Following is chapter 3 of my new resource, Learning to Walk: Some First Steps for New Believers. As before, your comments and suggestions are welcome as I try to present a tool to the church that will help them disciple new followers of Jesus.
When we think of prayer, we usually think of something like an antique phone, or a vending machine. What I mean by that is this:
Have you seen an antique phone that looks like a box with the ear piece on a short cord that you put to your ear, the microphone sticking out of the front which you talk into, and the hand crank on the side that was used to ring the operator? We so often ring the operator, talk into the mic, but never put the earpiece to their ear? We talk and talk, telling God about our lives, our struggles, our hopes, and what we’d like him to do, but we seldom listen for him to speak to us.
Prayer is a conversation. We talk, we listen; God speaks, we respond. If we’re talking to a friend, and never let them get a word in edgewise, that relationship would be stunted to say the least. Prayer is two-way communication with the Living God of creation. We can talk to him, and we need to listen.
We can also treat prayer like a vending machine. If we put in the right “coins” then we can select what we want.
Prayer is just talking. It’s not about saying the right things, using the right verbiage and phrases, or maintaining the right posture. It’s about being open, honest, and sincere with God, who knows your heart and knows your needs already. Don’t try to impress him, just talk to him like you would anyone else.
Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-4). This makes “how do you pray?” a valid question I suppose. Jesus’ response was what we call The Lord’s Prayer. We need to remember that Jesus said this is how we should pray. This prayer is a model, not to be used verbatim like an incantation. The basic flow of the prayer can be outlined in the acrostic ACTS. This stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.
Adoration is when we acknowledge and praise God simply for who he is. This part of prayer can be greatly aided with the use of scripture (the Bible). Reading through the book of Psalms and praying through the attributes and characteristics of God named in so many of those chapters will give you a great view of God and plenty of reasons to praise him.
Confession simply means agreeing with God. Typically, this is in relation to confessing sin, but it can also mean confessing joy, sorrow, weakness, our need for him, or our desire for him. This time of confession in prayer is when we clear the air between God and us. That really is the beautiful part of this relationship: we long to be faithful, but we can be faithful even in our failure through confession and repentance (turning from our way to go God’s way, or making a change to avoid repeating sin).
It may also be important to note here that sin isn’t just doing something bad. The word “sin” is a Hebrew word that means “to miss the mark or target.” This isn’t just missing the bull’s-eye; it’s missing the whole target, usually because we’re aiming at the wrong one. Things that are good in-and-of themselves can become sin if we allow it to come between God and us. Sin is actions or attitudes which are harmful to ourselves or others—selfish and short-sighted choices. It can be things that we do that are wrong, or it can be the right things we choose not to do. Sin hinders our walk with God, and can even cripple it. Confession brings healing to our hearts and restores our relationship and walk with God.
Thanksgiving is bringing an attitude of gratitude to our prayers. We don’t realize how many blessings we receive from God. Taking time to think on those blessings and be grateful for them is vital. Every day we wake up to a new day full of opportunity and possibility. That is a gift from God. Even our struggles and hardships are used to make us “mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:4). The more we practice being thankful in every situation and for every reason, the more clearly we will begin to recognize God and his work.
Supplication is a funny word that simply means asking for stuff. Though we don’t want this to be the dominant part of prayer, it is important. Usually by the time we’ve adored him, confessed to him, and thanked him, we wind up with a very different spirit when we come to supplication. When we petition God we can bring our needs to him, our hopes and desires; we can also pray for the welfare of others. Through all these stages of prayer, we need to be ready to hear from God, because he loves to talk with his children and we need to hear from him.
God’s voice can come in many ways. You might actually hear a voice, but most often it comes in thoughts, images, and ideas that pop into your head. Sometimes He will lead you to passages in the Bible, other times he will impress upon you an urge to call someone.
At first it may be hard to tell the difference between God’s voice and your own thoughts, or other distractions. Over time and with practice, you’ll learn to know the difference. On that note, it’s important and helpful to remember that God will never say anything to you, or lead you into anything, that contradicts what he has said in his word. If there is ever a question about what you think you’ve heard from God, go back to the Bible and see if what you’ve heard agrees with what God has said in his word.
One habit that has helped me grow in my prayer life over the years is journaling. Sometimes, I write out my prayers in a journal, like writing a letter. Anytime I think I hear God speaking, I write those words in all caps or in parenthesis so I can go back and review them or measure them against what God says in the Bible. Other times, I’ll simply record my requests and the things I’ve said so I can go back and see how God has answered, or so I can reflect on what’s been going on and realize God’s answers if they aren’t obvious. Journaling can be a very helpful habit in prayer.
Experiencing God in prayer and seeing him answer will grow your love for, and trust in God. Prayer is not a religious habit, but our living connection with God. Prayers can be formal, in a specific place and at specific times with a specific posture. Prayers can also be informal and spontaneous, in a moment, at a critical time, or in response to the work or revelation of God. The Bible tells us to maintain a continual attitude of prayer—always inclining our hearts and minds to him, involving him in every aspect of our lives. As we learn to incline our hearts and minds to him, we will experience a fuller measure of his presence and blessing. Prayer, whether you pray for yourself, or with and for someone else, is a ministry to the soul.