t its heart, prayer is worship. At its edge, prayer is mission. In between, God meets our needs. Sadly, our needs are front and center in prayer. We fail to appreciate prayer as worship and see its centering capacity. And we do little missional praying.
Two decades ago, I backed into the exploding global prayer movement. Spiritual hunger is soaring on almost every continent except North America and Western Europe. Here we try everything but prayer to revitalize our churches and our lives.
There is a reason for that. Prayer has not worked for us. Frankly, more prayer is not what we need—not more of the prayer we now practice. We too often pray “badly,” or “amiss” (James 4:3). Bad praying is self-interested. Our goal is that God please us as we offer our barrage of prayer requests. We grasp at what we think we need and deserve. True prayer is the opposite. It gives; it surrenders; it seeks God’s will.
Paul’s concise prayer theology is a four-part continuum of prayer: petition, worship, intercession, and thanksgiving (1 Timothy 2:1):
1. Petition focuses on provision. This is the first prayer we offer as sinners. However, we get stuck here, never moving from seeking God’s hand to His face, to worship.
2. Worship, or “worth-ship,” is about values. It is God-focused, transformational prayer. Such prayer occurs best over an open Bible. That is the best way to hear God, to rediscover the principles around which a godly life is organized.
3. Intercession is missional prayer. It is others-focused, standing between God and the one in need, under stress, or, most importantly, outside a saving relationship with Christ.
4. Thanksgiving is vocally expressing gratitude for God’s goodness. Grateful Christians are the best evangelists.
We should move back and forth across the continuum of prayer: from self-focused prayer to God-focused prayer, to others-focused prayer, all wrapped in thanksgiving. From the hand of God to His face, and then to His heart for the lost—all while in praise. Daily, we worship, re-centering ourselves in godly principles, declaring dependence on God (petition), and weeping for the lost (intercession). We meet the day with thanksgiving. This is healthy prayer.
Prayer must be more than asking God to make our problems go away. Such praying is earth-obsessed. It is prayer that never escapes this world. It never sits in heavenly places. Even in prayer, we are not free from the world. We merely react to carnal stimuli, some taunt or attack of the Evil One. Neither the world nor the devil should set our prayer agenda; that is the prerogative of God alone.
The best way to stabilize and deepen prayer is to pray Scripture systematically. The old Pentecostals prayed until they “prayed through.” Even when their situation did not change, their disposition was infused with grace. They rose to their feet with joy, lived in peace, and defied circumstances.
Despite our clichés about “power in prayer,” underneath is a vague uncertainty, particularly about our prayers. We treat prayer like a game of chance—you get an answer, and then you don’t. With such low expectations, we pray less. The most important relationship of our lives, a rendezvous with God, is reduced to superficiality and convenience. The result is shallow spirituality.
Answers provide some relief from life’s problems, but only transforming grace makes us better people. We pray to resolve problems, yet problem-centered praying is never as effective as Presence-rich praying. We confuse rewards with answers. Rewards come from seeking Him, not merely an answer from Him.
Seeking the hand of God, we take a to-do list to Him. In contrast, a conference with God over an open Bible may lead to divine disclosures opening possibilities we have never considered. Don’t rush. Value the relationship more than its pragmatic and immediate outcome. Move from a faith that urges God to act in a specific manner, to deeper trust, rest, peace, and joy in the middle of the problem. Draw on God’s strength.
The goal is not that God hears us, but that we hear God.
Martin Luther said, “The fewer the words, the better the prayer.” We have narrowed prayer to talking, primarily to asking. What we say to God is not nearly as important as what God might say. In the first two encounters between God and Adam, God alone speaks (Genesis 1:28-30; 2:16-17). His first message is that of blessing. Astounding!
The most critical task in prayer is positioning ourselves to hear God. He wants to talk to us more than we want to talk to Him. Prayer is the context in which God unwraps promises, envisions and empowers, directs and constrains. If we instead do all the talking, we silence God.
Over an open Bible, in prayer, we wrestle ourselves into alignment with God. Vision is birthed. Values are rightly centered. Mission is ignited. Faith is emboldened. Synergy occurs, facilitating the work of God in our working. Without Scripture, we are merely wishing. God’s testament is the basis on which we make demands on the estate of Christ, drawing on the bank of heaven. We cash the promissory notes of God’s New Testament. The Bible is meant to be prayed, not merely read. Read it and pray it. In that process, be filled with its richness, and faith will soar.
“Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17 NKJV). Spirit-quickened, Scripture-based prayer awakens faith and empowers alignment with Biblical principles. Praying the Word of God gets you closer, sooner, to the will of God than any other activity.
While we most often couple prayer with faith, there is a deeper problem. Most Christians do not have a faith problem; they have a love problem. We can never pray effectively to a God whose love we doubt. “Faith,” Paul declared, “works through love” (Galatains 5:6 GNT).
Sadly, we often recruit others to pray for us, confident that God will answer their prayer more than our own. You must settle your love problem. Paul says “we are more than conquerors” when we grasp His love for us (Romans 8:37). Healthy prayer is rooted in confidence, not merely in the ability of God, but His character.
Push back “God help me!” prayers. Instead, pray, “God, I know that You love me, and I love You, with all my heart, my mind, and my soul.” Stop asking God to prove His love through answered prayer, and go back to the great declaration of God’s love at Calvary. Never attempt to love God into loving you. Begin in the face of your unworthiness and the certainty of His unconditional love.
So, what have I discovered about prayer?
1. When God’s love and prayer dance together, faith soars.
2. The best praying is over an open Bible.
3. The goal is not that God hears us, but that we hear God.
4. God wants to talk to us to bless us. But a blessing must be pronounced, whispered in the context of prayer.
5. Rewards are bigger than answers. Praying as a pauper, we focus on minimal needs, distracted from the greater richness of knowing Him and His purposes.
6. Giving priority to seeking God’s face moves us from problem-obsessed to Presence-aware prayer.
7. We pray badly when prayer is self-obsessed; when it grasps more than it gives, and wants more than it worships.
P. Douglas Small is international prayer coordinator for the Church of God. He offers prayer resources, teaching. and coaching. Fresh prayer leadership resources are available monthly through membership in the Praying Church Movement. projectpray.org