Learning to Pray

Praying Together 2021
October 1, 2021
Lawson Hembree

Learning a new skill or discipline often requires two things: observation and practice. For instance, someone wanting to play the violin will watch the instructor carefully: the position of her fingers, the way she holds the bow, the angle of the instrument, the rhythm of her movements. These components combine to produce beautiful music, at times slow and soothing and passionately energetic at other times. The student must then take up his own instrument and try to replicate the finger positions, bow placement, instrument angle, and rhythm of his instructor. After several repeated cycles of observation and practice, the music flowing from his violin is as elegant as his teacher’s.

We often refer to our corporate prayer gatherings as “concerts of prayer”--and for good reason! The voices of saints praying together are like the individual instruments in the orchestra joining together before the throne of God. And like learning to play the violin, learning to pray also requires observation and practice. At times, you may feel intimidated (“She prays so well! I’ll never be able pray like her.”) or frustrated (“I just sound so awkward...”), yet those aren’t valid excuses to stop learning how to pray, even in corporate settings. D.A. Carson says in his book Praying with Paul, “Many facets of Christian discipleship, not least prayer, are rather more effectively passed on by modeling than by formal teaching. Good praying is more easily caught than taught.” With that in mind, let’s look at two questions: “Who are we to observe?” and “How should we practice?”

Who Are We to Observe?
God, in His mercy, has provided a wealth of instructors who can teach us to pray:

Jesus - By looking to Jesus, we can observe what to prioritize in our prayers: praise of God’s holiness, mercy, grace, and justice; the coming of His kingdom; His will to be done; and His sustenance and provision for His people. This is seen most clearly in the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4) and the High Priestly Prayer (John 17).

The Psalmists - No matter what emotion you are experiencing at the moment, it is likely to be addressed in Psalms. As you read the Psalms, make a note of key chapters that can be used in your daily life: psalms of rejoicing, grief, petition, etc. Then when you face those situations, you have a quick reference guide to fuel your prayer. Also notice how the authors, even in their darkest moments, remind themselves of God’s faithfulness and promises to keep them from despair and kindle their hope.

Saints of the Past - We can also observe believers from church history to see how they prayed in their historical contexts. While there are a plethora of examples, two of my favorite collections of prayers are The Valley of Vision and Piercing Heaven. While there is nothing wrong with praying for temporal things, by observing the prayers of past saints, we learn to shift our petitions to what is needed for our sanctification.
Saints in the Present - The greatest growth in your prayer life will come from observing the flesh-and-blood saints in your family and local church. If you want to learn to pray, surround yourself with men and women who pray well. Observe what they pray about, how they weave in the truths and promises of Scripture, how they relate to God, and what they request for themselves.

How Should We Practice?
It is not enough to observe the prayers of others; if we want to learn how to pray, we must practice what we have observed.

Pray in Private - Pray on a daily basis, implementing the lessons learned from your observations of others. Try to intentionally include extended times of adoration, confession, and thanksgiving before rushing to supplication. As you make your supplication, make requests for more eternally-focused needs in addition to the usual temporal needs.

Write Your Prayers
Many find it difficult to weave Scripture into their prayers “on the fly” when praying alone or in front of others, but writing a prayer down and then intentionally tying in Scripture can help build this ability. Start by writing what you would normally pray and then look for opportunities to insert a promise from God’s Word (in its proper context of course) next to a request or add a few verses from a psalm to magnify your adoration of our Righteous Creator. Once this is done, pray the prayer you have written.

Pray with Others - Don’t neglect praying with others because you are intimidated or don’t think you pray well. God has designed prayer not just to strengthen our personal relationship with Him, but also to edify the church as we pray together. Your prayer voiced aloud, no matter how much experience and practice you have, is a means of grace to your brothers and sisters in Christ and will be an encouragement to them.

Commit to the spiritual discipline of learning to pray. Observe godly men and women, take note of their prayer lives, seek to imitate them, and practice on your own and with others. Remember that you aren’t praying to impress people--“the purpose of prayer is to lift and direct our minds to God so that we desire His glory, confess His praise, and ask Him for help in our time of need.” (John Calvin)