People pray with the goal of getting what they want. Achieving this requires knowing exactly how to approach God.
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“Teach us to pray.” This may sound like a naive request considering people had been praying for thousands of years by the time this question was asked. Yet the man decided to ask Jesus Christ anyway (Luke 11:1).
People typically do not ask others how to pray. They try to figure it out on their own, usually mimicking what they see: Bow your head, get on your knees, and speak out loud or in your head—inquiring an unseen Being. That may seem straightforward.
Many people spend a good portion of their lives in prayer—more than you may think. According to a Pew Research poll, 77 percent of adults pray, half of them doing it at least once a day. That is surprisingly high for a world increasingly seen as non-religious.
Daily prayers cross several religious groups. Ninety percent of Jehovah’s Witnesses pray daily, followed by 85 percent of Mormons. Black Protestants and Evangelicals come in at 80 percent and 79 percent respectively. And it is not just the religious willing to make supplication. Twenty percent of “nones”—those unaffiliated with religion—pray at least once per day.
Most faiths do not have a class teaching people how to pray, begging the question: How do we know whether we are doing it right?
The copycat method is how most manage. Some learn through their childhoods watching family members. Others by attending a church service for the first time and watching the faithful go through the motions. People even develop practices from devout characters on television shows or in movies. The rest simply do their best, hoping that their requests will be granted.
However, what if you learned there was a right way to pray? The man talking to Christ thought so, prompting him to ask.
If there is a right way, knowing how would be life-changing—since people make requests to a deity with the intent to have them answered. And since answered prayer comes from praying the right way, it can explain that there are wrong ways to go about it that do not bring answers.
Answered prayer was at the heart of the man’s request to Christ. He wanted to know how he could ensure his requests were granted.
When it comes to prayer, you are not forced to just hope for the best with hit-or-miss results. You can approach the authority on the subject and learn exactly how to ensure your prayers are answered.
To have our prayers answered, we must first believe we are speaking to a living God and have faith that He hears and wants to answer us. Praying consistently—at least once per day—is also important.
At its essence, prayer is having dialogue with God. It is a personal, private, one-on-one conversation between a person and his Creator.
Simply knowing what prayer is represents an important first step to doing it the right way. Yet knowing how to pray in a way that is pleasing to God is the next.
Many people who understand this misuse prayer as a self-serving tool. When people are not taught any better, they reduce God to a divine genie waiting to grant them their every wish. Few understand that prayer is more than just asking for personal goodies.
Take a moment to consider the way you currently pray, including the words you choose. With this in mind, ask yourself how well your prayers resemble the following.
In Matthew 6, after being asked by a disciple, Christ detailed exactly how people should pray. (Notice He did not balk at the request.)
Christ began: “When you pray, you shall not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward” (vs. 5).
Here Jesus used examples of people praying the wrong way as a foundation for how to do it properly. Even 2,000 years ago people, like today, picked up many bad habits when it came to talking to God.
Christ continued: “But you, when you pray, enter into your closet, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father which is in secret; and your Father which sees in secret shall reward you openly” (vs. 6).
Prayer is a private affair. Though there are times for public prayer, such as with family before a meal, personal prayers should generally not be done in public for all to see and hear. The purpose of prayer is not to “be seen of men” as a pious, religious person. If we try to make others view us as close to God based on our public, demonstrative prayers, then we receive rewards from men and not God.
Ask yourself: Am I praying or telling people of my prayer habits to gain their admiration? If so, take a different approach and focus on being seen by God.
Resuming in verses 7-8, Christ said: “When you pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not you therefore like unto them: for your Father knows what things you have need of, before you ask Him.”
God, who said that even the “heathen” pray, said men should not continually repeat themselves when talking to Him. This stands in stark contrast to what billions in mainstream religion do—memorizing and constantly repeating themselves when invoking God!
Remember, prayer is a personal conversation with our Creator. Imagine someone fully capable of having a coherent conversation with you choosing instead to stutter and repeat himself constantly. You would become fed up or offended by such behavior.
A conversation with God would be no different. A person choosing to repeat themselves over and over is not pleasant for Him.
Matthew 6:9-15 gives a general outline of personal prayer. It is a model we are to personalize and expand based on our specific circumstances or issues in our lives. Reciting this model word-for-word would violate the very principle of avoiding “vain repetition” Christ warned against.
Just as the Bible is a rich and diverse text that should be seen as God talking to us, we should be equally rich and diverse in our conversations with Him.
Prayer should be performed in private and in a position of submission. This follows the pattern of those human beings who have been in the presence of God. Psalm 95:6 says “let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord…”
In I Kings 8:54, Solomon knelt before God “with his hands spread up to heaven.” And many times, men are described as prostrating or lying face down before God in prayer the way Abraham did in Genesis 17:1 or Moses and Aaron did in Numbers 20:6.
However, there are also times you may want or need to talk to God while you are going about your day. These are times when kneeling or lying on your face are not an option as they would draw too much attention. The Bible is filled with examples of people speaking to God without assuming a specific pose.
Regardless of your position, know that you are coming before God’s presence and boldly making your requests known to Him (Heb. 4:16). These requests should not only be for yourself, they should also be for others. We have our own desires and perspectives for how things should turn out, but ultimately we are to pray that God’s will be done—not our own. This is because God can see far more than we can. As an all-wise Being, He knows what is best.
Should you expect all your prayers to be answered? On its face, Matthew 7:7-8 leaves little room for doubt. Jesus stated, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and you shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asks receives; and he that seeks finds; and to him that knocks it shall be opened.”
This says everyone gets what they ask for. But is it really that easy? Not quite—there are other verses that must be considered, particularly those that lay down parameters for God to heed our requests.
For instance, the prophet Isaiah wrote, “Your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear” (59:2). Iniquity is sin or breaking God’s Law.
How could God possibly answer the prayers of those whose sins hide God’s face?
The apostle John wrote: “Now we know that God hears not sinners: but if any man be a worshiper of God, and does His will, him He hears” (9:31).
This verse is saying the prayers of sinners are not heard.
Because all have sinned (Rom. 3:23)—making themselves candidates to be cut off from God—this question of whether God hears the prayers of sinners is an important one.
The Bible says everyone who asks receives. But it also says all have sinned, meaning they are cut off from God. These appear incompatible.
Put simply, God does not fellowship with those walking in darkness (II Cor. 6:14)! One may claim otherwise, but, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him [God], and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (I John 1:6).
Walking in darkness demonstrates sin as a way of life. It illustrates a person choosing to habitually transgress God’s laws.
However, walking in the light, where God is, means we are willing to change and turn away from our bad ways. Isaiah wrote, “Seek you [all people—including sinners willing to change] the Lord while He may be found, call you upon Him while He is near: let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and He will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (55:6-7).
God clearly desires to answer our prayers. He is willing to give us what we want, but with conditions. We must be willing to obey Him.
Summed up, the condition for answered prayer is we must obey God’s Word. Does this surprise you? Many wrongly assume God is so generous, so magnanimous, that He will do what we want regardless of how we feel about or treat Him. But this is not the God of the Bible! While we cannot earn His kindness nor do we deserve His generosity, it is unreasonable to expect Him to do our bidding with absolutely no conditions.
God, as our divine Father, wants what is best for us. He incentivizes us to do the right things by laying out a standard and rewarding us when we adhere to it. His approach is summarized in His declaration to Israel, a people with which He chose to work: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live” (Deut. 30:19).
Choosing life leads to God’s willingness to reward the decision, including answering our prayers.
This “I will do this if you do that” approach explains the principle of those who ask will receive seen in Matthew 7:7—as long as those doing the asking are in a position to receive. I John 3:22 confirms it by saying, “And whatsoever we ask, we receive of Him, because we keep His commandments, and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” We do not receive something for nothing.
We must always approach God on His terms, not our own, when seeking answers from Him in prayer. As a willing Father, God makes these requirements attainable with His help.
James, the half-brother of Christ, wrote: “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much” (5:16). This verse lays out two requirements to ensure our prayers are answered. One is obedience.
We saw earlier in I John 3:22 that receiving what we ask of God is based on commandment keeping—which is pleasing in His sight. The excuse that people use to not keep the commandments—that Christ nailed them to the cross—does not work, because John wrote about keeping the commandments years after Christ’s death and sacrifice for mankind!
God, who does not change, blesses obedient children and chastises disobedient ones. This should not surprise anyone with children or who had decent parents.
Plain and simple, God hears the prayers of those who obey Him. We must fear and obey Him, which brings wisdom and understanding: “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do His commandments” (Psa. 111:10).
Resist any temptation to balk at the requirement to obey God. The Bible is blunt regarding the matter: “He that turns away his ear from hearing the law, even his prayer shall be abomination” (Prov. 28:9). Do not make it complicated: If you refuse to listen to God, He is unable to listen to you!
But the opposite is also true. God’s arms are open to help anyone willing to heed His instruction, regardless of his past. He is very forgiving and wants to bless and answer the prayers of those prepared to truly change their ways and obey Him.
Another important condition for answered prayer is sincerity. James used the word fervent to describe this.
Recall that Christ warned against using vain repetition. The Pharisees, whose conduct was criticized in Matthew 6, were known to give long prayers that sounded eloquent but had no depth or real meaning. Saying the same words and phrases over and over is a telltale sign of insincerity. God expects us to pour our hearts into our prayers; any meaningful relationship would require the same.
The fervor or enthusiasm we put into our requests is not meant for others to see but for our Father in heaven to see. This means our prayers do not have to be perfect. If they are sincere and follow the model given in Matthew 6, then they are noteworthy to God.
To learn more in-depth about how to give proper, effective prayers, read our article “The Keys to Dynamic Prayer,” which is available for free at rcg.org/tktdp.
Also, many people wonder whether they can make an impact by praying for others, or even whether they should. Our Real Truth article “‘Please Pray for Me’ – Should You Ask the Public for Prayers?” answers this question and many others.