“Prayer may not change things for you, but it sure changes you for things.”
--Samuel M. Shoemaker
How to Pray
Is there a right way to pray?
Could there be a wrong way to pray, doing more harm than good?
Just as there are different types of prayers, there are also different styles. There is no single way to pray, there are many ways. What’s more, there are no strict rules which need to be followed, as some suggest. Biblical guidelines, yes. Specific methods for specific types and styles, yes. But there is no divine prayer “moderator” deciding whether your prayer is worthy of being posted on God’s “message board.”
There are really only two mistakes we’ve found that people can make when it comes to praying.
The biggest mistake you can make is to not pray at all. Whatever your reasons may be—don’t have the words to say, too much sin in your life, don’t feel worthy, afraid of not doing it right—understand that those are lies from Satan.
The second mistake is to merely repeat the words of a prayer without thought or feeling. That’s not really praying, so it’s essentially the same as the first mistake: not praying at all.
So we should pray, whether we think we have the words or not, whether we think we’re worthy or not, whether we think we’re doing it correctly or not. Just reach out to God; He’ll take your hand.
In all types of prayer—praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication, meditative—and in all styles of prayer—formal, conversational, devotional, prayer walking, spontaneous—there is a constant, a baseline, an underlying guideline that they all share. And that is to “pray in the spirit.” (see Ephesians 6:18)
The word “in” can be translated a number of ways in that phrase: in connection with, by means of, with the help of. The complete phrase tells us to pray by following the leading of the Holy Spirit, from your innermost heart. No matter what type or style of prayer you’ve chosen, beginning with the Holy Spirit and following the lead of the Holy Spirit will get you where you want to go: communication with God, the Father.
But how do we do that, how do we let the Holy Spirit take the lead? How do we know when it’s happening? It comes from the heart. There may not even be any words we can use. But the Bible tells us the Holy Spirit will intercede on our behalf (Romans 8:26 & 27). Some have described it as “spontaneous lightness,” others as a “fire within.” However YOU come to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit, it will probably be unique and unmistakable. But we know from personal experience how frustrating it can be when you’re first getting started. We heard and read about all these wonderful experiences others were having while we were still struggling with just getting our minds to quiet down a little.
All we can recommend is patience. Have faith and trust that you’ll eventually be able to discern that whisper from God, that gentle—or not so gentle—nudge from the Holy Spirit. Ask God for His help with this. Pray with other people. Ask others to pray for you for help in this area. God will often bring people, circumstances, and other resources into your life in answer to this type of prayer request. You’ll get there.
Just be gentle with yourself. The usual progression is this: we begin praying with our mouths; soon our minds get involved; and eventually our heart—led by the Holy Spirit—drives the process.
If a “busy” mind seems to be getting in your way, you might want to try some of the techniques we share in the Meditative Prayer section. And if nothing seems to be “working” for you and you’re convinced you’ll never “get it” just try this: read a verse or several verses from the Bible as a prayer. Or read the Lord’s Prayer or another pre-written prayer that you like. Set aside time each day for just that. We’re sure you’ll be pleased with what happens over time.
Not surprisingly, the best instruction about how to pray, the best modeling of a prayer life, and the best example of prayer we have was given to us by Jesus. Known as the Lord’s Prayer, it can be found in Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:2-4. There’s an Aramaic translation which may be closer to what Jesus actually said, since that was the language he and his listeners actually spoke. Regardless of the translation, it represents four of the five types of prayer—praise, thanksgiving, confession, and supplication. Its style is often formal, but it is also used as the basis for devotional prayer. Originally, however, it seems to have been intended as a conversational prayer.
Given in response to a request by the Disciples, the Lord’s Prayer doesn’t seem to have been intended to only be repeated word for word. Jesus was modeling the way he prayed—intimate words to his Father, his Abba, delivered conversationally, without pretense and without “babbling on and on” (Matthew 6:7 NLT).
His disciples were already familiar with the formal prayers of worship. And they would have had experience as well with scriptural styles of prayer. Jesus helps to lead us into a direct relationship with God. The Lord’s Prayer, beginning with “Abba” (which must have raised some eyebrows when he spoke it) and continuing in a conversational manner, typifies that relationship. That’s one of the reasons this prayer has resonated with Christians for more than 2000 years.
There is nothing wrong, however, with the repetition and recitation of this prayer, whether alone or with a congregation in worship. It’s one way we Christians are drawn together, one of those common threads we share.
To take a closer look at each of the five types of prayer and the various styles usually associated with each one, just click on your choice below: