The Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer

February 4, 2014

by Peter Amsterdam

Audio length: 21:26

Download Audio (19.6MB)

(You may need to right-click the above links and select "Save Link As" or "Save Target As" to download videos and audios to your computer.)

The Spiritual Discipline of prayer is a key component in our relationship with God, as it is our main means of communication with Him. It is in prayer that we are able to converse with our Creator.

As Christians, we have been given the incredible privilege of coming into the presence of God as His children, due to the salvation granted through Jesus. We can speak with Him, praise, worship, and adore Him, tell Him of our love for Him, and thank Him for all He’s done and continues to do for us. We can bare our hearts before Him, expressing our troubles and needs. We can intercede for others in their time of need. We can bring our requests to Him and ask for His help. We can tell Him how much we appreciate the beautiful things He’s created, and thank Him for the multitude of blessings we each have. When we’re weak and weary, we can speak to Him about it. When we’ve done wrong and have sinned, we can confess, ask for, and receive His forgiveness. We can speak with Him when we’re joyful or sad, in good health or bad, whether we’re rich or poor, for we have a relationship with the One who not only created us, but who loves us deeply and wants to participate in every aspect of our lives.

Relationship with God, and Jesus’ Example

Relationships require communication, and prayer is the main way we communicate with God. It is our means of inviting Him to participate in our daily lives, of asking Him to be directly and intimately involved with the things that are important to us. When we come before Him in prayer, we are asking Him to take an active part in our lives or in the lives of those we are praying for. Prayer conveys the reality of our overall situation, that we need Him and desire His presence in our lives.

Being in good communication with God is a major part of our faith, of our relationship with Him. This is why prayer is something we need to cultivate, invest time in, and practice as a discipline. Communicating with God in prayer is a means of drawing closer to Him, of deepening our relationship, and in the process, it helps us to become more godly, more like Jesus.

When it comes to praying, there is much to learn by looking at Jesus’ example of prayer within the Gospels and reading what He taught about it. One of the most fundamental things that Jesus imparted to His followers regarding prayer was about having the right relationship with His Father. In the Gospel of Mark we hear Jesus say, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for You. Remove this cup from Me. Yet not what I will, but what You will.”[1] Abba was what a son or daughter in first-century Palestine would call their father throughout their lives; it was a familiar word, like Dad or Papa, in the Aramaic language that was spoken in Jesus’ day. Jesus used this word in prayer and taught His disciples to do the same, because it expressed the close, endearing, familial relationship believers should have with God. Throughout the Gospels when Jesus addresses God as Father in prayer, He most likely used the term Abba, as He would have been speaking Aramaic.

In every instance but one[2] throughout all four Gospels, when Jesus prays, He uses the word Father.[3] He constantly prayed to His Father, and He taught His disciples to do the same. (Since the New Testament was written in Greek, the Greek word Pater was used instead of Abba; however, Abba was preserved in three instances, which gives the understanding that Abba was the term Jesus and His disciples used in prayer, which was translated as Pater or Father in the New Testament.[4]) Jesus’ use of Abba (Father) set the tone for the personal relationship we are privileged to have with God because of the gift of salvation. We are the sons and daughters of God; not in the same way as Jesus is, but as children adopted into God’s family. When we pray, we are coming before Abba, our Father.

This manner of addressing God was also used in the Greek-speaking churches of Paul’s day. It is a word that was particularly associated with Jesus in the early church; to say Abba was to share in a common sonship and a common inheritance with Jesus.[5] We, as children adopted into the family of God, also have a relationship with the Father.We are able to have an intimate connection with Him, as we would with our earthly father.

For 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!”[6] And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.[7]

Teachings from the Gospels about Prayer

When Jesus taught about prayer through the parables, He made comparisons to situations such as the friend who borrowed the loaves at midnight,[8] or the unjust judge[9] who eventually answered the woman’s plea. Through these story examples, He made the point that if the friend or the unjust judge would answer the petitions made to them, how much more would our Father in heaven answer our petitions? He demonstrates that we can have confidence that our prayers will be answered by our generous, loving Father. Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him![10]

In the parable of the tax collector and the Pharisee, Jesus speaks of humility and confession in prayer.[11] In the parable of the unforgiving servant, He touched on forgiveness, showing that it is prayer offered with a forgiving spirit that is answered.[12] Pompous and pretentious prayers which draw attention to oneself are to be avoided; rather prayers should spring from sincerity of heart and motive.[13] He spoke of intensity and vigilance in prayer[14] as well as expectancy.[15] [16]

By His example we learn to pray in solitude,[17] to pray in thanksgiving,[18] to pray when faced with decisions,[19] and to intercede for others.[20]

Once, when Jesus finished praying, His disciples asked Him to teach them to pray. He responded by teaching them what is today called the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father.”[21] This rich prayer deserves a fuller explanation than can be given here, but in short it teaches us to pray by: praising God, the one who is holy and above all; expressing our desire and willingness for His will to be accomplished in our lives; acknowledging our dependence on Him to take care of our needs; asking for forgiveness of our sins, and deliverance from evil.

Besides praying to the Father in Jesus’ name, as He instructed His disciples to do, from examples in the Gospels we understand that prayers should be offered to Jesus as well.

A leper came to [Jesus] and knelt before Him, saying, “Lord, if You will, You can make me clean.”[22]

A ruler came in and knelt before [Jesus], saying, “My daughter has just died, but come and lay Your hand on her, and she will live.”[23]

Those in the boat worshiped Him, saying, “Truly You are the Son of God.”[24]

Jesus said to him, “You have seen Him, and it is He who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped Him.[25]

Jesus, through His example, and through teaching and emphasizing a relationship with the Father, has shown the importance of prayer and how to pray and in what circumstances, and most importantly that our prayers should be grounded in an intimate relationship with God. We are to be like children who climb on the lap of their father, with no pretense or fear, knowing and trusting that their father loves them and will protect, provide, and care for them.

Looking at Our Own Prayer Lives

Prayer plays a vital role in our spiritual lives, our connection with God, our inner growth, and our effectiveness as Christians. Jesus’ example of prayer, of getting away from the busyness of His life, taking time alone in prayer, even spending whole nights in prayer, interceding for others and praying effective prayers, marks the trail for those who long to walk in His footsteps.

When we hold up our prayer lives to Jesus’ teaching and example on the subject, how do we fare? Do we pray often? Do we pray in faith, fully believing God will answer? Do we recognize that by praying we are asking God to intervene in our lives? Do we understand that we are praying for God’s will to be done, recognizing that His will may differ from ours? Do we realize that He does answer, but His answers may not always be yes?

As the professor in my class on this subject said, God is not a cosmic bellhop. He’s not at our beck and call, waiting for us to order Him to do whatever it is that we want Him to do. As followers of Jesus, we strive to live in accordance with God’s will, which means that when we pray, we pray both in God’s will and for His will. As the Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Prayer is asking for the will of God to be done. It’s in this area that the Spiritual Discipline of Bible intake blends with prayer. As we read and meditate on His Word, we are more likely to understand His will, helping to align our prayers with His will.

As Richard Foster wrote:

“You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:3). To ask “rightly” involves transformed passions. In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves, to will the things He wills. Progressively we are taught to see things from His point of view.[26]

Developing Proficiency in Prayer

When we desire to achieve proficiency in an area, we often look to the examples of those who are already proficient in order to learn from them. If you play golf, then you will study and try to follow the techniques of the golfing greats who have gone before you. The same is true in almost any field—music, business, the arts, medicine, etc. There are those who have gone before us in prayer who have become accomplished, and if we follow in their footsteps and use their example as a pattern, we too can have more fruitful and rewarding prayer lives.

For example, we see that Jesus rose very early in the morning, while it was still dark, departed and went out to a desolate place, and there He prayed.[27] The apostles gave themselves to the word and prayer and didn’t let the daily duties get in the way of what was most important for them.[28] Martin Luther, when faced with so much to do, gave himself to three hours of daily prayer. John Wesley devoted two hours a day in the presence of the Lord. For these greats, and numerous others who have been effective in their Christian lives, time spent in prayer has played a significant role.

Of course, they most likely didn’t start with such devotion to prayer, but became more proficient at it as time went on. While the fast-paced lives many of us live today may not allow for spending hours in daily prayer, we shouldn’t dismiss these examples. Rather we should each look at our own prayer life, at the time we spend in His presence, and ask ourselves if we are investing enough time communicating with the One with whom we are in what should be our primary relationship. Does our time in prayer reflect our deep desire to have Him participate in our lives, or is it more of a hit-or-miss commitment?

It can be very effective to pray when you are reading and meditating on God’s Word. You are already tuned in to what God is saying to you through His Word and you can use what He’s speaking to you about as a stepping stone to your conversation with Him. Prayer isn’t meant to be a one-way conversation, with us speaking and expecting God to do all the listening. In times of prayer we should also open ourselves up to hear what God wants to say to us, through the Bible, through what godly teachers or preachers are saying, or through getting quiet before Him and opening our hearts to hear His voice. He can speak to us in many ways: through impressions He gives, thoughts He puts in our minds, through Bible verses or prophecies we receive. Prayer is communication, and communication is a two-way street. So besides asking God to hear what we are saying to Him, we should also be giving Him the opportunity to speak to us.

Coming before the Lord in prayer is something that is expected of us, as believers, as shown by Jesus’ communications with His disciples.

And when you pray … But when you pray[29] … This, then, is how you should pray[30] … So I say to you: Ask …; seek …; knock...[31] Then Jesus told His disciples … they should always pray.[32]

In the book of Colossians Paul says: Continue steadfastly in prayer …[33] Continuing steadfastly in something means to give it constant care and attention. To do this requires a commitment, disciplining yourself to do it. It means considering it important enough to set aside regular time to give to prayer and conversation with the Lord.

We are called to be in continual relationship with God, in a sense having an ongoing dialogue with Him, talking to Him, asking His guidance, praising Him, listening to Him throughout our day. This can be seen as the meaning of Paul’s general admonition to pray “continually” or “without ceasing.”[34]

While there is no exact prescribed formula for how to pray or how long to pray, Scripture is quite definite that we should pray. I’m pretty confident in stating that most of us Christians don’t devote the time to prayer that we should. Polls over the past years have shown that Christians, even dedicated ones, pray on average about seven minutes a day. This doesn’t seem to be the kind of time invested into practicing a skill that will result in proficiency. So how do we develop a better prayer life? There really isn’t any other way than by praying. How do you build up to running five kilometers a day? You start exercising or running today, and you keep it up regularly, increasing the time for which you run and the distance you cover as your endurance builds. It works the same with prayer. You begin by beginning. If you don’t take the first step by carving out a little time for it, most likely you won’t pray regularly.

Some Methods to Consider

Start with committing even ten minutes a day to prayer. If you are unsure what to pray about or how to go about it, try using the well-known ACTS method of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.

Begin with adoration—praising, adoring, and glorifying God in prayer. You might find it helpful to incorporate verses from the Bible into your praise. (You can find a collection of verses on glorifying and praising God here.) After praising and worshipping, you can move on to confession—acknowledging your sins and asking for forgiveness. You can then move on to thanksgiving, expressing your gratitude for all the Lord has done and is doing for you. (Verses on thanksgiving also here.) After that, you can bring your prayers for yourself and others to Him in supplication. If you spend just a few minutes on each section, you will already be over the seven-minute average.

Another fruitful means of prayer is combining it with your Bible reading and meditation. As you read and dwell on what you are reading, as you apply it to your life and circumstances, as the Lord lays thoughts on your heart through His Word, bring those things to Him in prayer.

Prayer is our means of communicating with God, of coming into and remaining in His presence. As we climb onto our Heavenly Father’s lap, as His children, we can ask Him anything, we can trust Him with everything. We can feel His love for us, His assurance, His care. In our time of communicating with Him we learn from Him, and in time we become more like Him. If we truly desire to become more like Jesus, we must walk with Him on the path of prayer.


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[1] Mark 14:36.

[2] The one time Jesus didn’t use the name of the Father in prayer, as He normally did, was on the cross, when at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” which means, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).In this case He was quoting Psalm 22:1.

[3] Matthew 11:25–26, 26:42; Mark 14:36; Luke 10:21, 23:34,46; John 11:41, 12:27–28; 17:1,5,11,21, 24–25.

[4] Mark 14:36, Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6.

[5] J. B. Green, S. McKnight, and I. H. Marshall, eds., Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1992).

[6] Romans 8:15.

[7] Galatians 4:6–7.

[9] See “The Unjust Judge.”

[10] Matthew 7:9–11.

[11] Luke 18:10–14.

[12] Matthew 18:21–35.

[13] Matthew 6:5–6; Mark 12:38–40; Luke 20:47.

[14] Matthew 26:41.

[15] Mark 11:24, 9:23.

[16] J. G. S. S. Thomson, Prayer (1996), quoted in New Bible Dictionary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press).

[17] Luke 5:15–16, 6:12.

[18] Luke 10:21; John 6:11, 11:41; Matthew 26:27.

[19] Luke 6:12.

[20] John 17:6–9, 20–26.

[21] Matthew 6:9–13; Luke 11:2–4.

[22] Matthew 8:2.

[23] Matthew 9:18.

[24] Matthew 14:33.

[25] John 9:37–38.

[26] Celebration of Discipline, 3rd ed. (HarperCollins, 2002), 33–34.

[27] Mark 1:35.

[28] Acts 6:4.

[29] Matthew 6:5–6.

[30] Matthew 6:9 NIV.

[31] Luke 11:9 NIV.

[32] Luke 18:1 NIV.

[33] Colossians 4:2.

[34] 1 Thessalonians 5:17 NIV.