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Blog “Teach Us to Pray”: The Mystery, Necessity, and Method of Prayer

“Teach Us to Pray”: The Mystery, Necessity, and Method of Prayer

Prayer is an indispensable privilege for every Christian. In prayer, we have the ear of the very creator of the universe. But we very often lack motivation to pray, and when we do pray, our prayers end up revealing the preoccupations of our lives, which are far too often unashamedly selfish and self-oriented, lacking attention to the great concerns of the kingdom of God.

Sometimes it is necessary to be stirred up “by way of reminder” (Rom. 15:15; 2 Pet. 1:13; 3:1). So, to awaken our hearts afresh to the privilege of prayer, let’s consider the mystery, necessity, and method of prayer.

The Mystery of Prayer

We often misunderstand prayer because we imagine God through the prism of our own self-perception. We ask questions like If God has already determined what He is going to do, why bother to pray? What possible difference can prayer make? Can we change God’s mind with our prayers?

However we end up answering these questions, we must first understand that God does not change His mind:

God is not man, that he should lie,
 or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
 Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” (Num. 23:19).

As James 1:17 puts it, “There is no variation or shadow due to change” in God.

In John 11 we have an example of God the Father answering God the Son’s prayer. Through the petition of Jesus, God determined to raise Lazarus (vv. 41–44). Presumably, had Jesus not prayed for Lazarus to be raised, the Father would not have raised him. So, God ordained both the end (the raising of Lazarus) and the means to that end (the prayers of His Son). In His sovereignty, God has chosen to use means to execute His will; we would not have the ends God intends without the means He has foreordained.

In His sovereignty, God has chosen to use means to execute His will; we would not have the ends God intends without the means He has foreordained.

The apostle John gives us a glimpse of God’s eternal ends, or purpose, in Revelation 7:9–10:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

How do the prayers of God’s people intersect with that purpose? Is God simply going to have that innumerable company irrespective of anything else? Not at all! Otherwise, why would Jesus have said to His followers, “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest”? (Matt. 9:38). The prayers of God’s people are the means by which God raises up servants who herald His Word, and men and women hearing His Word from those heralds (Rom. 10:17) are the God-appointed means for fulfilling His purpose from all eternity: to have a people that are His very own.

Ultimately, how a sovereign God uses the prayers of His people in His plans remains a mystery. We won’t have all the answers to all our questions about prayer—at least not for now. But we can be confident that we serve an immutable God who ordains means, like prayer, for His eternal purposes.

The Necessity of Prayer

Prayer is also an absolute necessity, if for no other reason than because Jesus Christ Himself clearly believed it to be so. At the beginning of Mark’s Gospel, we’re told that “rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [Jesus] departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed” (1:35). Even for Christ, prayer was important enough business to attend to early. Much later, in the garden of Gethsemane, we overhear Jesus praying for the cup of God’s wrath to pass from Him (Matthew 26:39; Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42, )—and yet Jesus obviously knew that “he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Matt. 16:21). Despite this knowledge, He still prayed. Though it is perhaps a peculiar mystery to us, the Son of God firmly believed in the absolute necessity of prayer to His Father.

Surely it cannot be that prayer was a necessity for Jesus and is simply an unexplored option for us.

The writer to the Hebrews summarizes Jesus’ attitude toward prayer perfectly for us: “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence” (Heb. 5:7). Surely it cannot be that prayer was a necessity for Jesus and is simply an unexplored option for us. Indeed, Hebrews also tells us that “without faith it is impossible to please” God (11:6)—and our prayers are a vital expression of such saving faith.

The Method of Prayer

If prayer is so vital, then how should we partake in this privilege? While the whole Bible ought to guide our prayer life, it would be a futile to attempt to summarize all that Scripture teaches us about prayer here in this limited space. We can, however, take aim at one verse, Ephesians 6:18, which is loaded with wisdom on prayer.

Pray “at All Times”

The first way that Ephesians 6:18 instructs us is to pray “at all times.” Too few of us realize what an amazing privilege we have in our ability to go to the living God, the creator of the ends of the earth, and seek Him on behalf of ourselves, our brothers and sisters, and our churches whenever we want.

Now, it’s important that we don’t imagine that Paul is suggesting we drop everything and have a sort of formal prayer meeting every hour, on the hour. But because there are never any breaks in the spiritual battle around us, we should be prepared to offer up prayers—however short, however quiet—at any given moment.

Pray “in the Spirit”

Ephesians 6:18 also tells us to pray “in the Spirit.” Instead of thinking of this as one way to pray among many, we should recognize praying in the Spirit as the only way to pray.

Some will want to tie this text to 1 Corinthians 12 and speaking in tongues, but that is not likely Paul’s intention. Paul illuminates what he means for us in Romans 8:15–16:

You did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

God has given us His Spirit, and it is by His Spirit in us that we cry out to Him, even—perhaps especially—in our weakness. So to pray “in the Spirit” is not necessarily some ecstatic experience. Rather, it means depending on the Spirit’s help to prompt us and guide us.

Pray “with All Kinds of Prayers and Requests”

The NIV translates the next phrase in Ephesians 6:18 as “with all kinds of prayers and requests.” You may be familiar with the acronym ACTS. It is a useful mnemonic for remembering different kinds of prayer:

A — Adoration: Sometimes we come to God and just revel in His greatness. “Magnify the LORD with me, and let us exalt his name together!” says the psalmist (Ps. 34:3). God is worthy of our adoration.

C — Confession: We also recognize in prayer that, as Luther says, repentance is not necessarily something triggered by particular instances of sin but is a daily experience.1 “I am a man of unclean lips,” we might confess with Isaiah, “and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (6:5). God is worthy of our confession.

T — Thanksgiving: The real test for our hearts is what we do, say, and pray when there doesn’t appear to be much to be thankful for. Yet Paul exhorts us, “Give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thess. 5:18, emphasis added). God is worthy of our thanksgiving.

S — Supplication: It is also right to express our needs to our heavenly Father, from whom “every good gift and perfect gift” comes (James 1:17). We ask, seek, and knock (Matt. 7:7), sometimes for big things, sometimes for small ones. Whatever we ask for, God is worthy of our supplication.

But even when, among all the options, we can’t seem to find the words to say, there is no need for despair. Whatever kinds of prayers and requests we muster—or can’t—the Spirit “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).

Pray “with All Perseverance”

Ephesians 6:18 also says we ought also to pray “with all perseverance.” This is an echo of Jesus’ words from Gethsemane: “Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation” (Matt. 26:41; Mark 14:38). Paul spoke similarly to the Ephesian elders, telling them to “be alert” (Acts 20:31). Sinclair Ferguson so helpfully writes, “Christ is building his church on territory that has been occupied by an enemy. Alertness is always essential when living in a war zone.”2

Not unlike when we’re trying to maintain a proper exercise regimen or diet, one of the reasons that we’re tempted to quit or give up is that we see no immediate response. In our world that so highly exalts instant gratification, this is a real difficulty. But regardless of our place in history, our tendency to lack endurance is why Jesus told the parable of the persistent widow. We “ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). We pray, and then we keep on praying.

Some of us are going to have to be content to trust that God will indeed fulfill His covenant promises and that, should we not see every promise fulfilled this side of eternity, we will, on the far side, realize that the God who loves us, the God who reigns, the God whose plan is perfect has delivered.

Pray “for All the Saints”

Finally, Ephesians 6:18 instructs us to pray “for all the saints.” It’s natural and entirely legitimate for us to pray about our own personal needs; indeed, the Bible encourages us to do so! (See Phil. 4:6). But when we limit our prayers to our own needs and desires, then we take up prayer in exactly the manner a non-Christian might: as if it were a divine ATM where we get what we want if we just go about it the right way. It’s completely self-oriented.

When we limit our prayers to our own needs and desires, then we take up prayer in exactly the manner a non-Christian might: as if it were a divine ATM where we get what we want if we just go about it the right way.

Instead, Paul calls us to look beyond ourselves to the needs of all the saints. So whether we pray for our families, our friends, our churches, our communities, or even people across the globe, we must expand our petitions to include many others.

Keep on Praying in Jesus’ Name

Derek Prime wrote, “As my pulse is one of the primary indications of my physical life, so my praying is one of the principle [sic] proofs of my spiritual life.”3 Our ultimate position as Christians is tested by the character of our prayer life. Too quickly, we forget what a privilege we have in approaching the throne of God in Jesus’ name. We could never go to God just in our own name. We couldn’t go to God and plead based on our own merits. No, we go to God in Jesus’ name—and it is a tremendous privilege to do so. We come to Him with our burdens, with our fears, with our failures, with our expectations, with our hopes and our dreams. No request is too great for our God.

So, as you go about another daily routine, with all of the occasions it offers for praise, confession, gratitude, and need, try praying these words: “Father, by the Holy Spirit, in the name of Your dearly beloved Son, I ask You, would You give me good gifts? Would You pour out Your Spirit upon me? Would You pour out Your Spirit upon Your church? Would You honor the prayer of the followers of Jesus as we make it our own: ‘Lord, teach us to pray’?” (Luke 11:1).

This article is adapted from the sermons “Prayer” and “All Prayer” by Alistair Begg.

Pray Big by Alistair Begg

1 See, for instance, the first of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses.
2 Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Ephesians (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2005), 186.
3 Derek Prime, Practical Prayer: The Why and How of Prayer (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985), 9.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.