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What Christians Should Know (#WCSK): How to Pray

Updated on June 27, 2016
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Dr. Sadaphal proclaims intelligent faith that provides clarity and meaningful answers to those who seek maturity in Christ. #WCSK

How to Pray: A.C.T.S. and The Lord’s Prayer

How to pray can be remembered by one simple acronym: A.C.T.S. This formula is derived from Jesus’s instructions to His disciples on how to pray given in Matthew 6:9-13 (The Lord’s Prayer). There is also a version of this prayer in Luke 11:2-4. The Lord’s Prayer was Christ’s answer to the disciple’s question, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John also taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1).

How to pray: Adoration

Adoration is reverent worship and involves passionate expression of love and respect of God. As it says in Hebrews 13:15 (ESV), “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name.” Psalms 150:6 (ESV) says, “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!”

Adoration means humility for us and superiority for God, so prayer is not conversational nor is it casual. If you’re wondering what to say or how you can express adoration, the Book of Psalms is the best place to start. There you will find many different types of prayers that are filled worshipful homage. As an example, consider what Psalms 19 says:

"The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night reveals knowledge … The law of the Lord is perfect, restoring the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes. The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever; the judgments of the Lord are true; they are righteous altogether. They are more desirable than gold, yes, than much fine gold; sweeter also than honey and the drippings of the honeycomb" (Verses 1-2, 7-10).

While the Psalms give us examples of what to say, as you grow in your walk with God, you will become closer to the one that you’re admiring. So, as your relationship with Christ strengthens you thus know more about Who you are admiring. Of course, the best place to learn more about God are the words that He revealed to us in the Bible. This emphasizes the importance of Scripture in your life.

How to pray: Confession

Confession means confessing your sins. God is holy and just, and when you enter into His presence through prayer, you must recognize your sin that separates you from The Lord. The good news is that God has faithfully promised to forgive us if we admit wrongdoing. I John 1:9 says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Because people tend to sin daily, logically speaking, this suggests that we pray at least daily in order to confess. Indeed, God is merciful, but receiving that mercy also requires acknowledging when we are wrong. To highlight this point, consider what King David, a well-known psalmist, wrote in Psalm 51, a confessional prayer. There David quickly admits that he has sinned and then fervently pleads for God to restore him by the mercy of The Lord’s grace.

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How to pray: Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving means thanking God for everything He has done for us. Notably, thanksgiving (an external act) is animated by gratitude (an inward heart condition). The act stems from the heart condition, so a lack of thanksgiving suggests ingratitude. It’s no wonder that ingratitude for God and disrespect of God are very close friends (c.f. Romans 1:21).

Philippians 4:6 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” I Thessalonians 5:18 says, “In everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” Psalms 103:2 says, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits.”

How to pray: Supplication

Supplication means asking God to do something for us and other people. This is the part of prayer that most people are familiar with. Consider what the following verses from the New Testament say about asking God:

“Ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).

“Therefore I say to you, all things for which you pray and ask, believe that you have received them, and they will be granted you” (Mark 11:24).

“First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (I Timothy 2:1-4).

Experience informs us that just because you ask God something doesn’t guarantee you will get a response. (In fact, if we restrict our view to the world of the Bible, hearing a direct, literal word from God was an extremely rare phenomenon). In some instances, not receiving can happen if our requests and not specific, if we have impure motives, if we are actively protesting against God, if we are impatient, or if we asking for something that we truly can do without. Furthermore, we are limited to vision of the present, yet God is timeless, so He will never respond by giving us something that will ultimately cause harm.

Prayer changes things. Know how to change when change is hard.

How to pray: What A.C.T.S. does

A.C.T.S. is prayer blueprint. It equips Christians with a simple formula that informs them how to pray. It is important to note that the ordering of ACTS is as important as the content is stands for. That is, one begins by praising God and one ends by asking for something. Oftentimes, people jump right in and go for the S and skip ACT. After being with my wife for more than a decade, sometimes I can’t even get her to do something for me unless I saying something nice first. Mrs. Sadaphal provides a much more lenient audience than God Almighty, and it benefits all of us to recognize that in prayer we are addressing He who is sovereign.

How not to pray

Notably, before Jesus answers the question, “Lord, teach us to pray,” He first describes what prayer is not (hypocritical) in Matthew 6:5-8. In short, hypocritical prayer is done by people who are pretending, like an actor on stage. Hypocritical prayer is also done for show only in public, for self-serving reasons, and according to patterns of the world (e.g., endless repetition).

Certainly, hypocritical prayer does not pertain to believers coming together in public as a unified body in earnest for the purposes of God. Hence, the apostle Paul writes, “I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension” (I Timothy 2:8).

The Lord' Prayer
The Lord' Prayer

Can’t I just repeat The Lord’s Prayer?

Of course you could, but take note that Jesus prefaces The Lord’s Prayer by saying, “Pray in this way” (Matthew 6:9a). “This way” speaks to a method of doing something as opposed to mere replication. As I hope I have made clear by now, mere repetition would take away from the components of ACTS already discussed.

Our Father who is in heaven (Adoration)

We begin the Lord’s Prayer by saying “Father.” This reminds us that we are talking to a loving parent who is not only my Father but our Father. The Father of many adopted sons and daughters is the head of a communal family. That means the second you begin adoration, you recognize the numerous other brothers and sisters all around the world who also call God, “Father.” This orients our love not only of God but of our neighbor as well.

Furthermore, the fact that we call the Patriarch “Father” invokes the idea of a nurturing relationship. Jesus doesn’t tell us to call God “Sir” or “Commander.” Because our Father is in heaven, this distinction separates Him from earthly fathers.

Hallowed be Your Name (Adoration)

The word hallowed is translated from a Greek word that means to purify or to separate. So, when Jesus tells His disciples to pray using this model, He makes explicit the appeal that the name of God will be treated with esteem.

Why does this matter?

Because if we dishonor the name of God, this leads to familiarity, and familiarity breeds disrespect of God. This explains why nowadays, people casually say things like, “Oh my G—” or use The Lord’s name before damn.

If you think all of that isn’t really a big deal, then that’s exactly the point because God’s name has become so ordinary that it no longer has any value. “Hallowed be Your Name” is a plea for veneration because Christians can expect little to no gains for Christ in a world that regards His name as contemptible.

Your kingdom come (Adoration)

Jesus next says that we should pray to spread the reign of God in the world as a reflection of the flawless kingdom of God in heaven. This idea is also alluded to by John the Baptizer in Matthew 3:2 when he says, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

Practically speaking, the petition of “Your kingdom come” seeks for all those in the world who do not recognize The Lord to be moved by the Spirit, have regenerated hearts and minds, and therein bow before the true King. And if you are curious as to how people who live in God’s kingdom think and act, then all you have to do is read the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew chapters 5-7). Indeed, God’s kingdom is otherworldly. Jesus’s words to Pilate in John 18:36 testify to this fact:

“My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting so that I would not be handed over to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm.”

The kingdom of God is unseen, and “Your kingdom come,” requests that both in our personal lives and in the communal life of the church, the unseen kingdom manifests into the visible realm. This has relevance, for example, to our relationships and family life, how we think and act, our jobs, and how we interact with others.

Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven (Adoration)

If we approach this verse logically, we see that Jesus instructs His disciples to pray for God’s will to be done. Well, how can you pray for God’s will if you don’t know what His will is? My next hub will explain how to discern God’s will, but the most available answer to the question at hand is that you do know God’s will, at least part of it. God’s expressed will can be found in His Word (the Bible) which contains what He has already done for us in Christ, His commandments, and His prescriptions for Christ-centered living. Hence, when we say, “Your will be done,” it is of paramount importance to know what that will is all about. Again, this emphasizes earnest Bible study.

Knowledge of the Bible fuels our prayers (see Acts 4:25-26) because understanding God’s expressed will resides in us. This knowledge of what God desires animates prayers that match God’s Word which makes our prayers more effective. This helps to explain what Christ meant when He said, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).

Give us this day our daily bread (Thanksgiving and Supplication)

By making a petition for daily bread, we are primed to the reality that The Lord is in the business of attending to our day-to-day needs. God will provide for His own, and daily also implies that we are to pray daily. The concept of daily bread has its roots in the Old Testament (Exodus 16:1-7), where we read about God giving the Israelites in the desert bread (manna) on a daily basis. This was a free gift, and because God gives freely, we enter into thanksgiving in our prayers. So when we pray and ask God for something, we are assured knowing that God has both the capacity and the willingness to give. (So, no, praying is not like asking someone who is destitute for loan). The following verses provide examples of the reliability and generosity of God.

“Or what man is there among you who, when his son asks for a loaf, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, he will not give him a snake, will he? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” (Matthew 7:9-11).

“Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow” (James 1:17).

“For every beast of the forest is Mine, the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10).

“I have been young and now I am old, Yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his descendants begging bread” (Psalms 37:25).

“Do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat or what you will drink; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air, that they do not sow, nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not worth much more than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26)

The Israelites in the desert were specifically told not the take more than they needed because more manna would arrive the next day (except on the Sabbath). So when Jesus tells us to pray for daily bread, this means we are to pray for sufficiency and not overabundance. We are also told not to be anxious about having enough or getting more, cognizant that we place trust in a dependable provider. Of course, the danger in hoarding bread or taking more than you need is that you end up placing trust in your natural resources. There is nothing inherently wrong in “keeping score” (e.g., how much money you have) but when you begin to perceive the “score” as all that matters, then you’ve missed the point.

The final point to make here is that God instructs us to ask specifically for daily needs, so the implication is that He will respond specifically to this specific request. Hence, as R.C. Sproul writes, “We have a tendency to pray in general. When we pray in general, the only way we will see the hand of God’s providence is in general.”[1]

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors (Confession and Supplication)

When we petition God to forgive us of our debts, it’s not because we have a bill that is past due. In fact, the Greek word for debt used in this verse refers to a moral debt owed because of sin. The good news is that the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross has permanently paid the price for sin, but we still appeal to The Lord as we unavoidably sin and add to the moral debt.

Asking God to “forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” is game changing. Why? Because our vertical relationship with God deals tremendously with our horizontal relationship with others. That is, God forgiving us is directly proportional to how we forgive others. Hence, our connection with God is inclusive of others.

Matthew 6:14-15 says, “For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.”

Mark 11:25 says, “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father who is in heaven will also forgive you your transgressions.”

Hostile attitudes toward others portend adverse consequences for the person praying:

“But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God” (Romans 2:5).

[1] R.C. Sproul, The Prayer of the Lord (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009), 72.

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And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil (Supplication)

The Greek word for temptation can also mean testing or trails. Clearly, trials are never fun but trials are a reality of the Christian experience. In fact the Bible tells us that God will test those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:6), and that testing will serve the purpose of making our righteousness complete (James 1:2-4).

The Greek word for evil has a more more precise translation as “the evil one” (Satan). This is why the New King James Version says, “But deliver us from the evil one.” So when we pray, we ask God not to be led into trials and to be delivered from the cunning attacks of Lucifer. Although the devil is a defeated foe, this does not dismiss the reality that he is a formidable one. So we pray seeking divine protection.

For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen (Adoration)

At the end, the one praying states the will of God is what triumphs, not the will of the person. Indeed, the political system of God is monarchy and what qualifies Him as the glorified King is that many have been given the free gift of salvation and citizenship in the heavenly kingdom. Of course, citizenship in an eternal kingdom yields the benefit of eternal life. Recognizing this truth, we adore God.

By proclaiming that, “Yours is the kingdom,” we admit that we are temporary, but God and His kingdom shall endure forever:

“For this reason also, God highly exalted [Jesus], and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11).

The Lord’s Prayer: What is God telling us?

The Lord’s Prayer reveals to us that prayer is not transactional—it’s transformational. In a transaction, you do in order to get something. The person you deal with is just an intermediary and a means to an end. If you can’t get, then there is no reason to participate in the transaction. Here, we want God to give us something but have no concern for God Himself. We therefore do to get and are driven by something external.

A transformational relationship changes you so that you set your eyes on something much bigger and much grander than what the present may require. Here, you don’t want something but your hearts pants after Someone (Jesus). You may (or may not) receive certain things but your desires transcend what is natural and temporary. We therefore do because are driven by something on the inside.

In this transformational process, only we change, and that change is directed toward Christ. Indeed, the Bible says that, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Through prayer, God transforms us and shapes us according to His purposes. When we are molded into this new vessel, we develop fresh ideas, thoughts, desires, and new prayers. It is God that may then fill this new vessel so that we may experience the felt love and warmth that comes from walking in line with God’s will.

Get more practical instruction on day-to-day matters like faith, discipleship, the Sabbath and communion

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