Question: "How does prayer work?"
Answer: There is no magical formula for prayer. In the simplest of terms, prayer is staying in communication with God—talking to Him, spending time in His presence, and drawing near to Him. Through prayer, we express adoration and thanks to God, we make requests known to Him, we intercede for others, and we learn more about His character and His will for our lives.
Learning how prayer works is part of the natural process of growing in our relationship with the Lord. As we develop an active and continuous connection with God our Father through Jesus Christ His Son by the power of His indwelling Spirit, we discover the heart of prayer.
Prayer is a uniquely human activity; no other beings have the privilege of communicating in such a way with their Maker and Redeemer. But prayer can be intimidating, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the practice or if you’ve been taught to see prayer as a complex, formal, or ritualized activity.
The foundation of prayer that works is a saving relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus told us to pray in His name (see John 16:23–24), that is, to pray in His authority, on the basis of our union with Him, for what would honor and glorify God. Because Jesus is our “great high priest,” we can “approach God’s throne of grace with confidence” (Hebrews 4:14, 16).
Prayer that works—the effective prayer—must be offered in faith (James 1:5–7). Part of praying in faith, Jesus taught, is that we persevere in prayer and never give up (Luke 18:1). Prayer is relational. It is not meant to be forced but, rather, to flow comfortably from the heart since God knows our hearts (Psalm 44:21; Luke 16:15; Acts 15:8; Romans 8:27).
Prayer is based on God’s love for us. As children of a compassionate Father, we can trust God and turn to Him to care for our needs (Isaiah 64:8–9; Psalm 103:13–14).
If we genuinely want to know how prayer works, we will make it our mission to study the prayer life of Jesus Christ, God’s Son. More than anyone else, Jesus shared a close personal connection with God the Father, and, therefore, He is our best example to follow.
Jesus gave His disciple this specific teaching about prayer:
“When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners and in the synagogues where everyone can see them. I tell you the truth, that is all the reward they will ever get. But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private. Then your Father, who sees everything, will reward you. When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again. Don’t be like them, for your Father knows exactly what you need even before you ask him!” (Matthew 6:5–8, NLT).
Jesus stressed honest, heartfelt prayer based on a loving relationship with God the Father. Through the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus also gave His disciples a pattern for prayer. First, He showed them what their motives in prayer ought to be—that God’s name be honored and His will be fulfilled: “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’” (Matthew 6:9–10).
Submission to God’s will was a defining characteristic of Jesus Christ’s prayer life (see Luke 22:42). God answers prayer that lines up with His will: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14–15).
Jesus taught the disciples that, through prayer, they could come to God to meet their daily needs: “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Our Father takes care of us. We don’t have to worry about what we might need today or in the future; we talk to God about our needs, and we depend on Him as our faithful provider.
Prayer also involves searching our hearts, recognizing that we need God’s forgiveness, and confessing our sins: “And forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us” (Matthew 6:12, NLT). Just as our Father graciously forgives us, we are to forgive those who wrong us. Giving and receiving forgiveness is a vital element of our intimate fellowship with God in prayer.
Jesus also taught that prayer is an opportunity to receive strength from God to resist the enemy’s temptations: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (Matthew 6:13; cf. 26:41). Prayer keeps us tuned into the Holy Spirit’s power and guidance to resist temptation and overcome sin.
Pastor and author Andrew Murray provided a good description of acceptable prayer, writing that “it must be to the glory of God, in full surrender to His will, in full assurance of faith, in the name of Jesus, and with a perseverance that, if need be, refuses to be denied” (With Christ in the School of Prayer, Fleming H. Revell Co., 1895, p. 6).
So far, we’ve only scratched the surface of exploring how prayer works. The Bible has much more to say about it. The bottom line, however, is that prayer works through the believer’s ongoing relationship with the living God. Those who are in Christ have the unique privilege of spending their lives discovering more and more about prayer through loving interaction with their heavenly Father.