It is vital for believers to establish a strong theological foundation upon which to build our practice of prayer. Without good theology, our disciplines will soon lose their vitality and our motivation will quickly vanish. So, why is prayer so important?
(1) Because God exists and we have a relationship with Him through Jesus Christ. The foundational reason we pray is because God exists. He is really there (Gen 1:1; Ex 3:14; Rom 1:20; Heb 11:6). And we’ve been brought into a relationship with God through the atonement of His Son Jesus Christ—the living Savior. We have fellowship and relationship with the one true God (1 John 1:1-3). Prayer, at its most basic, is the natural response to such a relationship—like breathing is to a newborn child.
(2) Because we are wholly dependent upon God. Prayer is the life breath of the believer because we are truly dependent upon God for all things: physical provision and health, spiritual sight and affections, physical and spiritual deliverance, strength, wisdom, perseverance, and faith (John 15:5; Rom 11:36). Almost immediately into our journey of faith we realize that we are travelers prone to weakness, confusion, and exhaustion. We are patients with a severe illness who are in need of constant attention from our heavenly Physician. We are soldiers in need of wartime resources. We are wholly dependent upon God, so we pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17).
Prayer is the natural response of a heart that knows God and knows its desperate situation. That is why we see God’s people throughout Scripture characterized by prayer. Throughout Scripture, God’s people are people of prayer.
- Abraham (Gen 20:17)
- Isaac (Gen 25:21)
- Moses (Ex 8:30; Num 11:2; 21:7; Deut 9:26; Ps 90)
- Manoah (Judg 13:8-9)
- Hannah (1 Sam 1:10ff.)
- Samuel (1 Sam 7:5; 1 Sam 12:23)
- David (2 Sam 7:20-29; Ps 4:1ff; 5:1ff.; 6:9; 54:2)
- Solomon (1 Kings 8:12ff)
- Elijah (1 Kings 8:36)
- Ezra (Ezra 9:6ff)
- Nehemiah (Neh 1:5ff.; 2:4)
- Job (Job 42:10)
- Hezekiah (Isa 37:15; 38:2)
- Jeremiah (Jer 32:17ff.)
- Jonah (Jonah 2:7-10)
- Habakkuk (Hab 3:1ff.)
- Daniel (Dan 6:10; 9:1ff.)
- The Psalmists (Ps 116:4; 118:25; 119:1-176)
- Anna (Luke 2:37)
- Jesus (Matt 26:36; Mark 6:46; Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:28; John 17)
- Paul (Acts 20:36; 21:5; 27:29; 28:8; Phil 1:3-11; Col 1:3-12)
- Peter (Acts 9:40; 10:9)
- John (3 John 1:2; see Acts 4:31)
- The apostles and early Christians (Acts 1:12; 2:42)
If God is Sovereign, Why Pray?
But you might find yourself wondering why we should pray at all if God is sovereign over his creation and doesn’t need our prayers. This is a legitimate question because it is right to acknowledge the glorious truth that God is eternally satisfied in the fellowship of the Trinity (Matt 28:19; Acts 17:24-25; 2 Cor 13:14). He does not need his creation to fulfill any deficiency in His Being, which means he does not need us. Also, we must embrace the truth that God has exhaustive knowledge of all things and is meticulously sovereign over his creation (see Daniel 4:34-35; Isa 40:13-14; Eph 1:11). Therefore, God does not need us to pray in order provide him knowledge that he does not otherwise have. God’s knowledge is boundless (Ps 147:5). He knows the intricacies of our bodies (Ps 139:6) and our inmost desires (1 Chron 28:9).
So, again: why pray?
First, it is important to understand that prayer is not merely the asking for things (provision, fulfilling of desires, help in times of trouble, etc.); it is first and foremost a means of fellowship with our Creator! We have a relationship with God. Think of that! We can speak with the Creator of the universe, and he hears us (Heb 4:14-16). God desires for us to come to him in prayer because he loves us and cares for us (see 1 Pet 5:7; Phil 4:6-7). Jesus himself acknowledged that God knows of all our necessities before we even ask him (Matt 6:8) just prior to teaching his disciples how to pray (Matt 6:9-13)!
Second, although God knows all things exhaustively (which means he has ordained all things exhaustively), he has designed the world in such a way that our prayers are one of the means by which he carries out his purposes. Listen to this helpful word from Bruce Ware on this connection between prayer and God’s sovereignty.
In a word, the relation of divine sovereignty and prayer is participation. Being the sovereign God that he is, God simply is in no need of our participation with him in accomplishing his work….Let’s take the call of God to missions as an example….must God call some to serve as missionaries in order for others to hear the gospel and be saved?….The answer seems to be yes and no simultaneously, but in different senses. In light of God’s design that the lost hear the gospel and missionaries go and preach, yes, God must call some as missionaries for this work to be done; but in the sense that God could have chosen a different mechanism to get the gospel to lost people, no, it is not necessary in an absolute sense for God to call missionaries for people to be saved….he could accomplish this task in a multitude of ways. He could write it in the sky, or proclaim it from a heavenly loudspeaker….Although God is fully capable of “doing it on his own,” nonetheless, he enlists his people to join him in the work that is his, and his alone ultimately. And one chief means that he employs for our participation with him in this work is prayer.1
Ware then provides five ways prayer functions as a tool “designed by God to enlist our participation in his work.” (1) Prayer is sometimes a necessary means to accomplishing the ends God has ordained (see James 5:14-15). (2) Prayer reshapes our minds and hearts around God’s will (Matt 6:10). (3) We participate with God by praying for God’s grace in the lives of others (see Col 1:9-12). (4) Prayer enables us to become more fully aware of what God is doing so that we can praise Him for it. (5) Prayer is a means of our own sanctification, as we grow through seemingly unanswered prayer (see 2 Cor 12:7-10).2
Can’t We Just Pray “Whenever We Feel Like It?”
Our Christian lives should be characterized by spiritual spontaneity. But without times of set-aside, disciplined prayer, we probably won’t experience much spontaneity, nor will we likely pray for others with any consistency. Personal discipline, then, is a means of loving our neighbor (Matt 22:39; 1 John 4:20), for without intentionality and sacrifice, we will be taken up mainly with our own immediate concerns and cares to the neglect of the interests of others (see Phil 2:3-5).
There are many things which we should give to prayer—the health of our church, the salvation of family and friends, our government leaders, missions and the global advance of the gospel, the ministry of our pastors—and if we don’t impose some discipline into our prayer life, we will rarely, if ever, pray for these things.
How Should We Pray?
It is encouraging to know that we are not the first of Jesus’ disciples to ask this question. It is even more encouraging to know that the Lord himself has given us a straightforward answer to this question. We will look specifically at the elements of the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 in a moment. Before we do, we need to say a word about how to understand Jesus’ instruction on prayer in this text.
Most importantly, Jesus does not intend us to slavishly follow the exact use form of these words; nor does he intend to teach us that we must pray this way every time we pray. Rather, we are being taught to include these vital elements in our prayers and to use these elements to order the priorities of our prayers. I take the Lord’s prayer as instruction to inform our private, set-aside times for prayer, not as a set of rules to be strictly followed every time we breathe out a plea to God.
I believe that Jesus does not intend us to follow the form of these words or pray exactly like this every time we pray for the following four reasons. First, Jesus warns us against using rote and thoughtless repetition in Matt 6:7: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
Second, it is most likely that the Gospels provide us with two separate occasions when Jesus spoke to his disciples on how to pray (Matt 6:9-13; Luke 11:1- 4). The slight differences in these two teachings indicate that the exact form of the words is not the issue, but the meaning and priority behind them.
Third, Scripture is replete with examples of prayer, and not many of them follow the exact words or even the structure of the Lord’s prayer. There are many times when we will pray spontaneously and without much planning or prolonged thought, and God commands this kind of prayer. “Call upon me in the day of trouble and I will answer you and you will honor me” (Ps 50:15). David prayed this way: “Incline your ear to me; rescue me speedily! Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me” (Ps 31:2)! Finally, Paul often describes his prayers in his letters, and they don’t appear to follow the exact form or structure of the Lord’s prayer (see Eph 1:16-23; Phil 1:9-11). The point of Jesus’ teaching here is to help us order our times of set-aside, “closet” prayer (see Matt 6:6) in a way that values the priorities that Jesus outlines in His instruction.
Help from the Lord’s Prayer
In order to mold our hearts into and frame our prayers according to God’s will, it will be helpful to look at each statement in Jesus’ teaching on prayer. Notice that Jesus’ design in this prayer is to rivet our attention on God and His desires before we start talking to God about ourselves and our desires.
“Our Father…” We first come to God as our Father who loves us and who has made us his child through Jesus Christ. He is no longer our judge (Rom 5:1). He now invites us to fellowship with him, enjoy him, and to ask freely from his infinite abundance (Heb 4:14-16).
“…Who is in heaven…” But our familial warmth is balanced by our recognition that God is holy, transcendent, infinite, and sovereign. He is our Father, yes, but he is also the God of the universe. But this reality shouldn’t produce reluctance; it should promote reverence.
“…hallowed be your name…” What does it mean when we ask God to make his name “hallowed?” We are simply asking God to do what he set out to do by creating the universe: make his name great (Ps 19:1). As it turns out, this prayer is not only God-centered, it has a direct effect on our joy, for believers love to see their God glorified. Isaiah once proclaimed, “Your name and your remembrance are the desire of our souls” (Is 26:8). To see God exalted is the heartbeat of the believer, and our prayers will rightly reflect this desire.
“…Your kingdom come…” Similarly, if the saints’ greatest joy is to see God’s name revered and loved throughout the world, it is our joy to see God’s kingdom consummated here on earth. Jesus calls us to infuse our prayers with a deep sense of history’s end and a longing for the final reign of God to be established on earth.
“…Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…” Pray that God’s will would be increasingly fulfilled on earth, the same way that it is in heaven, where there is perfect fulfillment of his will of desire. This kind of prayer may often cause grief and joy: grief because God’s Word is so easily cast aside by the world (Ps 119:136); joy because we know there is coming a day when the will of God will be the sinless pursuit of all people created in His image and recreated in Christ. To pray this way really is to pray for God’s kingdom to come, for it is only then that God’s holy will of desire will be carried out by His people at every point of obedience.
“…Give us this day our daily bread…” Jesus also teaches us to recognize our dependence on God for our daily physical provision. In our current state of unparalleled abundance in America, we may find it difficult to acknowledge our utter dependence upon God for our daily needs. Nevertheless, Jesus teaches us to ask God—with authenticity—to daily supply us with our necessities. Despite our present abundance, I believe it is still possible to grasp some notion of our dependence upon God. Think of it for a moment. In order to sustain your ability to earn a living, God must keep ten thousand variables in place: the greater economy, your present employer’s financial solvency, international markets, your skill and personal capacity to fulfill your role at work, and your personal health (which involves another massive set of variables), are all pieces of an incomprehensible puzzle that must fit just so in order for you to earn your living. Pray for your daily bread.
“…and forgive us our trespasses…” While it is true that we have been judicially forgiven of our sins, it is also the case that in our relationship with God, we must regularly confess the sins we commit against our Father and receive his forgiveness in Christ. When we do, we are promised that we find spiritual cleansing and renewal from our heavenly Father (1 John 1:9).
“…as we forgive those who trespass against us…” It is vital to our prayer lives that we do not store up bitterness toward others. Why? Because, when we allow unrighteous anger to pulse unchecked throughout hearts, God will not hear our prayers. Such a pattern ma even indicate that we have yet to know God’s forgiveness (see Matt 6:14). In this verse, Christ is calling us to come to God in prayer with a good conscience (Heb 10:22).
“…and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Finally, we must recognize our dependence on God for spiritual deliverance and pray that God would keep us from temptation. We are weak and needy and liable to fall into sin. If God would remove his protection, we would fall into a thousand sins and snares.
How to Pray for Other Believers
Praying for God’s name to be hallowed among the nations, for his will to be done on earth, and for his kingdom to come will include praying specifically for the spiritual growth of Christians and the salvation of unbelievers. Paul is a wonderful example of both.
Paul’s prayers were saturated in Christ-centered concern for other Christians. He prayed that believers would clearly behold the glory of spiritual realities with the eyes of their hearts (Eph 1:18-21). He prayed that believers would experience deep, heart-changing fellowship with God (Eph 3:14-21). He prayed that Christians would grow in their love for one another (Phil 1:9), have a sure grasp of God’s will (Phil 1:10; Col 1:9), possess spiritual wisdom and strength (Col 1:9, 11), be rich in good works (2 Thess 2:11) and consistent in bearing fruit (Phil 1:11; Col 1:10). He wanted other believers to grow in their knowledge of God and please the Lord in every area of their lives (Col 1:10).
Paul also prayed diligently for the salvation of unbelievers. Given the deep anguish that Paul felt for his unbelieving kinfolk, we can be sure that Paul prayed diligently for them and for all the lost. Listen to these words from the apostle:
I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh….Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved.Rom 9:1-3, 10:1
Paul’s prayers, then, become an excellent example to us as to how we should pray for our other brothers and sisters in Christ as well as the unbelieving world.
More Instruction on Prayer
But Scripture has more to say about prayer. Given space limitations, I will only list other texts that speak directly to our responsibility to pray.
- Pray for your enemies and those who persecute you (Matt 5:44).
- Pray for the Lord to send evangelistic laborers into the harvest (Matt 9:38).
- Pray for the success of the gospel (2 Thess 3:1).
- Pray for perseverance in the faith (Matt 24:20; Luke 21:36).
- Pray to be protected from temptation (Matt 26:41).
- Pray in response to anxiety (Phil 4:6-7).
- Pray for your spiritual leaders (see also Col 4:2 Thess 3:1-2; Heb 13:18; 1 Cor 1:11; 1 Thess 5:25).3
- Pray for you national leaders (1 Tim 2:1ff).
- Pray for the spiritual prosperity of all Christians (Eph 6:18; Col 1:9).
- Pray for those who are persecuted and imprisoned (Phil 1:19).
- Pray in thanksgiving for legitimate earthly enjoyments (1 Tim 4:1-5).
- Pray when you’re suffering (James 5:13).
- Pray for God to heal others when they are suffering (James 5:14).
In all of these endeavors to pray, Jesus encourages us to never give up praying. He spoke parables that were intended specifically to steel our perseverance in prayer (Luke 18:1ff). Elsewhere, we are told to “keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking (Matt 7:7; Luke 11:9). The apostle Paul exhorts us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess 5:17 ; Rom 12:12; Eph 6:18; Col 4:2).
Importantly, Jesus tells us often that we are to pray “in faith.” When we pray in faith we believe that (1) God hears us in Christ (John 14:13); and (2) He loves to answer prayer that is in accordance with His will (Matt 7:11; 21:22 Mark 11:24). Praying in faith honors God (Heb 11:6) and facilitates our own spiritual stability (James 1:6). Praying “in faith” is what Paul means when he exhorts us to always pray in the Spirit (Eph 6:18; Jude 20).
Practical Helps for Prayer
I would like to end this article with a few practical ideas to aid you in developing a more consistent and fruitful prayer life.
(1) Intertwine prayer and Bible reading. This is a time of fellowship with the living God. Pray before you read Scripture for eyes to see and a heart that is inclined to God’s Word (Ps 119:18). Pray these things as you read. Pray for understanding. Allow Scripture to kindle prayer in your heart and to guide into prayer as you read.
(2) Create a simple, easily-accessible prayer list. One way of keeping your prayer time well-ordered is to write a few prompts down in a place that is easy to access, like in a journal, notebook, or on your smart phone or computer. You might organize your prayers by days of the week. For example, on Mondays you pray for your church family (easy to remember since you were just with your church yesterday); Tuesday could be for your work; Wednesday could be missions since Wednesday and world begin with “w.” Thursday could be for your neighborhood. Friday could be family day, Saturday is the day you pray for the salvation of your friends and family. Sunday could be the day you pray for your church’s ministries and specifically for the church service.
(3) Record some prayers in a journal. You might find it helpful to record some of your prayers in a journal. Recording our prayers in a journal helps us to concentrate our heart and mind on God and his priorities. Writing some of our prayers in a journal also creates a lasting record of our prayers to which we can return and see how God has answered those prayers over time.
(4) Use fixed prayers for help. Sometimes it is simply difficult to pray. When this is the case, I turn to the Psalms. The book of Psalms is God’s inspired prayer and praise book. He has also given us the piety of others to guide us. The Valley of Vision,4 for example, is a collection of Puritan prayers that are always theologically rich and devotionally helpful. When you are stuck and you don’t know how to pray, turn to fixed prayers in the Psalms and elsewhere.
(5) Cultivate the habit of making prayer the first motion of your soul. When you need help, when you are thankful for something, or when you are anxious about something, seek to make prayer the first impulse of your heart. Paul’s instruction to “pray without ceasing,” includes times of set-aside prayer and spontaneous prayer for help in difficult situations. As the old hymn observes,
“Oh what peace we often forfeit
of what needless pain we bear,
all because we do not carry
everything to God in prayer.”5
(6) Pray outside. When you think of prayer, you may naturally think of praying in your bedroom, in your office, at the kitchen table, or somewhere else in your home. That’s fine. Jesus assumes that some of our prayers would be indoors when he instructs us to “go into our room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt 6:6). Nevertheless, Jesus’ instruction here isn’t mainly concerned about where one prays (indoors as opposed to outdoors), but the motives behind our prayers. We are not to be like the religious hypocrites who labor for the reward of being seen by others when they pray. Rather, disciples of Jesus are to seek the prize of private fellowship with God as they pray. This may mean we need to pray indoors, but it doesn’t necessarily require it. Also, the reason why we know that Jesus wasn’t restricting his disciples to pray indoors is because he goes on within just a few verses to instruct his disciples on how to pray as they were gathered outdoors.6 Furthermore, many of the prayers of the Old Testament were written with reference to the outdoors.
Psalm 8:3-4: When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?
Psalm 19:1: The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Psalm 121:1: I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where does my help come?
Several other prayers were most likely offered to God in the outdoors (see Ex 15:1-18; 32:1-43; Judg 5:1-31; 1 Chron 16:8- 36). The reason why I suggest that you pray outdoors is because looking upon God’s glorious sky and sun and hills and mountains and stars tends to encourage our prayers as we behold God’s glory and majesty in his creation. I am regularly refreshed spiritually by simply stepping outside for a few moments at night, looking up at the stars, and talking to my infinite Creator and Father.
(7) Write down and use a list of biblical principles on prayer. You may also find it useful to have a sheet nearby that reminds you of basic biblical principles for prayer so that you train your heart and mind to pray according to God’s will (1 John 3:21-23; 5:14-15). Personally, I recommend John Piper’s book, When I Don’t Desire God, in which he provides a helpful list of “prayer principles” that will help you maintain your focus on God’s priorities for our prayers.7
(8) Join in corporate prayer with others in your local church. We need allow our private devotions to find expression in public forms of worship and fellowship. When Jesus warns against praying for the sake of being seen by others, he is not condemning public prayer; he is denouncing prideful motives. A healthy personal devotional life will express itself in and find encouragement from joining with other Christians for prayer (Acts 2:42).
Prayer is a vital component to our walk with Christ. In this article I’ve sought to help you grasp its importance as well as provide you some practical ideas to help you cultivate a pattern of fruitful and God-centered prayer.
1. Bruce Ware, God’s Greater Glory: The Exalted God of Scripture and the Christian Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 190-91.
2. Ware, God’s Greater Glory, 191-94.
3. Please see my book, How to Pray for Your Pastor (Cupertino, CA: With All Wisdom Publications, 2016) for help in praying for your spiritual leaders.
4. Arthur Bennett, The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1975).
5. Joseph M. Scriven, “What a Friend we Have in Jesus,” public domain.
6. I believe it is clear that Jesus and his disciples were outdoors as he instructed them on prayer because this section of Scripture was part of the sermon on the mount which took place on a mountain, probably near Capernaum.
7. See Piper, When I Don’t Desire God, 143-48.