How Should I Pray?

H. B. Charles, Jr.
header for How Should I Pray?

God answers prayer. This is the most important lesson you can learn about prayer. There is no more encouraging motivation to pray. Prayer matters because it works. Better yet, God works when we pray. God is willing and able to answer prayer. It pleases Him when we pray. The Father delights to hear and answer the prayers of His children. Prayer is the Lord’s appointed means to give us what we need from Him.

How then should we pray?

1. Pray With Reverence for God

Luke 11:2–4 records what is commonly called “The Lord’s Prayer.” But this is not a prayer that Jesus could have prayed. He never committed any sin that would require Him to ask for forgiveness (verse 4). And praise God for that! You cannot be a sinner and a Savior at the same time. This is our problem. This is why we need a Savior. This is why God sent His only Son to die for our sins on the cross. Christ is qualified to save sinners because He was not one.

So it may be more appropriate to call this “The Model Prayer.” It closely parallels the famous prayer recorded in Matthew 6:9–13. But Luke’s record is a direct response to the disciples’ request that Jesus teach them how to pray. Here Jesus teaches an essential principle for effective prayer: The God who answers prayer is God. Did you get that? God is not the man upstairs. God is not some cosmic ATM machine. God is not a heavenly Santa Claus. God is not a winning lottery ticket.

God is God. God alone is absolutely sovereign, infinitely wise, and unchanging in His goodness. God is wonderful, perfect, awe some, terrible, and majestic in every way. So we must not allow our access to God through Christ to lead us to take His greatness for granted. We must pray God-sized, God-centered, God-exalting prayers.

What does it mean to pray with reverence?

“We have the privilege of bringing our needs and wants and sins and hurts and fears directly to God in prayer.”

Pray directly to God. Jesus said, “When you pray, say: ‘Father.’” (Luke 11:2). Older translations read, “Our Father in heaven,” carrying over the words of Matthew 6:9. But in the Greek text, Jesus simply teaches the disciples to address God as “Father.” “Our Father in heaven” affirms both the transcendence and immanence of God. But the one word address—“Father”—emphasizes God’s closeness, immanence, and nearness.

We should find it difficult to get past this opening address—Father. We should linger there. We should rejoice in it. We should stand in awe of God’s gracious condescension. We have the privilege of bringing our needs and wants and sins and hurts and fears directly to God in prayer. Not a priest or patron saint or guardian angel. God. And we do not have to approach God like some desperate beggar asking a rich stranger for a big favor. We can go to God as little children going to a caring father.

In the Old Testament, the children of Israel had many different names for God. But they rarely addressed God as “Father,” and never in a personal, individual sense. But when Jesus taught His disciples how to approach God in prayer, He did not give them a list of Old Testament names to memorize. He taught them to address God directly as our Father.

Jesus can authorize us to pray this way because He is our great High Priest, who makes intimate communion with God possible. We are beneficiaries of God’s open-door policy because of Jesus Christ:

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:14–16)

Pray about things that will bring glory to God. In the opening petitions of His prayer (Luke 11:2–3), Jesus rebukes the prayers that rush into God’s presence with a grocery list of personal requests. God’s name, God’s kingdom, and God’s will should be our top priorities in prayer. Prayer is about God accomplishing His will on earth, not about you accomplishing your will in heaven. The ultimate purpose of prayer is God and His glory, not you and your needs. Prayer is not about prayer itself. It is not about the answers you may get to your prayers. And it’s definitely not about you. It is about God. True prayer is God-centered.

We must pray God-sized, God-centered, God-exalting prayers.”

Pray as if everything depends on God. Jesus rebukes the kind of prayer that rushes into God’s presence with a grocery list of personal requests. But that does not mean your personal requests do not matter to God. They matter. God wants you to bring them to Him in prayer. The later petitions of the Model Prayer teach us to pray personally. You can pray about your personal needs: “Give us each day our daily bread” (Luke 11:3). You can pray about your past sins: “and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us” (v. 4a). You can even pray about your future trials: “And lead us not into temptation” (v. 4b). God cares about every season of your life—past, present, and future.

2. Pray With Dependence on God

In Luke 11:5–8, Jesus teaches the disciples to pray with dependence by telling the parable of the friend at midnight. The passage reads:

And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. (Luke 11:5-8, ESV)

This is not a pretty story. But it teaches an important lesson about prayer. Effective prayer requires steadfast dependence upon God. You really cannot pray any other way. In fact, you won’t pray without a sense of dependence. Need drives us to God in prayer. It does not matter how much you know about prayer. If you are not aware of your neediness and God’s sufficiency, you will never learn to pray. Prayerlessness is a declaration of independence. But needy people pray. The story of the midnight caller and the sleepy friend raises two questions about how your prayer life reveals your level of dependence upon God.

Do you pray?

The midnight caller received an unexpected visit from a friend who was on a journey. But he had nothing to feed his unexpected guest. So he went to his neighbor’s house, almost instinctively. He was confident that his neighbor could and would supply the bread he needed. Is this what you do in prayer? When you have a problem you cannot solve, do you pray about it? When your friends come to you with a need, do you pray about it? When it is midnight in your life, do you pray about it? Do you give up? Do you try to face the problem on your own? Or do you pray?

Early African-American converts to Christianity would pick specific places for prayer in the fields where they labored as slaves. They spent so much time on their knees in prayer that the grass no longer grew in that spot. And their knees made deep impressions in the soil. These open prayer closets also became points of accountability. When anyone neglected prayer, it was obvious. Eventually, someone would say to his brother, “The grass grows on your path out yonder.” Is your place of prayer marked by the impression of your time spent in communion with God? Or has the grass grown on your path out yonder? Do you pray?

Do you have a sense of dependence upon God that causes you to knock on the door until you get what you need?”

I am not talking about some quick, halfhearted, emergency prayer. I’m talking about earnest, diligent, persistent prayer. Do you have a sense of dependence upon God that causes you to knock on the door until you get what you need?

How do you pray?

This is the big question the parable of the friend at midnight raises. It does not simply exhort us to pray. It teaches us to pray in a manner that will open closed doors. The key to the parable is in Luke 11:8. Jesus says, “I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs.” The word “impudence” unlocks the meaning of this parable. The Greek word simply means to be without shame. Scholars disagree about who this term applies to—the midnight caller or the sleepy friend. I believe the context of the passage and the message of the parable makes it clear that the term refers to the midnight caller.

Picture the scene again. It was past midnight. The sleepy friend was in bed with his family behind a locked door. And a clear statement like, “Leave me alone,” is hard to misunderstand. Common sense, good manners, and personal respect should have made the midnight caller give up when his sleepy friend said he would not, could not help him But shamelessness made the midnight caller continue to knock. He had a need. A guest showed up unexpectedly. It was late at night. There was no bread in his house. The market was closed. And his sleepy friend was the only one who could supply what he needed. So there was no shame in his game. It didn’t matter if he woke up everyone in town. He was determined to keep knocking until his sleepy friend opened the door and gave him the bread he needed.

This is how Jesus wants you to pray. Shamelessly. Sinful pride murders believing prayer. You will never take prayer seriously as long as you are looking for face-saving alternatives to get your needs met. You cannot seek God’s face and save your face at the same time. Could this be why God allows you to have an unexpected guest with an empty pantry in the middle of the night? Life is easy when guests schedule their arrival and the market is open in the middle of the day. It is also easy then to forget where your help comes from. But the unexpected forces us to humble ourselves and seek God for what only He can provide.

How long have you been in line waiting for God to answer your prayer? How long have you been in line waiting for God to meet a need, solve a problem, or open a door? Whatever you do, don’t get out of line. Don’t allow your heart to become angry, impatient, or bitter as you wait on God. And don’t stop praying. Keep knocking at the door. Wait on God. Trust that God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).

3. Pray With Confidence in God

The parables of Jesus are often open-ended. The story ends. The actors leave the stage. The curtain drops. And you are left alone in an empty theater to wrestle with the meaning of what you just experienced. But that is not the case here. In Luke 11:9–13, Jesus makes the point of the parable absolutely clear. The message of the Parable of the Friend at Midnight is that God is willing and able to answer prayer.

God is able to answer prayer. Concluding the parable, Jesus declares, “I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you” (Luke 11:9). The verbs—ask, seek, and knock—are imperatives. They are not optional suggestions. They are divine mandates. Jesus does not recommend prayer for your consideration. He commands us to pray. And these imperatives are in a grammatical emphasis that denotes continual or habitual activity. Literally, Jesus commands us to keep asking and seeking and knocking.

Is it a lack of faith to pray for something more than once? Absolutely not. But it is an act of obedience. Jesus commands us to continuously ask, seek, and knock. In other words, don’t stop praying. Pray until you get an answer. Pray until something happens. Pray until you get what you ask. Pray until you find what you seek. Pray until the door is opened.

What should you ask for in prayer? What should you seek in life? What door should you knock on for access? Jesus is not specific. He commands us to ask, seek, and knock. But He does not tell us what to pray for. I believe this means you can pray about anything and everything.

You can pray for forgiveness like David.
You can pray for wisdom like Solomon.
You can pray for healing like Hezekiah.
You can pray for a child like Hannah.
You can pray for deliverance like Jonah.
You can pray for mercy like the ten lepers.
You can pray for salvation like the thief on the cross.

Whatever it is, you can pray with the confidence that God is able to answer your prayer. That is the promise Jesus makes without qualification. Your asking will be rewarded with gracious gifts. Your seeking will be rewarded with spiritual discovery. Your knocking will be rewarded with divine welcome. Jesus even guarantees that your prayers will be answered: “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened” (Luke 11:10).

What should we make of this blanket promise? Is it true? Does Jesus really mean that God will answer every prayer you pray? Answer: yes and no.

No, every prayer will not be answered the way you want it to be. Remember my sincere, urgent prayer that I might see my father before he died? But God’s no is not bad news. It is further proof of the good, holy, and loving purposes of God at work in our lives.

How about you? Have you ever asked God for something that seemed so important or urgent at the time? I have. Several times. Once I asked for a transition. God blessed me where I was. I asked for relief. God used the pressure to strengthen me. Another time I asked for my territory to be enlarged. God taught me to live with my borders. Now, looking back, I recognize how foolish, shortsighted, and unnecessary some of my requests have been. Praise God for the prayers

He did not answer the way I wanted!

Likewise, God will not answer every prayer the way you want Him to. Does a father grant every request his children make? Of course not. The Father knows what is best for His children, even when they do not. And the fact that His children will be angry does not cause God to cave in when the answer should be no.

God is willing to answer your prayers.”

But let me say it as clearly as I can. God answers prayer. God provides. God heals. God saves. God forgives. God strengthens. God comforts. God delivers. God reconciles. God guides. Your situation may not turn out the way you ask or desire. He may not act when or how you want Him to. But God does answer prayer. God is a wise Father who sometimes refuses what you want to give you what you need. But the Lord is good and you can trust Him to answer your prayers.

God is willing to answer your prayers. Jesus makes His final point by asking several questions about how good fathers respond to the needs of their children: “What father among you, if his son asks him for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?” (Luke 11:11–12). These rhetorical questions assume negative answers. No caring father would respond to his son’s hunger cries in such a cruel, negligent, and harmful way. To do so would be a kind of child abuse or child endangerment. A good father will give his son bread and fish, not a serpent or scorpion. A good father will give his son five loaves and two fish, if he can.

Jesus assumes that a good father will take care of his children’s basic needs. None of the disciples would have argued with that point. Then Jesus closes this lesson on prayer by arguing from the lesser to the greater: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13).

Every born-again Christian has all of the Holy Spirit he or she will ever get. But the Holy Spirit is still trying to get all of you! When D. L. Moody was asked if he was filled with the Holy Spirit, he answered, “Yes, but I leak.” So do I. So do you. But when you pray, God the Father has the Holy Spirit fill you afresh with all that you need to resist temptation, live obediently, model Christlikeness, love selflessly, and live victoriously.

For Further Reading:

It Happens After Prayer

by H. B. Charles, Jr.

Life’s inevitable difficulties and disappointments can discourage us from praying, but our response should be to pray anyway and keep...

book cover for It Happens After Prayer