Prayer is a lot like spiritual breathing — our souls suffocate without it. However, in the experience of many people, effective prayer seems to be lacking. Some Christians fall into a pattern of foxhole prayer: we turn to God and pray only when the bullets of the enemy are whizzing over our heads and there seems to be no other escape. Other patterns of prayer includemealtime prayer: we might pray before eating, but rarely, if ever, at any other time. Some are guilty of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) prayer: we begin to speak to God, but our mind wanders and distractions pull us away. Pillow prayer refers to people who try to pray while they’re falling asleep — they never seem to finish their sentences. Finally, guilt-induced prayer refers to those who realize a deficit in their prayer lives and suddenly try to make up for their guilty feelings by attempting to pray for hours at a time. Guilt-induced prayer is usually sporadic and short-lived.
Realizing that most people find themselves in one or more of these patterns at times, what are some practical ways in which our prayer lives could be improved?
Pray about what you are truly interested in or concerned about — Scripture tells us that God wants to hear our thoughts, cares, desires, and ambitions (Phil. 4:6; 1 Pet. 5:7). It is great to pray for missionaries and brethren in far-away places, but it is just as important to mention the hopes and struggles found in the daily events of our own lives (Lk. 18:1-8). We must also realize that our interests will inevitably become much more attuned to God’s purposes as our knowledge of Scripture increases. Thus, our prayer lives will be enhanced when we make God’s interests our interests (Ps. 37:4; 40:8).
When your mind wanders, speak to God about it — Let’s be clear: the devil doesn’t want you to pray (1 Pet. 5:8). You can expect that when you attempt to pray there will be distractions, and often your mind will wander. Instead of looking at a wandering mind as some kind of failure, would it not be better to speak to God about whatever your mind keeps wandering back to? If you have trouble concentrating, speak to God about that! If you sometimes fall asleep while praying, speak to God about that, too! Everyone’s mind wanders at times — that is just reality. The worst thing we could do is to allow an occasional lack of concentration to become an excuse to stop praying altogether.
Study the prayers of the Bible — Scripture is filled with prayers. The book of Psalms, for example, seems to have a prayer for every occasion and situation. The Bible contains prayers of penitence (Ps. 51; Neh. 9; Dan. 9), prayers of hope (Jn. 17; Acts 4:23-31; Col. 1:9-14), prayers for Divine intervention (1 Kings 18:36-37; Neh. 1:4-11), and prayers of thanksgiving (Ps. 107; Lk. 10:21-22). Jesus even gave His followers a model prayer (Matt. 6:9-13). Our prayers will improve when we study the prayers recorded for us in Scripture.
When you don’t know what to pray, pray A-C-T-S — There are always times when it seems we just don’t know how to get started praying. The acronym A-C-T-S has been used by many Christians to remember four topics about which we should pray: Adoration (telling God how much He means to us), Confession (mentioning sin specifically; saying the same thing about our sins that God already knows to be true), Thanksgiving (counting your blessings and thanking God for them specifically), Supplication (explaining a need or desire and asking God to supply it).
Prayer does not just “flow” out of a spiritual person. It takes work and discipline (cf. 1 Cor. 9:24-27). However, the blessings of prayer far outweigh the cost involved! —JB