How to Pray

How to Pray Hero Image How to Pray Hero Image

Recently, after praying as a family over dinner, my six-year-old complained that her four-year-old brother didn’t close his eyes during the prayer. Which, of course, brought up the question: how could she see that his eyes weren’t closed?

Whether you’re six or sixty, it is natural at some point in your life to have questions about how you should pray. Do you have to close your eyes and fold your hands? Are there certain words to say? Are there specific times you should pray, or specific things you should (or should not) pray for?

The good news for all of us (including my kids) is that there is not just one “right” way to pray. Prayer is talking to God, and just like there are many ways you could talk to a friend, there are many ways you can talk to Him.

Biblical Ways to Pray

When you look at biblical examples of prayer, you can see that there are many “right” ways to pray:

  • You can pray silently (1 Samuel 1:11-17) or out loud (Psalm 77:1).
  • You can pray alone (Matthew 14:23) or with others (Acts 12:12).
  • You can pray privately (Matthew 6:6) or publicly (1 Chronicles 29:10).
  • You can pray behind closed doors (2 Kings 4:33) or in the great outdoors (Mark 6:46).
  • You can pray while kneeling (Acts 20:36), standing (Mark 11:25), sitting (2 Samuel 7:18), or lying face down (Matthew 26:39).
  • You can pray while lifting up your hands (1 Kings 8:54) or laying your hands on the person you are praying for (Matthew 19:13).
  • You can pray while lifting up your eyes to heaven (John 17:1) or looking down (Luke 18:13-14).
  • You can pray in the morning (Psalm 88:13) or evening (Matthew 14:23), at midday (Acts 10:9) or midnight (Acts 16:25).
  • You can pray all day (Psalm 86:3), all night (Luke 6:12), or day and night (Nehemiah 1:6).
  • You can pray three times a day (Daniel 6:10) or pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
  • You can pray with fasting (Ezra 8:23) or with food (Acts 27:35).
  • You can pray with weeping (1 Samuel 1:10) or with joy (Philippians 1:4).

How Not to Pray

Those are all valid ways to pray. And it’s not meant to be an exhaustive list. The takeaway is that there is almost no wrong way to pray. “Almost,” because there are a few ways to pray that could be considered “wrong”:

  • Don’t pray with wrong motives. Although it can be OK to pray publicly, you can have the wrong motives if you pray in front of others to impress them or be seen (Matthew 6:5). And you can pray with wrong motives if you ask for something so that you can spend it on sinful passions (James 4:3).
  • Don’t babble on meaninglessly. In Matthew 6:7, Jesus says not to pray like people who “think that they will be heard for their many words.” He describes that kind of prayer using a word that can be translated “babble,” “empty phrases,” or “thoughtless repetition.” If you’re just reciting memorized prayers without actually thinking or meaning them—or are adding lots of words just for the sake of making a longer prayer—then you are missing the point of prayer.
  • Don’t pray to someone other than God (Isaiah 45:20). That’s idol worship.
  • Don’t expect God to listen to your prayers if you are actively doing evil (Isaiah 1:15-16). You could still pray, but it would be futile (1 Peter 3:12), because you are living as an enemy of God (Philippians 3:18-19).

Frameworks for Prayer

Though we have broad freedom in how to pray, there are some frameworks that can be helpful.

The Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 is the one place where Jesus says, “Pray then like this.” He didn’t mean we should simply quote those verses every time we pray. After all, this comes immediately after His warning against “thoughtless repetition” in verse 7. Plus, in Jesus’s own recorded prayers, He doesn’t quote the words of the Lord’s Prayer.

Instead of being words to quote, the Lord’s Prayer is a model for how to pray:

  • “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” We need to acknowledge that we are praying to a God who is holy (Isaiah 6:3), and yet we can speak to Him as a loving Father (1 John 3:1). Most prayers in the Bible are addressed to the Father. But, because the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are one (Deuteronomy 6:4; John 10:30), you can also talk to Jesus (Act 7:59-60) and pray through the Spirit (Romans 8:26-27).
  • “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” We are to pray for God’s will to be done (Matthew 26:39) and for His purposes to be accomplished, trusting that God knows what is best.
  • “Give us this day our daily bread.” We should ask God for what we need (Matthew 7:7-11).
  • “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.” We should confess our sins and ask for forgiveness. However, because we are forgiven much, we should also forgive others who sin against us (Matthew 6:14-15; Matthew 18:23–35).
  • “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” Along with confessing sins, we should repent from them (Romans 2:4). We should pray to God for help in escaping or enduring temptation (1 Corinthians 10:13).

Another easy-to-remember framework for prayer is the acronym ACTS, which stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.

  • Adoration. This is the first part of the Lord’s Prayer, where we pray to acknowledge God for who He is and give Him the glory He deserves (Revelation 5:13).
  • Confession. We should confess our sins and ask for forgiveness (1 John 1:9).
  • Thanksgiving. We should thank God for all He has done and all He has given us (Ephesians 5:20).
  • Supplication. “Supplication” means to humbly ask God for help. We are encouraged to make supplication for ourselves and for others (Ephesians 6:18), asking for what is needed in accordance with God’s will (1 John 5:14).

You don’t have to include all these parts or types of prayer every time you pray. After all, a prayer can be as simple and short as a single sentence. However, as you pray throughout each day, your prayer life overall should include these different elements.

There is much freedom in how you talk to God. The more important question is not how you pray, but rather whether you pray. Read here to learn why prayer should be an important part of every believer’s life.