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If you rarely pray, or have never prayed by yourself before, this page is particularly for you.
(Hopefully, it will also have something for everyone!)
(Paragraphs in smaller type/italics contain Bible references. You can ignore these if you wish, perhaps to follow up another time.)
What is prayer? And why should I do it?
The Bible doesn’t answer either of those questions - not in so many words.
What the Bible does is tell us about people who pray, and what people do when they pray is talk with God. Right from the beginning, the Bible describes God and human beings 'in conversation'. Usually, it's a 'conversation' between God and one person, though not always. Sometimes a whole community is involved.
The Bible tells us about many different people praying - talking to God - including Jesus (Matthew 26:36-46), Moses (Deuteronomy 9:26) and Stephen (Acts 7:59). It also tells us about the whole church at prayer, for example, in Acts 4:23-31.
'Talking with God' is probably the simplest way to understand what prayer is. Even so, to pray doesn’t mean we have to say words out loud. God doesn't just hear what we say - he knows our every thought as well. So a silent thought or a time of meditation can be just as much a prayer as spoken words. And 'spoken' prayers do not always have to be intelligible words. A cry of pain – or a shriek of joy – can be prayer.
Hannah prayed both silently (1 Samuel 1:9-18) and aloud (1 Samuel 2:1-10) and Psalm 139:1-4 reminds us God knows our every thought.
But it's not just people speaking to God. Prayer is not 'one-way'. God may speak to us. In fact, in the Bible, it was often God who started the 'conversation'.
It’s often when we pray in silent ways that God actually 'speaks' to us. He usually 'speaks' through our thoughts - his 'words' are rarely spoken audibly. It may happen while we are thinking about God, perhaps while we meditate on a Bible story, or on a piece or Christian art or music. God may speak to us through things that happen, or through the words of other people. But however it happens, prayer is two-way communication! Prayer is not just talking to God - it's listening to him as well, although the 'listening' is not so much peeling our ears back to catch the sound as being ready to try discern what is from God amongst the many ideas that come into our minds.
God spoke first - for example, to Abram (Abraham) in Genesis 12:1-3 and Moses in Exodus 3:4. The prophets heard 'the word of the Lord' - eg Hosea 1:1, Joel 1:1, Jonah 1:1 - and God spoke to Peter as he prayed on the rooftop in Joppa (Acts 10:9-16).
Prayer is talking and listening to God - but why do it? For a start, God wants your prayers. He loves you - and he wants to hear from you, like a friend who would like a call from you or a father who wants to hear from his child. And he may have something he wants to say to you. So, don't wait until you have something particular to say to him - just call, even if it's only to do the equivalent of saying 'hello'!
God's love is mentioned many times in the Bible - probably the best known place is John 3:16. But you'll find it, for example, in the Psalms (eg Psalm 100:5) and Paul's letters (eg Romans 5:8). Proverbs 15:8 tells us 'the prayer of the upright is his (God's) delight'. Jesus' teaching of the Lord's Prayer in Matthew 6:7-13 is virtually a command to pray.
Jesus told us to call God 'Father' - God is our loving, caring father, or, if that's not a helpful idea for you, he's our 'best friend' - Jesus also called his disciples 'friends'. What is a friend if he or she isn't someone you want to talk to, listen to, spend time with and share activities with? If God is your friend you'll want to talk to him, listen to him and share with him.
So isn't talking to God just what you would want to do? Being a Christian isn't just a matter of believing certain things or doing certain things. Being a Christian is knowing God! Being a Christian is loving God!
It's a relationship rather than a religion! Surely you want to speak with the one you love!
And you'll want to do it yourself - not leave it to someone who 'leads the prayers' at church on Sunday. Besides, you'll want to do it more often than that. You'll want to spend time enjoying God's company!
The disciples obviously wanted to pray - they asked Jesus to teach them (Luke 11:1-4) - and, in so doing he told them to address God as 'Father'. Jesus often wanted to get away to pray - eg, Mark 1:35 when he made an effort to get up early for it, Matthew 14:23, Luke 5:16, 6:12. Jesus calls his disciples 'friends' in John 15:12-15.
If you feel God isn't your friend, perhaps it's time he was.
Perhaps you have never thought of prayer as 'enjoying God's company'.
Either way, you could be missing out. Why not go on to the 'How do I start?' section below and discover more.
You're not alone! Some people seem to have a bad experience of God, or an experience which makes them doubt if God loves them - or indeed if he even exists. If this is how you feel, read on.
Perhaps you believe he has dumped on you more than your fair share of problems - sickness, maybe, or the untimely death of someone close to you, or the breakup of your family or other relationships. Perhaps you have suffered as a result of some natural catastrophe. Why, you wonder, has God allowed this to happen to you?
Perhaps you feel God has failed to help when you needed him. Perhaps it's something else that's made you angry with God. But angry or upset with God you are - if, indeed, he exists. You may well doubt the existence of the loving God the Christian faith teaches - and if he does exist, you want to have a blazing row with him!
If this is you, then feel free to miss out the 'How do I start?' section! Go instead to 'What if I'm MAD at God?' further down the page - and then have your blazing row!
Or perhaps it's not what God has done or failed to do that is the problem - it's just that this loving, friendly God is just not the one you recognise. Maybe your understanding of God is of a tyrant - a sort of over-zealous policeman or schoolteacher, watching your every move and looking for an excuse to get you - or send you to hell!
Many people get that impression of God, unfortunately - and it's probably the result of some well meant but quite misleading teaching - perhaps by someone who was an over-zealous teacher! But, while it is certainly true that God is concerned about our behaviour, that tyrant figure is not the God portrayed in the Bible or taught by the church. In fact, God is working very hard to keep you out of hell! Try going on to 'How do I start?' and hopefully you will soon get to know God as someone who loves and cares about you.
When Jesus' disciples asked him to teach them to pray he didn't give them any special things to do. He didn't say 'Kneel down' or 'Stand up' or 'Hold your hands in the air'. He didn't tell them it had to be done at any special time or place.
All he said was, 'When you pray, say this,' and then gave them some words to say.
You can read the story in Luke 11:1-4. The words he gave them are a shortened version of what we now know as 'the Lord's Prayer', or the 'Our Father'.
Praying can be done at any time, in any place, and in any position! All you have to do is say what you want to say - or think the thought, or cry out, or whatever. The only difference between a prayer and anything else you might say (or think, or cry out) is that it really is what you want to say to God - and that you believe he hears.
However, there are some points that may help. Although prayer doesn't have to be spoken, Jesus told his disciples to say some words. Jesus knew it would be easier to start with a spoken prayer. So, if you are starting to pray for the first time, try speaking out loud. That means you will probably prefer to get away alone somewhere quiet - and that's a good idea, too, because then other people and other things will be less of a distraction. But, if you can't do that, don't worry. You can still pray - you could make your prayers a tiny whisper, which only you and God can hear, or even just imagine yourself saying them without actually making a sound!
It may help to close your eyes, again, to reduce distractions. And, although you don't have to kneel, or stand, or hold your hands in the air, if you find it helps, do it!
Another thing that will probably help is to clearly address your prayers to God. There's nothing complicated in that - just a matter of saying 'God, please do such and such,' rather than just 'Please do such and such'. If you prefer, you can address your prayer to Jesus ('Jesus, please do...') or use another title such as 'Father' - Jesus told his disciples to use that. You can say something like 'Loving God', or 'Almighty God' ('almighty' means 'all - powerful'), or 'Lord Jesus'. All this doesn't mean that God will be more likely to hear - but it does help you to be clearer that you are actually praying, not just making a wish list.
You may already know what you want to say to God, but here are a few suggestions. From the previous paragraph it will be obvious that you can ask God to do something, or you can ask God for something. But praying is more than just putting 'God please give me...' in front of your wish list, however well-meaning that wish list may be.
For example, you may want to say 'Thank you' for something that has happened, or that he has already done for you. You may want to say 'sorry' for something that you have done and now regret - and ask him to forgive you. And you may want to say something like, 'God, I love you' or 'God, you're wonderful'. Hopefully you will want to say all of these at some time. But don't bother to say anything you don't really mean. He knows what you really think! Remember the main reason why it is you pray - not to tell God things he already knows but to enjoy his company - and for him to enjoy yours!
You can, of course, say the Lord's Prayer, which is what Jesus taught the disciples, although if you're new to praying you may find it a bit difficult to follow. You may also find it helpful to say prayers other people have written. There are many books of prayers people have written - or you might find the 'official' service books of the Church of England - ' Common Worship' and 'Common Prayer' helpful.
If you have never prayed by yourself before, or hardly ever, you might like to use these words:
I want to learn to pray.
I want to discover what it's like having you as a friend.
Please help me to do this.
Thank you for wanting to be my friend.
There's nothing 'magic' or sacred about those words, so if you want to change them to make them more personal, to say exactly what you think, do so. And you can say them more than once - if you said them today, be persistent, say them again tomorrow! And the next day - but, as you go on, try adding some new words of your own. Perhaps you could thank God for something. Or, if you have a problem, ask for his help.
You may have a problem you want to bring to God, but just can't find words to express how you feel, or don't know what to ask for. Or perhaps you just find words or speaking difficult, or the whole idea of talking to God seems odd or embarrassing.
The first thing is to remember that you don't have to use words. For many people words are helpful, but not you - at least not now. But God knows your deepest thoughts and if you really want to pray just hold what concerns you in your mind in whatever way you can and God will know about it. More than that - St Paul tells us that God himself, by the Holy Spirit working within you, actually prays on your behalf! Paul says, '...we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.' (Romans 8:26 NRSV) 'Intercedes' here just means 'prays'. You may find that difficult to understand, but rest assured, God hears you even if you can't speak or don't know what to say!
Whether you have prayed out loud, in a tiny whisper, in the silence of your thoughts or through the 'sighings of the Spirit', believe God has heard you! Believe he will respond! But remember that 'answers to prayer' are not always what we expect or even think we need. 'No', 'Wait' and 'I've got something else planned which is even better!' are answers we may get. And not all prayers need 'answers' in the ordinary sense of the word. Saying 'Thank you, God, you're wonderful' doesn't call for an 'answer'. But if we really mean it when we say it we are already enjoying God's company more!
But don't stop there! Praying is building a relationship and you have to keep on doing it! A 'best friend' isn't likely to be someone you have only ever spoken to once! Pray again, perhaps the next day, and again the next. Get to know God better each time! Get to love God better each time! In practice, a regular daily habit of prayer has much to recommend it - and you can do it more often if you wish!
You aren't the first or the only person to be mad at God! And some of the people who got upset with him were in the Bible!
How about the person who wrote Psalm 44, who said, 'Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep, O Lord? ..... Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?' (Psalm 44:23-24). Or Psalm 13 - 'How long, O Lord? Will you forget me for ever? ... How long must I bear pain in my soul...' (Psalm 13:1-2). And there are quite a few other examples.
(If you want to look, try Psalm 10, Psalm 22, Psalm 74, Psalm 88 and the second part of Psalm 89. Jeremiah the prophet had a moan, too (Jeremiah 20:7-18) and Moses got a bit exasperated (Exodus 33:12-17))
These guys weren't afraid to confront God with what they regarded as his shortcomings! Their language may sound a bit quaint, but there is no mistaking that they they were fed up with him - and they said so.
But the point is, it was to God that they said it. If prayer is talking to God, talking can include having a row! They believed that what God wants to hear is not pious clichés or bogus claims of undying love but the honest truth. And if the truth was that they felt bad, mad or fed up they said so.
If you're mad at God - give it a try! Even if your approach up to now is to say you want nothing to do with God, or even doubt if he exists, just make an exception and see what happens. You can even say something like, 'God, if you do actually exist, why have you done this to me?' Try it a few times - and give God a chance to make some response. If he exists, and if he loves you, he will.
Even Jesus got mad at God. Hanging there on the cross, which must have been enough to put anyone off, he said, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mark 15:34) Actually he was quoting from another of the psalms, Psalm 22. It didn't stop God raising him from the dead!
This page doesn't tell you everything there is to know about prayer. It just gives you a few hints - and, hopefully, helps you to get started if you haven't already. More resources for prayer will be added to the website as time goes on.
But, for the moment, if you want to think about prayer some more, you may like to read the pages 'Prayer - A Reflection' and 'Prayer - A Meditation'. These say a little more about prayer, including saying some of what is on this page a little differently, and there are some more Bible passages you can look up and read if you want to.
© Copyright David Gray 2006-2010
This page is based on one originally published on the website of the Parish Church of Immanuel and St Andrew, Streatham, London, UK.
Page last updated 27 June 2010.
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© Copyright David Gray 2010. Photographs copyright David Gray 2002-10 except where otherwise stated.