Like many areas of the Christian life, prayer is mysterious, wonderful, and necessarily practical all at the same time. Unfortunately, this can mean that people don’t ask questions about it for fear that they’ll look stupid or somehow destroy its mystique.
But if prayer is so essential to our walk with the Lord (which it is!), then we need to be open and candid about our questions so that we can grow in our prayer lives.
Helen Thorne and I just finished co-authoring 5 Things to Pray for Your City, a book which aims to be a practical stimulus to prayer and habituate good practices of it in readers’ lives. But some of those practices raise questions which people are often too afraid to ask. Here are six of the most common ones.
1. Should I speak to God formally or informally?
There is no special language for prayer––God does not hear us because of what we say or how we say it, but because of Jesus’ death and resurrection for us.
The language we use to speak to people is determined by whom we are addressing, what our relationship is with them, and the circumstances as we speak to them.
The Lord’s prayer refers to God as “Our Father in Heaven” (Matthew 6:9), which reminds us both of God’s intimacy as a perfect, loving father who has sent his Son to die for us and his great holiness because he is “in heaven.” Through Jesus, both are wonderfully true. God is our Father who uses all of his heavenly power for our good. At different times, your words in prayer may emphasise one aspect more than the other depending on what you’re facing, but they should reflect both at all times.
2. Do I have to kneel, bow my head, close my eyes, etc.?
We are holistic beings, and so our physical posture impacts our mental state, though it does not determine it.
When you pray, your bodily posture can aid concentration (shutting your eyes), reminding yourself of the greatness of God (bowing your head as a sign of reverence), and humbling yourself before God (kneeling), but this does not make these things essential.
3. What should I refer to God as: God, Father, Lord, or something else?
In Scripture, we are encouraged to “call on” God’s name (Genesis 4:26, Romans 10:13). There are many names for God in the Bible, and each one emphasises particular aspects of who he is. “The Lord Almighty” reminds us of his power and majesty. “Father” reminds us of his care and intimacy.
Of the many names for God in Scripture, there is no right or wrong one to use in prayer (but “our Father in Heaven” or “Father” is a good default). Why not familiarise yourself with God’s different names? This will help you get to know God better. Then, use names that seem most fitting for what you want to pray about. For example, if you feel anxious, pray “Sovereign Lord” to remind you of his loving control of all things. If you’re struggling with sin, pray “Holy One” to remind you of God’s great desire for holiness. Let God’s names shape your prayers and your heart.
4. How long should I pray for and does it matter?
In relationships, we sometimes say that it’s quality, not quantity, that counts. But this is a false dichotomy. Normally, a relationship’s quality increases when an appropriate quantity of time has been invested in it. So, it is important to set aside time in your diary to pray. A purely spontaneous prayer life may seem great when life isn’t busy, but it will quickly get squeezed out as life gets full.
However, be careful to remember that God never answers our prayers because of the length of time we pray for, nor is he more pleased with you if you pray for one hour rather than one minute. God only ever answers prayer because of his grace through Jesus.
5. Should I expect to feel anything? Why does prayer feel like speaking to thin air sometimes?
“Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1). When we pray, we don’t physically see God. Superficially, this seems hard. Isn’t it easier and better when we see things with our own eyes? However, one of the big points in Hebrews is that living by faith is better, more certain, and more enduring than living by sight, all because of whom we have faith in — God.
Similarly, praying can sometimes feel odd and like speaking to thin air, but remind yourself by faith that you aren’t. You’re speaking to a God who is real and is there, who loves to hear your prayers. As that wonderful truth starts to infuse your prayers, then by the Spirit you will start to feel differently. There can be wonderful times of deep intimacy with God. Other times, prayer will feel unspectacular, but that doesn’t make it any less effective.
6. How should I end my prayers? Why do people say “Amen”?
“Amen” is an affirmative deriving from the Hebrew root meaning “confirmed or upheld,” so it means “let it be so.” It’s a good word to say at the end of your prayers and a good way to affirm someone else’s prayer, but it’s not essential and can be used any time––not just at the end.
There is no particular right way to end prayers, but it can be helpful to end them by reminding yourself of why you’re praying––e.g., “for Jesus’ sake” or “for God’s glory.” Similarly, it can be helpful to close by reminding yourself why you’re confident God will answer––e.g., “in Jesus’ name” or “through Jesus.” Either way, the wonderful truth is that we can be confident God will hear our prayers because of what Jesus has done for us. God will always answer our prayers for his glory!
Pete Nicholas is a senior pastor at Inspire London and is on the steering group of City to City UK. Together with Helen Thorne, he’s created a brief but thorough guide to praying for life, justice, churches, and Christian witness in the city.