Prayer doesn’t always come easily. When we’re at a Bible study or some other kind of Christian fellowship gathering and somebody asks us to pray, we panic. We have no idea what to say. “I didn’t have time to prepare,” we might think to ourselves. Then we begin stumbling over our words with a lot of “uh’s” and “just’s” in between as we struggle with what to say, concluding we’re terrible at praying as we reminisce on pastors and other spiritual leaders we know who are fantastic at praying. Perhaps I’m just recollecting my own past thoughts. But let me ask you this: Does God care about the eloquence of our praying, or does He care that we simply talk to Him?
Prayer is often called a conversation between you and God, but I hesitate to call it that because somebody else talks back to you in a conversation. God doesn’t always do that. Well, God does talk back, just not in the audible way we expect; He talks back to us in His written Word. So, what should we call it? In spite of its imperfection, I do think of prayer as a conversation with God in my own prayer life, knowing He answers in His Word. With our limited human understanding of God, “conversation” is the best way we can fathom prayer.
To me, however, prayer is a lot like venting. When you vent to your friend, they seldom talk back. When you’re venting, you’re doing all the talking, laying out all your problems and emotions to your friend and thanking them for listening to you, then you feel better. Prayer is a lot like this in that we lay out all our problems and feelings before God, asking Him for our needs, and praising Him for His goodness.
The Christian has the joy in that God answers all our prayers. This does not mean answered prayer means He said “yes.” A lot of Christians these days define an answered prayer as “yes.” So when they haven’t received something from a prayer they’ve prayed, they say, “My prayer hasn’t been answered yet.” It’s more likely that it was; it just wasn’t the answer they wanted. When God answers prayer, I believe there are three possible answers: “Yes,” “No,” or, “I have something better in mind.” Sometimes He’ll combine two of those answers, such as, “No, because I have something better in mind.”
So, how do we pray? If I wanted, I could do a study on the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6:9-13, but that’s not what I’m going to do here. The Lord’s Prayer is, indeed, a great guide to prayer Jesus has given us Himself. We think that in order to pray, we have to speak eloquently and say the right words with a plethora of clever metaphors. Those prayers exist and they really are beautiful prayers, but God doesn’t ask for eloquence. He just wants us to talk to Him, which is essentially what Jesus was getting at with His guidance for prayer. When I was attending chapel service one morning at my college, the pastor who was speaking that day gave us a simple acronym, which was PRAY. He said to pray like this: praise, repent, ask, yield. It’s simple and easy to remember. So, let’s go through each of these steps.
It is always good to begin prayer with praising God, expressing our gratitude toward Him for all the things He’s done for us. This is especially important when we approach Him in prayer when we’re particularly ungrateful, angry, stressed, or sad. We’re not exactly in a grateful or praising mood when we’re dealing with these emotions. However, Paul said, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).
Prayer, praise, and thanksgiving should be the perpetual condition of the Christian, Paul says, even when we’re being persecuted or oppressed! In Acts 16:25 we read of Paul and Silas praising God with hymns while they were being persecuted in prison. What an odd time to praise God, yet they did it anyway because of the joy they had in Christ their salvation. You don’t have to play a Christian tune before you pray; that’s entirely up to you. It’s not something I do, but I certainly encourage you to praise God in thanksgiving when you begin to pray, thanking Him for anything you can think of, even if it’s small. It is most special to thank God for the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross; I express my gratitude to Him in this constantly. We should be forever grateful for that undeserved gift every day of our lives. Let us, then, ever more express our gratitude to God for this amazing gift of Christ.
When Jesus advises we pray for our “daily bread,” He’s talking about our daily needs—food, finances, protection; God provides it all. Even if you can’t think of something big God has provided for you, you can still thank Him for something as small as food, acceptance into your university, the love of your parents, your friends, your romantic partner, whatever it is. All things under the sun are gifts from God to use for His glory.
Approaching God with praise and thanksgiving first doesn’t mean He’s more likely to answer your prayer with a “yes.” Its purpose is to help you realise the gifts God has given you, both small and large, and thus reveal to you God’s faithfulness to you in spite of your faithlessness (see 2 Timothy 2:13).
Prayer is also a time for us to repent of our sins—both the ones we remember and the ones we fail to recall, especially when our consciences cannot wait to taste the sweetness of forgiveness in the Lord’s Supper and hear His words of forgiveness in Absolution. If I can’t remember any sins, I simply ask, “Please forgive me of any sins I either cannot recall or fail to recognise.” The sacraments of the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and Absolution do this for us, but it is certainly spiritually healthy to make this confession with our own lips in prayer. I find that it satisfies my conscience and rids me of any guilt when I ask God to forgive the sins I fail to recall or recognise. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary to make such a confession since the sacraments do this for us, but it certainly helps. After all, we do need to repent of our sins daily, for there is not a single day when we do not sin.
What do we make of this word, “repent,” however? Why can’t we just repent whenever we commit a sin and then go back to it since God is so gracious and merciful? This is not a new issue. Paul addressed this in Romans 6:1-4:
“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptised into Christ Jesus were baptised into His death? We were buried therefore with Him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life.”
Peter made the exhortation, “Repent and be baptised every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Repentance and baptism go together.
What is baptism? For the purpose of this article, I’ll keep it brief. Going back to what Paul said in Romans, imagine baptism like this: Imagine that I take a piece of paper, write your name on it, and place it inside my Bible—the Word of God. Whatever happens to my Bible, then, is what happens to that piece of paper that has your name on it. Jesus Christ is the Word (John 1:1, 14). That is what God has done for you in your baptism. When we are baptised we have put on Christ (Galatians 3:27)—we are placed into Him. Therefore, whatever happens to Christ happens to us. What Paul is delineating, then, is this: Christ died in our place for sin, and in baptism we die to sin. By the glory of the Father He was raised from the dead, and in baptism we are raised into Christ for eternal life. In baptism, we leave behind our old life—all the terrible things we’ve done and will do—and come out of it into a new life. Paul continues in verses 5-14:
For if we have been united with Him in a death like His, we shall certainly be united with Him in a resurrection like His. We know that our old self was crucified with Him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. For one who has died has been set free from sin. Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with Him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death He died He died to sin, once for all, but the life He lives He lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions. Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
As saints and sinners, we still wrestle with sin, but it no longer has dominion over us—that is, it no longer rules over us. Therefore, Paul says, we are now no longer under obligation to indulge in sin. Martin Luther comments on the passage this way:
In chapter 6 [Paul] takes up the special work of faith, the conflict of the spirit with the flesh for the complete slaying of sin and lust that remain after we are justified. He teaches us that we are not by faith so freed from sin that we can be idle, slack, and be careless, as though there were no longer any sin in us. Sin is present; but it is no longer reckoned for our condemnation, because of the faith that is struggling against it. Therefore we have enough to do all our life long in taming the body, slaying its lusts, and compelling its members to obey the spirit and not the lusts. Thus we become like the death and the resurrection of Christ, and complete our baptism—which signifies the death of sin and the new life of grace—until we are entirely purified of sin, and even our bodies rise again with Christ and live forever. All this we can do, he says, because we are under grace and not under law… To be without the law is not the same thing as to have no laws and to be able to do what one pleases. Rather we are under the law when, without grace, we occupy ourselves with the works of the law. Then sin certainly rules [us] through the law, for no one loves the law by nature; and that is great sin. Grace, however, makes the law dear to us; then sin is no longer present, and the law is no longer against us but one with us. [Luther’s Works, 35:375-376]
I suddenly realise I’m going much longer than I intended for repentance, but it is such a huge and vital topic that needs to be understood. In baptism, Christ frees us from condemnation under the law. The Greek word for “repent” is the word μετανοέω (metanoéo), which means to turn away from a previous course of action or pattern of behaviour. Repentance, then, is not merely confessing your sins; it is coupled with forsaking the sin we once committed. With repentance and baptism, we have no excuse to continue in sin because Christ has set us free from it by freely forgiving us.
After confessing our sins comes a good time to ask for our needs. Notice it’s our needs we ask for, not our wants. There’s a significant difference between the two. We don’t always need what we want and we don’t always want what we need. Jesus said, “And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith” (Matthew 21:22). Jesus likewise said, “Whatever you ask in My name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask Me anything in My name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).
A lot of Christians and non-Christians misinterpret these words of Jesus. They ask, “If this is true, why doesn’t Jesus say yes to all my prayers?” Jesus is not saying if you just believe hard enough and say, “in Jesus’ name, amen” at the end of every prayer, this guarantees a “yes” to your prayer. The type of prayer Jesus is talking about in this context is the prayer that trusts in God’s will. James wrote in his epistle, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). James isn’t talking about using the wrong words in prayer, but the wrong motive. James encourages not selfish prayer, but intercessory prayer (James 5:14-15). There’s nothing wrong with asking God for your daily bread—things you actually need, because the Lord knows you need them before you even ask (Matthew 6:8; see also Luke 12:22-34, esp. 30).
God promises to give us what we need. If you pray for a dog, is God really likely to give you one? He may, but it’s certainly not guaranteed because it’s coming out of a selfish motive. If you pray for wealth and riches even though you have a stable job and income, will God say yes? Probably not, because the motive is selfish. If you’re out of a job, however, and are having significant trouble finding one, God knows you need a job in order to live and if you pray for a job, He will give it to you because it’s His will that He provide your daily bread. Just recognise it will happen in His timing, not your own.
When we pray for others, like a loved one who’s sick, God may or may not answer it with a “yes.” Even when God says no, He still works out His plan. What if, in praying for someone who’s sick, God doesn’t heal them but as they’re in the hospital they come to faith, then die soon after? God still worked out His plan and brought them to salvation. What if they’re already a believer and God says no and they die? Easy: they receive their reward in Heaven, which is literally a better place than here.
But what if they’re an unbeliever, and I pray for them to be healed, and God says no and they die in unbelief? I don’t have an easy answer for that one, for each situation is unique, and it’s a much deeper discussion I can’t get into here. What I do know is that their rejection of God is their own choosing and, therefore, their own fault. This may not be comforting, but I do not write for comfort; I write for biblical truth.
The point is: God knows what we need before we even ask, and it pleases Him when we trust Him enough to come to Him in prayer and ask for our needs whether it’s His will to say yes to our prayer or not. Either way, as the Supreme Ruler, God knows what’s best, even if we don’t see it or agree with the outcome of our prayer.
Speaking of God’s will in prayer, the last part of prayer is yielding to His will. The third petition of the Lord’s Prayer is, “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” In Luther’s Small Catechism, he explains it this way:
The good and gracious will of God is done even without our prayer, but we pray in this petition that it may be done among us also. God’s will is done when He breaks and hinders every evil plan and purpose of the Devil, the world, and our sinful nature, which do not want us to hallow God’s name or let His kingdom come; and when He strengthens and keeps us firm in His Word and faith until we die.
As sinners, we want a lot of things. We want more money, more food, better clothing, perfect health; the list is almost endless. But our will doesn’t always equate to God’s will, and we don’t always understand God’s will. Through His prophet, God said, “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9). It’s not our place to fathom God’s will but to accept His will. God is Creator, He is King—He is Supreme Ruler over all things and all people. He can literally do whatever He so chooses and we, no matter how arrogant, can never be in the place to question His will. When God says “no” to our prayer and we have the audacity say, “Why would You do this, God? I thought You were all-good and all-powerful,” we are actually committing a grave sin. As Supreme Ruler, He could smite us and destroy us in an instant for committing such a grave sin. Instead, He doesn’t smash us with His thumb; He graciously lets us live and uses His means for us to see His grace and mercy in the situation.
Prayer is not a tool to say, “Give me what I want.” Prayer is a gift in which we can approach God and ask for His mercy. God gives us the ability to say, “Lord, thank You for all You’ve done and given me. Forgive me for all my sins. I now pray for these things I need and what my neighbour needs. If it be Your will, please grant me these desires. If not, teach me to accept the things I cannot accept. Amen.” God didn’t have to give us a device in which we can approach Him, but He did. Still, though, this gift doesn’t guarantee He’ll give us whatever we want because what we want isn’t always what’s best for us. It is futile to seek understanding of God’s ways; His plans and reasons are beyond our ability to fathom (see Romans 11:33-36). As we pray, we trust God to do what He knows is best, even if it’s not what we desire, for God knows all things while we, as finite creatures, know little.
Using the acronym of PRAY, we begin with praising God in thanksgiving, thanking Him for His providence even when we’re not in the mood to be grateful; we repent of our sins, ask Him for our daily needs, and yield to His will. We have a single Mediator in Heaven, Jesus Christ, who brings our prayers to God on our behalf. “For we do not have a High Priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15-16). Because of who Jesus is, we can approach Him in prayer with confidence that He hears us and will enact His good will in our lives.