One of the greatest scandals in the church today is that Christians talk a lot about praying but pray very little. My friend Max Anders identified one reason for this disconnect:
Most of us don’t pray as much as we feel we should not because we are unwilling, but because we are uncertain how to pray and don’t understand why our prayers aren’t answered more consistently. It is frustrating to keep doing something that you are not sure is working.
What is the secret to effective prayer? And how can we tap into God’s supernatural power for our lives? The following pointers should help answer these questions.
First, begin and end every day in prayer.
Prayer was an essential part of Jesus’ life. After what must have been one of the busiest days in His life—selecting disciples, preaching God’s Word, casting out demons, and healing the sick—the gospel writer Mark tells us that on the following day, “in the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there” (Mark 1:35).
When the alarm clock sounded at 4am Jesus had every reason to hit the snooze button and roll over—after all He had been engaged in non-stop ministry the day before. Every muscle in His figured body must have begged Him to stay in bed . . . just a little longer. But for Jesus, spending time with His heavenly Father was not optional; it was essential.
If we are ever going to have successful prayer lives, the first lesson we must learn is that prayer is not an option. Prayer is not a nicety; it is a necessity for spiritual survival. Prayer is like breathing—vital for life. And just as we breathe continually, we should pray night and day. This was the practice of David.
Evening, and morning, and at noon I will pray, and cry aloud; and he shall hear my voice. (Psalm 55:17)
Second, vocalize or write out your prayer.
All of us have difficulty staying focused when we pray.
Our minds wander to grocery lists, conversations with friends, “honey-dos” around the house, movies to see, or songs stuck in our heads. It’s like we have spiritual attention deficit disorder, including me—and I’m a professional pray-er!
And when our minds stray, we begin to utter spiritual mumbo jumbo: “Bless this person,” “Lead, guide, and direct this decision,” and “Answer according to their need.” These are the banalities that makes our prayers boring—to us and to God.
To keep your prayers on target, write them out. This will keep you from slipping into what Jesus warned about: mindless and meaningless repetition. Jesus told His disciples:
“When you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).
If you don’t want to write your prayers, then pray out loud—actually speak to the Lord. This will help you avoid silly repetition and generalizations and keep your mind sharp on specific needs and concerns.
Third, make God the focus of your prayers.
This seems obvious, but it’s not—not really. Most prayers focus on the one doing the praying; God is only the concierge granting us what we want. But this is not how Jesus taught His disciples to pray. Jesus told them to begin and end with God; their needs come in the middle. Let’s look at Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13:
“Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”
(Matthew 6:9-13 NASB)
Jesus told His disciples to begin their prayers with praise to God: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.” Then, Jesus told them to ask God to make His priorities a reality on earth: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This dual focus—praise and priorities—takes our eyes off our circumstances and fixes our gaze on the One who can do something about our circumstances—God.
With God firmly planted at the forefront of their prayers, then the disciples could mention their needs. And Jesus mentioned three in particular. We are to pray for provision—our “daily bread.” This is not a prayer for wants. We may pray for the things we want, but we should never substitute wants for needs. We are to pray for pardon—to be forgiven “our debts” and to receive the grace to “forgive our debtors.” No one comes before God debt-free; everyone has sins in need of forgiveness. We are to pray for protection—“do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” If more of us put this into practice we’d find the strength to resist temptation and keep from falling into sin.
Finally, Jesus taught His disciples to end their prayers by focusing on God’s glory—that His kingdom and power would remain for all eternity. Prayer is not about getting your will done in heaven, but about getting God’s will done on earth . . . in your life. A life committed to daily prayer and Bible study is inexplicable, because it is God-touched.
Pointers on How to Pray is excerpted from Dr. Robert Jeffress' book, Spiritual Essentials: How to Study the Bible, How to Pray. Visit ptv.org to learn more about this book today.