How to Pray: 8 Keys to Answered Prayer12 min read
Learning from the Lord’s Prayer
There are lots of unanswered questions about prayer. But, perhaps the easiest question to answer about prayer is how to pray.
Asking how to pray is a good place to start. Even Jesus’ disciples, His closest followers, asked Him to teach them to pray. In response, Jesus gave them what is commonly known as “The Lord’s Prayer” (Luke 11:1-2). It’s the same simple prayer He offered in the famed Sermon on the Mount:
In this manner, therefore, pray:
Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen. (Matthew 6:9-13 NKJV)
This is a model prayer, meaning it serves as a template from which we can form our own prayers. It’s a simple prayer that gets God’s attention. We can talk to God as we would to a friend, opening our heart to Him to express our deepest desires and painful hurts.
In the Bible, I’ve discovered eight keys to prayer. These keys assure God’s immediate attention to our prayers, and–when we have needs–His response to our requests.
While I’ve pulled these keys on how to pray from the Bible, I urge you to test them. I turn to the Bible as the ultimate source of truth on matters of faith. The Bible’s inspiration makes it a reliable resource for spiritual guidance (1 Timothy 3:16). But, as it is with any set of instructions, their value is only proven when put to the test.
As you read about each key, you’ll see Bible references. While I included some direct quotes, I encourage you to invest the extra time to look up the other references. What passes as truth is not always true. It’s better not to just take my word for it that these are trustworthy instructions. Investigate God’s words for yourself. Own it. Doing so can help to strengthen your understanding of God and His design for communicating with Him.
On to the keys…
Key 1. Feel your need of God’s help
There must be a felt need for help before approaching God in prayer. God is the power of prayer. Prayer in itself does nothing. Don’t approach God with indifference. Recognize your need for His divine intervention. Don’t go to God looking for a shortcut solution to a problem you can solve yourself. Your prayer will fall flat.
There is no required physical position in prayer. Kneeling, reaching or lying ace-down may help reinforce a spirit of humility in our hearts, magnifying our sense of need. Choose a physical position that puts your attitude in the right position–one of humility.
A need occurs in circumstances over which we have no control, or very little influence. For me, that places most of my prayers into three categories:
- Prayer for others–I can’t control them, but they need things like joy, changed hearts, and healing.
- Prayer for new thoughts, impulses and desires to replace the ones that are destructive–the selfish ones I want to get rid of tend to be automatic, or deeply ingrained, and stick to me like stains that need a miracle to remove them.
- Prayer for circumstances — this covers things like prayer for protection, for peace in troubled nations, and other conditions over which I have no control.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, For they shall be filled. (Matthew 5:6 NKJV)
Key 2. Ask for God’s help
When my son was 10 years old, he’d hint around when he wanted something. I knew what he wanted, but he wouldn’t ask for it.
“Just ask me,” I’d say to him.
He’d say, “I’m afraid that if I ask you, you’ll say, ‘No.'”
I’m sure God knows our needs, but Jesus specifically instructed His followers to ask for help.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened. (Matthew 7:7, 8 NKJV)
When my son avoided asking because he was afraid I’d say, “No,” sometimes, his prediction is correct. I refused, not because I wanted to disappoint him, but because what he was asking for wasn’t requested at the right time, or wasn’t good for him. For the same reasons God may say, “No.” Like any good father, He does desire good things for His children (Matthew 7:11).
Key 3. Confess and turn away from all known sins
God’s greatest desire for us is to live in a thriving relationship with Him. When we ask God for things that won’t close the distance between us and Him, we shouldn’t expect Him to grant our wishes (Psalm 66:18; 1 John 2:15-17).
All that is good in our lives comes as a result of God’s undeserved blessing. We experience this divine blessing in things like the soothing warmth of the sun on our skin on a cold morning, the coolness of a breeze on a hot summer afternoon, or taste the sweetness of freshly picked fruit. God gives gifts like these without expecting anything in return. But God has much more to give in response to our prayers. Yet, He doesn’t unlock the storehouse until we turn away from sin and He’s won our devotion (Romans 2:4).
Our natural tendency is to love God’s gifts more than we love the Giver. This misdirection of our devotion is disobedience to God’s greatest commandment, which is to love Him first, with our whole being (Matthew 22:37-38).
I’ve run across a number of parents who appease their children by giving them everything they want. They want the children to quit nagging, to get out of their way, to stay out of trouble. But the parents have not won the hearts of their children. The children’s devotion is to the seemingly endless stream of gifts.
Make knowing God your first priority. Before expecting answers to prayer, pray first a private prayer of confession. Admit to God where you have broken His commandments (1 John 3:22). Then ask God to help you turn away from sin–this is God’s gift of repentance.
Key 4. Believe that God will answer your prayers
God has promised that if we ask, we’ll receive. Don’t assume you’ll receive it immediately (Mark 11:24).
But God always answers.
Sometimes God says, “Wait,” sometimes, “No.”
When God speaks, He usually speaks softly. We may not hear Him audibly. His response may only come as an impression–a sense of peace. His response may come as a request, accompanied by feelings of distress, because God has asked us to give up something we treasure more deeply than we desire Him.
Patience and the passage of time often reveal God’s providence in the delay and denial of our requests.
Without a new home to move to, we sold our house in 2006, only a few months before the United States real-estate bubble burst. Our family subsequently prayed earnestly for a new home to buy. We didn’t find it as soon as we’d expected. It took 8 years! Now look back and thank God for not granting our request at that time. We avoided losing tens of thousands of dollars.
It is a condition of God’s promises that we believe they are true.
But without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. (Hebrews 11:6 NKJV)
Key 5. An attitude of love and forgiveness
If we hold onto feelings hate and resentment, our first prayer needs to be for God to give us an attitude of love and forgiveness. God is gracious and merciful towards us. He wants us to cultivate the same attitude toward others.
When asked by His followers for Jesus to teach them to pray, He included in His prayer the phrase:
And forgive us our debts, As we forgive our debtors. (Matthew 6:12 NKJV)
Jesus also taught the second greatest commandment is to love others as we love ourselves (Matthew 22:39).
The bottom line: If we don’t have an attitude of love and forgiveness toward others, we have a sin we need to confess and turn away from. This sin stands between us and God and His desire to give us greater blessings.
In giving examples on how to pray–and how not to–Jesus compared the prayer of a Pharisee, who lived as a devoutly religious man, and the prayer of a tax collector, whose very existence was despised by most people (Luke 18:9-14).
The Pharisee prayed with pride, citing his good deeds as if to present God with a resume.
In contrast, the tax collector’s prayed with a simple humility, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
Each key has at its core a spirit of humility. The tax collector who knew his need and humbly confessed it to God. This is the essence of effective prayer: to know our need of God and to recognize the spiritual poverty we live in without Him (Matthew 5:3).
6. Pray continually and persistently
Whenever we pray, we can talk to God as we would a close friend. What kind of friend only calls on you when they need help? These types of “friends” tend to make us feel used.
God desires a friendship with us. First we need that friendship, because God is the source of life. People who choose to live apart from Him, die an eternal death. Those who accept God’s friendship, God supplies all their needs and more (Matthew 6:33).
A friendship needs frequent communication to thrive. Prayer provides us with a direct line to God, and each call gets His full and immediate attention.
Prayer doesn’t need to be formal. Public prayers and family prayers have their times of importance. Prayer in the privacy of our personal place of solitude is most important (Matthew 6:6). Just as important is an “attitude” of prayer where we share our thoughts with God, silently, throughout the day, wherever we are, whatever we’re doing (1 Thessalonians 5:16).
We need to keep in mind that God doesn’t always give us what we ask for right away. Prayer is often a test of faith and our trust in Him. If God doesn’t deliver what you ask for right away, persist. God isn’t put off by our continued asking. In His work restore His image in us, He works to develop in us the same kind of patience and persistence He has toward us (Luke 18:1-8).
I’ve prayed for years, sometimes, before God has granted my request. In the process, I’ve grown to see His wisdom, His transformation of my heart, my desires, and His love.
7. Pray in Jesus name
Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you… Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full. (John 16:23, 24 NKJV)
Prayer in Jesus’ name isn’t the simple use of His name in prayer. It’s not a magic word, or secret password guaranteeing same-day delivery of our prayers into God’s priority inbox–or a same-day reply.
Praying in Jesus name acknowledges Him as our High Priest, who personally delivers our prayers to God (Hebrews 4:14-16; 7:25-28). But Jesus’ intercession on our behalf only adds value to our prayers if we accept Him as the resurrected Savior, who rescued us from our sins by His death, and cultivate a daily walk with Him.
If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. (John 15:7 NKJV)
To pray is Jesus’ name is to pray with an attitude like His. His life on this planet was marked by generosity toward others and a commitment to doing God’s will.
8. Be thankful
My parents taught me to say “thank you,” as soon as I could utter words. My wife and I taught our children to say “thank you” early enough that the words came out sounding more like, “too, too.”
Research has shown that ending each day by recalling three things one is thankful for improves ones sense of well-being (Flourish, Martin E.P. Seligman). So, when the divinely inspired authors of the Bible encourage thankfulness, it is because God designed thanksgiving to help us thrive in our faith (Deuteronomy 12:7; Psalm 107:8; Philippians 4:6).
Include in your prayers a few moments of sincere “thank-yous” for the blessings in your life.
I tend to under-estimate and under-utilize the power of prayer. Do you?
There’s a natural drive to rush ahead, and to get things done. By doing that we neglect the need for God’s divine power to really do anything of lasting, eternal value.
Then, there’s the casual acceptance of things as they are–wearing out, breaking down, and dying–not realizing that God desires to work through me, and you, to cultivate a better, fuller, more satisfying life for ourselves and others. God wants you and me to become the best versions of ourselves. God designed us to thrive!
I would rather have prayer without words then words without prayer. — E.M. Bounds
Prayer is the breath of the thriving life. It’s our lifeline to the atmosphere of heaven. Our soul will flourish with it, suffocate and die without it.
Join me in committing and recommitting to at least one daily breath from heaven. My guess is that if we do that, we’ll take more.
If you’re in, signify your commitment with a brief comment below. Just say, “I’m in!”
Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.