How to Pray: the Beginner’s Guide by Ross McCall

To pray means to communicate with God. That can mean thanking Him, praising Him, confessing something you’ve done wrong, or expressing a need you have. It can even mean just talking to Him as you would to a friend.

Learning how to pray is really about developing a relationship with God. Relationships are built on moments of connection. Those moments of connection bond you to another person, and many of them center on communication — the words you say and the way you say them. But how do you do that with the God of the universe?

Prayer is a supernatural activity. What does that mean? Think about it for a moment. You are talking with a God who is unlike anyone else you could ever talk with. He has a personality and qualities you can understand and relate to, but you cannot expect to relate to God in exactly the way you might to a close friend or family member. He’s so much bigger and more incredible than that. He is beyond what you can understand in the natural everyday world. He is supernatural.

Even if talking honestly with other people comes very naturally to you, it’s understandable if talking with God feels like a steep learning curve.

This is a practical guide to getting started talking with God, no matter where you are on your spiritual journey.
Here are some questions we will answer, and you can use these links to go straight to those sections:

We hope that after reading this guide, you’ll feel equipped for your journey with prayer. If you still have questions, please ask them in the comment section.

What Is Prayer?

People often say that prayer is just talking to God as you would to anyone else. It’s true that a relationship with God contains many of the same ingredients as our other relationships. But there is at least one unique factor: we can’t rely on the senses of sight, sound or touch to connect with God.

So talking to God is just like relating to anyone else except in the ways it is completely different.

Perhaps the best place to begin is by making clear that prayer is more about talking with God than just talking to Him. What you believe about God and your relationship with Him is fundamental to how you will learn to talk with Him.

Faith is the essential ingredient if you want your prayer life to never lose its flavor.

God is ready and willing to listen because He knows you and wants to be known by you. If you believe that, or you want to believe that, you’re ready to learn how to pray.

So where do you start?

Why Should You Pray?

People pray for all sorts of reasons. Some pray to comfort themselves in troubling times and to acknowledge there is a spiritual dimension to life. But Christians pray for very specific reasons.

Becoming a Christian is about much more than adopting a label, changing your demographic, or subscribing to a new worldview. To be a Christian is to believe God invited you into a personal relationship with Him and to accept that invitation.

Saying that you can experience being a Christian in the way God intended without learning to pray is like saying you can be happily married or have a deep friendship without regular communication.

But maybe the question is not why should Christians pray, but why should they want to?

Here are four great reasons why you might choose to pray as a Christian:

  1. You want to tell God how much you love Him and why.
  2. You need to say “I’m sorry” for specific actions or attitudes.
  3. You want to thank God.
  4. You want to bring a concern about your life or someone in your life to God and invite Him to help.

If you have never really prayed before and you want to know what to say, these four reasons for prayer also provide a good template to start with. And if that’s you, we want to share about more of the essentials before we go any further.

How Do You Pray?

So let’s deal with the practical stuff.

What position should I be in to pray?

You can bow, kneel, stand or walk around when you pray. God will hear you whatever you do, so choose a position that helps you focus.

Kneeling, or bowing your head, is a great way to focus your body and your mind on God. It’s also a way to show how much you respect His authority.

What do I say?

Start by addressing God directly in a way that acknowledges the uniqueness of who He is.

People will say things like, “Father God,” “Heavenly Father” or “Almighty God.” How you choose to address Him will remind you and anyone you might be praying with about who you are talking to and what He represents in your life.

Do I pray to God the Father, Jesus or the Holy Spirit?

This is completely up to you. Choose one or try praying to each member of the Trinity at different times, because they are all listening to you. If you are a Christian, the Holy Spirit is the presence of God living within you. So you can address Him directly with confidence that He is as close as He could be.

Should I pray out loud?

Depending on how comfortable you feel or what kind of situation you are in, you will choose whether to pray out loud or silently. Over time, you will likely grow in your confidence praying out loud.

If you are praying for someone who is physically present with you, it might encourage them to hear your faith expressed through your prayers. But if you find praying silently allows you to focus more on God than on someone you might be praying with, go for it.

The one time most of us need to stop talking is when we are trying to listen to God. You will find it harder to hear what He is saying if you are doing all the talking.

When and where do I pray?

Anytime and anywhere can work, but it’s good to find a distraction-free time and place if possible. God deserves your focused attention, and you might find it harder to listen to Him in a busy place.

Some people create a space in their homes for this purpose, like a prayer closet. Others will choose a favorite park to take time out with God, or even a coffee shop.

How do I end a prayer?

A common way to end a prayer is by saying something like, “In the name of Jesus, amen.”

But why is this?

Well, think about how you began your prayer by addressing God directly, by name. This is important because it acknowledges that God is more than a force, more than an unnamed higher power or an idea.

God is a person choosing to be present in your life. Most importantly, He is the only person with the authority and ability to answer your prayers.

This common conclusion is a reminder of who this God is.

Whatever you choose to say can also act as a reminder that you believe God has heard your prayers and that you trust Him to know how best to answer them.

If you’re the kind of person who starts talking to God as you go about your day, you don’t need to wrap up every communication with a formal ending for God to take you seriously. God is a Father who loves His children to talk to Him as much as possible.

What Should You Pray For?

Whatever is on your mind matters to God, because you matter to Him. As you develop the habit of praying, over time you will gain a sense of what things God is talking to you about and what He thinks is worth your attention. In the beginning, try not to get too hung up on what you should be praying about. God has all the time in the world, and He’s far more patient with us than we are with ourselves.

But if you’re ever in doubt, pray like Jesus.

Jesus’ closest friends, the men he focused most of his attention on, faced the same problem we do. So they asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. The result is the best-known prayer in human history — what we call 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 today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.

(Matthew 6:9-13, New International Version)

Looking at Jesus’ prayer piece by piece provides some tracks for the prayer lives of His followers to run on.

Here are five lessons on prayer that we can learn from the example Jesus gives us in Matthew 6:9-13:

  1. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name.”
    Jesus starts by establishing our identity as children of God. He is stressing the importance of really owning this belief as a source of confidence that when you pray, your Father in heaven will listen.
  2. “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
    It’s tempting to start your prayers in a hurry, getting the formalities out of the way so you can get on with asking God for what you want or need. In contrast, Jesus makes a point about placing God’s agenda before your own. He also uses this phrase as a reminder that what is true of God in heaven is also true here on earth, where we bring our needs to Him in prayer.
  3. “Give us today our daily bread.”
    No request is too big or too small for God, but examine the motives behind whatever you ask Him for. Jesus knows that when you pray, you often focus on the things you want from God. He started out by focusing on God’s will, and now he encourages you to think about what you really need from God today.
  4. “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”
    Forgiveness was at the heart of Jesus’ teaching during His time on earth, and so we find it here at the heart of His guide to prayer.Jesus first stresses your need to focus on asking forgiveness for anything you have done that displeases God. Second, He reminds you to search your heart for any unforgiveness you might feel toward another person and ask Him to help you release them from that debt. The debt could be something someone literally took from you; more often it will be some way in which you feel someone has hurt you.
  5. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”
    Finally, Jesus closes His prayer by encouraging us to keep in mind that the Christian life is a spiritual battle and we have a very real enemy. The fact that Jesus closes His prayer this way feels like a reminder about how natural and tempting humans find it to stray from God’s protection.

Reading Jesus’ prayer slowly and considering each idea is a great way to listen to God.

But this is just the beginning! There are plenty of things that the Bible suggests are on God’s heart for you — things you can pray for at any time:

  • Your connection with God growing deeper day by day.
  • Anything in your life interfering with your intimacy with God.
  • The people God wants you to express His love to.
  • Your role as an ambassador for Jesus in the world.
  • Your family.
  • Your friends.
  • Your career.
  • How to steward the financial resources God has entrusted to you.
  • Your understanding of the Bible.
  • Developing the spiritual gifts you have been given through the Holy Spirit.

Why not start with this list and ask God to reveal what else He wants to talk with you about?

What Will Happen When You Pray?

Does trying to pray leave you feeling like you missed a class everyone else attended?

The notion of a two-way conversation with a God you cannot literally see or hear can feel elusive and frustrating. We all spend years learning to read, write, add and subtract; relatively few people spend devoted time learning to pray.

One possible explanation for this is that we incorrectly think there is an ideal formula or playbook for prayer. Remember, prayer is about a unique relationship between you and God. If you are recently married, you can learn a lot from couples who have been together for years. But their experiences will only get you so far.

Learn what you can from others, but embrace the journey of discovering your own relationship with God.

Here are six things to expect as you develop a conversation with God:

  1. You will recognize that you are not God.
    Every time you pray, you are saying, “In my own strength, I cannot do all that I want to do. I need something more, someone else.”
  2. You will realize the world doesn’t begin and end with you.
    When babies cry, someone usually comes and meets their needs, but this kind of attention does not last forever. Growing up is a painful process of slowly coming to terms with the reality that the world doesn’t revolve around you. Whether you are praying for yourself or others, you’re acknowledging someone else is the center of the universe.
  3. You will gain strength from outside of yourself.
    Prayer is a way of inviting a higher power to enter into your life’s struggles. Prayer can be a source of strength, wisdom and inner peace.
  4. You will surrender control to somebody else.
    Everyone is a control freak to one degree or another. Prayer allows you to admit to God that you need Him in the driver’s seat of your life.
  5. You will communicate your real feelings.
    Do you feel ready to give God control of your life? Talk to God honestly about how that question makes you feel. He knows everything about you. He’s eager to listen 24/7. Prayer is a safe way to process your thoughts and feelings.
  6. You will trust that God is with you.
    Unless you’re happy to admit that you talk to floors or ceilings, when you pray, you’re believing that someone or something is listening — and might even do something about the things you’re talking about.

How does this sound to you? Scary? Intriguing? Utterly confusing?

Prayer is a mysterious thing — simple but profound. Billions of people pray every day. What you can be sure of is that God listens to them all.

Ways to Develop Your Prayer Life

Think about someone praying. What are you picturing?

Perhaps you imagine someone kneeling beside their bed and listing concerns or requests to God.

Maybe you see someone sitting silently. You might even imagine a group of people all talking at the same time, making a holy ruckus as they pour their hearts out to a higher power.

Whatever your picture, the crucial question is, do you see prayer as a monologue or a dialogue?

The majority of books on healthy relationships describe communication as the cornerstone. Most of them also make the point that the hardest part of communication isn’t what you need to say, but how well you need to listen.

Most of us never hear from God audibly. And yet many people claim God speaks to them. So how does that work?

If you’re looking for a formula to get God to talk when you need it most — you might be disappointed. But here are three ideas to try if you want to learn to hear from Him.

Pray With a Journal

“Thoughts disentangle themselves when they pass through lips and fingertips.”

Dawson Trotman’s words beautifully capture why journaling is a vital part of so many people’s spiritual journeys.

Some of us are verbal processors, and praying out loud enables us to clearly communicate with God. Others of us find that as we write out our prayers, our thoughts become clearer.

You could begin with a Bible verse that stands out to you, even if you don’t know why it stands out to you.

Try asking yourself these simple questions as you read a Bible passage:

  • What does this passage tell me about God?
  • What feelings does this passage evoke in me and why?
  • What thoughts or memories occur to me as I reflect on these verses?
  • What could God want me to hear since this is what He gave me to read?

Answering these questions will help you reach a point where you can ask God how He wants you to respond to whatever you are reading.

God wants to speak to you, and He’s not limited by how good a listener you are.

So don’t rush yourself, but trust the Holy Spirit, who lives inside you and helps you learn to recognize God’s voice.

Show God that you’re willing to listen, and He’ll show you He’s able to speak.

Take a Walk With God

Jesus’ closest relationships on earth were built as He walked with people day after day. Men in particular often develop deep friendships doing things side by side rather than talking face to face. So why not schedule some time to connect with God the way you would with anyone else you value?

Pray With Other People

Listening to someone else talk with God can help you focus on Him.

Think of someone you know who talks about God’s tangible presence in their life. Ask if you can pray together. While time alone with God is vital to our spiritual growth, God Himself tells us that when two or more gather to focus on Him, something special happens (Matthew 18:20).

If you are praying in public or with another person, remember to talk to God and not them. It’s easy to fall into the trap of saying what you think another Christian wants to hear rather than what you need to communicate to God.

Next Steps

Now that you know the basics about how to pray, all that remains is to begin. The aim is not to become an expert on prayer but simply to move deeper into a relationship with your Father in heaven.

As with most other relationships, the things you talk to God about will develop as your trust in Him grows. Remember to listen to God as you talk with Him. Strong relationships are not built on one-way conversations.

So what will you talk about with God today?

Ross McCall is the editor of the MissionHub blog. Words matter to Ross. He is passionate about finding ways to communicate, in everyday language, what it means to follow Jesus.

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