Apparently, many people who pray do not know how to pray effectively (i.e., their prayers do not seem to provide the desired results). What we will attempt to do in this article is to address what is necessary to pray effectively. The topics we will discuss are as follows:
- What are the basic functions of prayer?
- Is it necessary for Christians to pray continually and persistently?
- If we have sufficient faith, will God give us anything for which we ask?
- Is it alright to bargain with God?
- Can prayers change God’s mind?
- Should we always pray privately?
What Are the Basic Functions of Prayer?
Page 3 of a booklet entitled Prayer Portions Sampler by Dr. Roger W. Garret and Sylvia Gunter provides the following list of primary functions for prayer:
Adoration – This is the purest kind of prayer because it is all for God. . . . Worship Him. Tell Him you love Him. Reflect on His greatness, His power. His majesty, and His sovereignty.
Confession – Having see Him [God], you now want to be sure every sin is confessed, cleansed, and abandoned.
Thanksgiving – Think of several specific things to thank God for.
Supplication – Humbly and earnestly ask for others and then for yourself. This is the part of your prayer life where you make your petitions known to Him.
Generally, all four of these functions should be included in a person’s prayers, but there may be some occasions when it is appropriate to exclude one or more of these functions. For example, some prayers may focus on just adoration or thanksgiving. On the other hand, prayers that focus primarily on confession or supplication should probably include all four functions. Regardless, our attitude when we are praying should demonstrate genuine awe and appreciation for God and a contrite attitude with regard to ourselves.
Is It Necessary for Christians to Pray Continually and Persistently?
Before we proceed, we think it would be helpful to distinguish between praying continually and praying persistently. Praying continually means praying often, rather than actually praying all the time. Praying persistently has a similar meaning, but also necessitates perseverance.
Several scriptures instruct us to pray continually and persistently. [Note: When we quote Scripture in this article, we use the wording in the New King James Version of the Bible, except when we quote a non-biblical source that is using Scripture from a different version of the Bible.]
In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus Christ told His disciples a parable to instruct them regarding the importance of praying persistently.
Subsequently, in Luke 21:36, Jesus Christ told His disciples to “pray always.” Matthew Henry’s Commentary says in this regard, “be always in an habitual disposition to that duty [i.e., prayer].”
Likewise, 1 Thessalonians 5:17 instructs Christians to “pray without ceasing.” According to Henry, “The meaning is not that men should do nothing but pray, but that nothing else we do should hinder prayer in its proper season.”
And, James 5:16b teaches Christians to “pray for one another. . . .” This scripture indicates that Christians should pray for each other and we believe it implies that this should be done regularly.
In fact, Christians should pray for even their enemies, according to Matthew 5:44b. In this scripture, Jesus Christ tells a multitude of people to “pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you.”
With regard to the necessity of prayer, Billy Graham says in a publication entitled “Day by Day,” “If [Jesus] felt that He had to pray, how much more do we need to pray?” And, in another issue of “Day by Day,” Graham states,
We are to pray in times of adversity, lest we become faithless and unbelieving. We are to pray in times of prosperity, lest we become boastful and proud. We are to pray in times of danger, lest we become fearful and doubting. We need to pray in times of security, lest we become self-sufficient.
Furthermore, in his book entitled Hope for the Troubled Heart, Graham asserts on page 149, “Prayer should not be merely an act, but an attitude of life.” Then, on page 159 of the same book, he declares, “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.”
And, in Till Armageddon, another of Graham’s books, he says on page 153, “Heaven is full of answers to prayer for which no one ever bothered to ask.”
A primary reason why Christians should pray continually and persistently is because, if they do not do so, they will lose opportunities to be blessed spiritually – and perhaps otherwise – as a result of God answering their prayers.
The importance of taking sufficient time to pray is the topic covered in a poem entitled “The Difference,” which states,
I got up early one morning
And rushed right into the day;
I had so much to accomplish
That I didn’t have time to pray.
Problems just tumbled about me,
And heavier came each task,
“Why doesn’t God help me?” I wondered,
He answered, “You didn’t ask.”
I wanted to see joy and beauty,
But the day tolled on, gray and bleak;
I wondered why God didn’t show me.
He said, “You didn’t seek.”
I tried to come into God’s presence;
I used all my keys at the lock;
God gently and lovingly chided,
“My child, you didn’t knock.”
I woke up early this morning,
And paused before entering the day;
I had so much to accomplish
That I had to take time to pray.
In any case, it is important to understand that every prayer does not need to be lengthy, such as when asking for God’s help in dealing with a problem that needs a quick resolution or when spontaneously praising or thanking God. Such prayers may take only a few moments, whereas prayers that take place during a person’s regular “quiet time” each day probably necessitate significantly longer periods of time to be able to adequately address all the basic functions of prayer, which we previously mentioned.
With regard to determining when the best time is to pray, there is no specific time period that is best for everyone each day. Some people may find it best to pray early in the morning, whereas other people may find it better to pray during other time periods of the day. What seems to work best for most people is to pray during approximately the same time period every day, but there may be exceptions that are necessitated by variations in a person’s daily schedule for attending to other matters.
If We Have Sufficient Faith, Will God Give Us Anything for Which We Ask?
Most sources that discuss how to pray effectively indicate that faith is the key to effective prayer. In this regard, Bill Bright, the co-founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, states on page 30 of a booklet entitled How to Pray, “God does not require us to have a great faith. We simply are to have faith in a great God. . . . [I]t is the quality, not the quantity, of faith that is important.”
On pages 28-29 of the same booklet, Bright says,
Jesus revealed that abiding is the key to successful praying when He stated, ‘If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask, whatever you wish, and it shall be done for you.’ In other words, if we are abiding in Christ – if our lives are totally yielded to Him and His Word is abiding in us so that we know His will – we can ask anything we wish, because our will is to do His will.
There are a number of scriptures that seem to indicate that God will give Christians anything they ask for in prayer, if their faith is strong enough.
The Bible records the following statements by Jesus Christ regarding the granting of prayer requests:
“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. Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:7-11)
“Assuredly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will . . . say to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and it will be done. And all things, whatever you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” (Matthew 21:21-22)
“For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will come to pass, he will have whatever he asks. Therefore, I say to you, whatever things you ask for when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.” (Mark 11:23-24)
“[W]hatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in My name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)
“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)
“Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in My name He will give you.” (John 16:23-24)
Despite what these scriptures say, many of the prayer requests of Christians are not granted. The question is, why?
With regard to the previously cited scriptures, it can be argued that Jesus Christ was speaking to only His inner circle of 12 disciples. In other words, what Jesus said may have been applicable to them alone, not to all of His followers. In fact, the Bible contains no scripture in which Jesus makes similar promises regarding prayer that are clearly directed to anyone other than His 12 disciples.
However, the following are similar promises about prayer that are clearly directed to Christians other than the 12 Disciples of Jesus Christ:
[W]hatever we ask we receive from Him [God], because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. (1 John 3:22-23)
Now this is the confidence that we have in Him [Jesus Christ, the Son of God], that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us. And if we know that He hears us, whatever we ask, we know that we have the petitions that we have asked of Him. (1 John 5:14-15)
Therefore, the promises that the Bible makes regarding prayer seem to be applicable to all Christians. If this is true, then the question of why the prayer requests of many Christians are not granted still needs to be answered.
Norman Geisler, Ph.D., and Thomas Howe, M.A., provide some insights about this matter. On page 373 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, they state,
[A]ll difficult passages should be interpreted in harmony with other clear statements of Scripture. And it is clear that God does not promise, for example, to heal everyone for whom we pray in faith. Paul wasn’t healed, though he prayed earnestly and faithfully (2 Cor. 12:8-9).
[W]hen the rest of Scripture is taken into consideration there are many conditions placed on God’s promise to answer prayer in addition to faith.
In other words, there are a number of possible reasons whey prayers many not be answered. For a discussion of these reasons, click on “Why Prayers May Not Be Answered.”
If a request we make through prayer is not being granted, we should trust God to have a definite reason for not answering our prayer request as we want, or at least not when we want it to be answered. God is not only sovereign and omniscient; He is also the essence of agape love. Therefore, we can trust Him to do what is ultimately best.
On page 6 of Unto the Hills, Graham says, “Whether prayer changes our situation or not, one thing is certain: Prayer will change us.”
The following poem, which is one of a number of poems entitled “A Soldier’s Prayer,” provides a profound example of how prayer can change a person in unexpected ways:
I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might humbly learn to obey.
I asked for help, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing I asked for, but everything I hoped for.
Is It Alright to Bargain with God?
Sometimes when people are praying, they offer to do something for God if He will do something that they want Him to do for them. This is what can be characterized as bargaining with God.
Webster’s Dictionary defines the verb bargain as “to discuss the details of a transaction, contract, treaty, etc. trying to get the best possible terms.” The noun bargain is defined as “a mutual agreement or contract in which the parties settle on what should be given or done by each.”
On several occasions, God Himself initiated bargains with individuals, including the following:
- Abraham (Genesis 17:1-14)
- Isaac (Genesis 26 2-6)
- Jacob (Genesis 31:3; 35:9-12)
God also initiated bargains with the nation of Israel (Leviticus 26:3-10; Chronicles 7:14).
Conversely, in Old Testament times, several people, including the following, initiated a bargain with God:
- Abraham (Genesis 18:20-32)
- Jacob (Genesis 28:20-22; 32:24-30)
- Gideon (Judges 6:36-40)
Of course, we are not Old Testament patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and none of us is a judge appointed by God, as was Gideon. However, as Christians, we are God’s adopted children and that may entitle us to humbly bargain with Him.
Even if it is acceptable to God for a person to bargain with Him, the Bible makes it clear that we cannot bargain for eternal salvation; it is not negotiable – there is only one way to be assured of eternal salvation. [For a discussion of this belief, click on “What Must a Person Do to Be Assured of Eternal Salvation?”]
Can Prayers Change God’s Mind?
Many people, including Christians, probably have at some time or other asked themselves if prayers can really make a difference as to what God will do. In this regard, it is important for us to understand that praying does not make our will known to God. In fact, the opposite may be true: prayer may make God’s will known to us. He knows our needs, wants, desires, etc. even before we ask for His help in dealing with such matters.
Since God is omniscient (i.e., cognizant of all things, including the future), He knows whether or not we will pray for certain matters. Likewise, because He is omniscient, He knows how He will deal with those matters. [Click on “Is God Really Omnipotent and Omniscient?” for a discussion of God’s omniscience.]
So is it possible that our prayers can change God’s mind?
God knows whether or not we will pray regarding each and every matter and how He will respond. Although our prayers will not change God’s mind, we do have the privilege and the responsibility to pray about every matter of concern to us. [For a discussion regarding whether or not God ever changes His mind, click on “Does God Ever Change His Mind?”]
Because we do not know what will be the outcome of matters about which we are trying to decide whether or not to pray, we need to realize that it may be our prayers that will persuade God to intervene in situations where He would not have intervened if we had not asked Him to do so. In other words, it may be that, if we do not pray about these matters, God will let them follow their natural course. For example, if we do not pray for the healing of someone who has a serious illness, that person may not be healed, whereas they may have been healed if we had prayed for them.
On page 140 of his book entitled Reaching for the Invisible God, Philip Yancey provides the following additional consideration:
I can worry myself into a state of spiritual indigestion over questions like “What good does it do to pray if God already knows everything?” Jesus silences such questions. If Jesus saw the need to pray, sometimes so urgently that he spent all night at it, so should I.
Should We Always Pray Privately?
In Matthew 6:6, Jesus Christ says, “[W]hen you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
Some people interpret this scripture to mean that prayers should always be private rather than public. However, this point of view does not give adequate consideration to the previous verse, which states, “[W]hen you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward.”
Thus Matthew 6:5 indicates that what is wrong is the motive of hypocrites when they pray. On page 333 of their book, Geisler and Howe address this matter, as follows:
It is not public prayers which Jesus condemned, but ostentatious prayers. He was not opposed to people praying in appropriate public places, but in conspicuous places. It was not the place of prayer so much as the purpose of their prayer that Jesus spoke against, namely, “that they may be seen by men”. . . .
At least two scriptures clearly indicate that Jesus prayed audibly in public. Both are found in the book of John.
John 11:41-42: This prayer was in the presence of various Jews at the tomb where a man named Lazarus, a friend of Jesus, was buried. This scripture states,
Then they took away the stone from the place where the dead man was lying. And Jesus lifted up His eyes and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. And I know that You always hear Me, but because of the people who are standing by, I said this, that they may believe that You sent Me.”
John 17:1-26: This prayer was in the presence of Jesus Christ’s disciples while He was teaching them. The first two verses in this scripture set the tone, as follows:
Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as You have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given him.”
Several other scriptures are clear that Jesus prayed publicly, but they are not conclusive as to whether or not He prayed audibly. Among these scriptures are the following:
Matthew 14:19 declares, “Then He commanded the multitudes to sit down on the grass. And He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke and gave the loaves to the disciples; and the disciples gave to the multitudes.”
Matt. 15:35-36 states, “He commanded the multitude to sit down on the ground. And He took the seven loaves and the fish and gave thanks . . . .” [Note: Mark 8:6 has very similar wording.]
Matthew 26:26-27 says, “As they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat; this is My body.’ Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them. . . .” [Note: Mark 14:22-23 has very similar wording.]
Luke 3:21 declares, “Now when all the people were baptized, it came to pass that Jesus also was baptized; and while He prayed, the heaven was opened.”
Our belief is that the Bible does not teach that all forms of public prayer are inappropriate. However, the Bible does teach that ostentatious prayer is not appropriate. Therefore, if our prayer is not ostentatious, we do not need to pray privately.
Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication are the basic functions of prayer. And, it is clear that the Bible teaches that Christians should pray consistently and persistently. If a request we make through prayer is not being granted, we should trust God to have a definite reason for not answering that prayer request as we want, or at least not when we want it answered. However, it is not clear if Christians are entitled to bargain with God when they pray. Furthermore, even though our prayers may change the outcomes of various matters, this does not mean that our prayers will cause God to change his mind regarding the outcomes. In any case, we do not think the Bible teaches that only private prayer is acceptable to God.