One of the things I frequently hear people say, whether they be avid church goers or not, is this: “I just don’t know how to pray.” Google this, and you’ll definitely find thousands and thousands of suggestions on how people should pray; as it seems that those who think they do know how to pray are more than willing to help out and/or offer their opinions. I think this is great; unless, of course, one of these generous folks is extoling their way as the correct way or the only way.
When I first returned to the church five years ago, I was decidedly in the category of people who were confused about praying; at least in a way that I thought would be acceptable to God. I was pretty certain my half-hearted attempts at asking for help during those years of my personal wilderness wandering wouldn’t cut it now that I had returned to church and was committed to taking God a lot more seriously.
Luckily for me, not long after I joined my church, the women’s weekly Bible study group offered a class reading a book by Bill Hybels called “Too Busy Not To Pray”. There are two things I remember most about that study. First and foremost, there is no right way or wrong way to pray; the most important thing is TO pray. Some people go about their praying in a very methodical fashion; praying at the same time, following a particular process for their devotional time, always ending their prayers in the same way, etc. Others are more flexible; waiting for the opportunity in their day to arrive when they have sufficient time and are in the right frame of mind to pray. Still others pray while they are communing with nature, say, while out walking the dog or taking a long bike ride. And some never stop praying; they wake up with a prayer and keep it up all day long until their head hits the pillow and they fall asleep with a final prayer on their lips.
I really liked learning in that study that “anything goes”, because it did seem to me that praying should be as individual as the person doing the praying, as distinct as the relationship they had with God at that point in time in their lives. It troubles me immensely when I hear someone say something like, “One should never pray while they are lying in bed!”, or, “You must always start your day with a prayer!”, or, “Don’t ask for anything for yourself, only pray for other people!” because I think this both discourages people from praying (because none of it feels natural to them) and also gives them prayer performance anxiety (which, when you think about it, is about as counterproductive a thing imaginable when you’re talking to God!)
Although Bill Hybels reassured his readers that there was no right or wrong way to pray, he did provide some suggestions on how one might pray, which was really helpful for those of us who were clueless. Over the years I’ve used many of his suggestions, modified them to my own style, and allowed them to continue to evolve (which has wrecked some havoc with my OCD tendencies but I’m fairly certain God’s working with me on this!)
The second thing I remember most about his study was a prayer format that provides some structure while still allowing for a considerable amount of flexibility and freestyle. It’s called ACTS (hey, what do you know, that’s even a book in the Bible J ) Actually, I think the ACTS format is loosely based on how Jesus taught us to pray with the “Our Father”/ “The Lord’s Prayer”.
So, the idea behind ACTS is that each letter stands for a different part, or aspect of your prayer. You begin with A, which represents ADORATION. Here is where you offer your awe, your respect, your reverence to God. If you think about The Lord’s Prayer, it begins with adoration, “Our Father Who Art in Heaven HALLOWED by thy name.” How long does one offer adoration before moving on? I guess it all depends on how you’re feeling/what’s going on. I have a tendency to pray the Psalms, so sometimes I’ll pray the entire 46th Psalm because I think it’s a perfect illustration of God’s majesty. Ditto for Psalm 100 (and many, many others!)
Next comes C, which you’ve probably already guessed means CONFESSION or CONTRITION or CONVICTION. Any of those C words will suffice (but just don’t think CONDEMMNATION, please). Boy, this sure is a personal part of the prayer, but the idea behind it is to CLEANSE. Again, there are plenty of scriptures that can be inserted in here to get the ball rolling (Psalm 51 contains a lot of good verses, this is when King David was hanging his head low after the whole Bathsheba/Uriah episode).
Then there is my favorite, T, which stands for THANKSGIVING. About the same time I did the Hybel study, I started keeping a Gratitude Journal. It’s no big thing, I use small notebooks picked up from the dollar store to record each and every day things that I’m grateful for. Yeah, admittedly there are some days when I have to really think of something, but that doesn’t happen too often. Here’s an example from one of my recent days:
-Mom B brought us food. YUM!
-A long day, thankful for the ability to get a lot done
-Received a nice compliment from John
-My cactus is blooming; a lovely spot of color to brighten my day
-Received a very sweet thank you note from Analee
So, after you’ve offered adoration, contrition and thanksgiving, the last piece is what is typically the longest for most people and that’s S for SUPPLICATION. I at first wasn’t sure why this particular word was used for what I took to mean “requests”, but I think the supplication aspect is more about your demeanor as you make your requests. The dictionary defines “supplication” as:
Supplication (also known as petitioning) is a form of prayer, wherein one party humbly or earnestly asks another party to provide something, either for the party who is doing the supplicating (e.g., "Please spare my life.") or on behalf of someone else (e.g., "Please spare my child's life.").
The Apostle Paul told his followers in Philippi to “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” Philippians 4:6
Again, people approach this differently. Some have a standing list of people they pray for every day and add in others as the need arises. Some will make petitions on behalf of groups of people, such as “my family”, “my friends”, “the children of the world”, “those who are grieving”, etc. For me it often depends simply on my own frame of mind whether I individually name all the people I pray for plus their request or take a broader approach. I don’t worry about it, because I know God already knows what I’m going to say before I say it and He already knows what all of these dear people need. I do almost always end this phase of my prayer by praying specifically for what I need most from Him at that moment; I can assure you, it almost always begins with a P (Patience or Peace!)
I like to end with requesting something along the lines of a blessing right before I say “Amen”.
I mentioned that I like to pray the Psalms (and other scripture), especially as those ancient authors were far more eloquent than I could ever hope to be. Following is one ACTS prayer I compiled using mostly verses from the Psalms (with a little bit of Romans thrown in for good measure!) I find myself praying this or one of the others I’ve written on those days when I just can’t draw any new words out of my heart, into my brain, and through my mouth. I share in the spirit of providing others guidance in moments when they, too, might be struggling with what to pray.
One last thought about praying. God desires perseverance, not perfection! “Rejoice in hope. Be patient in suffering. Persevere in prayer.” Romans 12:12
Lord God Almighty, none is as mighty as you. In all things you are faithful. I will always sing of your constant love. I will proclaim your faithfulness forever. I know that your love will last for all time, that your faithfulness is as permanent as the skies.
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want but do the very thing I hate. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do (opportunity to be specific). Wretched person that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord.
I will praise you Lord with all of my heart. I will tell of the wonderful things you have done (opportunity to be specific). I will sing with joy because of you. I will sing praise to you Almighty God!
Listen to my words, Lord, and hear my sighs. Listen to my cries for help, my God and King. I pray to you Lord, you hear my voice in the morning. At sunrise I offer my prayer and wait for your answer (opportunity to list prayers and petitions).
Ah Lord God, it is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm. Nothing is too hard for you.
May the Lord give strength to His people. May the Lord bless His people with peace.
In Jesus’s name, Amen.