Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us how to pray, as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1).
I can so easily imagine myself in this anonymous disciple’s shoes. Jesus has asked for some quiet time to pray; we observe him from a distance, seeing him in deep conversation with God. Jesus goes on and on, as absorbed as someone caught up in a good book. Contrast that with my own prayer life: a struggle to still my wandering mind enough to focus on God for even a few minutes. What is Jesus saying to God? How is he doing this?
So when he returns to our group, a natural question comes to my lips: “Jesus, teach us how to pray!” And Jesus answers!
“When you pray, say:
‘Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial’” (Luke 11:2-4).
And my inward reaction to that simple answer would have been: “C’mon Jesus – you’ve been off praying for an hour. There’s got to be more to it than that!”
But maybe there’s not. Maybe Jesus’ prayer life really is this simple.
In these six lines, Jesus covers a lot of bases.
- “Father, hallowed be your name.” (Praise God for who God is: our holy, one-and-only Creator God.)
- “Your kingdom come.” (Pray for the big stuff, like God’s will for this world. Listen for how you might participate in bringing God’s kingdom.)
- “Give us each day our daily bread.” (Also pray for the small stuff, like our own basic necessities. Trust that God will provide them, day by day.)
- “And forgive us our sins…” (Acknowledge that you have gone against God’s will. Pray for your own forgiveness.)
- “…for we ourselves forgive anyone indebted to us.” (Pray for the forgiveness of anyone with whom you’ve got issues.)
- “And do not bring us into the time of trial.” (Pray like you’re going to die at the end of your prayer. Pray knowing that your life is in God’s hands.)
That’s enough material, right there, to keep us talking with God for quite a while. For some of you, this the place to start – especially if you’ve not had much of a prayer life to speak of. Follow this outline for a week. Every day, work through those six points. See what happens.
But even as much as the Lord’s Prayer gives us to say… it’s still interesting that Jesus didn’t give us more instruction on this point. Prayer is something we’re supposed to do “without ceasing” (1 Thess 15:17). What else do we say to God after we finish covering these 6 categories? How are we to pray?
As I’ve mentioned before, the best way to learn to pray… is by praying. So I want to invite you – right now – to try four prayer experiments. God made us all different, so some more than others will appeal to you. See which one you might work into your own prayer routines.
Prayer experiment 1: Pray your distractions.
A common issue with prayer is that our mind wanders – to our worries, our to do lists, or whatever else. In this kind of prayer, you don’t resist those wanderings – you lean into them. If your mind starts to go to your grocery list, then pray for what you’ll put into your body this week. If you think of your bills, pray for them. If you think of a friend, pray for him or her. See these not as distractions, but the Holy Spirit guiding you. Give it a few minutes and see what you’re led to pray for.
Prayer experiment 2: Repeating a word or phrase.
In this kind of prayer, we simply repeat one word or a short phrase over and over. It can be anything – “God, help me” or “love” or “peace” or “forgiveness.” Try it now with simply the name, “Jesus.” Take 60 seconds (or up to 5 minutes) to sit quietly and repeat that name to yourself. Focus on it. Let it quiet your mind and bring your attention to Jesus.
Prayer experiment 3: Silence.
Prayer gets a bad reputation for being all us talking. Sometimes, prayer is us listening. Silence is required for that. I like to read a passage of Scripture, set the timer on my phone, and sit in silence. Best is when I can go outside and sit… but any place where you won’t be disrupted will do. You might start by reading the opening lines of Psalm 19:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
Then sit in silence for somewhere between 60 seconds and 5 minutes, depending on how much time you’ve got. Do your best to listen to God. When I do this, sometimes I “hear” something… but many times it simply feels like God and I are sitting quietly together.
Prayer experiment 4: Release and receive.
We’re doing this one last because I find it especially helpful at the end of the day.
Put your hands out in front of you, palms facing down. Begin a prayer with, “God, I release…” Then name the things you need to release. Things like anger, judgment, lust, control, envy, or negativity – but be specific (“God, I release to you my anger with so-and-so”).
When you are done letting go of what you need to let go of, turn your hands over, palms up. Begin a prayer with, “God, I receive from you…” Then ask God to give you what you need. Often that will be the opposite of what you just released: forgiveness, grace, purity of heart, commitment, faith, good will. Again, try to be specific (“God, I receive from you love for my enemies”).
Now that you’ve tried four prayer experiments… Which one(s) did you like? Which ones didn’t you like?
None of these are “right” or “wrong.” What matters is not how you pray but that you pray. Maybe this is Jesus’ best lesson in prayer: he prayed often (see Luke 3:21, 6:12, 9:18, 9:28, and 22:39 for a start).
So maybe you follow a formula for prayer; maybe you talk extemporaneously. Maybe you journal your prayers or say them out loud or just think them in your head. Maybe you pray at appointed times or impromptu all day long. Any are good. All are good. Just pray… and learn by the doing.