A feeling of dread gripped her as her small group began “popcorn style” prayer. Everyone’s prayers seemed so much more inspired than hers. She didn’t really know how to pray. Whenever she prayed, it would usually just trail off into nothing or she would become distracted by the whistle of her iPhone. She waited for a lull to interject a prayer she had been mulling over for the last 15 minutes. But then the worst thing happened—the awkward two-voices-beginning-a-prayer-in-unison, and then the even more uncomfortable, “No, no, you go.” She let the other guy pray his prayer. Feelings of shame and frustration welled up inside her as she wondered, how do you even pray?
I don’t know if any of you have had a similar experience to the one above, but I know I have. Growing up in the church and going to a private high school, I learned the “Christian lingo” pretty rapidly. I figured out what phrases would get the most “mmms” or “amens.” I would throw those bad boys into my prayer to get a little spiritual ego boost, not because I genuinely felt or believed them. But then I experienced the power of the gospel, and I realized prayer is our way of communicating with our Father. And He wants to hear us. He wants to hear genuine prayers. He wants us to talk to Him. And because we are His children, we can boldly approach His throne (Hebrews 4:16). Once I figured that out, I realized I had been going about this whole prayer thing completely wrong. Throughout this post, we’re going to examine exactly how Jesus says to pray and His example of prayerfulness throughout His life.
When teaching His disciples how to pray, Jesus gives several prescriptions on how to pray and how not to pray. The first thing He says not to do is, “Do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7). So often, we dress up our prayers to look more spiritual to those around us. God knows what is on our hearts (Matthew 6:8). He just wants us to bring it to Him in honest, humble, and simple prayers. There is no need to impress. God has already determined your worth by defeating death to make you His own. You already have the best approval of all—the approval of the Creator of the universe—and you are His child.
Upward, Inward, and Outward
Throughout the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6, Jesus gives a pattern we can imitate. Jesus uses direction to focus His prayers in a few different ways.
The first is an upward focus:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Jesus focuses on God’s character, His holiness, His kingdom, and His will. He begins with worship. He acknowledges a submission to the Father’s will above His own.
Then He shifts His focus inward:
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts…
He asks the Father for sustenance. He isn’t afraid to boldly ask. This demonstrates a humility and dependence on the Father and total submission to Him. This inward focus includes reflecting on our own hearts—where do we need forgiveness? Where do we need to seek forgiveness?
Lastly, His focus is outward:
…as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Consider the pronouns Jesus uses during this outward shift. He uses we, our, and us. Jesus is praying for others.
Does your prayer life follow this pattern? As I was considering this, I realized my prayer life is extremely self-centered. I needed to spend more time praising God for His character and praying for those around me.
One of the most enriching and transformative things we can do is actively pray through Scripture. Go line by line. Just read it, and then pray that you would be able to apply it and it would transform your heart. Martin Luther used to do this. He said that when you read the Scriptures, “your first duty is to begin to pray.” Here is a practical example of how you can walk through the Lord’s prayer, praying through each line:
“Our Father in heaven”
Thank you for being my Father. Thank you for calling me your own. Help me remember that identity when the world is telling me my identity is in appearance, approval, grades, or achievement.
“Hallowed be your name”
God, your name is holy—you are set apart. You are worthy of all glory, honor, and praise because you are perfect. Teach my heart to remember you are holy.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done”
God, I pray that I would desire your kingdom to come. Help me desire your will over my own.
Oftentimes, I set my alarm for a set amount of time, flip my phone over, and just start praying through a particular passage until my timer goes off. You will be amazed how much God can teach through that time of prayer and being immersed in His Word.
God has made us His own. Because we are His children, we have direct access to our Father anytime we want. Prayer is an open line of communication—He wants to hear from us. Prayer helps us actively live out our identity as sons and daughters of the King. As we pray to our Father, our delight in Him increases and we experience a deeper, more joyful intimacy with Him.