Prayer is one of the most amazing Spirit-worked blessings to a Christian. It is our communication with the Triune God. Today, we often lose the wonder and awe of prayer. Consider how Andrew Murray defined prayer: “Prayer is the natural and joyous breathing of the spiritual life by which the heavenly atmosphere is inhaled and then exhaled in prayer.” When we pray we must first ask ourselves, “Do I understand what prayer is and do I see the awesome privilege of this wonderful communication with my God?” Simply understanding this does not take away the great difficulties in prayer, but it gives motivation to pray and to develop a healthy prayer life. Let’s seek to answer some of the questions which rise in our hearts regarding prayer: when to pray, what to pray, and how to pray.
When to pray
The first question to develop a healthy prayer life is “when should we pray?” We are often reminded to pray before and after meals, when we wake up in the morning and go to sleep in the evening, or in times of great need. Certainly these are good habits to form from examples found in Scripture, but are these occasions the sum of our prayer life? The Bible tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). What does that mean, and is that even possible? Praying without ceasing means to be instant in prayer, or that prayer is an urgent and pressing need in our life. Young children are excellent examples of this kind of communication with their parents. When they are filled with joy and excitement they can’t hold back and go running to their parents to share the joy they have found. This is also true if they are hurt or fearful. Around the table they give thanks to those who prepared the food. Very young children are completely dependent on their parents and must communicate instantly and constantly with their parents just as we are completely dependent on our heavenly Father and must instantly and constantly communicate with Him as His children.
James W. Beeke and Joel R. Beeke write about this in their book, Developing a Healthy Prayer Life, which I would recommend reading to develop your prayer life. I quote their balanced approach on when to pray: “By nature we pray sporadically because we trust ourselves so much. By grace, the closer we walk with the Lord the closer our prayer life will be with Him. To ‘pray without ceasing’ reveals a walk with God that is constant. It points to the need to maintain regular times for daily prayer, without intermission. The more sporadic our walk with God is, the more sporadic our prayer life will be, and vice versa.” Please do set times during the day to pray and discipline ourselves to keep them, but remember as we go about our daily duties to be continually sharing our concern, joys, and thankfulness with the Lord for our heavenly Father’s throne of grace is available 24/7.
What to pray
Secondly, what should I communicate in prayer? Think about it in these terms: What would you communicate to your father, to someone you were dependent on, to your friend, or to someone you love? That would contain a wide range of communication from acknowledgement, thanksgiving, concerns, joys, expressions of love, even your deepest desires. Since God has created us as relational beings vertically with God and horizontally with other people, we also would intercede for others.
It is always helpful in developing our prayer life not only to have set times of prayer but also to have some structure during those prayers. “ACTS” can be a helpful acronym. “A” is for acknowledging God for who He is, and acknowledging we are dependent on Him. ‘C’ is for confession of our sin and sinfulness before a pure, holy, and just God, remembering in our private prayers to be specific about the sins we are struggling with. ‘T’ is for thankfulness to God were we can thank Him for His daily provision, His electing grace, His Son who is our Saviour, and His Spirit who dwells in us. ‘S’ is supplication where we pour out our requests and intercede on behalf of others before the Lord, seeking His will to be done to the glory of His name.
Although a mnemonic like ‘ACTS’ can be helpful, ultimately, we should turn to the Scriptures and we will see that Jesus has taught His disciples what to pray. We have literally hundreds of examples of prayer in Scripture. God has given His Word to us and we have the privilege of taking it back to Him in prayer in various ways: by identifying with the Psalms and taking the Psalmist’s prayer to God, by hearing the promises of God and taking those back to God as we wrestle with Him in prayer, and by finding confidence in prayer from how God has answered prayer in His Word. Many of us struggle with prayer because we don’t know what to say! The same is true in our interaction with people. Sometimes you try to have a conversation with someone who is reserved and there are these awkward periods of silence. Without recognizing that God communicates with us every minute in general revelation and especially through His Word, our prayer life is going to be like those times of awkward silence. Scripture is the best support for a vibrant prayer life, because it is God’s communication to us and He gives His Holy Spirit to illuminate the Scriptures to stir up true prayer in our soul.
How to pray
Thirdly, we need to ask a very important question, which sadly isn’t asked very often today. How must I pray? When we communicate with people, it is often not what we say but how we say it that has the most effect and influence. Most of our communication is non-verbal. This relates to our tone of voice, posture, eye contact, actions, and passion. I am not suggesting that we should have a special tone of voice or special pronouns to pray, nor a specific posture at all. However, God knows our heart and our attitude in prayer; therefore, we do well to cultivate a healthy attitude in prayer.
The first attitude we must cultivate is an attitude of respectful humility. We are completely dependent on God for absolutely everything and His glory must be our chief goal in prayer. This means we must understand who we are communicating with, namely the Almighty God. We wouldn’t communicate with earthly royalty casually—with our hands in our pockets, using flippant forms of speech—but rather with humility and respect for their office. How much greater is God who created everything, provides for His creation, governs His creation, and has done absolutely everything for our salvation despite our unworthiness? Those truths teach us to deny ourselves and pray, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
The second attitude to cultivate is bold perseverance. God has commanded us to ‘come boldly to His throne of grace that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need’ (Heb. 4:16). This is not the opposite of humility, but rather, humility that is shown by believing who God is, His Word, and His promises. Beeke writes, “Here lies the heartbeat of boldness. Christ as our High Priest provides freedom and boldness to approach God … through Christ’s mercy at His throne of grace, a sinner finds true boldness.” This boldness is God’s grace to persevere in prayer by trusting God hears our prayers while we expectantly wait for His answer to prayer according to His will, for our good, and for His glory. This truth gives boldness to cling to Christ and like Jacob pray, “I will not let thee go, except thou bless me” (Gen. 32:26).
A third and essential attitude is thankfulness. The Heidelberg Catechism calls prayer the chief part of thankfulness. We often think of prayer as an emergency room, which causes us to forget to pray or feel cold in prayer when things are going well. Remember the ten lepers that came to Jesus as to an ER doctor, but only one of them returned to the Lord with a heart filled with love, joy, and, thankfulness for blessing He found in Christ. We, who have received so many blessings, must heed Psalm 136:1, “O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever.”
Although this list could be added with our great need to cultivate our faith and holiness, we ultimately need to recognize our total dependence on God to pray. Therefore, let our request and attitude be similar to that of the disciples, “Lord teach us to pray, help us to pray, purify our prayers, and give us Your Holy Spirit in prayer”—trusting the Lord will bless us richly as we develop and cultivate a healthy prayer life as we communicate with Him.