I Don’t Know How to Pray
Over the years of my ministry I’ve come up with a Top Ten List of most often asked questions or issues folks struggle with the most. And without question, the area I get most often asked about is prayer. It’s not so much the philosophical, “If God already knows what we’re going to say or what we need… then why pray?” I sometimes hear that. It’s much more on a practical level: I don’t know how to pray.
Many Reasons to Pray
There are many kinds of prayers. My 16 year old son just got his driver’s license. Thus, my wife and I have spent much time with the Lord on that topic. Trust me. There are many circumstantial reasons that drive us to prayer.
Maybe you’re trying to get a loan, a new job, trying to make a team, or about to take final exams. Or maybe someone you dearly love is very ill. Those sorts of things will certainly direct your attention to prayer. But we don’t restrict those prayers to an “official prayer time.” We pray about them whenever we think of them. And we should.
What I’m focusing on here is that set apart prayer time when it’s just you and God. We sometimes call this our “quiet time.”
Obstacles to Prayer
Many folks have come to me over the years and said something along these lines: “I thank God for the day. I ask God for his blessings for the day. I ask God to bless my family. Maybe heal a sick loved one. And then I’m done. I run out of things to say.”
Can you relate to that?
Or maybe you have another issue: distraction.
When my wife has the opportunity to share how her prayer-life sometimes looks, she humorously points out that she begins with the best intentions. Perhaps she focuses on the day ahead, when suddenly she remembers one of our children’s doctor’s appointments. She then begins thinking about the appointment when she realizes the gas tank in her van is sitting on empty. Before she knows it, she’s putting together a grocery list, “miles away” from where she was when she started out in prayer.
Can you relate to that?
Many of us need help in our prayer lives. Our prayer lives are one dimensional, and if we’re honest, pretty self-centered.
I want to begin by briefly answering the question: Why pray? Then, I want to give you a model of prayer that you may already be familiar with. Whether you are or not, my hope is that it will encourage and guide you as you revive your prayer life.
One of my favorite writers is C.S. Lewis. He wrote, “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Mere Christianity,” and Screwtape Letters,” just to name a few.
A little over 20 years ago, a movie called “Shadowlands” came out about his life. The movie focused on Lewis and his wife, Joy, and how they dealt with her approaching death, due to her cancer. One scene that really stood out to me took place right after Lewis learned his wife’s cancer had gone into remission.
His friend, who was a priest, walked up to Lewis after learning the good news and said,
“I know how hard you’ve been praying, and now God is answering your prayer.”
Lewis responded in very memorable way. He said,
“That’s not why I pray Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because… I pray because the need flows out of me all the time… waking and sleeping.”
I love that imagery. Lewis paints a picture of being inwardly compelled to pray. Desire and dependence compelled him be a man of prayer. And from the biographies I’ve read about Lewis, he was a man of great prayer.
What motivated Lewis to pray as he did, ought to drive us to do the same.
In verse 1, Jesus taught that when we pray, we should address God as, “Father.” Jesus uses “Father” eight times in the parallel passage in Matthew 6. We’re instructed and encouraged to enter into a relationship with One who loves and cares for us more than any other person in the entire universe – Our Heavenly Father.
He’s not the god of the deists who wound up the universe like a giant watch and then left town, unconcerned about his creation. No! He’s the loving Father of the prodigal son who came running to greet and hug his returning son, restoring him and throwing him a party.
In prayer, we’re invited to commune with our loving Father. We’re encouraged to speak to him, listen to him, and bask in his presence.
We listen to God through his Word and reflect on it in meditative silence, but our struggle usually is, what to say to God.
I want to share an Acronym, ACTS, that you may already know about, but again, hopefully it will encourage you to revive your prayer life if it needs reviving.
A - Adoration
Adoration is simply a time to praise God for who he is. Jesus begins the Lord’s Prayer with “hallowed be your name.” Jesus is teaching us we should pray that God’s name be exalted as holy throughout all the world. Again, Jesus isn’t being comprehensive here, he’s giving us a model.
The first thing he wants us to know is we’re praying to the One who loves us as our Father. Second, we ought to praise, honor, and esteem God for who he is.
What does that look like? It’s as simple as offering a brief word of praise to God for one or more of his attributes. Praise God for his love and holiness. Praise him for his grace and righteousness. Praise him for his mercy and strength.
Ken Boa’s Handbook to Prayer has provided me a great help in doing this. Boa’s book takes Scriptural references and turns them into first person prayers to God.
Here’s an example from Psalm 86:12-13,
“I will praise you, O Lord my God, with all my heart,
And I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your love toward me,
And you have delivered my soul from the depths of the grave.”
Then Boa has a prayer prompt below the Scripture that says, “Pause to express your thoughts of praise and worship.” This is your time to “camp out” with the particular Scripture and “pray back” to God the Scriptural references. In this case, praise God for his great name and love.
There’s no formula here. Let these things be a servant to you to help and encourage you in your prayer life, but don’t let them be a master over you. This is not a magical formula.
C - Confession
In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus says, “and forgive us our sins.”
To confess your sin is to recognize the sin in your life and admit it to God. This shows we take seriously our sins and shortcomings.
Now here’s the really painful part: Be specific. A casual, “And God, forgive me for my sins” may show you’re not taking your sin seriously. When you name your sin before God, it can hurt. It’s hard to be proud when you’re confessing specific sins to God. But when we confess our sins before God, we’re also asking to be forgiven for them. And God tells us we are forgiven.
Read this comforting promise from 1 John,
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)
Confession of our sin leads us to affirm the good news of the Gospel.
T - Thanksgiving
This is simply the act of expressed appreciation. I highlight the word, “expressed” because, so often, we may be grateful, but don’t express it. Have you ever prayed and prayed for something, got what you prayed for, but then forgot to thank God. I have. Of course, that sends me back to confession. Ugh.
I think thanksgiving naturally flows out of spending time adoring and praising God for who he is, and the great work he’s done in your life. It also flows out of knowing you’re forgiven for the sin you just confessed to God. Our relationship with God is deepened when we thank him.
If you remember the story of the 10 Lepers, you know Jesus cleansed 10 men from their awful leprosy. Besides the horrible disease, which was bad enough by itself, this disease and deformity also made the person an extreme social outcast. If you saw the movie, Ben Hur, you remember the Lepers had to leave their homes and live in faraway places with other lepers. It was a terrible disease in many ways.
The day Jesus healed the 10 Lepers, he approached them, which people didn’t do. He treated them with love and dignity. He even touched them. And he healed them.
There’s little doubt they were all grateful. They were no longer diseased. They could return to their families once again. You know they were grateful. But what happened? Only one of the men stayed to express his thanks for what Jesus had done.
We also need to express our thanksgiving to God for our many blessings.
S - Supplication
The Apostle Paul says in Philippians 4:5-6,
The Lord is at hand; 6 do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.
Supplication is when we bring not only our needs, fears, concerns, and desires to God, but those of others as well.
We naturally gravitate to this, so I won’t spend a lot of time here. But I do want to say this: God may already know our needs, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t spend time with him, in his presence. Just as children do with their parents, we need to bring our needs, fears, concerns, and desires to our loving Father. There’s comfort and encouragement in the relationship. In being with him. Listening to him. Getting things off our chests. And I would add that there’s no greater ministry than interceding in prayer on behalf of others.
So there you have it:
A – Adoration
C – Confession
T – Thanksgiving
S – Supplication
Let this acronym serve you in your prayer life to help it grow and flourish. But don’t become so focused on the order and form that you forget the main part of prayer, which is to spend time with your heavenly Father.
What does your prayer life ordinarily look like? What sorts of things do you usually focus on the most? Can you see how using the ACTS model can enhance your prayer life? Beginning today, start using it with a journal. Write down things in advance that you would like to pray for, using ACTS as a guide. It may feel awkward at first, but the more you pray this way, the more natural it will become.
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