I was looking over my phone bill the other day and took note of the long conversations and who they were with. I was going over the list and noted that Carla had talked to her sister for quite a while and to our daughter. There were several such long phone calls. But then I was surprised to find that the longest phone call for that month was one I made to my brother. Sometimes it is just nice to be able to have a conversation with a family member or good friend. We have these conversations for many reasons. Sometimes we need to catch up, sometimes we need someone to encourage us, sometimes we need advice or information and sometimes we just need to talk with someone.
God has invited us to have those kinds of conversations with Him any time we want. Prayer is the blessed privilege of God’s people. I Thessalonians 5:17 says, “Pray continually” and Jesus invited His disciples, both by His example and His teaching to pray. As Christians we have responded to that invitation, but what makes a good prayer? How does God want us to come to Him?
I recently read an article on prayer by Rev. J.C. Ryle who was pastor of a church in England during the 1800’s. In that article, he spoke about some of the different things the Bible has to say about how we should pray. This morning, I would like to share with you nine important aspects of prayer which come out of his article. May they be an encouragement to each of us to pray and to pray the way God wants us to pray. These thoughts are certainly not everything that could be said about prayer, but perhaps they will help you in your own prayer life.
I. With Reverence and Humility
When I ask my wife something, I can speak to her with complete familiarity. It is similar if I speak with my children or my siblings or a close friend, but when I approach my mother or a church member, I would probably be a little more respectful; if I speak to a stranger, I would even have a different attitude and if I approach a policeman or a doctor, my attitude to them is even different. When we approach God is is important that even though we are called children of God, yet as we come to God in the conversation of prayer, it is necessary for us to draw near with reverence and humility.
This means that we recognize who God is and who we are. Ecclesiastes 5:2 reminds us of the difference between us when it says, "Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few." Since God is God and we are but human, we need to respect who He is. Abraham is a good example of one who had such a reverent attitude in prayer when he said in Genesis 18:27, “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes…"
That is why when we begin our prayers, it is a good idea to begin with worship. Worship reminds us of the greatness and majesty of God and thus reminds us to draw near with reverent awe.
II. In the Spirit
We do not become Christians by ourselves. God has provided the way, He draws us, He forgives us, and He gives us a new heart. All we need to do is repent and believe. We do not live the Christian life on our own. Although we are invited to respond in obedience to God, it is God who changes us into the image of Christ as Philippians 1:6 promises when it says, “he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” Neither do we pray on our own. Although we are invited to ask and given leave to approach the throne of grace, the Spirit of God helps us in our prayers.
In Romans 8:26 we have this promise, "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 with groans that words cannot express." So what we learn in this verse is that the Spirit takes the deepest thoughts in our heart and forms them into prayers that we may not even always be conscious of.
But the other side of that reality is that therefore we ought to pray in the Spirit. Ephesians 6:18 teaches us, "And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests." What does it mean to “pray in the Spirit?” If the Spirit “intercedes for us” as Romans 8:26 says, then praying in the Spirit is simply a work of the Spirit over which we have no control. But Ephesians 6:18 gives us a different perspective in which we do have responsibility to “pray in the Spirit.” How do we do that? I have to confess that that is something that I am just beginning to learn. I believe it means recognizing that God’s Spirit is praying in me. I believe it means being open to being guided by the Spirit in our praying. I believe it means allowing the Spirit to control our praying. Sometimes when I pray about a certain thing, I ask God to help me know how to pray about it. I believe that such an attitude and practice is the beginning of praying in the Spirit.
People are quite different. Some are very disciplined and can commit to things they promise to do easily. Others are more spontaneous. When it comes to prayer, it is good to be both spontaneous and disciplined. It is good to be able to pray whenever a need arises and to recognize that this is a good time to pray. But it is also good to pray at the same time every day and make prayer a habit of life.
Being a person who is disciplined, I am always impressed with Daniel. When his enemies wanted to find some reason to accuse him before the king, they invented the law that no one could pray to anyone but to the king. It is at this point that we see the habit of Daniel’s life. In Daniel 6:10 we read; "Now when Daniel learned that the decree had been published, he went home to his upstairs room where the windows opened toward Jerusalem. Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before." Daniel was clearly disciplined in prayer and even the threat of death did not prevent him from spending time before the Father.
On the other hand, we have some sense that Jesus may have been more spontaneous. He prayed before the tomb when Lazarus had died. He prayed when he multiplied the loaves and fishes. He got up early in the morning to pray. We have no Scripture that clearly indicates that he made morning or evening prayers a regular habit of his day. But one thing is clear and that is that He did not neglect prayer. In Mark 1:35 we read, "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed. "
Both Daniel and Jesus were regular in prayer. The desire of prayer was in their hearts and so whether in a disciplined, daily manner or spontaneously when the need arose, they were regular in their prayer life and we would do well to learn from their example.
Some people have a saying that they use when they aren’t very serious about what they are talking about and aren’t prepared to be challenged about what they are saying. They say, “I’m just saying.” It is a way of communicating that you are not really very serious. Our prayers cannot be like that. When we come to God, we need to be serious about what we are praying and we need to be in earnest.
Acts 12:5 tells us that the early church was very serious about its prayers when Peter was in prison. There it says, "So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him."
Jesus was also very serious about his prayers. Hebrews 5:7 tells us that, "During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission."
Sometimes it is tempting to pray habitually and the prayers we pray are just words and we hardly think about what we are saying. Although it is good to pray regularly, the danger of that kind of praying is that it becomes rote. It is a good idea always to think carefully about what we are bringing before the Lord.
V. In Faith
Of course we all know that all of our prayers must be offered in faith. How can it be any other way? How can we make a request if we do not believe that the all powerful, compassionate Father both hears and answers prayer? There are many Scriptures which call us to pray in faith, among them, Mark 11:24, "Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours." And also, James 5:15, "And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. " It is interesting that power in prayer is associated with faith.
VI. With Confidence and Hope
Have you ever hesitated to pray for something because you were pretty sure that you wouldn’t get it anyway? Why the questioning? Why the fear? James 4:2, challenges our prayer life when it says, “You do not have, because you do not ask God."
It is our privilege to come boldly into the presence of God, not because we are presumptuous or arrogant, but because the Father Himself has invited us into His presence. One of the things I learned from one of my step-fathers was “you can always ask.” He was talking about earthly things when he said that, but I thought that that was a very good principle of prayer. We can always ask God because He wants us to seek Him.
Psalm 81:10 is a great encouragement to confidence and hope in prayer when it says, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt. Open wide your mouth and I will fill it."
That is not a confidence which demands, but rather a hope which recognizes the grace, generosity, compassion and power of God and on that basis, is bold to ask.
VII. With Particularity
From time to time I have conversations with people and when the conversation is over, I have no idea what the person was talking about. If they were making a request, I am baffled as to what their request was. That is very frustrating and very difficult to respond to. Can our prayers be like that sometimes? When we lack the boldness we have just talked about, we may fall into prayers which are general and filled with clichés and unclear.
When Jacob was returning from his uncle Laban’s place, he knew that he was about to meet with his brother Esau. He knew that he had not left his brother on the best of terms and he was afraid of what would happen at that meeting – especially when he heard that Esau was coming with 400 men. When he prayed he didn’t just pray, “God bless Esau.” His prayer was specific in Genesis 32:11, "Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children."
When Paul was suffering with his thorn in the flesh he also was very clear about what he wanted, for he said in II Corinthians 12:8, "Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me."
One of the habits I have developed when I pray for missionaries is to pray for different specific things each day. That way my prayers have more particularity. One day I pray for open doors for the gospel, another day I might pray that they will have a close walk with the Father, another day I pray for good relationships with their co-workers and another day for good relationships in their family. That way my prayers are not rote but are particular. I also really like getting missionary letters because then I pray through them paragraph by paragraph, one paragraph each day so that again I can pray for the missionaries with particularity. May all our prayers be that way.
VIII. With Thankfulness
Finally, I would like to mention another important aspect of prayer and that is thankfulness. So many verses in the Bible encourage us to give thanks to God. Philippians 4:6 says, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God." Colossians 4:2 encourages, "Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful."
The importance of thankfulness is that it helps us recognize that the source of all things is God. He hears our prayers and He answers our prayers. Especially as we see prayers answered, we must always include thankfulness in our prayers. But thankfulness is important even when we have made requests and have not yet seen them answered, for it encourages our faith, hope and confidence.
I know that you are people who pray. All of us who pray need encouragement from time to time. Our prayer life can become tired or we forget or we become discouraged. I was encouraged as I read this article to be reminded of how important prayer is and how much Scripture encourages us to pray. I want to encourage you in your prayer life. May we not only pray, but pray well, as God has taught us.