If you ever want to terrify someone, ask them to pray.
Sometimes someone will come up to me since I am a pastor, drag me across a room, introduce me to someone, and say something like, “This is Mark. Mark has this problem. Can you pray for them?”
I look at Mark’s friend, smile, and say, “I could. But, no. You can pray for Mark. I’ll pray with you both.”
Mark’s friend expected a pat-on-the back; instead he is simultaneously wrestling regret, fear, and the sudden urge to run.
Sometimes I will be in a small group and everyone is having a great time since the conversation hasn’t gotten too personal or practical yet. Everyone loves theory in a small group. Theory is safe. But some brave soul breaks the unspoken rule and says something real – a real issue that needs real prayer. I look at the circle of friends sitting around our honest friend and ask, “Will someone pray for our sister, Katerina?”
Katerina suddenly finds herself in a circle of frozen, deaf zombies that failed to understand any words that left my mouth.
You can play this game too if you want. It is kind of fun.
Ever share a need with a friend and they look at you like they are only half-listening? They nod and murmur something like, “Sure. I’ll be praying for you.” Next time that happens, you can drop this bomb on them.
“Great. Would you mind praying for me right now?”
Be prepared to get any number of looks, excuses, and weird body contortions.
In each of these situations, if you press these friends about their hesitancy, you will hear all sorts of reasons for this prayer phobia.
But the most common response I hear is this: I don’t know how to pray.
People who have been in church for thirty years will tell you this. People who went to 36 weeks of Vacation Bible School as children. People who serve on ministry committees. People who haven’t missed a Sunday morning service since Ronald Reagan was in office. People who meticulously share their own personal prayer requests with anyone who will listen.
Somehow, when you ask them to pray, almost no one knows how.
The Lord’s Pattern
This shouldn’t be the case. On a broad level, God gave pastors to equip the saints, to enable them to do the work, to empower them to obey God’s will for their lives. Surely this includes the expectation that the people will be equipped to pray.
At another level, God knew we would struggle here and included a manual for us in the Bible. One of Jesus’ twelve disciples specifically asks Jesus how to pray.
Jesus shares with his disciple what we call The Lord’s Prayer.
As Tim Keller says in his must-read book regarding prayer, our relationship to The Lord’s Prayer is like living next to a railroad.
At the time I went to school, The University of Memphis main campus was split by a set of train tracks. This caused all kinds of headaches when you parked on the south side and had class on the north side or when you lived on one side and wanted to work out at the gym on the other.
At the beginning of my senior year, I moved into an apartment that sat right next to the track. When my roommate and I first moved in to the apartment, sleep was near impossible. Every time a train rolled through campus and blared its horn at a pedestrian or a car trying to beat the train to the intersection, my windows and bed frame would shake.
But an amazing thing happened.
By Fall Break, I never heard the train.
I had heard the train so much, I stopped hearing it at all.
As Keller writes, we do the same thing with The Lord’s Prayer.
We recite it at church, at weddings, at funerals, and at pregame huddles. We say it so much we no longer hear the words we say. It means nothing to us now.
We have taken Jesus’ teaching prompt and turned it into a mindless pool of words.
We have taken his grace to help us pray and built it into an obstacle of communion.
The Lord’s Prayer is not a dictated ritual to be thoughtlessly repeated verbatim ad nauseam. Jesus meant for it to be used as a guide to influence our own personal talks with God.
It is not so much The Lord’s Prayer as much as it is The Lord’s Pattern.
Adapting the Pattern
When you examine his pattern for prayer, you can boil it down to a few essential elements. There are numerous prayer tools that have been created to help you pray in light of the Lord’s Prayer. One of the most popular is the ACTS method of prayer.
When you pray, think ACTS.
ADORATION – Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name…
Jesus’ pattern helps us see we should start our prayers by honoring God for who He is. Our prayers should start with a vertical dimension.
Practically, you can pray about one of God’s names (King of Kings, Prince of Peace, Jehovah, etc). You can pray about one God’s attributes (God, you are holy… loving… wise). You can pray about one of his works (God you created all things… revealed yourself through the Bible… saved me by your grace).
God cannot be exhausted. So when you start your prayer by praying about God, you start off with an endless supply of material.
CONFESSION – Forgive us our debts as we have also forgiven our debtors…
Confession simply means to agree with God about your sin. You do not need a priest. You do not need to do a good deed to even up the score of your heart. You simply need to recognize where you have fallen short.
Practically, you should confess specifically. Resist the urge to brush your prayers with broad strokes. Instead of confessing your anger, confess the ugly words you spit at your spouse. Instead of confessing your pride, confess your condescending thoughts towards your coworker. Get specific.
THANKSGIVING – This aspect of prayer is not found in The Lord’s Prayer, but Scripture tells us many times to show thanks. For example, Philippians 4:6 says,
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer… with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Usually when we pray, we immediately jump to what we need. The ACTS method helpfully reverses that urge. Pastor H.B. Charles, Jr. says, “Before you ask God for something you need, thank Him for what He has already done.”
Practically, continue to be specific with your thanksgiving. A good rule of thumb to get started is for every one thing you ask of God, offer thanks for one thing He has done.
SUPPLICATION – Give us this day our daily bread… Your will be done…
We probably need the least amount of help here. Supplication is a fancy way of saying request or petition. If we are good at anything in prayer, we are good at supplication. The Lord’s Pattern gives us two important reminders. First we ask for daily needs. Like the Manna in the wilderness, God wants to give us just enough for today so that we return to Him again with our needs tomorrow. Second, we should recognize that all of our needs are subject to His will and not our own.
Practically, think necessity not extravagance. As you bring your requests to God, explicitly recognize God has the right to answer as He pleases. Voice your willingness to submit to His call on your requests.
As with the pattern given to us by Jesus himself, the ACTS method is simply a guide. It is meant to help us pray; it should never constrain us as we seek to meet with God.
If you struggle with knowing how to pray, use a tool like this to get more comfortable. Certainly, reading works on prayer like the one from Keller or studies on the Sermon on the Mount like this one by Daniel Doriani will surely help us grow as prayers.
But the best way to grow in prayer is by actually praying.
Your prayer life is not solely an individual matter. Your friends, family, and church need you. The next time someone asks you to pray for them or to pray out loud in a small group, you have an opportunity. Do not be content with sheepishly backing away from it by saying you do not know how. Jesus has shown us how; He’s given us a pattern. ACTS or no ACTS, be bold and pray.
In an upcoming post, we will look at how the doctrine of the Trinity empowers us to pray. God Himself enables us to pray to Him.
For now, listen to the train rolling past. Hear it once again. It was sent down the track to remind you. You can pray.