The Bible answers the questions: To whom should we pray? When should we pray? How long should our prayers be? Should our prayers be public or private? What or whom should we pray for? Is there a prescribed posture to assume in prayer? The Lord’s Prayer was part of Jesus’ instruction about how to pray.
If you’re wondering about how to pray an effective prayer, you’re not alone—even a disciple of Jesus asked Him for instructions about how to pray:
“Now it came to pass, as He was praying in a certain place, when He ceased, that one of His disciples said to Him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples’” (Luke 11:1).
Prayer is our means of communicating with God. As with any personal relationship, interaction with God matures as we spend more time with Him.
As the Lord’s disciple indicated, prayer is something that does not come naturally to us—it’s something we have to be taught. The inspired Word of God provides the answers to some frequently asked questions about how to pray.
Pray to the Father
Jesus was very clear that our prayers are directed to God the Father: “Pray to your Father who is in the secret place” (Matthew 6:6). “In this manner, therefore pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name’” (verse 9).
Now that Jesus Christ is in heaven as the Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5), we pray “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 5:20). Jesus said we can ask the Father for anything in His name (John 14:13-14).
Though Christ was very clear, it is amazing how many churches pray in ways that directly contradict this instruction. Prayers are not to be directed to angels, Mary or any saints!
When should we pray?
The Bible doesn’t prescribe a “correct” time to pray—on the contrary, it shows us that many of God’s people prayed throughout the day and at different times.
In Psalm 55:17 King David said he would pray in the “evening and morning and at noon.” Daniel also prayed three times a day (Daniel 6:10, 13).
There are several references to praying in the middle of the afternoon (“at the ninth hour”) while the 119th Psalm talks about praising God “seven times a day” (Psalm 119:164). Many Christians make it a point to pray at the beginning and end of each day, making sure they “bookend” their days in conversation with God.
There’s no wrong time for prayer—the important thing is that we set aside time to pray regularly. Paul even said to pray “without ceasing”—meaning that prayer should be a regular and consistent part of our daily lives and not something we resort to only at difficult times (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
How long should our prayers be?
How long you pray is a lot like when you choose to pray—the Bible doesn’t offer any specific guidelines for us on those counts.
For example, when Jesus selected His disciples, He spent the entire night praying (Luke 6:12-13). But then He warned those same disciples against praying “like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward” (Matthew 6:5).
He also warned them to “beware of the scribes, who desire to go around in long robes, love greetings in the marketplaces, the best seats in the synagogues, and the best places at feasts, who devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. These will receive greater condemnation” (Mark 12:38-40).
Compare the scribes’ prayers with the prayer of Elijah recorded in 1 Kings 18. In an attempt to be heard by their god, 450 priests of Baal spent the day shouting to their god and cutting themselves—but there was no answer.
After they’d exhausted themselves, Elijah offered this simple prayer to the true God: “LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again” (1 Kings 18:36-37).
Those few words were all it took—in response, God sent fire down from heaven to consume Elijah’s sacrifice, exposing the prophets of Baal as the frauds they were.
Prayers don’t always have to be long. But to have a real relationship with God, your prayers won’t always be short either. What’s important is what you’re choosing to talk to God about, and giving it as much time as it needs.
Should our prayers be public or private?
In general, our prayers are intended to be private conversation between us and God: “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” (Matthew 6:6). This lines up with Jesus’ own example—He was often alone when He prayed (Matthew 14:23; Mark 1:35).
However, the Bible also includes examples of public prayers—at dedications (1 Kings 8:22), while worshipping and fellowshipping together (Acts 21:4-5), when seeking God’s guidance (Acts 1:24-25), before eating a group meal (Luke 24:30; Acts 27:35) and more.
What should we pray about? Who should we pray for?
In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus provided us with a basic template of how to pray and what to pray for (Matthew 6:9-13).
He explained that we should ask our Father for His Kingdom to come and for His will to be done—which includes praying for the work of His Church to be done. We are also told to ask for our daily needs, for forgiveness and for deliverance from “the evil one” (Satan).
He also told us to pray for those who spitefully use us and persecute us (Matthew 5:44).
In his epistle, James wrote that we should pray for one another (James 5:16). Paul expanded that to include praying for all people: “Therefore 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” (1 Timothy 2:1-2).
Prayer is an opportunity for us to take all of our concerns and worries to the throne of God and request His assistance. It’s a time to give God thanks for our blessings and for His goodness, to repent of our sins while refocusing ourselves on His plan, His power and His coming Kingdom. It’s also a time to request God’s aid and intervention in the lives of those who need it—even our enemies.In other words, prayer is an opportunity for us to take all of our concerns and worries to the throne of God and request His assistance. It’s a time to give God thanks for our blessings and for His goodness, to repent of our sins while refocusing ourselves on His plan, His power and His coming Kingdom. It’s also a time to request God’s aid and intervention in the lives of those who need it—even our enemies.
Is there a proper position for prayer?
The Bible gives examples of people praying while standing, kneeling, prostrating themselves on the ground and sitting.
King Solomon stood as he prayed (1 Kings 8:22), but he also prayed when he was kneeling before the altar (1 Kings 8:54). Jesus Christ, the prophet Daniel, Stephen the martyr, the apostle Peter and the apostle Paul also knelt while praying (Luke 22:41; Daniel 6:10; Acts 7:60; Acts 9:40; Acts 20:36; Acts 21:5). Kneeling is a sign of submission to God, and Romans 14:11 says, “Every knee shall bow to Me.”
Others such as Abram, Moses, Aaron and King David prostrated themselves in prayer, but David also sat as he prayed (2 Samuel 7:18).
The apostle Paul wrote to the young evangelist, Timothy, “I desire therefore that the men pray everywhere, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and doubting” (1 Timothy 2:8). King David exhorted the people to lift up their hands in the sanctuary (Psalm 134:2).
It seems there are various respectful ways to approach God, depending on the circumstances, and you do not have to assume a particular position in order to be heard.
How can we make our prayers more effective?
There are two elements to a successful prayer: being heard by God and being answered by God.
Being heard by God
The good news is that we are the only ones who can get in the way of God hearing our prayers. In reprimanding his countrymen for their sinful way of life, the prophet Isaiah remarked, “Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; nor His ear heavy, that it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; and your sins have hidden His face from you, so that He will not hear” (Isaiah 59:1-2).
There’s never a time when God can’t hear us, but there are times when He chooses not to hear us. If we’re willfully disregarding His laws and commandments, it doesn’t make any sense that He would be eager to hear our requests. Thankfully, God also tells us, “If My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin” (2 Chronicles 7:14).
There’s no place or time that prevents God from hearing our prayers (Psalm 139:7-12). Only our own sins can come between us and our Creator. But if we’re willing to repent of those sins and change our ways, He promises to hear us when we come before Him in prayer (Hebrews 4:16).
Being answered by God
Being heard by God is good, but usually what we’re looking for with a prayer is an answer from God. If we know God has heard our prayer, how can we tell if and when He’ll answer that prayer?
This is where things stop being so clear-cut, because there’s no simple answer to that question.
We can expect an answer from God when we bring our requests to Him—but it’s easy to forget that “No” is a possible answer. In fact, there are really three core answers God can give to our prayers: “Yes,” “No” and “Not yet.” The trouble is that, from our perspective, it’s not always easy to tell the no from the not yet—and what’s worse, the not yet doesn’t usually come with a time frame.
Some Bible verses related to God and answered prayer
Here are a handful of important verses to keep in mind when it comes to waiting on answers from God:
- “But, beloved, do not forget this one thing, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:8-9).
- “You lust and do not have. You murder and covet and cannot obtain. You fight and war. Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (James 4:2-3).
- “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the LORD, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to Me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:11-13).
- “Many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the LORD that will stand” (Proverbs 19:21, English Standard Version).
- “Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6).
- “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).
The bigger picture about when and how God answers prayers
When we put all these puzzle pieces together, we start to get a glimpse of the bigger picture, namely:
God wants what’s best for you. And not just you—He wants what’s best for everyone, all around the world. He also has a perfect perspective, which we as human beings can’t possibly have. We see things through the lenses of our culture, our recent history, our limited lifespan. God, however, sees all things, everywhere, all the time. And He sees all the complicated interactions and relations between each of those things, both in this moment and throughout time.
When we come before God and make a request, we have to remember the difference between what He sees and what we see. We have to remember that what we think we need isn’t necessarily what we need—and that what we think is best isn’t necessarily what’s best.
There are a lot of reasons God might say, “No” or “Not yet,” and one of those reasons might be the simple fact that what we’re asking for doesn’t fit into His ultimate plan for us and those around us.
God isn’t some genie who grants our wishes, even if they’re bad for us. One of the most important parts of prayer is trusting that God wants what’s best for us, and that however He chooses to answer us, it’s going to ultimately “work together for good,” even if we can’t see how in the moment.
When it’s all said and done, everything God is doing in our lives will make perfect sense. The challenge is learning to accept that truth before it’s all said and done.
The prayer God wants to hear
From these scriptures, we see that God and Jesus want us to pray, and They have not left us ignorant about how to pray. It doesn’t matter as much when we pray or how long or even the position we’re in as we pray. What God desires is that we approach Him regularly with reverence and with humility—and that we trust Him to always do what’s best, even when it conflicts with our own perspective.
For more guidance on how to pray, see the articles in this section: “Prayer, Fasting, and Meditation: Relating to God.”