Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. James 5:16 (NASB)
The substance of this lesson on how to pray effectively has been accumulating in my mind and in my heart for many years as I studied the Bible and compared that with the different ways in which people prayed, listened to others' experiences with prayer and meditated on my own experiences with prayer. This lesson finally attempts to organize and communicate some of it. All quotes are from the New American Standard Bible (copyright The Lockman Foundation 1995), unless otherwise indicated.
What is prayer?
As revealed in the Bible, prayer includes all forms of communication and communion with YHWH, the heavenly Father, the creator of the universe, the one true, living God who revealed himself by that name to Moses and revealed himself through Jesus Christ by the power of his Holy Spirit.
Words used for different types of prayer
The Bible uses many different words for the different forms or types of communication and communion with YHWH. Following are some of the more common:
Effective prayer starts with the right relationship with YHWH. Whether they like it or not, everyone has a relationship with YHWH. The following is a very simple overview on this point: A person with the wrong relationship may reject YHWH's existence, or his authority in the person's life, or his salvation and provision, or any of the many ways he shows his love. A person with the right relationship knows that YHWH is the only true God and the creator and ruler of all that is, has entered YHWH's family, accepts YHWH's right to rule the person's life, and seeks to please YHWH, while trusting in YHWH's love, mercy and grace in every aspect of the person's life.
Jews and other descendants of Jacob started in right relationship with YHWH at birth and could remain in right relationship (righteousness) by obeying YHWH's numerous commands, ordinances and statutes, which are recorded in the first five books of the Bible (see, e.g., Deut. 6:25). But they fell from that relationship when they failed to obey those commands, ordinances and statutes. Anyone who reads Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy even casually quickly recognizes how difficult full compliance would be. So YHWH also provided a process of atonement, by which failure to obey could be forgiven. Unfortunately for the Jew, much of that process requires a Levitical priest, consecrated according to the Bible, and it is genuinely doubtful that such a person can truly be identified today.
For all others and for Jews who choose it as well, YHWH provided a different avenue-- through Jesus Christ and his Holy Spirit. For us, the relationship also begins at birth-- when we are born anew through the Holy Spirit (John 3:5-6). We become members of the spiritual body of Jesus Christ (Rom. 12:5), and YHWH writes his law in our hearts (Jer. 31:33, Ezek. 11:18-20, Heb. 8:10) as the guidance, direction and instruction he gives by the Holy Spirit. When we fail to comply, as we all do whether we self-righteously admit it or not, our forgiveness lies in our confession of that failure and our reliance on the sacrifice that Jesus made when he died on the cross (1 John 1:7,9).
Communication with the heavenly Father doesn't require any particular posture. We can lie on the ground (Matt. 26:39, Josh. 7:6-7), kneel (Acts 21:5, 1 Ki. 8:54, 2 Chr. 6:13; Ezra 9:5), or stand (Mark 11:25, 1 Ki. 8:22). We can even sit (e.g., 2 Sam. 7:18, Neh. 1:4). Hands may be raised or lifted up (1 Tim. 2:8) or clasped in the typical prayer position.
Prayers may be spoken or silent. YHWH knows our thoughts (see, for example, Ps. 94:11, Isa. 66:18, Matt. 9:4), so we can pray in our minds, and he will hear.
And where we pray is irrelevant. He's everywhere, and the Bible tells us that no building can contain him, nor does he dwell in them (1 Ki. 8:27, Acts 7:48, 17:24-28). In fact, even though Solomon's temple had been destroyed when Babylon took Judah and the remnant of Israel into captivity, YHWH heard their prayers and allowed those who chose to do so to return to Jerusalem and rebuild it. What Solomon had prayed for them in 1 Ki. 8:46-52 after he'd built that temple wasn't necessary at all; it merely showed his ignorance. Because of Jesus, the only temple that matters to our heavenly Father in these times is the temple made with living stones (1 Pet. 2:4-5). Those born of the Holy Spirit are individually and collectively temples of YHWH's Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16, 6:19, 2 Cor 6:16). Man-made buildings mean nothing to him. People matter. And our prayers matter, no matter where we are.
YHWH appears to be less concerned with the physical aspects and more concerned with what is often translated the "heart", or "soul", or "inner" man or being.
YHWH wants a humble heart, which apparently means one that is willing to hear and obey him (2 Chr. 7:14). Be honest in your heart. YHWH knows our hearts, so he cannot be fooled, and certainly won't be impressed by mere words or actions.
Faith is an important aspect. But how much faith does prayer require? Amazingly, very little. Don't fall into the trap that some people set when they tell others their prayers weren't answered because they just didn't have enough faith. If you know YHWH is, that he hears you, that seems to be all the faith you need. Jesus tells me this when he describes how powerful a mustard-seed sized faith can be in Matt. 17:20, 21:21-22. And in Rom. 12:3, Paul appears to tell us that he has alloted to each a measure of faith. All of us have faith in many things. For example, when we sit comfortably in a chair, we have complete faith in that chair. Another word that can be used for faith is "trust". When we pray to YHWH, we demonstrate a measure of faith. If it's coupled with trust in him to respond to our prayer (even if we're unsure how or if he'll grant our request), I believe that's enough for our loving Father. So if you have enough faith to pray with sincerity, I am convinced that is all the faith you need. Whether you receive the answer for which you pray depends on other factors, which are covered below. But you can be sure that YHWH answers all prayers.
There appears to be no limit on content. Prayers may ask YHWH to give or do something. They may give thanks, confess something, ask forgiveness, praise YHWH, recite his word, or submit to his authority. They may even wait quietly on him to communicate with or strengthen us. The examples of prayer listed at the end of this lesson show the variety of content that prayers may contain.
Jesus offers a model prayer in Matt. 6:9-13 (sometimes called "the Lord's Prayer"). While we can pray that itself, it can also provide a springboard for more comprehensive prayer: For example, when you pray "hallowed be your name", recite his name and the titles used for YHWH throughout the Bible, such as El Shaddai (God Almighty), El Elyon (God Most High), and "King of Kings". When you pray "your kingdom come and your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven", you can the repeat the first portion and add "in me" and then repeat the phrase for members of your family, friends, coworkers and others.
Another model for prayer often suggested for those learning to pray uses the acronym ACTS: adoration (praise and worship), confession, thanksgiving and supplication (petitions). These elements can be combined with Jesus' model prayer.
Contemplative prayer: In its simplest form, this involves clearing the mind as much as possible and then either waiting quietly (mentally and verbally) for impressions from YHWH or repeating a particular word or phrase. To avoid opening the wrong mental door, what is repeated should be carefully chosen from the Bible. If in doubt, choose something that YHWH or Jesus Christ has said.
Meditation: After reading a portion of the Bible, choose a verse or phrase and focus on it, repeating it while opening the mind to any insights or impressions YHWH might provide.
Other models can be learned from reading and meditating on the examples of prayer in the Bible. Several of those are mentioned or listed below. They and others should be studied for a better understanding of prayer.
Ways to Become More Effective
Remember who He is and whose you are. You see this at the end of all my web pages, because it has become a motto for me. During many times of difficulty, I would call out to the Father, and this thought would enter my mind: "Remember who I am, David, and whose you are." Since then, I have heard others say almost identical words, and, of course, that thought permeates the Bible, albeit in slightly different words. YHWH wants us to remember that he is the creator of the universe, our king (whether we like it or not), our savior, healer, strength, and peace, and so many other things that he reveals in the Bible. And we are his, the sheep of his pasture. We may try to withhold ourselves or some part of our lives from him, but at all times, we are under his dominion, and he can do with us as he wills.
Seek YHWH. Begin prayer by being in YHWH's presence, seeking him and what will please him. The apostle Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17) but doesn't explain what that means. I think it involves developing intimacy with YHWH. Jesus teaches us to go into our inner room to pray (Matt. 6:5-6). I understand that, in Jesus' time, the inner room referred to the room where a husband and wife became intimate with one another. Whether my understanding is correct, it helps to understand more about the deep intimacy YHWH desires. I believe this is at least part of what it means to walk in the spirit and pray in the spirit. Psalm 37:4 tells us that if we delight in YHWH, he will give us the desires of our heart. Delighting in YHWH is part of developing the intimacy we need to have an effective prayer life.
Seek YHWH's will. Maybe it's part of seeking YHWH, but I think it's important to seek his will at the same time. I believe that's inherent in Jesus' command to seek first the kingdom (kingship) of God and his righteousness (what pleases him) (Matt. 6:33). Seek his will in all things. Jesus did (Luke 22:42).
Righteous prayer. The second part of James 5:16, quoted above, has been translated in different ways by various translations and transliterations. The Greek literally translates as follows, with alternate translations in parentheses: Much strengthens (becomes robust, improves bodily health) entreaty (prayer, supplication) righteous (holy, innocent) working [by/in itself]. In view of the reference to being healed in the first part of the verse, I believe a better translation of this part of that verse, in context, would be: Righteous (holy, innocent) prayer working by itself improves bodily health (strengthens) greatly. In other words, James is telling us that righteous, holy or innocent prayer, prayer that pleases YHWH, greatly improves a person's bodily health, without anything more.
Keep it simple, saints. YHWH knows what we need before we ask (Matt. 6:8), so be brief and pray simply. Eccl. 5:2, Matt. 6:7. We don't need to bombard him with lots of chatter and repetition as if that will influence him. He hears us in the simplest of expressions. Short prayers are effective, maybe more effective than long ones. For example, read 1 Ki. 17:21-22, 2 Ki. 6:17-20 to see how effective Elijah's and Elisha's short prayers were. For more on this aspect, read the comments under "Praying with others" below.
Communicate. Since prayer is communication with the Father, relax and communicate. You may do this by talking to him out loud or just in your thoughts. And especially do the following:
Listen. Although it is hard to recognize YHWH's voice amid the noise and chatter in the world around us, he does communicate with us. Sometimes he speaks through the Bible. Sometimes he speaks through others, especially those who know him well and whose lives show the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 2:20). Sometimes he directs our actions. Sometimes he gives us a thought, although this is the most easily abused, because our minds have been corrupted by the world and can deceive us. Test those thoughts, to see if they come from the Holy Spirit or some other spirit at work in you. If they are contrary to or inconsistent with the Bible, discard them. If they agree with your desires, put them on the shelf until you have independent confirmation of them. If they are directly in accord with the whole of the Bible, they are probably reliable, provided you know the Bible well enough to discern their accord. Ask others if they sound like a word from YHWH. To learn more on hearing him, read Hearing God: YHWH Still Speaks.
Receive by giving thanks. Many complain that their prayers are not answered. Over two decades ago, as I meditated on that issue during my Bible study, I began to recognize the importance of giving thanks, even when we don't see the answer. It seemed to me that was what Jesus instructed the ten lepers to do, and their healing happened as they were on the way to do that. (Luke 17:11-19, 5:14). My favorite scripture for this is 1 Thess. 5:18. Thanksgiving opens a person's spirit to receive, which opens the body and soul to receive as well. In Spiritual Warfare Basics, I explain that scripture at more length. Since then, I've encouraged folks with whom I pray to give thanks for what the Father is doing, regardless of what it is. I am convinced that our gratitude to the Father for all that he has done and is doing for us, out of his infinite lovingkindness, does as much as anything to make our prayers more effective. As a metaphor, it might help to think about it this way: If I hand you something but you don't open your hand, you won't be able to receive it.
Grace, not merit. YHWH is sovereign. He can answer our prayers as he wills. He can do whatever he pleases (Ps. 115:3). So he can choose whether to answer our prayers and, if he chooses to do so, how to answer them. Everything depends on his grace, not our merit. Remembering that helps us pray with the right state of mind.
Clear your mind of doubt and other negative thoughts. Such thoughts distract us and interfere with our ability to come before YHWH as he wants.
Pray without ceasing (1 Thess. 5:17). Jesus tells parables to encourage us to continue in prayer (for example, Luke 11:5-10, 18:1-8). When praying for some need or seeking a solution to some situation or problem, persist in prayer, be tenacious. In the words of John Wimber, "be an animal". Beware the tendency to stop praying just because you don't see the answer or YHWH seems slow in answering. Consider especially the following suggestion.
Recognize the difference between desires and needs. When you want something you don't need, ask him if you should have it. Some things we desire are not good for us, but he lets us have them, perhaps to teach us something, the way we parents sometimes let our children have their way to teach them something. Other times, he will let us know we should avoid what we desire. If you need something, ask him to provide it or show you what he has already provided. Too many people miss YHWH's provision, because they want or expect something else. Jesus tells us that he looks after the birds and even the grass of the fields and will do at least as much for us, so in most (maybe all) cases, you would do best to ask him to help you recognize it.
Relax. Often we call out to YHWH in times of distress and other stress. Our minds race about, sometimes dragging our bodies along. He always hears us, but we often fail to "hear" him or recognize his response to our prayer during those times. The Bible tells us during those times to be still and know that he is God (Ps. 46:10 KJV): force yourself to relax, take a deep breath, and stop trying to control what's going on. Let him be king. Try to recognize the guidance, direction and instruction he is giving.
Focus on YHWH. Many people who are not used to praying in front of others feel embarrassed about doing it. Just because someone prays "beautifully" in your mind or their prayer sounds natural does not mean it will be heard or answered more than yours. The heavenly Father is pleased that you want to communicate with him, no matter how well you do it. So just talk to him, and then listen.
Confess. Failing to confess as sin those things that YHWH regards as disobedient, unrighteous or otherwise wrong, marks us as self-righteous and hypocritical. And anyone familiar with Jesus' opinion of self-righteous people knows how serious that is (Matt. 23:27-33). On the other hand, the Bible tells us how powerful confession can be (James 5:16, 1 John 1:9). And when you finish confessing, don't forget to ask YHWH for forgiveness. David's confession in Psalm 51, although it does not name his sin except in the scribe's note, nevertheless gives one example of contrition. David didn't blame Bathsheba for seducing him by bathing in the open but accepted responsibility for his outrageous conduct. Jesus gives another example in the wasteful son's planned confession (Luke 15:18-22), which the father cuts short out of his joy over the son's return.
Forgive. Jesus makes clear that forgiving is important if we want to be forgiven (Matt. 6:14-15, Mark 11:25). So you might want to work on writing off or releasing those things that you haven't yet forgiven. It helped me years ago to do what Jesus, Stephen and many other saints have done: I asked the Father to forgive those I had trouble forgiving. And I had to do it without asking him to take vengeance on them either. The burden we carry when we don't forgive can become oppressive. Jesus hints at this in John 20:23, when he tells his disciples: "If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they have been retained." I added the emphasis so you can think about who retains the sins you don't forgive.
Praying for little things. If you think that the heavenly Father must be so busy with all the crises in the world that he can't possibly have time for you or that you don't want to bother him with your little problems, you have the wrong understanding of who he is. In the words of J. B. Phillips, if you think that, your god is too small. The creator of the universe, who holds all things together, in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28), not only hears every prayer, but answers them as well. Although his answer may be to deny your request (as any decent parent does at times), he will often grant it. So ask his help in finding that lost document or ring. Ask for help finding a parking place in the crowded parking lot. Ask how you should handle a particular situation. I do this almost daily and should do it lots more often. What Paul tells us is true: He does work all things together for good to those who love him, who are called according to his purposes (Rom. 8:28).
Pray with Others. We are told that when two or three are gathered together in Jesus' name, he is there with them. We have many examples of YHWH's people praying together, sometimes experiencing dramatic answers.
Fasting. Sometimes fasting helps (see Matt. 17:21). But it is not commanded as a regular part of prayer.
"If" prayers are OK. A teaching that has gained some popularity among Christians declares that praying, "If you are willing", shows a lack of faith, and YHWH won't answer such prayers. I don't know the source of this teaching, but the Bible shows how false it is: At least one leper came to Jesus and said those very words when asking for healing, and Jesus healed him (Mark 1:40-41). The first time I prayed for someone to be healed, I prayed an "if you will" prayer, and YHWH healed (read Does God Still Heal?).
What to avoid
Wrong motives. James warns that we do not receive when we ask with wrong motives (James 4:3). Jesus' instruction in Matt. 6:19-34 might help in understanding this warning.
Pity parties. Self-pity in any form often joins with grumbling and complaining. The Old Testament gives examples of what happened to the chosen people when they grumbled (e.g., Num. 11:1-2, 4-6, 31-34, 21:5-6). Feeling sorry for oneself puts the person ahead of YHWH in his or her thoughts and frequently condemns what YHWH is doing in that person's life, whether consciously or not. It often results from anger and leads to bitterness and unforgiveness, all of which close our spirits to YHWH's gifts as much as a clenched fist. Just as a fist can receive nothing, self-pity prevents receiving as well.
Expecting a particular answer. We are incredibly limited creatures. Our ability to predict the future (except as the Holy Spirit leads us) is almost nonexistent. Our ability to know what is really best in a particular situation suffers a similar inadequacy. We need to trust YHWH as a loving father who works everything for our good if we love him and respond to his call (Rom. 8:28). Our prayers need to recognize that and be careful about expecting or demanding a particular answer. Sometimes, the Father will answer a prayer just as it has been prayed. For example, I talked with a woman who wanted to sue her employer for firing her. YHWH led me to ask her if she liked the job, and she told me she didn't. I then asked if she had prayed to get out of the job, and she admitted she had. She was actually surprised when I pointed out that YHWH had answered her prayer.
Getting impatient. YHWH has a universe to run. He has billions of people to look after on this planet. At every moment, he is working all over the world. That doesn't make him too busy to attend to us, even our smallest needs and prayers, but we need to recognize that answering our prayer may involve events on the far side of the planet, and we need to allow time for him to do whatever he is doing. If we have prayed for relief from some unpleasant situation, we have to leave the solution with YHWH. If we start trying to fix the problem because it seems our prayer has been ignored, we risk creating a worse situation. Abraham's failure to wait for YHWH's promise to give him a son led to his fathering a child (Ishmael) whose descendants became enemies of the promised son (Isaac). We might not be dealing with Muslim terrorists had he accepted YHWH's timetable.
Rebellion. Not many know that YHWH regards rebellion as blasphemy, but careful reading of Ezek. 20:21-27 reveals that fact. Reading a bit further also reveals that such behavior breaks communication with YHWH. Therefore, we must avoid defying or even challenging his authority.
Prayers that seek to change others. When we pray, particularly if it involves someone else, we may be asking something contrary to what he is doing for and in others. I believe it's OK to pray, for example, that someone receive a saving knowledge of him. But be careful about praying that the Father change someone in a particular way.
Men failing to honor their wives. Peter tells men to live with their wives in an understanding way and honor their wives as fellow heirs of Jesus' grace, so that their prayers will not be hindered (1 Pet. 3:7). Pay attention, men.
Praying with others
KISS (keep it simple, saints). Read the examples of prayer listed below and see how many are very short prayers. When I ask someone what they want YHWH to do for them, I often consider a clear statement a prayer in itself and start my prayer or response from there, thanking our Father that he hears our prayers and knows our hearts, and that he works all things together for good to those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Rom. 8:28). For example, Bartimaeus utters a simple prayer to "have mercy on me" and then tells Jesus "I want to regain my sight". Jesus responds by telling the man his faith had made him well (or "saved" him) (Mark 10:46-52). Often a simple command to correct what is wrong is all that's required. When Peter and John enter the temple grounds and the crippled man begs alms, they respond by commanding him to walk-- in the name of Jesus-- and raising him to his feet (Acts 3:1-7). Paul heals a cripple in Lydia with a similar command (Acts 14:8-10).
Listen to others. When you pray with others, listen to what they pray. How well they say it doesn't matter to YHWH. Don't repeat the same thing just because you want to improve the way it's said. Allow the person being prayed with or for to receive what has been prayed for before you jump in with something new. Focus on the person being prayed for and what that person needs. Don't try to meet some personal need for significance during prayer for others. I have more on this subject in the lesson on healing of past hurts.
Do not preach. I can't tell you how many times I have prayed with someone who used that time as an opportunity to preach a sermon. Under the guise of prayer, the person would try to convey some message the person thought was important, sometimes to me and sometimes to another person. I believe this violates what Jesus taught about prayer. Sermons have their place, but it's not in prayer.
Showing off. Be careful not to pray in front of others for the purpose of impressing or influencing them the way hypocrites do (Matt. 6:5-6, 16:6, Luke 12:1): Praying with others is good and we are encouraged to do it, but we must not try to show off or behave like an actor (Gk hupokrita).
Scripture for thought
Following are just a few of the many scriptural passages that will be found in the Bible concerning prayer in addition to the numerous passages identified above. This list was originally prepared in response to an inquiry whether I could recommend any good books about prayer. There are many books about prayer, and there are also some taped seminars.
But in my opinion, the very best book that I can recommend is the Bible, and these references are intended to provide a quick look at some of what God's Word has to say about prayer. Some will obviously prove more meaningful than others, and some will seem obscure at best. With regard to those in the latter category, I included them in this list because I consider all of these important, and I firmly believe all of them have something to add to our perspective on prayer.
2 Chronicles 7:13-14
Matthew 6:5-15; 7:7-11; 21:21-22
Luke 6:28; 11:1-13; 18:1-8; 20:46-47
John 15:7, 16
1 Corinthians 14:14-15
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
James 1:6; 4:2-3; 5:13-18
1 John 5:14-16
Examples of Prayer (just a few of the great many I've found):
1 Samuel 2:1-10
2 Samuel 7:18-29
2 Samuel 22
1 Kings 17:21-22; 18:36-38 (short prayers)
1 Chronicles 29:10-19
Psalms (almost all)
Amos 7:2,5 (short prayers)
Jonah 2:1-10; 4:2-4
Matthew 6:9-13; 7:25-30; 8:2-4, 5-13 (esp. 8-9)
Mark 5:28; 6:46-48; 7:25-30; 10:46-52 (esp. 47); 14:32-39
Luke 5:12-13; 9:28-29; 17:11-19
Acts 1:14; 2:42; 4:24-31; 12:5; 13:2-3; 20:36; 28:8
*YHWH or YHVH is the English representation of the four Hebrew letters that spell the name of the God of the Bible, the one true, living God worshipped by Jews and Christians. YHWH was the name by which he identified himself to Moses in Ex. 3:14. According to references that I've read, the exact pronunciation of YHWH's name was lost in antiquity. After much study, I prefer to pronounce the name "Yahu-wah" (the "h" being aspirated as in "hay", emphasis on the last syllable), but the generally accepted pronounciation in common English is "Yah-weh" or "Yah-way". Some translations of the Bible, such as the KJV and NASB, substitute "the LORD" for his name, following a practice begun before Jesus' birth.
YHWH revealed himself in various ways to the children of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, which Christians call the Old Testament. He also revealed himself in and through his son Jesus Christ and acts, among other ways, in and through Christians by the Holy Spirit. Because the word "God" is being used today to designate all kinds of human inventions, although accepted for centuries in English as a name for YHWH, I prefer to use the name that YHWH chose for himself rather than "God" or "the LORD" as I did in early versions of my writings. Please read The Name of the One True, Living God for a fuller discussion.
|Remember who He is and whose you are|