What does God want us to say to Him, and how can prayer help us develop a stronger relationship with God?
Christ's disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray. They lived in a society where ritualistic, recited prayer was common, but it was clear to them that Jesus did not pray in this way. Rather than give them prayers to recite, He gave them a model or outline to use. Clearly, He wanted them to learn how to communicate meaningfully in prayer—not simply to use His or someone else's words. The model He gave them is in both Luke 11 and Matthew 6. In Matthew's account, verses 5-8 and 14-15 amplify the model with a little more information than Luke gives.
Many people simply repeat verses 9-13 as a rote prayer, the so-called "Lord's Prayer." In doing so, they unwittingly disobey Jesus' instruction to avoid repetitive prayers ("vain repetitions," verse 7). Instead He encourages us to learn to pray spontaneously.
Looking at Jesus' model, the first point to note is that we should address God as our Father. More than guidance in "the right way to pray," this introduced the disciples to the concept that our heavenly Father was inviting them into a familial relationship with Him and with one another. We should speak to God with the same warmth that we would use in speaking to our physical fathers—in a respectful, loving and conversational manner. The reference to God's "dwelling in heaven" reminds us that His perspective is different from and superior to our own.
In our prayers, we should acknowledge God's "name," a reference to His great office and holy character. Our prayers might include praise for what He has done, such as thanking Him for features of His marvelous creation. Or they might include praise for His attributes, such as His merciful and forgiving nature.
In the next segment of the model prayer, Jesus said that we should pray often for God to establish His Kingdom on earth. (Our booklet The Gospel of the Kingdom explains this truly significant aspect of the plan of God and helps you understand how and why to include it in your prayers.)
Following this section, Jesus said that we should pray that God's will be done. Regular, effective Bible study will lead to an understanding of God's will so that we can pray about this in an informed manner. (Our detailed Bible Study Course , along with our booklets about the Bible's teachings, can be of help here.)
The part of praying that comes naturally to most people is asking God to bless us with what we want! We should feel free to ask for what we need and even what we may want beyond our needs in accordance with God's will. Of course, we need to guard against selfishness. It's easy for prayers to become a list of "gimmes," a virtual divine shopping list.
A truly vital part of praying includes spiritual self-examination and repentance, a process by which we acknowledge and turn from sins. Before we can truly repent, we must know what sin is and what God expects of us. (To assist you in this area, we recommend that you review our booklets Transforming Your Life: The Process of Conversion and The Ten Commandments .) As we pray for forgiveness for ourselves, we are to extend forgiveness toward others.
Prayer is an essential part of the life of a Christian. Much of learning how to pray comes through practice—the more a person prays, the more he or she will learn how to do so effectively. Jesus indicated we should pray daily. At any time of day and in any circumstance, we can offer instantaneous prayers. But the type of prayer He spoke of in Luke 11 and Matthew 6 is lengthier and more worshipful. Bible examples of prayer indicate that we should generally pray this kind of prayer on our knees in privacy.
If a Christian wishes to maintain and grow in his relationship with his heavenly Father, he must be willing to devote adequate time to prayer. The Bible gives no set length, and Jesus warned against thinking God is somehow pleased with long, elaborate prayers (Matthew:6:7). On the other hand, we need to be careful of neglecting God by limiting ourselves to a set time span for prayer. As you gain experience and your relationship with God grows, you will find the time passes quickly, and it even becomes difficult to pray about everything that is important to you. This growth will enhance the substance and quality time spent in prayer.