LCN Article
How to Pray

July / August 2023

Jonathan McNair

“Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples’” (Luke 11:1).

It may seem surprising that Jesus Christ’s disciples asked Him to teach them to pray. They knew what prayer was—the Law, Prophets, and Writings include many examples of prayer, and they saw people at prayer in their daily lives. We read, for example, that Jesus used the illustration of two men going up to the temple to pray to teach a lesson (Luke 18:10).

Clearly, the concept of prayer was not new to them. But perhaps they recognized that they needed to hear directly from their Teacher how and why prayer should be practiced. Perhaps they saw that, for so many people around them, the practice of prayer seemed empty and even vainglorious.

Many could say the same, couldn’t they?

Prayer is part of our culture, at least for those who adhere to one religion or another. But when we are called to understand the real God, it becomes clear that most of humanity, throughout most of history, has been praying to a false god—or gods. Yet here we are, called by God just like Christ’s disciples. And as they were convicted of the reality of Christ, believing the truth that He was the Son of God, they wanted to communicate with God the Father just as He did.

This is our starting point. We know the true God. We are convicted of His existence and of His plan for our salvation through His son Jesus Christ. And that inspires us to acknowledge Him and communicate with Him.

But, as the disciples of Christ asked, how should we pray?

What Is Prayer? 

Very simply, prayer is communication with God. We read God’s words for guidance and instruction, for inspiration and encouragement, for reproof and correction (2 Timothy 3:16). In response, we take the time to humbly approach Him and communicate with Him. We talk to Him about what we’ve learned, what’s on our minds, and what concerns us, just as followers of Christ have always done. 

For example, the Apostle Paul wrote, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7). Paul coached the brethren at Philippi, giving them guidance as to what to say to God and how it would benefit them. By mentioning supplication and thanksgiving, Paul added two more nuances that we would do well to notice.

Some examples of prayer in the Bible reflect especially strong urgency and emotion. For example, as he dedicated his brand-new temple to God, King Solomon implored God to hear the supplications of His people in times of adversity or distress. “Yet regard the prayer of Your servant and his supplication, O Lord my God…. And may You hear the supplications of Your servant and of Your people Israel, when they pray toward this place. Hear from heaven Your dwelling place, and when You hear, forgive” (2 Chronicles 6:19–21). There are times when we go before God in prayer to entreat His mercy and His help.

Daniel prayed for his people because of the national sins leading to their captivity. We read, “Then I set my face toward the Lord God to make request by prayer and supplications, with fasting, sackcloth, and ashes” (Daniel 9:3). He was praying to God for mercy, compassion, and forgiveness.

In the New Testament, supplication is often paired with prayer. In Ephesians 6, Paul compares the physical armor of a soldier to different aspects of a Christian’s spiritual defenses. He concludes the picture by emphasizing the part that prayer and supplication play in the spiritual battle we wage. “And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God; praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints” (Ephesians 6:17–18).

While we should go to God with our concerns, our worries, and our pleading for mercy and help, our communication with Him should also include another component—giving thanks. Many of the psalms that we sing at Sabbath services reflect that spirit of thankfulness to God. For example, Psalm 92 is subtitled, “A Song for the Sabbath day,” and reads, “It is good to give thanks to the Lord, and to sing praises to Your name, O Most High” (Psalm 92:1). We sing songs of praise and thanksgiving at Sabbath services for the same reason that we express thankfulness in our prayers to God; focusing our mind on the God who gave us life and breath and is guiding our life toward success elevates our thoughts beyond the trials and tribulations that can so easily consume us.

When we spend time on our knees in thanksgiving to God, we open our hearts and minds to Him, allowing Him to encourage and strengthen us. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul wrote the following:

And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which also you were called in one body; and be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord. And whatever you do in word or deed, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through Him (Colossians 3:15–17). 

As we do this, we’re reflecting the same mind as the 24 elders, who in the future will say, “We give You thanks, O Lord God Almighty, the One who is and who was and who is to come, because You have taken Your great power and reigned” (Revelation 11:17).

Up to this point, we’ve focused on the “why” and the “what” of prayer. Next, let’s focus on the “how.” 

Key #1—Pray with Faith

Hebrews 11 is well known for its focus on the importance of faith. In its first verse, we read, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” In the next verses, we read, “For by it the elders obtained a good testimony. By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible” (v. 2–3). Then we come to the key: “But without faith, it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is” (v. 6).

Earlier, we acknowledged that believing in the true God is paramount to having meaningful prayers. If we are not striving for genuine faith in God, our prayers are simply an exercise without conviction.

Key #2—Pray with Sincerity and Fervency

When we begin to read Psalm 5, we can clearly sense David’s sincerity: “Give ear to my words, O Lord, consider my meditation. Give heed to the voice of my cry” (vv. 1–2).

We must strive to have that same sincerity. Do we believe in what we’re doing when we pray? Do we believe in God? Do we believe in the way of life that we read about in His word? Do we believe in the Work that He is doing through His Church today? If not, praying with sincerity will be a real challenge. 

Christ taught His disciples the importance of private prayer. He said, “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:6). Though on occasion we may pray in the presence of several people or more—at meals or at Sabbath services, for example—most of our time in prayer should be in private. When we are alone with God, we don’t need to worry about how we look or sound to others. We can completely focus on God and approach Him with humble sincerity.

Yet another key to effective prayer and how to go about it hinges on our attention to Bible study.

Key #3—Pray with an Understanding of the Bible

When we make new acquaintances, it can be difficult to have a meaningful conversation. So, we engage in “small talk” to get to know them better. Little by little, we learn about issues that are important to them. The more we get to know them, the easier it is to have deeper and more satisfying conversations. The same could be said about our communication with God. The way we come to know Him better is by studying His mind in print, the Bible. 

The more we are familiar with God’s word, His purpose for mankind, and His will for us, the more depth is added to our prayers to Him. And when we properly fear Him, keep His laws, and seek His will, we come into harmony with His mind. We read, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; a good understanding have all those who do His commandments. His praise endures forever” (Psalm 111:10). We can talk with God about what is important to Him and about what is important to us, just as we would with a friend.

Key #4—Pray with a Repentant and Forgiving Heart

Another component stands out in the instruction Christ gave to His disciples about prayer. He said, “And forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (Luke 11:4). You’ll notice that this presents a two-part challenge. On the one hand, we are reminded of our shortcomings and the need for God’s forgiveness. On the other hand, we must not forget the importance of forgiving others. In other words, we pray with a repentant and forgiving heart. 

We can see how that mindset shapes our prayers. Our awareness of our own shortcomings engenders humility. And God’s insistence on approaching Him with a mindset toward our neighbors that mirrors His toward us helps us inculcate that aspect of His character.

Key #5—Pray with Persistence

Christ wants His followers to pray with persistence, not losing heart. And He gave an example with a parable: “There was in a certain city a judge who did not fear God nor regard man. Now there was a widow in that city; and she came to him, saying, ‘Get justice for me from my adversary.’ And he would not for a while; but afterward he said within himself, ‘Though I do not fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow troubles me I will avenge her, lest by her continual coming she weary me’” (Luke 18:2–5). And then Christ arrived at the key to the parable: “Then the Lord said, ‘Hear what the unjust judge said. And shall not God avenge His own elect who cry out day and night to Him, though He bears long with them?’” (Luke 18:6–7).

Just like the widow, we are often dogged by personal trials that seem to drag on. And we can and should bring these trials to God, asking Him for help. But including a problem or even a request for help in a prayer to God is not like waving a magic wand. God is not our “genie” who is subject to our demands. He wants to hear us express our hopes and dreams, and also our concerns and questions. Our prayer should be consistent and persistent—regular, and truly involving God in life’s challenges that confront us—in faith, but also in the conviction that God knows what is in our best interest. As Paul wrote to the brethren in Rome, 

Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. Now He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God. And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose (Romans 8:26–28).

God’s Stamp of Approval

Prayer is a vital component of our relationship with God. It is a companion to Bible study, fasting, meditation, and active obedience, completing the process of learning. A teacher can know that a student understands when he or she responds. And student responses rehearse the lessons that they have learned, putting the instruction in their own words and applying it to their lives. We can come before God knowing that He is not only the One who brought us into existence, but also the One who called us, opening our minds to the reality of His existence and His plan, which is unknown to most of humanity.

But let us not forget the One whose sacrifice allows us to come before God the Father. At the Father’s right hand, Christ hears us, knows us, and deeply desires us to be one with Him and the Father. Each time we pray, we acknowledge this inspiring and encouraging fact.

As the time of Christ’s crucifixion was approaching, He said to His disciples, “And in that day you will ask Me nothing. Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you. Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full” (John 16:23–24).

How thankful we can be that Jesus Christ gives us the honor of coming before His Father, the Almighty God, in His own name—with His own stamp of approval. With that knowledge firmly in mind, we hearken to Paul’s words in Hebrews 4:16: “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

To that, we can sincerely say, “Amen.”