Five Things I’ve Learned About Prayer

Posted On January 22, 2015

Editors note: The purpose of this series is to help our readers think through what prayer is and how they can improve their prayer lives.

This isn’t going to be an eloquent article on prayer. But I hope it will be practical. I’ve been trying to pray for over 25 years and more often than not have felt completely inadequate in my prayer life. But over time, I think I have learned a few things. Here are five important things I have learned. I hope will help you.

1) Come as you are. Mark Bearden, one of my mentors used to say, “The devil tells you that you have to get your act together in order to come to God. God says, ‘Come to me to get your act together.’” That has stuck with me for two decades. This is also one of the key insights in Paul Miller’s helpful book A Praying Life, where Miller reminds us that Jesus taught us to be like children, and that one of the main characteristics of children is their lack of pretension. They just come to their parents as they are, running noses and all. They come messy.[1] They come as they are.

This is vital, because few things will keep you from prayer more than feeling too messed up, too sinful, or too guilty to pray. And the enemy is so subtle that he will turn this on its head. He will make you think that you don’t feel needy enough to pray. But the lie is that you have to find something in yourself (whether worthy or need) before you can pray.

2) Use Scripture to guide your prayers. There are lots of tools out there for helping us pray. Many of them are good. But Scripture, being God’s very Word, is the surest guide. I am most confident in prayer, when I’m praying for what God promises and commands in Scripture. Praying the promises of God is obvious, but what do I mean by praying His commands? Just this: I know that I’m praying according to God’s will when I pray for His enabling grace to help me obey what He commands, when I ask Him to work in me to will and do His good pleasure, when I beg him to fill me by His Spirit, and bear through my life the fruit of Christ-like character. If you don’t know what to pray for, read your Bible, and then make it the warp and woof of your prayers.

3) Weave theology into your prayers. This follows from the last point. Theology is truth about God as revealed in Scripture. The reality is that all of our prayers are implicitly theological. Behind and beneath every prayer that any person ever prays are presuppositions, assumptions, and beliefs about God, His character, and His ways. The question is whether or not these presuppositions, assumptions, and beliefs are true. Keeping our prayers anchored in Scripture will keep our praying on a solid theological foundation.

But I also have something else in mind when I say weave theology into your prayers. I have in mind the kind of praying that seeks to make theology not just the foundation, but the superstructure of prayer: the kind of praying that seeks to mold my heart’s affections to the form of truth. To illustrate what I mean, consider this excerpt from Arthur Bennett’s The Valley of Vision:

Christ was all anguish that I might be all joy,

  cast off that I might be brought in,

  trodden down as an enemy

    that I might be welcomed as a friend,

  surrendered to hell’s worst

    that I might attain heaven’s best,

  stripped that I might be clothed,

  wounded that I might be healed,

  athirst that I might drink,

  tormented that I might be comforted,

  made a shame that I might inherit glory,

  entered darkness that I might have eternal light.[2]

That is a beautiful example of a prayer interwoven with the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. But note: there is nothing dry and abstract about it. This is, instead, evangelical theology personalized in prayer in a way that both captures and expresses genuine spiritual affection.

4) If you can’t pray for long periods at once, pray more frequently.

I owe this one to John Owen. In his treatise on Indwelling Sin, Owen spends several pages discussing the duties that “by God’s designation they have a special tendency toward the ruin of the law of sin,”[3] in which he includes both meditation and prayer. This discussion includes some of the most helpful instruction regarding effective devotional practices that I’ve ever read, including this important sentence: “What we come short of in evenness and constancy in our thoughts in these things, let it be made up in frequency.”[4]

That’s good advice. Lots of us, probably most of us, would find it difficult to pray for two or three hours straight. If that’s you, take Owen’s advice: pray more frequently instead.

5)  Come in Jesus’ name. I know: the phrase “in Jesus’ name” is often a thoughtless addendum to our prayers. And there’s nothing magical about those words. It’s not an incantation. But neither are they throwaway words. Our only access to the Father is through the Son. “For through him [Christ] we . . . have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph. 2:18). “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This is true not only in salvation, but in every prayer we ever breathe out to God. Coming through Jesus, our great High Priest, is the only way to have boldness at the throne of grace (see Heb. 4:14-16). Remembering this will keep us both bold and humble.


[1] See Paul Miller, A Praying Life (NavPress, 2009) pp. 30-32.

[2] Arthur Bennett, ed. The Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers & Devotions (Banner of Truth, 1975), p. 42.

[3] John Owen, Overcoming Sin and Temptation, (Crossway, 2006) p. 306.

[4] Ibid., p. 307.

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