Teach Me How To PrayMaybe nothing is more freeing for a person struggling with the obligatory “prayer time” than expanding our understanding of prayer to enjoying God’s presence as we do something we love.
“Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’ Jesus said, ‘This is how you should pray’” (Luke 11:1-2a NLT).
I grew up in a Christian family. For me, prayer was as common as watching TV. We prayed before every meal, we prayed before bed, we went to a church that began and ended every meeting with prayer. I thought of prayer as a very natural thing, which is why I always thought the disciples’ request for Jesus to teach them to pray was strange. In my mind, if a person knew how to talk, they knew how to pray. If they could have a conversation with anyone, they could have a conversation with God.
There is a beautiful simplicity in that thinking which is true. Prayer is simple. It doesn’t need to be complicated. There are no formulas or special chants to memorize. We can say anything to God. This view of prayer served me well in childhood. But as I grew up, this sort of prayer didn’t continue to meet my needs. I talked to God often, but He never talked to me. I read Him lists of sick people and sometimes they got better and sometimes they didn’t. It didn’t feel like prayer was very meaningful. It often felt more like a chore and usually my mind would wander, and I would forget I was even praying.
After a few decades of following Jesus, I am still learning the beauty of the disciples’ request for Jesus to teach them to pray. It feels like I’m constantly learning more. When prayer gets dry or difficult, we ought to seek out teachers to teach us to pray. These teachers could be people we know, people in the Bible or even the saints who have gone before us. I want to share a few of the ways scripture has taught me to pray that have deepened my relationship with Jesus.
A Pattern for Prayer
Jesus goes on to answer the disciples’ question, and Luke 11:2-4 gives us a pattern for prayer that we can follow. The verses might be familiar as we often pray a version of “The Lord’s Prayer” as it is recorded in Matthew 6:9-13. But even more than just the recitation (which can also be beautiful and helpful to us as we pray) it offers a pattern of adoration and petition that we can follow in our own prayer time. We can start our prayers by adoring God. This isn’t to flatter Him in order to manipulate Him but rather for us to recognize who He really is. If we have a different image of who God is rather than how He is revealed in scripture, then we are really praying to a different god—no different from people worshipping idols. We should adore Him as He is adored throughout scripture.
Jesus also invites us to bring our petitions to the Lord—for our needs and for forgiveness. Our petitions ought to come from our heart, but they should also be in line with His character and purpose. If you’re not sure what God wants, you could always begin by asking Him, “What do you want me to pray for?” You never know when an image, thought, or impression might come to you from God.
A Prayer of Confession
Psalm 51 gives us an example of a prayer of confession. As David is repenting of his sin, we get a glimpse into his heart. Despite his failure, scripture calls him “a man after God’s own heart.” His confession shows us what true repentance looks like. He begins by admitting his guilt. He doesn’t make excuses or sugar coat anything. He has bent, twisted, and distorted God’s plan. He has broken his relationship with a Holy God by doing very unholy things. David then cries out for mercy. He doesn’t bargain, negotiate, or offer a trade. He puts himself at the mercy of God. Though he is the King of Israel, he knows that God is infinitely superior. David knows that if there is any hope for forgiveness it is because of God’s mercy, not his own merit. David even goes so far as to ask for a new heart—this is a true miracle. It’s something only God can do. When I am tempted to think of my sin as not too offensive, I’m reminded of Psalm 51 and the beautiful and effective way David owned his sin and found true forgiveness from God.
A Prayer for Boldness
After the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, the believers were emboldened to preach about Jesus in public places. This left them open as targets to the same people who had just a few weeks earlier killed Jesus. Peter was even arrested and threatened by the entire Sanhedrin (Acts 4:1-22). The believers were rightfully afraid, and their response was to pray for boldness. They don’t pray for protection or escape, though either of these would have been valid prayers! Instead, they pray for the Lord to “enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness” (Acts 4:29 NIV). This prayer has often inspired me to pray boldly. We shouldn’t limit our prayers to human expectations but invite God to do hard things through us that would make a difference for His Kingdom in the world.
The “Answered” Prayer
Paul teaches a value of praying when he prayed three times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed (2 Corinthians 12:8). This teaches us that it is okay to pray for the same thing more than once. Paul sounds like he was very desperate with his request. But God did not answer it in the way he thought he wanted. He wanted the thorn removed. Instead, he got an answer about why the thorn is there. This dramatically changed Paul’s perspective. After this, instead of it being a sign of his weakness, it became a symbol of God’s power. Scripture even says he delighted in it! Sometimes God’s answers to my prayer haven’t come in the form I wanted. But a word from God can dramatically change our perspective. I’m so thankful when God reorients my perspective to His. Thank you, Paul, for showing us that answered prayer doesn’t always come how we expect it.
The Desperate Prayer
Jonah is disobedient to God’s instructions and as a result finds himself in the belly of a great fish (Jonah 1). It appears he is so mad at God that he waits three days in the fish before he prays. Finally, “as his life is slipping away,” he remembers the Lord and prays. He promises to praise God and fulfill his vows as a prophet. He recognizes God as the only source of salvation. People often turn to desperate prayers when facing a life-or-death situation. They may even make promises to God for how they want to live their life should they survive. It is a gift to be reminded every once in a while, that we will someday die. And it is a gift to have more time to choose to follow God. Prayers of desperation ought to be a wakeup call that we aren’t ready to meet God face-to-face and that we may need to reorient our life so that when that day does come, we will have peace in our hearts that we can joyfully meet our maker with the assurance of salvation that comes only from Jesus. These prayers shouldn’t just be disregarded as a moment of panic or anxiety. Instead, we can notice what rises up in us when we face the possibility of death, and we can approach a loving God who has the best intentions for us and our life.
1 Thessalonians 5:17 says “Never stop praying.” This instruction reveals that praying must be so much more than simply talking to God. We wouldn’t be able to live our lives if we never stopped bowing our heads, folding our hands, and thinking about what to say to God. Instead, we are invited to acknowledge that all of life can be a prayer. Our very breath can be a prayer. Our wordless groans can be a prayer (Romans 5:26). Seeing something beautiful might turn our mind to our endlessly creative God. We can consider prayer as sometimes using words, other times just an awareness that God is near, that He loves us, that He desires to communicate with us. Maybe nothing is more freeing for a person struggling with the obligatory “prayer time” than expanding our understanding of prayer to enjoying God’s presence as we do something we love, like taking a walk in nature, playing with a favorite pet, or sharing good food with a good friend.
I’m thankful for the many ways I have learned to pray over the years. I’m more aware of who I am and how God invites me to approach Him thanks to the many examples of prayer throughout scripture. It’s interesting to me that there are many detailed descriptions for sacrifices in the Old Testament, but there is never a prescribed process to pray. Instead, we are invited to pray spontaneously, personally, in any time of need, no matter where or when. What a beautiful picture of our loving, heavenly Father, waiting expectantly for us to bring our cares to Him.
Captain Catherine Fitzgerald serves as Corps Officer in New Albany, IN.