It’s difficult to know how to pray sometimes. Maybe it’s been a while since you talked to God and you’re not sure how to get started again. Maybe there’s a specific situation that you want to pray about, but you don’t know what’s right—and you don’t want to pray for the wrong thing.
Or maybe you’ve never prayed before in your life, but you need or want to know how to pray now.
The good news is that it’s not difficult and, like most relationships, prayer is something that you will figure out as you go. Some guidance can help get you started, but you will soon discover how you and God communicate best. Soon, prayer can become a comfortable, daily habit—like your morning cup of coffee or a relaxing evening stroll.
The Only Wrong Way to Pray
Prayer is not a formula or a recipe, because God is not a flat answer to a problem or a prize to unlock. There is not one, exclusive equation to the “right” prayer.
The bible is full of models and tips for how to pray, and they’re all a bit different. It would be impossible to take every example of—or reference to—prayer from scripture and put them together into one “how to pray” template.
- Daniel, a prophet in the Old Testament who was captive in Babylon, prayed three times each day. Every time, he opened his window and faced Jerusalem. (Daniel 6:10)
- Nehemiah, another Old Testament prophet, prayed for no more than a few seconds before answering his king. (Nehemiah 2:4)
- Esther, a Jewish woman made queen in the Old Testament, fasted for three days as a plea before God. (Esther 4:16)
- In the New Testament, after Jesus’ ministry on earth, his followers prayed in prison cells (Acts 16:25), on rooftops (Acts 10:9), in hiding (Acts 1:14), and more.
The bible is full of scripted prayers and wordless prayers. The only wrong way to pray, is to pray for the purpose of impressing other people.
When Jesus taught his followers how to pray, he said:
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. (Matthew 6:5-7)
Prayer is your conversation with God. It’s okay to pray with other people—Jesus and his followers did it frequently. But Jesus tells us that if we pray so that others can hear us, and so that we can impress people with our eloquent speeches, then we will get what we want: recognition from people … and nothing more.
If you are sincere in talking to God, however, there is hardly a “wrong” way to pray. Still, if you’re not sure where or how to start, some guidelines can help.
A 3-Step Model for Prayer
Remember, this is just a guide to get you started. Like an artist learning the basics of form and color: once you get started, you can create something unique and beautiful.
Step 1: Thanksgiving and Praise
Psalm 100:4 tells God’s people to:
Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
and his courts with praise!
Give thanks to him; bless his name!
This isn’t specifically about prayer, but it’s good advice. The gates were the first entryway into God’s presence, and the courts were the area before his throne. So we are told to come in first with thankfulness.
That means you might start a prayer with something like, “Lord, thank you for the continued health of my family, for providing for us every day, and thank you that you hear us when we pray.” But thanksgiving and praise can’t be scripted—talk to God and express thanks for the specific ways he has shown up for you and your loved ones.
Why thanksgiving? It’s not for God’s benefit, as it may initially seem, and it’s not some way to flatter God before getting to what you want to ask. Thanksgiving helps to align our hearts with God’s heart so that we can pray with sincerity.
Remembering what God has already done is both humbling and encouraging. When we remind ourselves of how God has come through in the past, we can pray with faith for new challenges.
Step 2: Draw Closer with Praise
If we enter initially with thanksgiving, we draw closer to God with praise. Praise might sound something like, “You alone are God and there is no one higher than you.”
Praise can feel awkward at first, but there are two simple resources that can help:
- The Psalms – In the middle of your bible is a collection of poems called psalms. Many of them are praises to God, so find a few that you like and start by reading those out loud.
- Music – Find a song or two that have lyrics praising God, and start your prayer time by singing along.
Why praise? Again, it’s not because God needs to be appeased with flattery before you can make your request. Speaking praise reminds us who God really is. When we remember how good, how patient, how kind, how loving, and how powerful he is, we can pray in full confidence that he hears and he knows what to do.
Step 3: Talk to God and Make Your Request
If you still have a request, make it. Jesus encouraged his followers to pray simple prayers, because, “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). God knows what is on your heart, so there’s no sense in trying to stoically tuck it away. God wants you to ask!
A letter in the bible, written to some of the first Christians, tells us, “Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16).
But if God already knows then why should I even ask? Asking God for what you need is for your benefit too. Because when you say it, when you ask God to fix something or solve something, you take that problem and you lay it at his feet. He wants you to trust him with it.
… casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you. – 1 Peter 5:7
FAQs About Prayer and How to Pray
The freedom that we have in prayer can also inspire a lot of questions. A few are answered below, but don’t let any other unanswered questions stop you from praying. As long as your heart is sincere, you will figure it out.
Should I pray to the Heavenly Father, Jesus Christ, or the Holy Spirit?
Yes. The concept of the trinity—one God, expressed and related to us in three separate persons—is something that you could think about for ages. But what we do know is that, however hard it is to wrap our minds around, Jesus, God the Father, and the Holy Spirit “are one” (John 10:30).
At times, Jesus instructed people to address God, or “our Father in heaven,” in prayer. Other times, he said that his followers could ask, “of him” in prayer. Addressing God or Jesus are really the same.
Do I have to pray out loud?
No, you don’t have to pray out loud. It can be helpful for you to hear your own thoughts and prayers, and it can help you focus. But God knows your heart and he hears your silent prayers.
What should I pray for?
Most of us can list at least a few personal requests we would like to see God answer, but there are plenty of other prayers to be made. You can always pray for:
- Persecute Christians around the world
- Your leaders
- The sick
- Your enemies
- People who don’t know God
You can also ask God what to pray for. The first disciples asked Jesus to teach them, and we can still ask him to “teach us to pray.” Prayer can be an amazing opportunity for us to join with God in what he is doing in the world. Ask God what he would have you pray for and then just sit quietly for a moment and listen. If you suddenly get an idea, don’t discount it—make it your prayer!
Do I need to pray, “in Jesus’ name”?
Jesus told his disciples:
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)
At first glance, this instruction looks like a golden ticket: ask whatever you want “in the name of Jesus” and you’ll get it!
But doing or saying something, “in someone’s name” is more than a shallow association with that person. It means to do or say something on that person’s behalf. No one can ask for something “in Jesus’ name” that is not consistent with his character or in line with his will.
Still, “in Jesus’ name, amen” is a common way to close a prayer. It means that you believe you have asked God to do something that Jesus himself would have asked or done. You don’t have to say it at the end of your prayer, but it can be a good reminder to check your intentions.
Tips for a Strong Prayer Life
Praying once when you need God, or at random intervals, is fine, but a strong, consistent prayer habit will strengthen your faith and help make each prayer easier. Here are some tips to help you become a person of prayer.
Tip: Pray Regularly
You may have heard the expression, “pray without ceasing,” and thought, “… really?” The phrase is from the bible, but the word “unceasing” in Greek actually means “incessantly,” or in a way that is constantly recurring. “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17) means to pray regularly.
Choose a good time to pray and spend a few minutes talking to God every day. It doesn’t need to be long, just consistent.
- You might take a few minutes each morning to say a prayer of thanksgiving and praise while your morning coffee brews.
- Take a 10 minute walk on lunch and talk to God about what’s troubling you lately.
- Spend a few minutes before bed praying and thanking God for the small blessings you received that day.
You will likely find that, over time, your prayer times will become richer, longer, and more fulfilling. You will also develop a stronger relationship with God.
Tip: Pray Scripture
The bible is full of specific prayers and things to pray about. There are lots of ways to “pray scripture,” but a few include:
- Read prayers from the bible. Many of Pauls’ letters in the New Testament include his prayers for the believers he was writing to. Read them out loud and try praying them for yourself.
- Pray over the instruction scripture gives. For example, Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but that is hard. Pray that God would help you see the humanity in people that you dislike.
You may start with a written prayer and then begin praying on your own, on the same theme. You may start by praying for the strength to love your neighbor as yourself, and then find yourself praying for them like they were your best friend.
Tip: Keep a Prayer Journal
This doesn’t need to be anything fancy. Just get a small notebook or journal, and keep a few notes. Write down the date and a few quick lines about what you prayed for.
When God answers, go back to it in your journal and write the date it was answered (and how it was answered). From time to time, flip back to a year before and read through some notes. You may be surprised to find that God has answered those old prayers you forgot about in ways you did not expect.
It’s very encouraging, and very honoring to God, to take a little extra effort to remember our prayers and to remember his faithfulness.
How to Pray in a Group
You may sometimes find yourself in a group prayer setting. It’s part of Christian life, but don’t be alarmed. Remember, if prayer becomes about impressing other people, you’re doing it wrong. Pray simply and sincerely.
There are a few ways that groups tend to pray together and all are valid:
- One prayer leader – Sometimes one person will pray out loud and everyone else will pray silently. Usually, the rest of the group is quietly praying along the same theme as the prayer leader.
- Assigned prayers – If you’re in a group and there are a few situations or people that need or want prayer, different people may volunteer to pray for different things (or a group leaders will ask different people to pray for specific things). Each person will speak up, one at a time, to pray while the rest of the group silently prays along.
- “Popcorn” prayer – Sometimes groups come together to pray, and several people take turns saying short prayers for whatever they need or whatever they think of. Someone is usually assigned, or volunteers, to “close” the prayer with a final word of thanksgiving.
When praying in a group setting, don’t feel like you have to say something. If a leader asks you to pray specifically, and you’re not comfortable, it’s okay to politely decline. If it’s more of a “popcorn” prayer setting and everyone else prayed out loud … you still don’t have to. Even in a group, prayer is a conversation with God, not a performance.
The Lord’s Prayer
One time, while Jesus was teaching his followers, they asked him to “teach us to pray.” Many Jewish teachers like Jesus wrote and taught scripted prayers for their students as a way of helping them learn to pray.
Here is what Jesus told them:
Pray then like this:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
You may notice a lot of the elements of prayer that we discussed here.
- Jesus addresses the father.
- God is praised as “hallowed” or “holy.”
- Simple requests are made for both material and spiritual blessings.
- It is simple and short.
How to Pray: Just Start!
Prayer can seem intimidating or awkward at first, but once you start making it a routine, it becomes much more powerful. Remember that as long as you are not boasting in your fancy prayers, it’s hard to go wrong. If you really want to pray, to talk with God, then you’re not going to mess it up.
Start with thankfulness and praise. Then, ask for what’s on your mind (as long as you can do it “in Jesus’ name”—Is it something he would pray for?).
Once you’ve prayed for your immediate need, consider making prayer a regular routine. Decide on a time of day and find an old notepad you can use as a prayer journal. If you’re at a loss for words, you can’t go wrong with the “Lord’s prayer” that Jesus taught his friends.
The most important piece of prayer is just to get started.