Maybe you've heard prayer is important. But how do you start?
Do you remember learning how to read? Most of us learned by first identifying letters and their sounds, then combining those letters to form words, and later stringing words into phrases and sentences. We moved from picture books to chapter books as our ability grew. But we started simply—with an alphabet and a desire to learn.
Learning to pray is not so different from this.
Prayer, the act of conveying a message to God, can seem intimidating—and the thought of praying publicly can be almost paralyzing!1 It helps to remember that when you pray, you are addressing a God who loves you and wants to hear what you have to say.
Praying, at its most basic, is simply talking to God. So get to talking.
Your prayers won’t be graded or compared to anyone else’s. You don’t have to sound “spiritual” or quote Bible verses back to God. You can just speak to God as if talking to a friend.
If you feel like you have no idea how to “just begin” or that you’re uncomfortable with talking to God, you’re in luck. The Bible is a great resource for learning how to pray. The entire book of Psalms is comprised of all types of prayers—prayers of praise, petition, and lamentation. You can even read the prayers of Jesus himself in the Gospel of John.2
Prepare for Challenges
But know that when you do begin to pray, you will face opposition.
C. S. Lewis’s book The Screwtape Letters is written as a series of letters from a senior devil, Screwtape, to a junior devil-in-training, Wormwood. Screwtape’s letters instruct Wormwood in how to thwart a new believer.
He quickly advises Wormwood about the “danger” of prayer: “The best thing, where it is possible, is to keep the patient from the serious intention of praying altogether. Whenever they are attending to the Enemy Himself [God] we are defeated, but there are ways of preventing them from doing so. The simplest is to turn their gaze away from Him toward themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills.”3
You will surely find resistance to prayer when you begin. Any number of distractions may hinder your efforts—from phone calls to sleepiness to self-consciousness. But begin anyway.
Author Tim Challies says, “If I want to know how to pray, I just need to pray. No book, no classroom, no course, no instructor can teach me so much about prayer that I can avoid the hard work of learning on my knees. Ultimately prayer itself is the classroom.”4
But once you begin to pray, don’t stop. The apostle Paul instructed believers in the church at Thessalonica to “pray continually [and] give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”5
Praying continually doesn’t mean kneeling all day or reciting prayer after prayer after prayer. It is rather a continual turning of the heart toward God; a submission; an eagerness to be near him, to hear him, and to share life with him. It is a continual recognition of God’s presence in your life.
Any ordinary moment can be an opportune time to communicate with God. You might pray on the move as you walk, jog, or commute. Let landmarks that you routinely pass serve as prompts to thank God, praise him, or offer quick prayers for family members or friends.
Check in with God throughout the day as you do routine chores like cooking or cleaning. You might incorporate music into your prayers, too, by singing along to hymns or songs of praise.
You can also pray as you work. For example, you can thank God for providing a job for you. Ask him for wisdom in dealing with colleagues, clients, superiors, and subordinates. You may ask him for creativity in problem solving or for the courage to act ethically and fairly.
And yes, you could even ask him to bless your work and bring you success. Christians who do their work with excellence—whatever their work may be—glorify God in the process.
Pray with Others
Praying with others one-on-one, in small groups, and in corporate worship can also strengthen our prayer practice. “For where two or three gather in my name,” Jesus said, “there am I with them.”6
Hearing the prayers of fellow believers (and joining our prayers with theirs) is an encouraging, instructive, and powerful experience. We learn by imitating others. If you are hesitant to pray aloud, just pray along silently. You’ll learn by listening!
As mentioned earlier, the pages of the Bible are full of potential “prayer partners” for us too. Read the prayers of Moses, David, Daniel, and Solomon recorded in the Old Testament and of Jesus, Peter, Timothy, and Paul in the New Testament, just to name a few.
Many books contain the prayers of passionate men and women of faith. Jonathan Edwards, Martin Luther, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, George Muller, Amy Carmichael, Charles Spurgeon, Jim Elliot, and others can stretch your understanding of prayer and refresh your mind and heart when your own words feel stale and weak.7
Finally, remember that when words fail you altogether, you have another “partner”—the Holy Spirit. The Bible tells us, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.”8 When we can’t even think straight, the Holy Spirit knows what we need and “speaks” to God for us.
Keep your prayers authentic. Strive to remain honest and transparent before God. Don’t pretend to be someone or something you’re not. God invites us to come as we are when we pray—flaws and all.
C. S. Lewis wrote, “We want to know not how we should pray if we were perfect, but how we should pray being as we now are. It is no use to ask God with factitious earnestness for A when our whole mind is in reality filled with the desire for B. We must lay before him what is in us, not what ought to be in us.”9
How to Pray
So you want to know how to pray? Just begin where you are. God is waiting. He longs to hear from his own.
Begin, and then keep on praying—through your ordinary days and in every circumstance. Pray not just alone, but in the company of other believers—past and present—whose prayers can strengthen your own. Come to God as you are, not as you think you should be.
Acrostics and formulas for “effective praying” abound, but we learn to pray—and to love spending time in God’s presence—simply by praying. Are you ready?