to follow the Old-Testament laws about what food we can eat, as long as we give a quick prayer saying "thanks" to God before eating it (1 Timothy 4:4-5). It can be good to get into the habit of thanking God for your food, as it's a good reminder that we are dependent on God for everything. God provides our food not miraculously, but by giving us the ability to work and earn money, or by others being generous to give to food banks and soup kitchens, etc.
I read one forum comment of an atheist who was expected to give thanks before a meal, and this atheist had a good insight that I'd like to share. As he did not believe in God, instead he thanked all the farmers, truck drivers, supermarkets, chefs, waiters, etc. that were involved in bringing food to his table. While it is too bad he didn't acknowledge God, it pointed out that we should be thankful to God that there are people out there whose jobs provide food for us to eat. We would not enjoy nearly as much variety of food if we didn't have worldwide shipping companies and those who work for them. We should also remember and pray for the people who pick the coffee beans that are enjoyed every morning, etc.
How does God answer prayer?
Prayer is talking to God, but listening for when God talks back is just as important. This is the hardest part of prayer. It's much easier and more natural for us to talk than to listen. So, what are some ways that God speaks back to us?
The most obvious is that what you prayed for actually happens. If you prayed for money for a mission trip, when you get that money then it's an answer to prayer. In this case, God would have answered the prayer by helping prompt others to be generous and donate to the mission fund. Other prayers can also be met by people. If you pray to not be lonely, and then get a call from a friend, that's an answered prayer. If you have a hard time finding a job, but then suddenly one pops up where you'd least expect, maybe it's an answer from God. It can sometimes be difficult to discern whether this is "coincidence" or an answered prayer. However, I believe that all "coincidences" are also provided by God, and we should be thankful for them just as much as a blatant miracle.
Sometimes, when you're praying, you can listen and see if you can hear anything that God might want to say back to you. This is most likely not an "audible" voice, and you probably won't get a sign like Moses did, where a burning bush yelled "MOSES!" (Exodus 3:4). When you are praying, you are generally aware of your thought process and what's going on in your head. If something suddenly pops into your mind that doesn't feel like your thought, maybe it's not. If it encourages you or addresses what you were praying about, it's probably the Holy Spirit talking to you. Sometimes the "thought" may address you with your own name, which you normally wouldn't do if it was just you making things up. If you get thoughts that are insulting or put you down, it is most likely not from God. When God corrects you, it is done gently and respectfully, and you will still feel loved afterwards.
Sometimes you might get a feeling which can't be put into words, but you know it is either an encouragement or push from God to do something, such as to confess a sin which you suddenly remembered, or to volunteer for a position at church, etc. It's tricky, and subtle, and if you're not sure you heard right you can pray more, or go ask a pastor or Christian friend and see if what you heard makes sense to them.
Sometimes, the answer might be "No"
It is important to notice that not every prayer's answer will be "yes". Sometimes if you ask for something, God may hear your prayer, but knows that what you have asked for is not the best thing. If you ask to get into a specific college, God may say "no" because he has a better idea of where you should go. There are all sorts of occasions when God might answer back with a "no", and you need to realize it is not because God wants to hurt you, but because God has something else planned for you. It takes some faith in God to trust his judgement and accept the answers, but overall you'll be a lot happier and more successful than if you try to do it your own way.
The Sinner's Prayer - The Most Important Prayer Ever!
I'd like to end with a discussion of what the "sinner's prayer" is. This is most likely one of the earliest prayers any Christian would have ever done. There is no set way to do it. First, it involves recognizing that you have sinned, and that there is no way for you to deserve going to Heaven. Then you have to recognize that Jesus' death paid for your sins, and accepting his death on your behalf and thanking Jesus for it. The last step is to commit to following Jesus with your life, to learning more about God and growing in relationship with God. Here is a simple sample below:
"Dear Jesus, I realize that I've messed up and haven't acted how you wanted me to. I'm a sinner, and I deserve to go to Hell. But thank you so much for dying for me. I recognize that your death on the cross has paid for my sins, and that this is the only way to Heaven. Thanks so very much for your sacrifice and death, which I can never earn or repay. I pledge to follow you for the rest of my life - I want to act how you want me to act, learn more about you, and get to know and love you personally. Amen."
Of course, this is just a sample. It isn't the words itself that save you, but the content and sincerity and intentions behind it. And if you just pray it and walk away, don't bother to get to know God and just live how you want, it won't work. Many people will show up at the Great White Throne judgement claiming to be Christian because they said this prayer once, but never actually had a relationship with Jesus. To them, Jesus will say "I really don't know who you are. Get away from me, you evil people."(Luke 13:27). But if you do accept Jesus' sacrifice, and devote your life to loving and following Him, then you will live forever in Heaven with Jesus, and have the most amazing future you could ever dream of.