Hawk in flight is like a prayer

What Is the Right Way to Pray?

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The last time I saw Isabelle alive she was in the hospital after a heart attack. She was in her 90s. Life support machines clicked and wheezed around her.

“Eugene, I’ve lived a long enough. My husband’s long passed. No reason to prolong this.” Her daughters shuffled nervously behind me. “I want you to pray that God would take me home. Now! The other pastors wouldn’t.”

I took her feathery hands. What’s the right way to pray? Especially for someone to die?

I summoned my pastoral eloquence. “Lord, Isabelle has run a good race. She’s beloved by you and so many. She’s tired.” Her daughters held their breath. I balked. “Father, heal her. Either here or by taking her home, your will be done. Amen.”

Isabelle squeezed my hand and her gauzy eyes popped open. “You’re going to have to nudge Him harder than that!”

What is the right way to pray?

The Bible Says  

Pastor in Guatemala Praying

Every major character in the Bible prayed. From Abraham to Zechariah. From Sarah to Elizabeth. Their prayers don’t sound much like the right kind of church prayers I’ve uttered or heard. Instead they sound like the arguments I used to have with my mom. Loud, emotional, real!

Hannah Bargained

Precious Baby FeetHannah was unable to conceive children in a time when that was a horrible stigma. Her “rival” teased her mercilessly. For years. Finally Hannah rushed from the dinner table and in “deep anguish” prayed:   

“Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.”  (1 Samuel 1)

I would have counseled Hannah, “Calm down. You’re upset. It’s not good to bargain with God.”

Fortunately, I was not there to stifle her troubled and emotionally honest prayer. Hannah spewed every ounce of herself on God. She didn’t edit or minimize as we so often do. We generally avoid emotions and especially in prayer. “God, be with Aunt Edna and bless her cat,” we intone. Hannah packed her prayer with emotional content. God recorded no offense. Her son, Samuel, was born from that prayer.  

Job Complained

Job complains to God.

“I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 10:1, NIV) 

Many believe Christians should nary complain. 

I know what they mean, I think. They believe we shouldn’t resemble the kid who whines he wants a blue birthday cake instead of a red one. This leads to the idea that the right way to pray is giddy thankfulness, grudging stoicism, or bland waffling. These stuff our pain into the depths of our stormy souls. As if God, and we, won’t see the true us through the storm. This disables our willingness for God to heal the real issues we face.

Message rock on stumpThis stems, in part, from misunderstanding Paul’s prayer advice: “Be joyful always.” And from never reading the biblical book containing little joy and only complaints: Lamentations.

In truth Paul journeyed to joyfulness through complaint. “. . . .join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea. . . ,” he wrote to his friends in Rome. (Romans 15:30) 

In the “trouble and trust psalms” the Psalmists pray through trouble to trust. Instead we attempt to vault over trouble and land flatfooted on trust. But it took the Psalmists years to move from the troubled soul to the trusting one portrayed in these verses. We may learn math facts quickly. Not so life facts. All the while God patiently waits.

If we fail to complain in prayer, as even Jesus complained, we never reach true trust. 

There was a period when our two oldest children suffered on-going, serious illnesses. I prayed polite, correct prayers for their healing. Finally I screamed to God, “I’m a better father than you are!” Ironically the healing that prayer began was mine. I’d been emotionally frozen in my own father issues. That prayer loosed my chains. I now better trust God as Father.  

Is there a right way to pray?

There Is No Formula

A Toyota Tacoma in the woods

There are as many prayer formulas as car models. At times you need a Tacoma truck and at times a Lamborghini. At all times you need heartfelt, personal prayers that engage God emotionally and honestly no matter the formula. That’s not to say carefully crafted prayers are wrong. In one extremely spiritually dry period I read “Daily Prayers for Orthodox Christians.” It lifted words to God I could not.

But the danger in these formal prayers is we allow them to create space between our souls and God’s heart. Like Hannah, Job, Jesus, and a host of others there must be times we spill our own emotions into words!

Sea Gull in flight

Just Pray

Isabelle did not care about the right way to pray. She wanted her desire to shake off her decaying body and stride into the presence of Jesus expressed. And maybe I didn’t nudge Him hard enough. But God heard our prayer. She passed two days later.

In his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? Philip Yancey says, “If you are praying, you’re doing it right.”


Is Prayer a Waste of Time?

What prayer formulas have you tried? Have they been meaningful?

Do you have a time when prayer lifted you into the very presence of God?

Do you feel as if you can share your emotions and complaints with God?

8 thoughts on “What Is the Right Way to Pray?”

  1. Harvey Guikema

    Two books I turn to when my prayers are stalled are “Piercing Heaven “ prayers of the puritans edited by Robert Elmer and the classic “Valley of Vision “
    Good thoughts Eugene!

    1. I have not read those. Since this is my year of prayer, I will do so. Thanks for reading and adding to the conversation.

  2. Eugene, I loved this! I have long been irritated by our Western propensity to speak to God as if we’re reading our grocery list. Prayer can be so dynamic and soul-filling! Lately, I have really been enjoying Immanuel Journaling from the book Joyful Journey. It allows me to pay attention to God’s loving perspective of me and my struggles instead of floundering through merely my own feelings or questions. Such a gift to me!

    1. Thank you, Amanda. Yes, our mechanistic, Western ideas so often derail our growth. I will look into Joyful Journey. I hope others here do as well. God speed.

  3. Georgie Ann KETTIG

    “the truth will set you free” is my “go to” recommendation, in just about everything,… and I think our honesty is probably more for us, than it is for “God” (as He knows everything, anyway),… so, why is this?,… “the earth lies in darkness”, which is a picture of the seduction and captivity of the earth and its creatures, by the “false (would be) god”, satan ~ who is God’s sworn enemy,… and as much as he hates God, he hates us too,… (btw, it was God Who cast him out of Heaven and down to earth, anyway),…

    yes, God IS God, and we, and the earth, ARE His Creation,… and it is through us, that we can “legally” partner with Him, and intentionally, glorify God, and help to increase His influence here on earth, even during this time of spiritual darkness, during which we “see” as through a glass darkly,…

    1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.”

    so, there is always a multi-pronged benefit to our prayers ~ we help to increase the power of God’s effective Glory experienced/perceived/manifesting here on earth, in general, and of course, to our own benefit (and those we love and pray for, as well),…

    so, “honesty/truth” is one of the most powerful “weapons of spiritual warfare” that exist,… in your narrative, Eugene, you describe the effort and battle that one must often have, to actually bring forth this level of personal intensity and honesty,… why?,…

    “the earth lies in darkness” (therefore “us too”),… “lies” is actually profound in two ways ~ (1) the devil IS a “liar” (and the “father of lies”),…

    John 8:44 “Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it.”

    and (2) “lies” promotes the idea of passiveness in simply resting in and accommodating to the situation, as opposed to being actively engaged in challenging this “deplorable” situation,…

    in Ephesians 6, one part of “the Armor of God” is the Belt of Truth,…

    so, it really is no wonder that in “awakening from our sleep”, as we experience the abundance of “default settings” that await to confound and derail us, here on earth, and to entrap us in “habits” and problems, etc, that we not only experience great angst, but also need the breakthrough energy of courage and commitment that comes from acknowledging our own personal, and real, “Truth” in the face of these things,…

    we are surrounded and entangled by these cob-webby (sticky and gross) “lies” of satan that have infiltrated the pattern and “ways of life” on earth,… at first we don’t even “see” them as lies, but more like “the way things are”,… but as we experience the suffering they cause, and learn more about the Truth of God, it becomes much easier to see that, for sure, “something that is not right” is going on here,… what was once almost invisible to us, becomes more evident and even discernible,… we are blessed if we find God’s Word(s) to lead us, and in many ways, his Truth WILL set us free,… and part of that process is finding, knowing, and having the courage to express our own Truth, as well,…

    it sounds kind of like the “travail” of the “birth process” to me,… and once something that “life-giving” is born, it doesn’t usually go back into hiding, or disappear, does it?,… rather it grows and “produces more effective fruit”,… amen,… (-:

    1. Once again you take my idea and dig deeper into it. Thank you. Yes, we need honesty with God much more that God needs it. I love your phrase these “cob-webby (sticky and gross) lies”! Oh yes. How often we are caught in them.

      1. Georgie Ann KETTIG

        lol,… thank you, Eugene!,… this happens to be one of my most important “theme songs”, when it comes to analyzing a situation, or “giving advice”,… “going along to get along” and “not rocking the boat”, may feel “very nice and acceptable” to some people, but there are many situations where greater “truthfulness” is needed to bring about better results,… in all honesty, I’m not usually talking about “abrasive truth telling” and pompous declarations,… but there are many truths in life, that people shy away from dealing with,… but when we can get to the point of combining some personal courage with our own personal truth, chances are that we may be ready to find some positive breakthroughs,… I would ALWAYS recommend confirming these “issues” with God, in prayer, and in humble submission to His Will and advice,…

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