How and Why We Pray
Prayer is an essential part of Christian life. How and why people pray varies by church, culture and life circumstances. Prayer doesn’t need to be a formal, ritualized practice. It’s simply a conversation with God that we can strike up in any number of ways. Still, it’s interesting to consider the many reasons, places and times people pray and the wide variety of methods used.
The Barna Group published a study in 2017 on how Americans pray. It found that most Americans pray silently and alone rather than out loud or in groups. But beyond that, the study found very little in common among Americans’ prayer lives. “Perhaps the only consistent thing about people’s prayers is that they are different,” says a Barna Group article about the study. “Americans do not think about approaching prayer in any kind of homogenous way.”
Although Americans don’t share a lot in common when it comes to how they pray, they do have a lot in common when it comes to why they pray. People in the study were asked, “What does the content of your prayers most often pertain to?” The Top 5 answers were:
- Gratitude and thanksgiving.
- Confession and forgiveness.
- My health and wellness.
- Personal guidance in crises.
- The needs of my family and community.
The needs people pray for vary widely, but healing is a common request; a Baylor University survey of 1,714 American adults found that nearly 9 in 10 have prayed for healing — either their own or someone else’s.
People clearly see the importance of praying or it wouldn’t be the most popular faith practice, according to the Barna Group research. So what are some benefits of prayer?
- Mental health benefits: Research has shown that prayer can calm the nervous system and make us less reactive and angry, according to David H. Rosmarin, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of the Spirituality and Mental Health Program at McLean Hospital.
- Spiritual benefits: Prayer deepens our personal relationship with God and helps us to walk in his ways more naturally. And as Oswald Chambers wrote: “To say that ‘prayer changes things’ is not as close to the truth as saying, ‘Prayer changes me, and then I change things.’”
How To Pray According to the Bible
Authentically: Jesus Christ told his disciples how to pray: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, ESV).
With certainty: “But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:6-8, NIV).
With gratitude: The Apostle Paul taught that thanksgiving should always be included in our prayers: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6, NKJV).
Throughout the day: How often should we pray? “I don’t think we can set forth a rule about how long we should be engaged in prayer at any given time. However, people with a rich prayer life tend not to make their prayers perfunctory,” wrote theologian and author R.C. Sproul in his book “Now, That’s a Good Question!”
So someone new to praying might devote five minutes to prayer time, while someone with a more disciplined prayer practice might pray for an hour or more. But we can train our minds and hearts to pray regularly while we do everyday tasks. So even when we can’t sit in a quiet room for an hour, we can still talk to God — while driving or folding laundry, before work meetings or on a walk.
“Short prayers are long enough. … Not length but strength is desirable”
— Charles Spurgeon
For God’s will to be done: “I don’t think there are many things more proper to pray than ‘if it be your will,’” writes Sproul in “Now, That’s a Good Question!” He points out that Jesus said this prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane the night before his crucifixion:
“It is absolutely incomprehensible to me to understand the full measure of torment Jesus would be facing the next day. So he cried out in the garden, ‘Let this cup pass from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done … all things being equal, the Son was saying, ‘I’d sure like this cup to go somewhere else. But if that’s not what you want, then you give me the cup, and I will drink it to the bitter dregs.’ I think that’s the way we should respect God when we come into prayer” (Sproul, 206).
How Should a Beginner Pray?
What do you say when you pray?
You can read Jesus’ prayer known as the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 for guidance on what to say when you pray. But it’s OK to just wing it — simply telling God what’s on your mind. We don’t need to worry about saying the wrong thing. Although God is worthy of our utmost reverence and respect, he knows our hearts, and we can speak to him authentically.
What should a prayer start with?
Many Christians start prayers by addressing God — calling on one of his many names. In this way, we fix our eyes on him before we start talking about ourselves. Jesus begins the Lord’s Prayer with “Our Father in heaven.” There are many ways Christians open prayers on a similar note: “Father,” “Father God,” “Lord Jesus,” “Christ,” “Holy Father” or even “Dad.”
After acknowledging God by calling his name, a great place to start the prayer is with praise. Glorify God and praise him for loving us so much that he sent his only Son to die for our sins. Then move on to confessing your sins, asking for repentance, thanking God for his blessings and finally presenting your specific prayer requests to him.
How do I end a prayer?
At U.S. churches, one of the most common ways to end a prayer is to say, “In Jesus’ name, amen.” When we pray in the name of Jesus, we are calling on the Son of God’s authority and asking God to hear our prayers.
In John 14, Jesus tells his disciples:
“Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.”
— John 14:12-14, NIV
At Compassion, we do all our work in Jesus’ name. It’s even in our mission statement: “Releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name.” But not every prayer must include “in Jesus’ name.” We can wrap up intentional prayer time with a simple “Amen,” which is a way of telling God, “Please let it be so.” Or if we’ve set a goal of praying all day as we go about our everyday tasks, perhaps we don’t end the prayer at all.
When To Pray
Anytime is a good time to pray. It doesn’t have to be formal, ritualized or highly disciplined. The most important thing to remember is that we can have a conversation with God anytime.
But many people also set aside specific times to devote themselves to prayer:
- Morning and evening/bedtime.
- Before meals (saying grace).
- On specific days — holidays or the National Day of Prayer, which the U.S. recognizes on the first Thursday in May.
Preacher Charles Spurgeon said: “If you do not pray except when you feel like praying, you will not pray much, nor pray when you most need it. My brethren, when you do not feel like praying, you ought to pray all the more, and go to the Lord to help you to pray.”
Where To Pray
Anywhere is an acceptable place to pray — on the hiking trail, in the car or over the kitchen stove. But here are some common places Christians pray:
- At church — silently as a pastor says a prayer out loud or as call and response based on liturgical tradition.
- In a prayer closet or room — any space set aside for quiet time with God.
- On a prayer walk — walking around while praying for a specific place.
- In bed.
- In the car or on an airplane.
- At work or school.
Objects and Acts
Christians might use objects and activities to enhance their prayer life. These prayer traditions might remind someone to talk with God more frequently throughout the day or might help prepare their heart for devotion.
Some Christians pray …
In a specific position:
- Pressing the palms together/folding the hands to set a focus and reduce fidgeting.
- Closing the eyes to minimize distractions.
- Kneeling in an act of humility and repentance.
- Prayer beads, such as a rosary.
- Blessed water, oil or salt.
- Prayer shawl, or tallit.
With outward acts:
- Anointing with oil.
- Lighting candles.
- Burning incense.
- Playing musical instruments.
- Mantra — repeating.
- Scripture out loud or silently.
- Liturgy — public worship/praying, often done as call and response between congregation and minister.
People new to praying might wonder, “What are the steps in praying?” The internet is full of guides like “7 Steps to Prayer” or “5 Types of Prayer,” but there isn’t really a prescribed list of boxes we have to check off when we pray.
Still, some people find value in following a prayer method that might outline steps to prayer. These methods offer a starting point to narrow our focus or remind us to say and ask everything we wanted to. Here are some prayer methods. The first few are acronyms/acrostics that help us remember to cover all we want to cover and in which order.
To pray according to the ACTS method:
- Adoration – praise God for who he is.
- Confession – admit your sin to God and ask for forgiveness.
- Thanksgiving – express gratitude for answered prayers and God’s good gifts.
- Supplication – ask God to provide for your needs and the needs of others.
To pray according to the PRAY method:
- Praise – praise God for who he is.
- Repent – confess your sin and ask for God’s forgiveness.
- Ask – ask God for what you want or need.
- Yield – submit to God’s plan, asking that his will, not yours, be done.
In the prayer journal method, we write down our praises and requests to God. It can help us sort out our thoughts and serve as a record of prayers to reflect on in the future. Here are some steps to prayer journaling:
Choose a time and place: When and where do you want to write in your prayer journal? Every morning? Throughout the day? Pick something and start to practice discipline around it.
Write out prayers: This might be a good place to use the ACTS or PRAY methods. Write down your praises to God. Confess your sins, and thank God for his mercy and forgiveness. Ask for what you or your loved ones need.
Record the gems: Write down quotes you come across, wisdom your pastor shares or something God revealed to you while you read the Bible.
Revisit: Make sure to look back on old prayers from time to time. This will remind you of God’s faithfulness. Which prayers have been answered? Which prayers are still waiting on an answer? Journal about it.
Pray for a specific place while you walk around it. It could be your home, neighborhood, around buildings where local government makes decisions — any place on which you want to focus prayer. As you walk, ask God to provide health, clarity, etc., to the people who live or work in the area. You could ask for God to pour out his blessings on the land beneath your feet.
Songs of praise and worship, including hymns, are forms of prayer. So another prayer method is to sing lyrics to songs about praising God, adoring him, asking for forgiveness for sin and asking God for the things we want or need.
Liturgy is a rite or rites used in public worship. Liturgical prayers are sometimes a call and response between the pastor and congregation. Anglican and Episcopal churches’ liturgical practices often come from the Book of Common Prayer, a collection of prayers, sacraments and psalms first published in the 1500s.
When Christians fast, they go without food or another blessing for a specific period of time. The goal is to grow closer to God by focusing only on him. Prayer is essential during fasting.
What Is the Difference Between Prayer and Meditation?
It’s often said that prayer is talking to God and meditation is listening to God. But prayer should also include listening to God. And since there are so many definitions and methods of meditation, let’s look at what the Bible says about praying and how to listen to God.
We find several references to meditation in the Bible, especially in the book of Psalms:
May these words of my mouth and this meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14, NIV)
Within your temple, O God, we meditate on your unfailing love. (Psalm 48:9, NIV).
And in Joshua 1:8, the Lord tells Joshua: “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (NIV).
So in the Bible, meditation seems to mean deeply pondering an attribute of God or a part of Scripture. Prayer, on the other hand, is a conversation with God. Although the two acts aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, the differences lie in the goals:
- In meditation, our goal may be to write God’s Word in our heart. We may say a Bible verse over and over again to understand and recall it. In prayer, we may tell God how amazed we are by what we learned in his Word and tell him that we trust his promises.
- In meditation we may think deeply about the depth of God’s steadfastness, love or faithfulness so that we may better comprehend and believe it. In prayer we may thank God for his love and faithfulness as we navigate the Christian life.
- In meditation we may practice quieting or directing our thoughts so we can more clearly hear God. In prayer, we may take more of an active speaker role.
How to Pray, According to …
“This, then, is how you should 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 today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’”
— Matthew 6:9-13, NIV
“First of all, when I realize that because of other duties or thoughts I have grown cold and neglectful when it comes to praying (for our flesh and the devil resist and hinder prayer), I take my little hymnal and hurry to my room, or, if the occasion gives opportunity, to a church service with others. As time permits, I quietly recite the Ten Commandments, the Creed, and, if I have more time, some of the quotations of Christ, of Paul, or of the Psalms, just as children recite them.”
“It is good practice to begin and end the day with prayer.”
“When through such recitation your heart has been aroused to its need, kneel down or stand with folded hands and with your eyes heavenward. Speak or think as briefly as you can, ‘Dear God, heavenly Father, I am a poor, unworthy sinner, not entitled to raise my eyes or hands in prayer to you, but I come because you have commanded us all to pray. Because you also taught us when and how to pray through your dear Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, you will hear us. Thus I come trusting your gracious promise and, in the name of my Lord Jesus Christ, I pray with all your faithful Christians on earth, as he has taught me’” (the Lord’s Prayer).
— “A Simple Way To Pray,” which Luther wrote for his friend in 1535
“My dear friends, wait upon God much in prayer, and you have the promise that he will do greater things for you than you know of.”
“We cannot commune with God, who is a consuming fire, if there is no fire in our prayers. … Prayers which are filled with doubt, are requests for refusal.”
“Do not let us go to God as though we were strangers, or as though he were unwilling to give — we are greatly beloved.”
“Calm the waves of this heart, O God; calm its tempests.
Calm yourself, O my soul, so that God is able to rest in you, so that God’s peace may cover you.
Yes, You give us peace, O God, peace that the whole world can never take away.”
“O God, when at times our strength is taken from us, when sorrow overcomes us like a kind of fog in which our vision is plunged as into a dark night; when our hearts do tremble with our loss: then teach us and strengthen the conviction in our hearts that in death, no less than in life, we belong to You.”
Is it OK To Ask God for Things I Want?
The Bible tells us in many places to ask God for what we want:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6, NIV)
If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. (James 1:5, NIV)
But all our prayers must come from a place of authenticity. If our desires aren’t in step with God’s plan for our lives, then the answer may be no. God answers all prayers — but his answer may be yes, no or wait.
How To Make Prayer a Habit
“True prayer is a way of life, not just for use in cases of emergency. Make it a habit, and when the need arises you will be in practice.”
— Billy Graham
In recent years, a lot has been written in books and spoken on podcasts about the science of habits. Bestselling books like “The Power of Habit” and “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives,” plus podcasts like “The Science of Happiness,” offer advice for creating new habits.
Why would you want to create habits? Our brain is always looking for ways to save effort, says Charles Duhigg in “The Power of Habit.” The brain tries to make most routines into habits because then it doesn’t have to work so hard. Instead, the brain can focus on something else. So if we can form small or large routines in our prayer lives, the more we stick to them, the more likely we are to make it a habit. How long it takes to form a new habit varies widely from person to person.
In “Better Than Before,” Gretchen Rubin explains that habits free up the brain from having to make a decision. “The real key to habits is decision making,” Rubin writes, “or, more accurately, the lack of decision making.”
So if we can make HOW we pray a habit, then we can devote more of our hearts, minds and souls to the content of our prayers. We can begin prayer routines in hopes they become habits so that coming to God is second nature.
Some examples of prayer routines:
- Prepare a room or space in a room to devote only to prayer. Then go to that place for morning and/or evening prayers every day. Make your prayer time a non-negotiable appointment with God.
- Choose a task you do every day and add prayer to it. For example, decide to pray every time you wash dishes, take the dog for a walk or drive to work. Practice bringing the wandering mind back to prayer each time you forget.
- Keep an object in your pocket or in clear sight all day that reminds you to pray, sort of like Samuel’s rock of Ebenezer (1 Samuel 7:12).
The goal is consistency — the more you repeat an act, the more ingrained it is.
More Bible Verses About How To Pray
From the New International Version:
And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. (Ephesians 6:18)
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7)
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “’Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’” (Luke 11:1-4)
This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. (1 John 5:14)
Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective. (James 5:16)
Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. (Colossians 4:2)
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. (Romans 8:26)
How Do Sponsored Children Pray?
Children in our program learn to pray at Compassion centers at their local churches. Prayer gives them hope for their futures and helps them develop a relationship with God. Sponsors often pray for the children they support — and the children pray for their sponsors as well!
“I like to pray. When I close my eyes, I feel how God sees me and pays attention to what I’m saying. In the moments of trouble, praying brings peace to my heart, and [in] the moments of gratitude he brings joy.”
— Alisson, 8, in Guatemala
Read more prayers from young people in Compassion’s program.
We’d love for you to join us in praying for children who live in poverty! Sign up to receive our monthly prayer calendar.
Photography by Daniel Coimbra, Edwin Estioko, Caroline A Mwinemwesigwa and Alejandra Zuniga.
Additional sources: The Spurgeon Center, Ligonier Ministries, Harvard Square Library, Harvard Business Review, Got Questions Ministries, The Gospel Coalition.