What Does the Bible Actually Say about Prayer?

To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing. — Martin Luther

Out of curiosity, I decided to Google the word prayer. I couldn’t believe the response — a smorgasbord offered in the name of communion with almighty God. One website detailed a free mini course that would teach me about the “seven spirits of God.” Another site offered telephone miracles twenty-four hours a day that would enhance my health, my finances, and my relationships.

One interesting site even showed me pictures of what prayer should look like. It said if I was a Christian, I should bow my head and clasp my hands together. If I was a Native American, I should dance; if a Hindu, chant; if a Sufi, whirl. If I was an Orthodox Jew, I should sway, and if I was a Quaker… I should be quiet!

THE WISDOM OF THE YOUNG

Googling prayer proved to be more confusing than helpful, so I asked some of my [10-year old] son’s friends this simple question: “What does the Bible say about prayer?” Their responses were interesting, to say the least. Here are a few:

  • “Don’t even try it if you’re mad with your dad — God won’t be listening.”
  • “Wash your hands first!”
  • “Remember to say amen or everyone’s food will get cold!”
  • “Think about others before you think about yourself.”
  • “Just concentrate on God and try not to fall asleep.”

Hmm. Not quite what I’d been looking for. Their answers conveyed that there are right things to do and wrong things to do when we pray — and you’d better get it right if you even have a hope of God listening to you! Their responses also seemed to indicate that they had been corrected in their past efforts at prayer and were working with a fresh set of ground rules.

But something besides their responses jumped out at me. Interestingly, the boys’ tone of voice changed when I asked them about prayer. Even my own animated son became a Francis of Assisi as he responded — quiet, gentle, reverent. (I have to tell you, however, that moment soon passed.) This indicated to me that even at a young age, we’re conditioned to believe that fellowship with God is some sort of lofty and theological transaction. The boys’ attitude mirrored what they had seen others do in an attempt to be “religious.” They had no clue how to answer the question accurately, but they sure did put on a good show while they were talking about it! When I thought about it, I had to confess I’ve sometimes done the same. And I’m sure you have too. Think about it — how many times have we been asked to pray in public and, instead of talking with God using the manner and words we offer at home, we find our “spiritual” voices, religious vocabulary, and pious pose? Surely that can’t be how God wants us to relate to him. So what does the Bible actually tell us about prayer? It seemed a good time to go to the source and investigate.

WHAT DOES THE BIBLE TELL US ABOUT PRAYER?

As I pored over the Scriptures, searching for what God has to say about prayer, several things became immediately clear:

  • We are called to pray with a clean heart: “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear. But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer” (Psalm 66:18-19 NKJV).
  • We are called to pray, believing: “And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive” (Matthew 21:22 NKJV).
  • We are called to pray in Christ’s name: “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13 NKJV).
  • We are called to pray according to the Father’s will: “Now this is the confidence that we have in Him, that if we ask anything according to His will, He hears us” (1 John 5:14 NKJV).

On second thought, even with these “clear” instructions, I still had questions. So I took a closer look at these four directives.

A CLEAN HEART

What exactly is a “clean heart”? How clean, exactly? Scrubbed-spotless-till-you-can-see-your-reflection clean? Or quick-tidy-up-before-the-guests-arrive clean?

As women, our hormones lead us on a lively dance for most of our lives. So what do we do on those “days of the month” when we don’t feel very holy or sometimes even sane? Does God hear our prayers when our emotions are taking us on a roller coaster ride? What if we want to have a clean heart, but we’re having trouble with it? What if we believe we have a clean heart, but there is some little seed of unforgiveness buried deep inside us we’ve forgotten all about? Are we only responsible for the sins we remember or for every little offense we’ve committed over our entire lifetime?

When it is our earnest desire to be clean, He sees that — whether we can remember every detail of our lives or not. Yes, He wants us to come before Him with a pure heart, but He also tells us that He hears our honest petitions. Notice what verse 19 of Psalm 66 says: “Certainly God has heard me.”

We can’t keep worrying about how clean the corners of our soul are. If we get caught up in that whirlpool of self-loathing and doubt, we’re only headed down. But if we come before the God who makes all things new, believing in faith that he knows our true hearts, we are certain to be uplifted.

BELIEVING

Surely Jesus’ words recorded in Matthew 21:22 have caused much confusion among believers: “And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.” “Whatever” covers a lot of ground. Perhaps you have been exposed to prosperity teaching, which seems to advocate “if you can name it, you can claim it; if you can mark it, you can park it!” This theology is not an accurate understanding of what the Bible teaches. Prosperity teaching takes the wonderful truth that our Father is the King of kings and reduces it to the conclusion that we should all then live like royalty on this earth.

I think this verse has left many sitting alone and lost. I’ll be honest: there’s no easy answer. But I think that part of the problem is we tend to focus on only one part of that scripture. We want to hear all about the “receiving” side of things — What are You going to do for me, God? Why haven’t You given me what I asked for? — rather than the “believing” side — God, I believe in You 100 percent and know You love me, and today that’s all that matters. God has and always will have our best interests at heart. Just as our children look at us in faith, knowing we love them and will take care of them, we need to do the same with our heavenly Father. I’m not saying that will always be easy; we might want to stomp our foot or cry into our pillows. But we have to trust that God will make all things clear some day.

IN JESUS” NAME

In John’s gospel we read that whatever prayers we ask in Jesus’ name will be answered so that God the Father will be glorified (John 14:13). This is such an incredible gift. But… the authority we’re given can be a dangerous thing. I think it’s easy to tag, “In Jesus’ name, amen” to the end of our prayers without thinking through the full implications of what that means.

Coming in someone’s name means you represent that person —you have been granted the authority to speak for them. For example, when police officers or FBI agents present themselves at someone’s home, they produce identification to show that they have the authority of the agency they represent behind them. Likewise, when we say, “In Jesus’ name,” we are saying we are on royal business. Understanding that has helped me be bold in prayer but also be careful that my requests are in keeping with the character of Christ. I have a fresh sense of what an honor it is to be able to come to God in his Son’s name, and I work hard to not abuse the privilege.

ACCORDING TO THE FATHER’S WILL

In John’s first letter, he clarifies that we are to ask according to the Father’s will, and He will hear us (1 John 5:14). What exactly does that mean? How do we keep from replacing his wishes with our own? Even more, how do we even know what the Father’s will is in any given situation? To my human understanding, it would always seem to be God’s will to heal a child or a broken marriage. Wouldn’t such a miracle bring glory to God? What about when a child prays a simple prayer of faith in Jesus’ name? Surely God would answer that.

My son faced this heartbreaking dilemma when he was just four years old. My father-in-law, William Pfaehler, lived with us for two years after the death of his wife, Eleanor. Having him in our home was a wonderful gift to all of us, but especially to Christian. He loved his papa so much, and they had a lot of fun together. One night when my husband, Barry, was in Florida, William had a heart attack and collapsed in his bathroom. Christian and I sat with him until the paramedics arrived. He was still breathing when they loaded him into the ambulance, but his lips were very blue. Christian and I followed the ambulance to the hospital. When we arrived, the doctor informed us that William had not survived the trip.

Christian was quiet as we drove home. All he said that night was, “I’m going to miss my papa.”

He grieved openly for weeks, and then one day I saw a flash of anger cross his face as he brushed our cat, Lily, off the sofa. I suggested that we take a walk, and I asked him if he was angry. With his customary honesty, he told me he was.

“You told me, Mom, that Jesus listens to our prayers and answers them. Well, I asked God not to take my papa, and he did anyway. So what’s the point?”

I felt my son’s pain. (Is there a believer alive who hasn’t thought that when it seemed as if Heaven was silent to his or her cries?) At his tender age, my son had to experience what it means to pray according to the Father’s will, whether or not he — or I — understood it. There is obviously much more to this thing called prayer than what we currently know. Though you and I will be gathering information about prayer all our days, our lives are only a speck of time in God’s plan. There’s no way we could hope to understand everything in our limited time on earth.

Of course, that doesn’t stop us from trying to figure it out, does it? Sometimes we’re tempted to think we know all the answers — or at least most of them. We draw conclusions from our limited perceptions and try to force ourselves and others into believing them.

Excerpted with permission from Get Off Your Knees and Pray by Sheila Walsh, copyright Sheila Walsh.

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Your Turn

Scripture is a wonderful guide for how to pray. You can pray about anything and Jesus maps out the best way to talk to our Father. Let’s follow His model. Which one of the four directives do you need to work a little more at? Come share your thoughts on our blog!

Sheila Walsh

Sheila Walsh is a powerful Bible teacher and best-selling author from Scotland with over 4 million books sold. A featured speaker with Women of Faith® conferences, she has reached more than 3.5 million women by combining honesty, vulnerability, and humor with God's Word. Currently completing her Masters in Theology, Sheila lives in Frisco, Texas with her husband, Barry, her son, Christian, and her two little dogs, Belle and Tink.

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