How can we pray to God when we cannot see Him? When we ask help from our family or a friend, they tell us straight away how they feel about it. But God is in heaven, and there is no answering voice from Him. So how do we know what He thinks? Is there any point in praying? If there is, how should we pray? Do we stand, or kneel, or lift up our hands? Do we have to speak out loud, or can God still hear when we whisper to ourselves? What about public prayers? There are lots of them in the Bible, where one person speaks on behalf of others. And why do people say ‘Amen’ when a prayer has finished? These are all important questions. Maybe you would like to find comfort and guidance yourself through prayer to God. So, let’s take a look at prayer in the Bible, and see how to go about it.
THE VERY FIRST PRAYER
It is interesting to find that the very first recorded prayer in the Bible comes from the lips of a humble servant of Abraham named Eliezer. He had been commissioned by his master to travel hundreds of miles to Haran, the town of Abraham’s relatives, in order to find a suitable wife for Abraham’s son. When he arrived, he had no idea which of the young women of this city would be the best one for his master’s son. He had never been there before. So, he prayed. He said to God ‘I am standing here by the city well, and the girls are coming out with their pots to carry water back to their houses. I am going to ask one of them for a sip of water. If she willingly gives me a drink, and then offers to water my camels as well, let that be the right wife for my master’s son’. That would be a generous offer, because Eliezer had ten camels, and camels can drink 100 litres each when they have travelled a long way. The girl would have to be both healthy and very kind to fulfil his test. We are told, by the way, that he spoke the words to God in his heart. Well, as soon as he had finished praying, a girl came up to the water source. He asked her for a sip of water. ‘No problem’, she said, and she not only gave him a whole cupful, but proceeded to water his camels, too. Very excited, he asked about her family. He was amazed to find she was actually Abraham’s great niece. You can read about it in Genesis 24:41-47.
What do we learn from Eliezer’s prayer? First, we do not have to be in a church to pray. When we need God’s help, we can speak to Him in our heart and He will hear us straight away. And when we really do not know what to do, we can even follow Eliezer’s example, and ask God for a sign. But the New Testament writer James says that if we ask God for a sign because we lack the wisdom to know which option is best, we must have the faith to follow the course He chooses for us. This is what he says:
‘If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him. But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord’(James 1:5-7).
There is one last example we can pick up from Eliezer’s prayer. When he knew God had answered his plea for help, he went down on his knees and said thank you. This is how he finished his story:
“Then I bowed my head and worshipped the LORD and blessed the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who had led me by the right way to take the daughter of my master’s kinsman for his son” (Genesis 24:48).
WHAT JESUS SAYS ABOUT PRAYER
The Lord Jesus was always praying. He would slip out early in the morning before the crowds came along and speak to God in prayer. His disciples could see that prayer was important to him, so one day they asked him to teach them how to pray. Maybe you feel like that just now. This is how it reads in Matthew 6:19-13 (NKJV):
THE LORD’S PRAYER
‘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 forgive our debtors
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one
For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever
Jesus told them they could start off by addressing God as their father. This was pretty revolutionary. Most Jews in the time of Jesus would have thought of God as the great Creator, far away in heaven. To speak to Him as if He was a father was closer than they had thought possible. Yet sometimes Jesus even started his prayers with ‘Abba’, which in the Aramaic language he spoke means ‘Dad’. Dare we speak to God as our Dad? Perhaps, if we choose to become his adopted sons and daughters (see Romans 8:15). But we are told the Roman centurion Cornelius had his prayers answered, long before he came to know about Jesus (see Acts 10:1-5). So, take heart. God will always hear you if you speak to Him sincerely. Remember, though, that Jesus said we must ‘hallow’ the name of God. That is to say, although God in heaven will graciously listen to us here on earth, we must always treat Him with deep respect.
Jesus then told his disciples to pray for the Kingdom of God to come. He describes it as a time when all the people here on earth will do the will of God, just as God’s angels obey Him in heaven. The coming of the Kingdom will be good for the world, because God has solemnly promised that Jesus is going to bring His blessing to all nations. It will also be good for believers, for they will be raised from the dead to share in that wonderful age. As the apostle Paul quotes ‘”Things that no eye has seen, or ear heard, or mind imagined, are the things God has prepared for those who love him”’ (1 Corinthians 2:9, NET), or in another place “we await a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21).
In his model prayer, the next thing Jesus lists is to ask God for today’s food. It is interesting to note that every time Jesus ate something, he always said a prayer of thanks to God. In the West we have so much to choose from in the supermarket that we can easily forget that it is God who sends the sunshine and rain to make the corn grow in the field. People in Jesus’ time, like those in many countries overseas today, had no refrigerators or deep freezers to save food for tomorrow. They depended on God to feed them each day. Jesus promised his disciples if they made the Kingdom of God the most important goal in their lives, God would provide them with the basics of existence, like food and clothes. We must not expect luxuries. And when God looks after us, we must always remember to give thanks.
We need forgiveness
The next stage in the Lord’s Prayer has to do with our relationship with God. Jesus says we should ask God to forgive our sins. What does he mean by ‘sin’? Sin is a Bible word for breaking God’s rules. God says He wants us to be kind to others – to treat them as if we were wearing their shoes. He wants us always to speak the truth, and to keep our promises. He hates adultery and theft and despising or hurting those who are below us in society. He wants us to show love, even to our enemies. Most of us when pressed will admit we are sinners. But sadly the need to own up to their sin causes some people to stumble, because they are too proud to accept that they need God to forgive them. Without God’s forgiveness we have no future. Unless our sins have been taken away we must stay forever in the grave. God is looking for people for his Kingdom, but they must be set free from sin before He will grant them the huge privilege of eternal life. And that forgiveness can only be ours through the sacrifice of Jesus himself. As the apostle puts it succinctly:
‘For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord’(Romans 6:23).
We must forgive
Now Jesus adds a rider. If we want God to forgive the bad things we have done that upset Him, we must be prepared to show forgiveness ourselves. That is reasonable, but difficult. To forgive and forget the hurtful things people have done to us, whether it was at work, out in the street, or even at home, takes a lot of letting go. Think about those Christian believers in Jerusalem whose husbands and children were imprisoned and put to death by Saul of Tarsus in the early days of the church. How would they feel when he came along to their meetings as a reformed character and wanted to shake hands with them? Suppose your partner leaves you for someone else, or your children steal your savings. Can you ever make peace with them in your heart? Yet that is what we expect God to do when we ask Him to forgive us. Maybe we need to chew over that thought.
Lastly, Jesus says we should ask God not to lead us into temptation. This needs explanation, for the apostle James insists that God himself will never tempt us to do wrong. Temptation, he says, comes from inside us: ‘God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire’ (James 1:13). However, the Greek word Luke uses for temptation can also mean trial or testing. None of us relishes having our faith tested, any more than we enjoyed sitting examinations at school. Yet sometimes God will allow us to walk into situations where we will find our faith stretched to the limit. It is in those difficult times, when everything seems to be going wrong and we begin to doubt, that we need to ask God not to leave us. You may remember the well-known psalm of David, where he writes as if he was a lamb and God his shepherd. He says he has to go through the valley of the shadow of death, but he knows God is with him, and His rod and staff are there to comfort him (Psalm 23:4).
So that is it. That was Jesus’ answer when they asked him how to pray. He did not mean that they must always use exactly those words, or that they should repeat them over and over again as if God did not hear them the first time. He just listed some of the important topics we can include in our daily prayers.
Perhaps we could add some more. We have a duty to say thank you to God for His care and love. We also need to ask Him to help other people. We should not only pray for ourselves. For example, the apostle Paul asked his readers to pray for him when he knew he was going to face trial in the Roman courts for being a follower of Jesus (see Ephesians 6:18-20). We can pray for our friends who are in danger, or suffering from pain or depression, hunger or persecution. Jesus even says we should pray for our enemies, in the hope they may turn and become our friends.
TALKING TO GOD
God is very great, so we must treat Him with respect, but he also loves us tenderly, and we need not be afraid of Him. We do not have to use special words to speak to Him, just our everyday speech. If we get in a muddle, it does not matter. Provided our heart is humble and we truly love Him, He understands our weakness. In any case, Jesus is up there at God’s right hand, and he knows what it is like to face temptation, fear and suffering. This is what it says about him in Hebrews:
‘For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:15,16).
Immediately after outlining his model prayer, Jesus told the story of a man who had visitors. They came unexpectedly, very late in the evening, and he had no food in the house to set before them. So, he rushed round to his neighbour and asked to borrow some bread. His neighbour grumbled at first, because he had already gone to sleep, but when the man kept on and on begging for help through the door, he rose from his bed and found him a few loaves (see Luke 11:5-10). Jesus seems to be saying we may need to ask God more than once. He may test our sincerity by waiting to see if we give up and go away. Jesus himself prayed three times in the Garden of Gethsemane that God would release him from having to go through with the agony of the cross. Eventually he realised there was no alternative. And that is an important point. God will not always give us what we ask. As a wise father, He knows what is best for us, and for those who depend on us.
HOW GOD ANSWERS PRAYER
Sometimes the thing we think we need is not actually what is best for us, and God gives us a different answer to the one we expected. Or He may fulfil our request, but in a way we do not expect. For example, there was a time when Herod Agrippa had executed James, one of the twelve apostles. When he saw this delighted the Jewish leaders who hated the Christians, he proceeded to arrest his fellow apostle Peter. It was Passover, a Jewish holiday, and Peter’s friends knew he would be put on trial as soon as the holiday was over. So, they gathered together and spent the whole evening praying to God to deliver Peter from death. Probably they prayed that at the trial the judge would have mercy and release him, or else commute the death sentence to a spell in prison. However, God sent an angel who set Peter free from jail. In the darkness he found his way to the house where the disciples usually gathered. He knocked on the door. A girl called Rhoda came to answer and immediately recognised Peter’s voice. She was so excited she ran to tell the others, leaving him standing out in the street. They refused to believe her. No, they said it cannot possibly be Peter (see Acts 12:11-16). You see, God had already answered their prayer, but not in the way they expected.
THE ANGELS AT WORK
We will never hear a direct reply to our prayers, like answers popping up on our mobile phone. But in Hebrews 1:14 the apostle says the angels are ministers to those who are to be the heirs of salvation. Through His angelic messengers God can either open a way for us, or put obstacles in our path, to direct us in the way we should go, like a sheepdog taking his flock through a gate. For example, there is the Old Testament story of Balaam. Balaam set out on a journey to make lots of money by cursing God’s people Israel. God actually used Balaam’s donkey to show him he was not doing the right thing (see Numbers 22:22-32). His donkey wandered off to one side of the road, hurting Balaam’s leg on the wall. Then it turned off through a gateway. Finally, when Balaam still did not respond, the donkey sat down under him and refused to go any further. In a more modern idiom, his car broke down and stopped the journey. Only at this point did the greedy prophet awake to the fact an angel was barring his way (see Numbers 22:21-32). Thus, God may answer prayers through our circumstances, and we need to be sensitive to His guidance, as when a horse responds to the bridle and bit in its mouth.
ATTITUDES OF PRAYER
Some churches make their congregations kneel down when they pray. It is true that some prayers in the Bible were made by people who were kneeling, for example when Paul said goodbye to his friends before boarding his boat (see Acts 20:36). But then Solomon gave a long prayer standing up, with his hands in the air. We can see from his psalms that King David sometimes prayed in bed, and Eliezer, as we have seen, prayed standing in front of the city well. So the place and the bodily attitude are less important than what is going on in our heart. In one of his memorable word pictures Jesus contrasted two men who went to the Temple to pray. The first was a Pharisee, an expert in the Law of Moses. He felt he just had to remind God about all his good deeds. Next to him was a despised tax collector. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and asked God to forgive his sins. He was the one, said Jesus, who could go home with a clear conscience. Jesus once spoke to a Samaritan woman. Her people thought God could only be worshipped in a mountain called Gerizim, whereas the Jews considered Jerusalem to be the right place. But Jesus told her: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father …. the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him” (John 4:23). Jesus is saying the place is not important. If we have the right attitude of mind, God will always listen to us. But we must worship God in truth as well. It is no good asking His help if we know in our hearts we are living a lie. The prophet Zephaniah condemns those ‘who bow down and swear to the Lord but also swear by Milcom’ (Zephaniah 1:5). Milcom was an idol. We have to separate ourselves from sin if we want God to help us.
PUBLIC PRAYERS AND AMENS
We have looked so far at private prayers, but when groups of believers met together in Bible times, one spokesman would often present the whole congregation’s petitions to God. This may well be the case today in a family, where the father gives thanks to God before a family meal, or at a gathering of believers for a service. If this responsibility falls on your shoulders, remember to keep your prayer short and to the point. God does not need a sermon. Often, we find ourselves using jargon words or phrases which are not found in everyday speech, or addressing God in long, flowery titles. Better to speak plainly and simply, as if He is with us in the room (which of course He is).
Saying ‘Amen!’ at the end of a prayer is common in the Bible. Literally this Hebrew word means ‘Let it be so!’ So, if we agree with a prayer which has been given, we can say ‘Amen!’ out loud, to show we want God to do what has been asked.
It is time to put together our findings. Here are the main points:
- God loves us like a father
- We can share all our problems with Him and ask for His help
- But we must treat Him with respect
- We can pray to God anywhere
- We do not have to use special words or phrases
- We must have a humble attitude, accepting we are sinners and we need God’s forgiveness
- We must try hard to cleanse our lives from sin if we want God to hear us
- We may not receive an answer immediately, and may need to pray more than once
- The answer may be unexpected
- It may come indirectly, through circumstances, as God’s messengers, the angels, work in our life
- We make all our prayers through Jesus, who understands our weaknesses
So, let’s make prayer to God a daily habit. Thank Him for the Bible, which He has given as our handbook for life. Thank him for Jesus, our saviour and guide. Thank Him for food and clothes and shelter, and ask Him to continue to provide them. Pray for the Kingdom, when the earth will be a better place. Pray for each other – for families and friends, and even for enemies. And when things go wrong or big decisions have to be made, ask Him to show you the way forward. Then, when you have put your life in His hands, you will find real peace.
 Genesis 24:41-47 means Genesis chapter 24 verses 41 to 47. Quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV) or NET (NET)
 This line is omitted from some manuscripts of the gospels