This article is part of the 10 Things You Should Know series.
1. Prayer is talking with God.
It’s easy to complicate prayer. There is a place for detailed, theologically-precise definitions of prayer. I could write a paragraph-length one that included most of the points found in this article. And while it might be a thorough and helpful explanation (more than a definition) of prayer, it wouldn’t be memorable. So while there is a lot of important biblical information to understand about prayer, at its essence prayer is simply talking with God.
2. Prayer is acceptable to God only in Jesus’s name.
All access to God—including prayer—is possible only through the merits of who Jesus is and what he has done. Jesus made this plain in John 14:6: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But to pray “in Jesus’s name” is not accomplished simply by adding (often mindlessly) those words at the end of a prayer; rather, it is to pray with reliance on what Jesus has done for us and not the worthiness of who we are or what we have done. See also the emphasis made by Jesus on praying in his name in John 14:13 and John 16:23-24.
3. Prayer, apart from a relationship to God through Jesus, is heard—but not with a view to answering.
God hears everything. He hears the sound of every electron going around every atom in the universe. He even hears our thoughts (Psalm 139:2). So in one sense, God hears every prayer uttered by every person. But he does not hear with a view to answering unless we are in a relationship with him through Christ and honor his word. As Proverbs 28:9 puts it, “If one turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer is an abomination.” Proverbs 15:8 adds, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him.” Again, Jesus’s words in John 14:6 apply here: “No one comes to the Father except through me.”
4. Prayer is a lifelong desire in all those indwelled by the Holy Spirit.
When the Holy Spirit indwells a person, he gives him or her the voice of a child. Just as children by nature begin communicating with their parents as soon as their voice can make a sound, so when the Holy Spirit makes us children of God, He causes us to cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15). In other words, the work of the Spirit within us gives us a new Fatherward orientation. As a result, all those who are indwelled by the Spirit become people who genuinely want to talk with their Heavenly Father. His presence makes them prayerful people.
5. The Holy Spirit helps believers pray.
The Holy Spirit not only prompts prayer in all believers, but he also helps us pray rightly. As Romans 8:26-27 explains, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” Not only can the Spirit call to mind biblical truth to guide our prayers when do not know what to pray for or when we might pray for the wrong things, he can improve our prayers in the Father’s ears and even pray for us. Beyond that, the Spirit is able to take even our Godward groans and transform them into prayers that conform to the will of God. Thus, we should pray despite “our weakness” and uncertainty, and even when our hearts are so heavy that all we seem able to do is groan Godwardly.
6. In the Bible, almost every prayer includes a reason why God should answer.
The general reason why we could ever expect God to hear our prayers, as we’ve already noted, is because access to God is given to believers in Christ on the basis of what Jesus has done for us (see John 14:6 again, as well as Hebrews 10:19-22). Beyond this, the Bible teaches by example—in almost every prayer recorded in Scripture—we should give to God a specific reason why he should answer. One of many possible examples is the prayer of Jacob in Genesis 32:11–12 where he pleads a promise from God as a reason why he should answer. Other reasons given in prayer why God should answer include an appeal to one of his attributes—his glory, our relationship to God, the request is God’s will, and more.
7. Prayer shaped by the words of the Bible solves many of the most common problems in prayer.
It’s normal to pray primarily about things pertaining to our own lives. And since our lives don’t change dramatically very often, it’s common to say the same old things about the same old things almost every time we pray. Even when we pray about matters regarding others it’s easy to pray repetitively (“Bless the missionaries.”) Not only can this result in mindlessness in prayer, it can come close to violating Jesus’s command not to “heap up empty phrases” (Matt. 6:7) in prayer.
A simple, permanent, biblical solution to this is to pray the Bible; that is, to turn the words of Scripture into prayer. The Psalms are ideal for this, but you can also go back and pray through part of your Scripture reading for the day. You’ll find that 1) you never run out of things to say, 2) you’ll pray about the things you want about each day but in new ways each time, 3) your mind won’t wander as often, 4) your prayers will conform more to Scripture and God’s will, and 5) you’ll frequently experience prayer for what it actually is: a real conversation with a real person. Jesus did this twice on the cross when he prayed words from the Psalms in Matthew 27:46 and Luke 23:46. The church in Jerusalem prayed from Psalm 2 in Acts 4:24-26 and “the place in which they were gathered together was shaken” (Acts 4:31). The great man of prayer and faith, George Müller, said praying the Bible transformed his prayer life. Why not you?
Our Father loves to hear our voices. Nothing is too small to bring to him.
8. Jesus gave us a model for prayer.
In what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gave us what could otherwise be known as the “Model Prayer.” While it’s certainly good to offer this prayer verbatim, it wasn’t intended to be the only form of prayer we may use, for none of the prayers found in the rest of the New Testament include the Model Prayer. Rather, this prayer—found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4—models the basic elements that should be part of our prayers. In other words, one of the best ways of evaluating the content of our prayers by the standard of Scripture is to determine whether they contain the components of the Model Prayer. And by the way, if you consistently pray through passages of Scripture as described above, the elements in the Model Prayer will regularly be a part of your prayers.
9. Prayer is both natural and learned.
Prayer is natural for all those indwelled by the Holy Spirit (see the comments on Rom. 8:15, 26-27 above). Our Father loves to hear our voices. Nothing is too small to bring to him. His word encourages us, “Let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). There is another sense, however, that prayer must be learned, for it is possible to “ask wrongly” (James 4:3). To pray rightly we must learn the principles of prayer from Scripture.
If you are speaking with someone and your crying child rushes in with blood all over his hand, you do not chide him for interrupting. But most of the time you expect your children to learn and speak according to the normal means of conversation you have taught them. In the same way, there are often times for each of God’s children when your heart is so heavy that all you can do is “pour out your heart before him” (Ps. 62:8). Normally, though, we show honor to our Father by learning to speak to him according to the conditions for answered prayer he has given us in his word.
10. Prayer should be practiced privately, with the family, and with the church.
When we think of prayer, probably most Christians envision something they do in private. Indeed, Jesus said, “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (Matt. 6:6). But we should also consider it a normal part of family life in a Christian home. Beyond a prayer of thanks at meals, Christian couples should regularly pray together. When Peter warned husbands to live with their wives “in an understanding way” and to show them honor (1 Pet. 3:7), he added “so that your prayers may not be hindered.” The prayers here are not the private prayers of the husband, but instead refer to mutual prayer; that is, prayers husbands and wives pray together. And surely Paul’s admonition to bring children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4) implies praying with them. Likewise, life together with the family of God should be unthinkable without the element of praying together. When God’s people gathered in the Book of Acts (Acts 4:23-31; Acts 12:1-17; Acts 13:1-3; Acts 16:13) and elsewhere in the New Testament (1 Tim. 1-2, 8), they prayed together. It was a normal part of life together in the body of Christ. The same should be true when churches gather today.
Donald S. Whitney is the author of Praying the Bible.
Popular Articles in This Series
What does it mean that God condescended in Christ and dwells with us through His Spirit?
From the very beginning, Eden was not meant to be static; it was headed somewhere.
Thomas Schreiner shares 10 important things you should know about the biblical covenants—the backbone of the biblical story.
What is Christian ethics and what role should it play in the life of a believer?