Prayer is an important aspect of the spiritual life, but if we were honest, we’d probably admit that we pray much less than we ought. That’s why Wayne Grudem’s often cited quote is such a stinging rebuke. In his Systematic Theology, he writes:
If we were really convinced that prayer changes the way God acts, and that God does bring about remarkable changes in the world in response to prayer, as Scripture repeatedly teaches that he does, then we would pray much more than we do. If we pray little, it is probably because we do not really believe that prayer accomplishes much at all (377).
At the same time, we acknowledge that God is not a genie in bottle just waiting to serve our every wish. God’s plans are bigger than our individual wants and desires, despite society’s continual cry that life is about me, I deserve answers now, and I deserve whatever it is I desire.
Nevertheless, despite warped views of God and prayer, Scriptures does provide glimpses into an effective prayer life. This post is not about how to “get what we want” from God; rather, it is seeking to understand God’s design for his people in approaching him in prayer.
So, here are 5 common elements of an effective prayer life:
We cannot be effective in receiving an answer from God about that which we never asked of him. The Scriptures are constantly telling us to bring our requests before God (Phil 4:6). James 4:2 even goes so far as to say that there are things that we do not have because we failed to ask, and then it continues to reveal that when we do ask, we often have the wrong self-pleasure-driven motives.
Do you ever find it easier to pray with a group than by yourself? I do. Yet, the Bible presents a private aspect to prayer. It is not that we have to pray by ourselves, even though we should have a faithful and consistent private prayer life, but we do need to be careful about how praying in front of people shifts our focus away from God.
For example, we are more tempted to try to impress people with our words, worrying what others think. We might worry about whether we are saying the “right” things the “right” way. We might be inhibited from just being honest and real before God.
For these and other reasons, Jesus, when asked to teach the disciples to pray, encouraged them to have an active and private prayer life. 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” (Matt 6:5-6).
This speaks as much to motive as it does setting, but we will get to that later.
Passion is not the same as emotion. We don’t have to be screaming or crying, but we should be calling out from a heart of passion for the things of God on behalf of the people of God. This, too, is demonstrated repeatedly in the Scriptures, such as in Acts 12:5: “So Peter was kept in prison, but earnest prayer for him was made to God by the church.”
We are called to be pure in our attitudes and in our actions.
For example, with our attitudes, the Bible speaks of not experiencing effective prayer because we ask with wrong motives (Jms 4:3), seek to please or impress others (Matt 6:5), try to manipulate God by using a lot of words or the right words (Matt 6:7), think we are better than others (Luke 9:9-14), or are harboring anger, bitterness, resentment, or unforgiveness towards another (Matt 5:23-24; Mark 11:25).
Additionally, the Bible teaches that we are to be pure in our actions. God does not stand in a right disposition to respond favorably to prayer when we have unrepentant sin in our lives. Proverbs 15:8 & 29 declare, “The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord, but the prayer of the upright is acceptable to him,” and “The Lord is far from the wicked, but he hears the prayer of the righteous” (see also Prov 28:9; Jms 5:16; 1 Pet 3:7).
Finally, we are to continue to bring our requests before God persistently demonstrating our trust in him and our need for him. Scripture demonstrates that the people of God are to continually bring their requests to God.
Acts 1:14, “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.”
Possibly, two of the greatest examples of this truth are seen in Jesus teachings on prayer in Luke 11:5-8 & 18:1-8.
These elements are not parts of a magic formula for which we can be assured of having the answer we want to prayer; however, it does reveal something of the nature in which God desires for his people to approach him in prayer.
With these things in mind, let us pray!