Prayer Basics

A topical study for Fellowship in Christ at Stanford summer group.

Introduction

Imagine the following scenario: you’re going to Bible study held in a friend’s dorm room. You knock on the door, and one of the guys opens it. You walk in and glance at the clock. Two minutes early (seriously, when does that ever happen?). You sit down and listen in on the conversation. In about five minutes, your small group leader says, “Okay guys, let’s give it two more minutes, and we’ll begin.” So everyone waits for about two more minutes, after which the small group leader says, “Okay, let’s get started.” Just then, the last member of your Bible study walks in (yeah, as if everyone comes to Bible study). Everyone turns to look at the poor guy, and then the small group leader says, “James will open us in prayer.” There’s chuckling all around, and James, the guy who just walked in, looks embarrassed.

Imagine another scenario: you’re meeting up with some Christian friends for dinner. You get to the restaurant, go in, look around, and spot your friends. You guys start talking and laughing. The waitress comes by and takes your order. You guys continue your conversation for about ten minutes when the first order arrives. You wait a few more minutes and all the orders have arrived. Suddenly, the table is quiet, as you look around and grin at each other. Finally, one person pipes up, “James will say grace for us.” And James, poor guy, with a sigh of resignation, says, “Fine,” bows his head and begins to pray.

Perhaps the scenarios above sound familiar. I’ve definitely observed them. Most people when asked to pray shy away from it. People often fall silent and glance around, secretly “praying” that they don’t get assigned the terrifying task of prayer. I want you to dig deep in your soul to figure out why. What are the challenges to prayer in your life? In general? Why are we so reluctant to pray, afraid of losing the game of musical chairs?

Perhaps you don’t know what to pray for. Or perhaps you don’t know the words to speak. Maybe in the depths of your mind, you don’t believe that God can answer prayers, or that He is even interested in your petty requests. Maybe you’re just too embarrassed to pray in front of others because you lack the eloquence of an orator.

Hopefully by the end of the study, you’ll find answers that address all these questions, and whatever other questions you might have.

The intention of this study is not to be exhaustive and be the final authority on prayer. The intention is to introduce basic concepts of prayer as taught by our Lord Jesus Christ. With that, let’s begin our study with Matthew 6:5-15, the section within which the Lord’s Prayer resides.

Analyzing the Text

This section can be divided up into two sections. The first section is about how to pray (and how not to pray). The second section is about what to pray for. This is an easy way to remember the content of this part of the Sermon on the Mount. If you dig deeper, however, you notice that each line of truth contains not just the dos and don’ts, or the mechanics, of prayer, but more importantly, Jesus instructs us on the heart behind the prayer. So as we analyze the text in the rest of this study, we’ll look at both the form and the attitude of prayer.

When to Pray

The passage begins with Jesus’s words, “And when.” Notice that prayer is assumed. It is the responsibility and the privilege of every Christian to pray. It is a practice assumed of every Jew, and by extension, every Christian, as both worship YHWH our God (albeit the Jews of the time had an incomplete picture of God).

Prayer is assumed throughout the Bible. God talked to Man (Genesis 2) and Man talked to God (Genesis 3) since Adam. The first mention of the word “pray” is in Genesis 20:7, when God said to King Abimelech to return Sarah to Abraham and he will pray for him so that he will live. There was no introduction about how one should pray. It was just assumed as an intercessory plea.

In the New Testament, we have examples of people “constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14), Paul constantly in prayer for his brothers in Thessalonica among other places (2 Thessalonians 1:11), and for Timothy as well (2 Timothy 1:3). Believers in general are commanded to pray always and in everything (Ephesians 6:17-18, Philippians 4:6).

Jesus in Luke 18 tells the parable of the persistent widow as a lesson to constantly pray (Luke 18:1).

So it’s pretty clear that all Christians are called to pray and not give up praying.

How NOT to Pray

Jesus begins with a warning about how not to pray by bringing up the “hypocrites,” who by implication are the Pharisees and the teachers of the law (Matthew 5:20).

The hypocrites pray in the synagogues and street corners, their motivation being to be seen by men. Synagogues and street corners are places where large numbers of people gather. By standing there, the hypocrites have great visibility.

Jesus warns his listeners that the hypocrites have received their reward in full. This is all they wanted, and this is all they’re getting. Their reward was in the past, and in the last day of judgment, they will get nothing. They wanted praise from man, they wanted a reputation for being holy, and as Matthew Henry Commentary (MHC) points out, they wanted gullible widows to trust them with their money (Luke 20:45-21:4).

Now our gut reaction is, “We don’t do that.” But if we’re really honest with ourselves, do we not try to impress others with good deeds, or perhaps slip in a hint of service every now and then? Oh yeah, we went downtown to feed the homeless. We went up to the city to evangelize. We went to help tutor kids.

When we do good deeds, there’s a strong but subtle temptation to do it in front of others or to talk about it to others. Notice that this section on prayer is right after the one about giving to the needy, and the principle of not using our works to impress people is a central theme to both.

Those acts of service are good and Christians are commanded to do them, and it’s not inherently bad to share your experiences, but make sure you have the right heart. Share because you want to offer encouragement, for example.

Another thing that Jesus tells us not to do is to make our prayers long (Matthew 6:7). The strength of a prayer is not in proportion to the number of words. Jesus calls the pagans who do this “babbling.” Don’t keep repeating the same thing. When people pray, sometimes they feel the need to fill up a certain amount of time, so they repeat their requests but in different ways. Resist that temptation. The Father already knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:8).

This leads to the following topic.

Why Pray?

There are several reasons for prayer. For one, we are commanded to (Ephesians 6:18).

But if we think about the concept of prayer, I think you’ll agree that it’s a natural reaction to grace. Whenever we’re thankful, we want someone to thank. It’s God. You often hear non-believers saying, “Thank goodness” or “Thank God” even if they don’t believe in God. They thank their “lucky stars” and acknowledge that in some things, they were “really lucky,” for example, if they survived a car accident. People celebrate Thanksgiving and make a list of things they’re thankful for, even if they don’t believe. People want someone to thank. The rightful recipient is God.

Or when we need help, we cry out. When people are pushed far enough in pain and suffering, they cry out. When we were little, we cried out to our parents. As believers, we ought to be crying out to God. I believe that people have a natural tendency to do this because they recognize when things get too hard to bear. And they know when circumstances are outside of their control, even if they don’t want to admit it. They may even hope that some force in the universe will rescue them from a predicament.

As believers, we know whom to thank and whom to cry out to, so prayer for the regenerate is a natural, or logical, reaction to grace.

Prayer is also a means to an end: very rarely do things happen spontaneously. God is a God of order (which is actually the basis of scientific study). There is logic and order in this world. The word “Word” in Greek is logos, which is the root for our word “logic,” and Jesus (who is God) is called the “Word.” So there is a fundamental connection between logic and God.

Because of logic present in creation, there is the concept of cause and effect. Effects don’t happen without causes, and one of these causes is God’s answering of prayer. Sure, God is capable of making things happen without prayer, but He chooses to involve us in his work.

Paul, for example, is God’s chosen instrument to the Gentiles (Acts 9:15). Even Judas was predestined to the role of betrayer (John 17:12). More specifically to prayer though, there are many examples in the Bible of God answering prayer. A few of them are:

  • Rebekah’s pregnancy (Genesis 25:21)
  • Stopping the resulting plague from David’s sin of counting his soldiers (2 Samuel 24:25)
  • King Hezekiah’s life extension (2 Kings 20)
  • Cornelius’s conversion (Acts 10)
  • Paul’s endurance in hardship (2 Corinthians 1:8-11)

How TO Pray

According to Matthew 6:5, when we pray, we should go into our room and close the door, indicating secrecy (the Father “sees what is done in secret”). The word “unseen” seems to connect the Father to his children. What a father is like, the children should strive to be (Matthew 5:48). An interesting parallel here is that just as God is real even though He’s unseen, our works are real even if they’re unseen. We don’t have to worry about the deeds disappearing. There is a record of it in the Father’s eyes, and there is a reward.

The attitude presented here is one of humility. We don’t pray to bolster our pride.

As mentioned before, the strength of a prayer is not proportional to how many words you use. In the same vein, there are no magical words. In many religions, you have to follow specific rituals. In Islam, you pray five times a day. In Hinduism, you recite mantras, which are believed to have mystical powers. I’m sure the sorcerers in Jesus’s day had spells to chant as well.

But our God is a living God who possesses reason and personality. We communicate to Him with words like we do with any human being. He is a Person in a very real sense. It is therefore important that we know whom we’re praying to.

Whom We Pray To

We pray to God, the creator of the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1). He is the perfect, almighty God. Think about how small the Earth is in space. Think about how small we are on Earth. Yet, God, the all-powerful, considers us his sons (Ephesians 1:5).

Jesus says in our passage that we’re praying to our Father (Matthew 6:6). This is very different from what the Pharisees were doing. The Pharisees were praying to themselves. They were self-exalting, self-righteous, and self-glorifying. We ought to be not like them. We ought to pray to our Father. The fact that He’s addressed as Father means that there is an intimate, personal, relationship between each Christian and God. The love of God can be further inferred if we compare the rewards of the hypocrites to the rewards of the sons. The hypocrites received their full reward from men. The sons receive their reward from God. The Father thus leaves the hypocrites to themselves, but He cares intimately about the sons.

In Matthew 7:9-11, Jesus expounds on this love from the Father in a way that’s very relevant to our discussion on prayer: “9Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11If 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!”
So given that our Father, who is the most powerful being in the universe, is our Father, praying to Him should first of all evoke reverence, and second of all should evoke confidence. In Romans 8:31, Paul asks, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

What to Pray

Okay, now we get to the meat of the Lord’s Prayer.

v. 9: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name”

Firstly, we’re praying to our Father. Not to Mary, not to other saints, but to God. Again, the intimacy with our God is evoked. Our Father is in heaven, which means that we don’t see Him now, but He is there. Don’t doubt His realness.

Jesus tells us to pray for God’s name. What does this mean? It means praying that His name will be honored. “Hallowed be your name” means “Let Your name be holy.” We are to declare God’s holiness, goodness, sovereignty, love, mercy, and all kinds of praises in our prayers.

v. 10: “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”

We move down from the person and name of God to the kingdom of God. Isaiah writes, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?’” (Isaiah 66:1). We see that we pray to God for Him to usher in the kingdom, for His will to be done on earth as it is already being done in heaven (where He is enthroned). We are adoring God when we acknowledge these truths to Him, when we submit to His will.

v. 11: “Give us today our daily bread.”

It’s interesting that the order of the Lord’s prayer begins with God, and then it comes to us. Remember that God is not a PEZ dispenser. When we pray, we can be very self-centered, and sometimes even pray to God to ask for Him to serve our selfish ends.

It’s interesting to note how humble the request is. We’re only asking for daily bread. We’re not asking for an iPhone, a Mercedes-Benz, getting into medical school, or acing that final. Jesus tells us to ask just for what we need. If you turn to Proverbs 30:7, you see that the writer, Agur, asks for God to “give me only my daily bread,” lest he becomes too rich and forget God, or becomes too poor and steal and therefore dishonor God’s name.

How often do we ask for much more to satisfy our own selfish desires? This line also evokes Matthew 7:9-11. We can be confident that God will provide because He is our Father, if indeed we are His sons.

v. 12: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

The great wall that separates God and us is sin. Only with the forgiveness of sin can we approach God. And here, we must bring in the gospel. Our debts were forgiven by the shedding of Jesus’s blood (Ephesians 1:7, Hebrews 9:22). That is the basis for forgiveness. As a consequence, we ought also to forgive those who owe us, who have sinned against us. If we don’t forgive, then God might very well not forgive us (see parable of the wicked servant in Matthew 18:21-35).

[The instructions for handling outstanding issues between brothers is clear. Jesus just stated it a few passages ago in Matthew 5:23-24. Go reconcile first, and then come to God.]

Notice that the second clause is in the past tense. Our forgiveness of others is a temporal prerequisite for God’s forgiveness of us. In vv. 14-15, Jesus expounds on this concept.

v. 13: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

Remember that God is sovereign over everything. Whether he does exercise control over everything is something that we can debate offline.

But it’s illogical to pray to God if God didn’t have control over everything. Prayers would be meaningless. If you pray for world peace, is God going to say, “Yeah, I want world peace too, but sorry man, I can’t help you there”? No. So likewise, in the realm of evil, we acknowledge that God is sovereign, that he can deliver us from trials, temptations, and suffering, should He choose to.

If you look at verses 12 and 13 together, you see that God is the one who forgives sin, but that’s not the end of it. God is also the one who continues to sustain us. More generally, in theological terms, God justifies us (declares us righteous) and God also sanctifies us (sets us apart).

Summary

In the Lord’s Prayer, we see three different elements:

  • Giving glory to God’s name (which we’ll call Adoration)
  • Acknowledging that we have debts (which we’ll call Confession)
  • Asking for our needs, both physical (bread) and spiritual (deliverance) (which we’ll call Supplication)

There is one more major aspect of prayer that is not mentioned here, and that is Thanksgiving. Paul says in Philippians 4:6 to have a heart of thanksgiving. Psalm 107 tells men to give thanks to the Lord.

These four aspects of prayer form the pattern known as ACTS:

Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication

These are the things that you can pray for. Now, we have to be careful not to think of this as a magical formula. It’s not like your prayers are going to be more effective if you follow this pattern. However, it gives us a model of prayer that is very useful to help us get started when we don’t know how to pray.

Remember again that prayer isn’t just following a formula. There is no magic in the words. Rather, the words are an expression of the heart (Luke 6:45), which God sees (Matthew 6:8, 1 Samuel 16:7).

Cultivating a Heart of Prayer

What if you don’t feel like or enjoy praying? Examine why. Are you just too lazy? Do you think it’s ineffective?

What we need is a change in perspective. Think about the following questions very honestly:

  • Do you believe that God is Creator and that He is all-powerful?
  • Do you believe that God loves you?
  • Do you believe that you’re His son?
  • Do you believe that He wants for your best?
  • Do you believe that He is wise?
  • Do you believe that you need prayer?
  • Do you love those for whom you pray?

(This section is short; but it’s very important. The heart of prayer isn’t something I can instruct you on. You have to meditate upon it, and really be honest with yourself, being willing to examine the darkness in your heart that you don’t want to look at. In the end, God has to change you, but if you are wondering about your heart, then He has already begun his work. Your thinking about these questions may be a means by which God changes your heart.)

Further Study

If you want to learn more about how to pray, studying Biblical prayers is very beneficial. The following are great places to start:

  • Psalms
  • David’s prayer (2 Samuel 7)
  • Deborah’s song (Judges 5)
  • Daniel’s prayer (Daniel 9)
  • Solomon’s prayer (1 Kings 8)
  • Hannah’s prayer (1 Samuel 2)

As you read them, look at the different elements of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.

For deeper prayers and relationships, we need to learn more about God, and we do that through studying Scripture. You can’t pray very deeply without knowing something about the One you’re praying to. How do you give praises for the character of God if you don’t know what His character is? How do you give praise for His love and mercy if you don’t know whether He is loving and merciful?

We are not called to babbling, mindless prayer. We ought not to recite a list of requests and expect God the cosmic PEZ dispenser to dispense PEZ.

Practicing Prayer

The point in practicing prayer is not to “improve prayer.” We’re not trying to impress people. Practice can help make you be more comfortable. It helps overcome the activation energy, so that you can

  • focus on God instead of the act of prayer
  • focus on God instead of those around you
  • focus on what the prayer is about instead of how the words come out

And practicing prayer regularly forces you to confront God instead of hiding from Him.

Possible topics of prayer include:

  • intercession for the saints
  • intercession for the needy
  • confession
  • praising God’s nature
  • your own sanctification/obedience (as well as that of others)
  • spread of the gospel and of God’s name
  • giving thanks

Conclusion

Prayer should be a joyful act. When people ask you to pray, you should be able to reply, “It would be an honor,” or, “I would love to.” Don’t be shy. You’re talking to God, your maker, and He loves you. Be confident, because Jesus’s righteousness covers you (Hebrews 4:16).

Scriptural References by Section

Matthew 6:5-15

5"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. 6But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. 7And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9"This, then, is how you should pray:
" ‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
11Give us today our daily bread.
12Forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

When to Pray

(Acts 1:14) They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

(2 Thessalonians 1:11) With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith.

(2 Timothy 1:3) I thank God, whom I serve, as my forefathers did, with a clear conscience, as night and day I constantly remember you in my prayers.

(Ephesians 6:17-18) 17Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. 18And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

(Philippians 4:6) Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

(Luke 18:1) Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.

How NOT to Pray

(Matthew 5:20) For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. [Context: association of Pharisees and teachers with hypocrites]

(Luke 20:45-47) 45While all the people were listening, Jesus said to his disciples, 46“Beware of the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets. 47They devour widows’ houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.”

Why Pray?

(Ephesians 6:18) And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.

(Acts 9:15) But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel.” [Context: God uses people in His plan]

(John 17:12) While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled.
[Context: Judas was destined for his role]

(Genesis 25:21) Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was barren. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant.

(2 Samuel 24:25) David built an altar to the LORD there and sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings. Then the LORD answered prayer in behalf of the land, and the plague on Israel was stopped.

(2 Kings 20:4-6) 4Before Isaiah had left the middle court, the word of the LORD came to him: 5“Go back and tell Hezekiah, the leader of my people, ‘This is what the LORD, the God of your father David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears; I will heal you. On the third day from now you will go up to the temple of the LORD. 6I will add fifteen years to your life. And I will deliver you and this city from the hand of the king of Assyria. I will defend this city for my sake and for the sake of my servant David.’”

(Acts 10:4) Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked. The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.”

(2 Corinthians 1:8-11) 8We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired even of life. 9Indeed, in our hearts we felt the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. 10He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, 11as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many.

How TO Pray

(Matthew 5:48) Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [Context: principle of like Father, like son]

Whom We Pray To

(Ephesians 1:5) “He predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”

(Matthew 7:9-11)9Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11If 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!”

(Romans 8:31) “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

What to Pray

(Proverbs 30:7-9)
7 “Two things I ask of you, O LORD;
do not refuse me before I die:
8 Keep falsehood and lies far from me;
give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.
9 Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD ?’
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.”

(Ephesians 1:7) In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace.

(Hebrews 9:22) In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

(Matthew 18:21-35)
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, "I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 "Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 "The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 "But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 "His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 "But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 "Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

(Matthew 5:23-24) 23 Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.
[Context: Instructions on forgiving your brother]

Summary

(Philippians 4:6) Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.

(Luke 6:45) The good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and the evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For out of the overflow of his heart his mouth speaks.

(1 Samuel 16:7) But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

Conclusion

(Hebrews 4:16) Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.