We know that Jesus prayed (e.g., john 17), and He taught His disciples to pray (luke 11:1–4). And biblical writers throughout both Old and New Testaments exhorted believers to pray. We may not understand exactly how prayer works, but we have enough information about God’s power, God’s goodness, and His desire for us to call on Him to know we should draw near.
Luke the gospel writer records that one day when Jesus had finished praying in a certain place, one of His followers asked, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John [the Baptizer] taught his disciples” (luke 11:1). With these words, one of the disciples acknowledged a tradition of prayer—the prophet John’s.
The apostles, including the one who asked, were all Jewish. They had doubtless memorized the Psalms. And they had probably uttered the same Sabbath prayers since they could remember. Praying every day of their lives since they were old enough to speak was part of how Jewish people lived— especially in a pre-literate society. Yet still these Jewish disciples felt the need for instruction about how to pray. I hope that encourages you as it does me, because it suggests that growing in prayer is a lifetime pursuit. Even those who’ve spent decades praying have not mastered having meaningful interactions with God.
Jesus’s answer to the disciple who asked “how?” still benefits us two thousand years later. Our Lord’s most famous prayer gives us insight and direction for how to pray. So let’s look deeply into Jesus’s most famous prayer for insight and direction:
Pray to our Father. Of course not all people have good earthly fathers that help them to imagine a good heavenly Father. But most of us have seen a good earthly father in action. After I became an adult, one of the kids from the neighborhood where I grew up said he learned what a good father looked like by watching mine.
Sitting at the door to our bedroom, Dad used to play the autoharp at night, singing my sister and me to sleep. When our Girl Scout troop got stuck in the mud at a campout, he drove his truck to our retreat site and pulled us out as everyone cheered. He took my siblings and our friends camping and canoeing. He taught us to sing at the top of our lungs “Christ the Lord is risen today!” at sunrise on Easter. He adored our mother, loving her till his death in their sixty-fifth year together. And in his ninetieth year, he was still picking up day-old bread from the grocery store and delivering it to the local food bank. Our father gave us the great gift of seeing a righteous life well lived. And Jesus asked the crowds, “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (matthew 7:11).
Our heavenly Father is the best father of all—way better than my own dad. And Jesus began His prayer by addressing God with “Our Father” (matthew 6:9). Notice that first word, “our.” It assumes that those who follow God are brothers and sisters, sharing a family identity as we have the same Father. And we pray in community with each other.
As for “Father,” the first person of the Godhead is not a male or a human. The word “Father” is a metaphor, albeit a favorite and intimate one. My friend Barb Peil notes that before Christ, “God’s people recognized Him as Creator-Father of their nation, but never as their personal Father.’ So no one had ever prayed quite like Jesus. And Jesus escorted His disciples into the intimate relationship He had with His Father, inviting them to address God in the same way. We have the intimacy with Him that comes from belonging to His family.
Pray in Jesus’s name. Often we end our prayers with “In Jesus’s name, Amen.’ The apostle John recorded that Jesus promised His disciples, “And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (john 14:13). But what does it mean to pray in Jesus’s name?
Years ago when I worked for a financial services corporation, I noticed that when the CEO’s administrative assistant called and told my boss, William, that the CEO said he had to go to China, William booked tickets, even if he didn’t want to go. Yet that assistant’s official rank in the company was far below that of William. And in fact, when she resigned, she could not even have summoned him to a conference room with any authority at all. Only when speaking in the name of the CEO did she have the power to act.
The same is true of us when we pray in Jesus’s name. By making our requests “in the name of Jesus,” we speak not in our own power but in the name of the One who has all authority in heaven and earth. Of course, when Jesus spoke of praying in His name, He did not mean that we mindlessly tack on “in Jesus’s name” as if doing so requires the Father rubber-stamp our every request. Rather, the Father’s glory is the ultimate end of praying in Jesus’s name. So our lives and prayers must align with that which honors Him.
Pray in the Spirit. But what if we have no idea what will bring God the most honor? When my father was dying of Alzheimer’s, I wondered if God would be more glorified by taking Dad home or by leaving him on earth for us to serve. The answer to that question required the omniscience I lacked. How could I pray God’s will when I didn’t know exactly what that was?
The answer came, as all such answers do, in the third person of the Trinity—the Spirit. The apostle Paul told the church at Rome that we all groan awaiting our redemption, but he went on to say “in the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God” (romans 8:26–27). What a comfort to know that we have a helper—an intercessor. Our prayers don’t have to be perfect. Because the omniscient Spirit prays along with us, uttering groanings too deep for words. He knows our hearts, and He also knows the mind of the Father. And He stands in the gap. So we never have to worry that we lack the perfect words to express our needs, desires, and sufferings to God. The Spirit helps with our weakness.
Approach God confidently. Because Jesus came in the flesh and knows how it feels to be hungry, betrayed, homeless, injured, and even murdered, He has empathy for humans. The writer of Hebrews put it this way: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are— yet he did not sin” (4:15). And the writer ends with an exhortation full of comfort for those of us learning to talk to the Father: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need’ (v. 16).
Pray continually. Thessalonica, a Greek port city. Later, he wrote these friends a letter in which he instructed them to “pray continually” (1 thessalonians 5:17). Theologian Steven Cole writes that the phrase we translate as “without “without ceasing” was used in Paul’s day when describing unrelenting military assaults or hacking coughs. Clearly one cannot pray every second of every day. But we can pray relentlessly—and as often as someone hacks with chronic bronchitis.
So rather than “checking off” that we have finished with our prayers for the day, we are to live in constant conversation with the One who loves us. We address Him when we wake up; we worship Him when we see the sunrise; we give thanks for our daily bread at breakfast; we praise Him for work and ask for skill in engaging in it; we pray that our love will abound and the God will use us to share the gospel; we lament over broken relationships; and we talk to Him about traffic as we drive. In the evening we seek His counsel about how to spend our time. We ask Him to help us remain patient with family members. We ask Him to use us when we call to comfort a friend. We watch the news and pray for our government. As long as we’re awake, we invite Him into our lives. And when we lie down, we recount His goodness to us; when we can’t sleep, we cast our cares on Him.
In devotion, alertness, and with thanks. Paul lived two years in Ephesus, a bustling major metropolis in Asia Minor which today lies in ruins in Turkey. About 120 miles away was Colossae, a wealthy trade center. And his friend Epaphras probably planted the church there (colossians 1:7; 4:12–13) and traveled to work with Paul and inform him of the church’s progress. Paul sent a letter to the church in Colossae, and in it he packed a lot of instruction about talking to God into one line: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (4:2).
To be devoted to prayer is to be set apart and ready. My friend’s pit bull adores her, lying on the rug with eyes glued to her and poised to jump up the minute she touches the leash. That’s devotion! Paul’s word for “devoted” was used elsewhere of a boat docked and ready for use.
He concluded his exhortation to the Colossians with a reminder to be thankful. Without gratitude, prayer can degenerate to a shopping list. We want food. We need the broken dishwasher to work. We need to find our keys. We need to get stuff done. We need our bodies and those of our loved ones to function. We request good fellowship. And we ask for open hearts to the gospel and help with temptation. Our communication with God runs the gamut of emotions and expressions. From praise to lament to confession to requests for ourselves to supplication for others, prayer consists of every feeling and need we have.
Yet when our prayers are about only what we want minus thanks for what we’ve already received, we are confusing God with a vending machine. We put in our dollar of obedience and expect the car to work, the chicken pox to strike someone else’s child, and the checkbook to balance. And we might even throw a tantrum when we “pay” and “the machine just eats our dollar.” Thankfulness reminds us to exchange our sense of entitlement for gratitude that we’ve already received infinitely more than we deserve.
Sometimes pray without using words. In addition to talking to God, prayer also includes silence before Him, sitting or standing in an attitude of quiet and waiting in the divine presence. King David wrote many poems and songs included in the book of Psalms, including this: “My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him” (psalm 62:5 nasb). Elsewhere in the psalms we read of the power that our God holds. He is the Lord Almighty who “makes wars cease to the ends of the earth. He breaks the bow and shatters the spear. . . . He says, ‘Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth’” (psalm 46:9–10)
“All we can do is pray,” I had told my daughter, as if praying were barely a cut above nothing. But I was wrong. Prayer is talking to the greatest power in the universe. E. M. Bounds, a nineteenth-century clergyman who wrote nine books on prayer, rightly described the “prayer closet” as the “battlefield of the church; its citadel; the scene of heroic and unearthly conflicts. The closet is the base of supplies for the Christian and the church. Cut off from it there is nothing left but retreat and disaster. The energy for work, the mastery over self, the deliverance from fear, all spiritual results and graces, are much advanced by prayer.”
God the Father, Son, and Spirit—our three-personed God—is involved in our intercessions. The object of our prayers is our omnipotent heavenly Father, who loves us. And we pray to Him in the name of and through the intercession of the Son with the help of the Holy Spirit. So let us, therefore, approach the king’s grace-throne boldly, asking with the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray.”