Question: "How can I know what to pray for?"
Answer: From the Old Testament to the New, God commands people to pray. When we’re facing a crisis, we have no trouble knowing what to pray for (see 2 Chronicles 7:13–14). We ask the Lord for help, deliverance, provision, or healing. At other times, we know we should pray, but we’re not sure what to pray about.
Various prayer structures have been suggested, and they can be helpful: the five-finger prayer, the ACTS acronym, etc. Jesus gave us a model prayer in Matthew 6:10–13, and, if we follow it, we have no shortage of prayer topics:
“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.”
We can design our own prayers around this model prayer. It is a template over which we can lay our own requests. So let’s look at each section of Jesus’ model and see how we can apply it to our own prayer lives.
1. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” It is to God alone we pray, and a primary thing we pray for is that we would “hallow” God’s name. That is, we pray that we would make God’s name and reputation holy, that we would sanctify it. God is holy and worthy of all honor, and our first priority is to pray that the world would see how holy and glorious He is.
2. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Before we start down our list of needs, we must remind ourselves that it is God’s will we desire, not our own (Matthew 26:39, 42). The primary goal of prayer is to align our will with God’s. We must be sure our hearts are in right relationship with Him; otherwise, our prayers are little more than to-do lists we expect God to fulfill. So we pray that God’s will would prevail in our hearts and lives, regardless of what else we ask for.
3. “Give us this day our daily bread.” We are invited to ask for what we need. In Matthew 7:7–8, Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” One of the things we pray for is our daily necessities.
We usually spend the most time on this part of prayer because these concerns are what drive us to pray. Whatever is troubling our hearts, whatever fears, needs, or anxieties are plaguing us, we are told to cast them on the Lord (1 Peter 5:7). Job trouble, family squabbles, rebellious children, financial strain, or the search for meaning are all part of “give us this day our daily bread.” Whatever is pressing on our hearts can be laid at the feet of Jesus and left there.
4. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” Another thing we pray for is personal forgiveness. This is where prayer can become painful. If our hearts are sincere before God, He will reveal those areas where we are clinging to sin or living in unforgiveness. We are invited to confess our sins and expect a full pardon (1 John 1:9). But then God requires us to pay it forward. We must be ready to forgive those who have sinned against us (see Matthew 18:21–35). As we ask forgiveness for our own transgressions, we must ready our hearts to forgive those who’ve hurt us.
5. “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.” God does not lead people into temptation (see James 1:13–14). Rather, Jesus is teaching that we acknowledge the presence of an evil tempter, and we ask God for protection from his devices. Every temptation we face is experienced by others, and God will provide “the way of escape” so that the temptation is not too great to bear (1 Corinthians 10:13, NASB). Admitting our tendency to fall into temptation, we call upon the Lord to protect us. We pray for the power to intentionally seek “the way of escape,” whether it be changing the channel, changing a relationship, or changing our minds.
6. [“For yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”] Some translations bracket this last phrase as not original to the text, but it is still helpful in guiding our prayers. After we have made our “requests known unto God” (Philippians 4:6), it is good to remember who God is. Worship is an important part of prayer, but we often jump straight to the requests and then the “Amen” without pausing to recount God’s greatness. By concluding with a summation of all God is due, we are saying, “Lord, You alone are worthy of all worship and praise. It is Your will, not mine, that must prevail, and I will work in harmony with You. You alone deserve my adoration and my obedience, and I freely give it.”
As helpful as this model is to us, we are not limited to it. Prayer is conversation with God. We should pray all day, about everything (1 Thessalonians 5:17). The more we learn Scripture, the more we can pray it back to God when it fits the situation. The Psalms are filled with prayer-worthy verses that often seem tailor-made for our circumstances. When we don’t know what to pray, we can turn to the Psalms and read them back to their Author (try it with Psalms 6, 23, 27, 73, and 131).