Jesus was once asked by his disciples how they should pray. It was pretty smart of them to ask him, since he’s sort of an expert on the subject.
Here’s what he had to say: “When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation’” (Luke 11:2-4).
For me, the most powerful thing about this prayer is one word. The prayer begins with Father. Jesus calls God his Father, but that’s not surprising. (Jesus is the Son of God, after all.) What’s surprising is that he instructs us to call God our Father!
This brings us to the most significant thing I’ve discovered about prayer: If prayer is part of the Christian faith, and the Christian faith is basically a relationship with God, then prayer is part of a relationship.
This seems pretty obvious, but it took me a long time to understand.
When I was younger, my prayers were recitations. It took me a long time to understand that prayers are supposed to involve not one person, but two people: a speaker and a listener. Prayers are meant to be conversations.
My early prayers were full of phrases that sounded impressive but didn’t mean anything. I prayed vaguely, asking God, “keep your hand on this person, and pour out your grace upon that person.”
I wasn’t really asking God to help anyone. I was just easing my conscience by praying churchy prayers.
When we pray for other people, it should be to help them—not to make ourselves feel better. This often requires us to pray for specific needs. If my friend Socrates is recovering from surgery or going through depression, I should pray specifically for his healing or comfort—not petition God to do something unspecified like “showering Socrates with abundant blessings.”
Sometimes we don’t know what other people need. Sometimes we don’t even know what we need. That’s okay. We can still pray, “Father, you know this person’s needs. Please meet those needs, whatever they may be.”
A final lesson I’ve learned about prayer: Every word counts! The Bible warns against praying long, rambling prayers: “God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few” (Ecclesiastes 5:2).
The Lord Jesus himself said, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8).
It’s easy to pray without thinking. When we pray, we must stay focused and say only what we really mean. As Jesus said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:30). We should pray with all our mind, not just part of it.
To sum up, here are the three most important things I’ve learned about prayer:
Prayer should be a conversation, not a recitation.
Prayer should be sincere and meaningful, not empty and meaningless.
Prayer should be focused, not vague.