Prayer is one of the most important Christian activities. Through prayer one maintains an intimate walk with the Lord and lays the foundation for success in other spiritual activities. It also ensures victory in the struggle against Satan as you commit yourself in faith to the protection and care of the Great Victor, Jesus Christ. Dr. Andrew Murray said: “I am convinced that we will never fully appreciate what the great significance of prayer is as long as we only regard it as a way to sustain our own spiritual life. But if we learn to view it as the most important work entrusted to us, the basis and strength of all our work, then we will realise that there is nothing we should study and practice as the art of praying correctly.”
The request of the disciples was: “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). We can only learn the art of true prayer and intercession from the Great Intercessor, Jesus Christ. It is a school in which we must grow in grace and knowledge (2 Pet. 3:18). Although prayer, in its initial form, is so simple that even the smallest child can pray, it is at the same time the highest form of dedication to which believers are called.
Factors that influence prayer
There are three important realties that we as followers of Christ must consider when investigating the role and importance of prayer in our lives:
Free will: God sovereignly decreed that man should have a free will to exercise moral choices. Through His Word and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit He has given believers enlightened eyes of the mind to understand His will and to take the right decisions. He tests us to see if we will act accordingly. If we don't, we act according to the flesh and consequently resist His will (cf. Gal. 5:16-17). The more we are filled with the knowledge of His will (Col. 1:9) the more we will want to do it. But to be in this position we must crucify the flesh, and be transformed by the renewing of our mind, that we may prove what is the good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Rom. 12:2). It is a matter of the renewing of our full surrender to Christ to become more completely conformed to Him. To achieve this objective necessitates the interactive role of prayer and Bible study on a daily basis.
The weakness of our flesh. Even though our old nature (the flesh) may be crucified we are, as Christians, still subject to the weaknesses and infirmities of our human body (also referred to as the flesh). Holiness is the only solution to this problem. Paul says, "I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh... now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness" (Rom. 6:19). These weaknesses refer to the limitations to our strength and knowledge, our emotional frailty, and also the possibility of being tempted through our senses. Since the weaknesses of being human are not sins per se Christ sympathizes with them: “For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses... Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16). What a reason for continued prayer!
Overcoming an evil world. We live in a world that is controlled by the devil (John 14:30; 2 Cor. 4:4; 1 John 5:19), therefore we should pray that the Lord will deliver us from the evil one. Since the devil actually rules “the present evil world” (Gal. 1:4) we must pray for God's active intervention in our lives and become strong in the Lord to be able to stand against the wiles of the devil (Eph. 6:10-12). Particularly “in the evil day” (Eph. 6:13) when Satan might launch a severe attack against us to harm us, deceive us spiritually or induce us to take a wrong decision, we should stand strong in the Lord and not succumb to his temptations and attacks. We should submit ourselves in prayer to the Lord (Jas. 4:7) and experience how He, as the final authority, will overrule Satan and prevent the realization of his evil devices. This is real spiritual warfare, but without God's intervention and our diligent obeying His Word and following the guidance of His Holy Spirit, things might go horribly wrong.
As a holy priesthood we must learn what it is to intercede with perseverance before God’s throne of grace for the saving of souls. A priest only lives for the glory of God and the salvation of people. His prayers are not mainly focused on his own interests. In this regard we should learn from our faithful High Priest. As Christ sacrificed Himself for us, we must also sacrifice ourselves in prayer for the spiritual needs of others.
The great significance of prayer is explained as follows by Charles Finney: “Sometimes those who are the most busy at preaching truth aren’t the most busy at prayer. This is unfortunate – for unless they or someone else has the spirit of prayer, the truth by itself will do nothing but harden people in unrepentance. I believe that on the judgement day we will find that nothing was ever done by the truth, though it was pushed ever so zealous, unless prayer was somewhere connected with the presentation of truth. To achieve the desired results prayer and preaching must go hand in hand.”
The Holy Spirit and prayer
Guidance on prayer comes from the Holy Spirit: “Likewise the Spirit also helps in our weaknesses. For we do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us” (Rom. 8:26). We must continually dedicate ourselves to the guidance of the Holy Spirit to control our thoughts, prayers and our whole life. Without that we will not be able to pray the fervent prayer of a righteous person which avails much (Jas. 5:16).
Clarity of prayer requests
Prayer requests should be very specific and clearly described. The Lord Jesus asks: “What do you want Me to do for you?” (Mark. 10:36). Our prayers must never be vague and without real purpose. Do not only make general requests to the Lord to forgive all your sins but mention your sins and iniquities by their name.
In our task of intercession for others we should guard against generalised prayers for the salvation of people, as well as requests that God must bless all people on earth. Such prayers are not aimed at any specific country, community, group, family, individual or problem, so one would not know where to look at answers to your prayers.
Every Christian should maintain a personal prayer relationship with the Lord Jesus. See to it that you have a place where you can always talk to the Lord alone: “But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matt. 6:6).
Personal prayer is a secret source of power in your life. If this is a regular practice in your life, the Lord Jesus will reward you in public. When you are among people and have to contend with temptations and spiritual attacks, He will reward you with power to gain victory. Your friends and relatives will notice that you have a measure of self-control, calmness, trust, perseverance, honestly of purpose and firmness of principle that can only come form the Lord.
A special blessing rests upon prayer meetings: “If two of you agree on earth concerning anything that they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matt. 18:19-20).
A child of God does not only feel the need for secret, personal prayers but also for public prayers with other Christians. We are united together as members of one body by the same Spirit, and for that reason we should also function as groups of believers for the realisation of specific objectives. From the scripture in Matthew 18 it is evident that we should agree on a particular request. The secret of corporate prayer must be discovered, which calls for agreement in the hearts of all present while one member is praying. A prayer meeting, therefore, is not constituted by the accumulation of individual prayers but by shared participation in one prayer.
A group prayer should have a specific purpose and area of focus which demands that prayer requests and themes should beforehand be agreed upon. Members should then confine themselves to these subjects and avoid unnecessary repetition. If one person mentions a particular matter and others have agreed with the request in their spirit, that request need not be repeated in the same form by another person. If the matter is very serious and needs to be addressed again, then the next prayer should complement the previous one by emphasising different aspects of the problem. Short, concise prayers are preferable, so as not to lose the interest and involvement of others in the group. One person should not dominate the prayer meeting by praying for all the matters that were raised in the beginning. Rather pray more than once, so your prayer can be joined together with other prayers into a chain which merges all the individual prayers into one group prayer.
The certainty of answering prayer
The Lord Jesus Himself is the guarantee for prayers prayed in His name: “And whatever you ask in My name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son” (John 14:13; cf. John 16:23). However, biblical promises on the answering of prayer are conditional and it is in the interest of all of us to study the following conditions and meticulously comply with them:
- Prayer requests must always be aimed at glorifying the Father (John 14:13; Matt. 6:9-10).
- They must be in accordance with His will (1 John 5:14; Rom. 8:27); for this reason we should determine in the Bible what the will of God is on various matters (Rom. 12:2; Col. 1:9).
- All obstacles of sin and disobedience must be confessed and forsaken before trusting the Lord for other matters (1 John 3:22).
- Our lives and desires must be in Christ, and His words in our hearts, to ensure that we do not entertain any selfish motives (John 15:7; Jas. 4:3).
- We are committed to forgiving others when we pray for the forgiveness of our own sins to the Father as this is God’s condition for the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 6:12; Mark 11:25-26).
- Prayers should be aimed at promoting holy lives that bear much fruit (1 Thess. 4:3,7; John 15:16). There should be no sins which separate us from God and hinder our prayers (1 Pet. 3:7).
- A holy life that is pleasing to God is a condition for answering prayers (1 John 3:22). Our own lives must be in order before praying for others.
- We must ask in faith with no doubting (Heb. 11:6; Jas. 1:6-8). To be able to this, we must be built up in our most holy faith, praying in the Holy Spirit (Jude 1:20). Our faith must be based upon the sure promises of the Lord in His Word, which will enable us to pray with confidence.
The following are biblical guidelines for prayer themes:
Laudation: Praise the Lord for His greatness, kindness and favour. Glorify His Name which is wonderful above everything. Use sections from the Psalms for this purpose, e.g. Psalm 103.
Thanksgiving: Thank the Lord for what He has done for the salvation of fallen humanity, and also for you personally. Thank Him for the wonderful promises in His Word. He promised never to leave nor forsake you, to supply in all your need according to His riches in glory, and to be with you always, even to the end of the world.
Continued cleansing: Christians must observe the rule of not sinning. However, the possibility for sin always exists, and after breaking this rule we must immediately approach the Lord’s throne of grace by prayer to obtain forgiveness: “My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 2:1-2). Sins that are committed after our salvation are not automatically forgiven – they must be confessed and forsaken in prayer. If we walk in the light and confess all sins that were committed in weakness and ignorance then we enjoy the continued cleansing by the blood of the Lamb: “If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). Although we are living under the blood, continued prayer and confession are necessary to maintain this relationship. If a believer wilfully sins and neglects to confess it and put matter straight again, he or she backslides spiritually (Heb. 3:12-13). Unconfessed sins will harden your heart and render it insensitive to the conviction of the Holy Spirit.
The needs of the saints: The following command is given in Ephesians 6:18: “...praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, being watchful to this end with all perseverance and supplication for all the saints.” Pray for provision in the needs of the saints. Pray for their protection against the attacks of Satan. Pray that the Lord will give them open doors of opportunity to minister His Word, and also much boldness to proclaim the mysteries of the gospel to lost humanity.
Your own needs: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God” (Phil. 4:6). Thank the Lord because He cares for you. But remember that prayers for personal needs should never supersede prayers aimed at extending God’s kingdom on earth (Matt. 6:33).
The salvation of sinners: “For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). This is the main purpose for the coming of the Lord Jesus to the world, so there should be much prayer for the proclaiming of the gospel and the salvation of sinners. Also pray that the Lord will send out labourers to gather the harvest: “Then Jesus said to His disciples, the harvest truly is plentiful, but the labourers are few. Therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest” (Matt. 9:37-38).
Sanctification and revival: “For this is the will of God, your sanctification” (1 Thess. 4:3). “As obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, because it is written, Be holy, for I am holy” (1 Pet. 1:14-16). Pray for a holy, victorious life. Also pray for revival in backslidden congregations. The Lord says to the backslidden congregation in Ephesus: “I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent and do the first works, or else I will come to you quickly and remove your lampstand from its place – unless you repent” (Rev. 2:4-5).
Healing: The Lord Jesus also wants to heal our physical ailments (Matt. 8:16-17), so we have the responsibility to pray for the sick: “Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him” (Jas. 5:14). The Lord sometimes heals people miraculously and instantly, but in other cases He uses medical science for this purpose. The apostle Luke was a physician and there was clearly room for a profession of this nature. Sick people and their doctors should be committed to the Lord in prayer.
Victory in the spiritual battle: “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). “Deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13). “Therefore submit to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you” (Jas. 4:7). Trust the Lord in prayer for strength to prevail against the devil.
The government: “I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence. For this is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Saviour, who desires all men to be saved” (1 Tim. 2:1-4). From this Scripture it is obvious that one does not need to pray for blessings upon wicked rulers, but that the Lord will save them and keep them from causing harsh conditions for their subjects. The Lord can intervene and cause leaders to take decisions that are in accordance with the prayers of His children: “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, like the rivers of water He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).
Israel’s salvation and the peace of Jerusalem: “Say to the house of Israel... I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean” (Ezek. 36:22-25). The restoration of Israel is part of God’s counsel; consequently, we should pray for their return to the land and also for their spiritual revival. We should also pray for the peace of Jerusalem because the attacks of their enemies are specifically aimed on this city: “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Ps. 112:6; cf. Isa. 62:6-7).
Rain and material blessings: The Lord gives rain (Jer. 14:22), and also withholds it when His people turn their backs upon Him (Jer. 3:2-3). When we are praying for rain we should humble ourselves before the Lord and confess our sins.
The second coming of Christ: “Your kingdom come” (Matt. 6:10). It should be the prayer and longing of every believer that Jesus Christ will soon return to establish His kingdom of righteousness on earth (Rev. 22:17; Acts 15:16-17; Jer. 3:17).