By Peter Amsterdam
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Prayer is a key component in our relationship with God, as it is our main means of communication with Him. It is in prayer that we are able to converse with our Creator.
As Christians, we have been given the incredible privilege of coming into the presence of God as His children, due to the salvation granted through Jesus. We can speak with Him, praise, worship, and adore Him, tell Him of our love for Him, and thank Him for all He has done and continues to do for us. We can openly share what is on our hearts with Him, and express our troubles and needs. We can intercede for others in their time of need. We can bring our requests to Him and ask for His help. We can tell Him how much we appreciate the beautiful things He created, and thank Him for the multitude of blessings we each have.
When we’re weak and weary, we can speak to Him about it. When we’ve done wrong and have sinned, we can confess, and ask for and receive His forgiveness. We can speak with Him when we’re joyful or sad, in good health or poor health, whether we’re rich or poor, for we have a relationship with the one who not only created us, but who loves us deeply and wants to participate in every aspect of our lives.
Prayer is the main way we communicate with God. It is our means of inviting Him to participate in our daily lives, of asking Him to be directly and intimately involved with the things that are important to us. When we come before Him in prayer, we are asking Him to take an active part in our lives or in the lives of those we are praying for. Prayer conveys the reality of our overall situation, that we need Him and desire His presence in our lives.
Communicating with God in prayer is a means of drawing closer to Him, of deepening our relationship, and in the process, it helps us to become more godly, more like Jesus. When it comes to praying, there is much to learn by looking at Jesus’ example of prayer within the Gospels and reading what He taught about it.
One of the most fundamental things that Jesus imparted to His followers regarding prayer was about having the right relationship with His Father. In the Gospel of Mark we hear Jesus say, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You” (Mark 14:36). Abba was what a son or daughter in first-century Palestine would call their father throughout their lives; it was a familiar word, like Dad or Papa, in the Aramaic language that was spoken in Jesus’ day. Jesus used this word in prayer and taught His disciples to do the same, because it expressed the close, endearing, familial relationship believers should have with God.
Throughout all four Gospels, when Jesus prays, He uses the word “Father.” He constantly prayed to His Father, and He taught His disciples to do the same. Jesus’ use of Abba (Father) set the tone for the personal relationship we are privileged to have with God because of the gift of salvation. We are the sons and daughters of God; not in the same way as Jesus is, but as children adopted into God’s family. When we pray, we are coming before Abba, our Father.
“And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:6–7).
Teachings from the Gospels about prayer
When Jesus taught about prayer through the parables, He made comparisons to situations such as the friend who borrowed the loaves at midnight (Luke 11:5–7), or the unjust judge who eventually answered the woman’s plea (Luke 18:1–8). Through these story examples, He made the point that if the friend or the unjust judge would answer the petitions made to them, how much more would our Father in heaven answer our petitions? He demonstrates that we can have confidence that our prayers will be answered by our generous, loving Father (Matthew 7:9–11).
In the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, Jesus speaks of humility and confession in prayer (Luke 18:10–14). Jesus taught that pompous and pretentious prayers which draw attention to oneself are to be avoided; rather prayers should spring from sincerity of heart and motive (Matthew 6:5–6). By His example we learn to pray in solitude (Luke 6:12), to pray in thanksgiving (John 6:11), to pray when faced with decisions, and to intercede in prayer for others (John 17:6–9).
Once, when Jesus finished praying, His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray. He responded by teaching them what is today called the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father” (Matthew 6:9–13). This rich prayer deserves a fuller explanation than can be given here, but in short, it teaches us to pray by: (1) praising God, the one who is holy; (2) expressing our desire and willingness for His will to be accomplished in our lives; (3) acknowledging our dependence on Him to take care of our needs; (4) asking for forgiveness of our sins, and (5) seeking deliverance from evil.
Besides praying to the Father in Jesus’ name, as He instructed His disciples to do, from examples in the Gospels we understand that prayers should be offered to Jesus as well. “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13–14).
Jesus, through His example and through teaching and emphasizing a relationship with the Father, has shown the importance of prayer and how to pray and in what circumstances, and most importantly that our prayers should be grounded in an intimate relationship with God. We are to be like children who climb on the lap of their father, with no pretense or fear, knowing and trusting that their father loves them and will protect, provide, and care for them.
Looking at our own prayer lives
Prayer plays a vital role in our spiritual lives, our connection with God, our inner growth, and our effectiveness as Christians. Jesus’ example of prayer, of getting away from the busyness of His life, taking time alone in prayer, even spending whole nights in prayer, interceding for others and praying effective prayers, marks the trail for those who long to walk in His footsteps.
When we hold up our prayer lives to Jesus’ teaching and example on the subject, how do we fare? Do we pray often? Do we pray in faith, fully believing God will answer? Do we understand that we are praying for God’s will to be done, recognizing that His will may differ from ours? Do we realize that He does answer, but His answers may not always be yes?
It is important for us to bear in mind that God is not a “cosmic bellhop.” He’s not at our beck and call, waiting for us to order Him to do what we want Him to do. As followers of Jesus, we strive to live in accordance with God’s will, which means that when we pray, we pray both in God’s will and for His will. As the Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Prayer is asking for the will of God to be done.
Developing proficiency in prayer
There are those who have gone before us who were accomplished in prayer, and if we follow in their footsteps and use their example as a pattern, we too can have more fruitful and rewarding prayer lives.
The apostles gave themselves to the word and prayer and didn’t let the daily duties get in the way of what was most important for them (Acts 6:4). Martin Luther, when faced with so much to do, spent three hours in daily prayer. John Wesley devoted two hours a day in the presence of the Lord. For these greats, and numerous others who have been effective in their Christian lives, time spent in prayer played a significant role.
While the fast-paced lives many of us live today may not allow for spending hours in daily prayer, we should each look at our own prayer life and at the time we spend in His presence, and ask ourselves if we are investing enough time communicating with the one with whom we are in what should be our primary relationship. Does our time in prayer reflect our deep desire to have Him participate in our lives, or is it more of a hit-or-miss commitment?
Prayer isn’t meant to be a one-way conversation, with us speaking and expecting God to do all the listening. In times of prayer, we should also open ourselves up to hear what God wants to say to us, through the Bible, through what godly teachers or preachers are saying, or through getting quiet before Him and opening our hearts to hear His voice. He can speak to us in many ways: through impressions He gives, thoughts He puts in our minds, through Bible verses or prophecies we receive. Prayer is communication, and communication is a two-way street. So besides asking God to hear what we are saying to Him, we should also be giving Him the opportunity to speak to us.
In the book of Colossians Paul says: “Continue steadfastly in prayer” (Colossians 4:2).We are called to be in continual relationship with God, in a sense having an ongoing dialogue with Him, talking to Him, asking for His guidance, praising Him, listening to Him throughout our day. This can be seen as the meaning of Paul’s general admonition to pray “continually” or “without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
So how do we develop a better prayer life? There really isn’t any other way than by praying. How do you build up to running five kilometers a day? You start exercising or running today, and you keep it up regularly, increasing the time you run and the distance you cover as your endurance builds. It works the same with prayer. You begin by beginning.
Prayer is our means of communicating with God, of coming into and remaining in His presence. As we climb onto our Heavenly Father’s lap, as His children, we can ask Him anything, and we can trust Him with everything. We can feel His love for us, His assurance, His care. In our time of communicating with Him we learn from Him, and in time we become more like Him.
Originally published February 2014. Adapted and republished December 2023. Read by Jerry Paladino.