How to Pray Effectively
What does effective prayer look like? The Bible likens prayer to the incense the priests offered. What does incense teach us about praying effective prayers?
Prayers come in different shapes and sizes. For some religions, prayer comes in the form of a memorized chant. Other religions twirl, dance and sing in prayer. Others pray in front of statues.
But according to the Bible, prayer is none of those things. Biblical prayer is a way to talk to God and draw close to Him—and there is a way to do it effectively.
The priests of ancient Israel were expected to offer incense as part of their daily duties at the tabernacle, according to the instructions given in Exodus 30. The Bible compares prayer to incense (Revelation 5:8). The process of how priests offered incense in the tabernacle contains lessons for how we can pray effectively today.
We will explore the parallels between physical incense and prayer, and give four steps to more effective and meaningful prayers.
Step 1: Schedule your prayer
“Aaron shall burn on it [the altar of incense] sweet incense every morning; when he tends the lamps, he shall burn incense on it” (Exodus 30:7, emphasis added throughout). For the priests, offering incense wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. It was a command—something that had to be done. A priest couldn’t opt out based on whether or not he felt like it that particular day.
Likewise, we Christians should view prayer as a necessary part of our day—which means we have to make it a priority. To do this, it’s helpful to schedule a specific time to pray every day.
The Bible shows that God’s servants down through time made prayer a regular part of their schedule. Consider the example of King David, who said, “Evening and morning and at noon I will pray, and cry aloud, and He shall hear my voice” (Psalm 55:17). The prophet Daniel also prayed three times a day on his knees (Daniel 6:10). Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, had a habit of praying early in the morning (Mark 1:35; Luke 4:42).
So, when will you plan to pray? Find a time that works best for you and designate it as prayer o’clock! Then, build the routine by repeatedly doing it. Don’t let down after a couple of days of success. Keep going.
James Clear, in his book Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones, writes, “Professionals stick to the schedule; amateurs let life get in the way.”
To learn more about the importance of regular prayer, read “Pray Without Ceasing.”
Step 2: Use Christ’s model prayer
The incense that was offered was not some haphazard concoction of herbs and spices carelessly thrown together from whatever the priests had available that day. God Himself created the recipe and gave the priests specific instructions on the types of ingredients to use, their proportions, and how they should be prepared.
Notice Exodus 30:34: “And the LORD said to Moses: ‘Take sweet spices, stacte and onycha and galbanum, and pure frankincense with these sweet spices; there shall be equal amounts of each.’”
Just as there was a prescribed formula for physical incense, the Bible also reveals there is a prescribed formula for spiritual incense—our regular prayers.
If you ever find yourself at a loss for what to talk about in your prayer, refer to these verses and expand on each part.In Luke 11:1, we read, “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.’”
Jesus then instructed them, “In this manner, therefore, pray” (Matthew 6:9). In other words, He was saying, “Here is the recipe,” or “Here’s how to do it.”
Verses 9-13 are commonly referred to as “the Lord’s Prayer,” but they could also be called “the Lord’s Recipe for Prayer.” That is because Jesus provided the ingredients list. He laid out general categories an effective prayer should include.
In examining the recipe, we learn that God expects our prayers to involve the following:
- Offering praise to God (verse 9).
- Expressing our desire for His Kingdom to be established on earth (verse 10).
- Recognizing our total dependence on Him to provide for our basic needs (verse 11).
- Pleading for the forgiveness of our sins (verse 12).
- Asking for the spiritual strength needed to overcome our human nature and Satan the devil (verse 13).
If you ever find yourself at a loss for what to talk about in your prayer, refer to these verses and expand on each part. You will never go wrong by following the recipe Jesus gave! Of course, some prayers during the day will be only about one thing, and that’s okay. But our regular daily prayer can include all the elements of the recipe.
Step 3: Be detailed in your prayer
Continuing in the instructions to the priest for the preparation of incense, we read, “And you shall beat some of it [the incense] very fine, and put some of it before the Testimony in the tabernacle of meeting where I will meet with you” (Exodus 30:36).
Grinding the incense finely required physical effort. The task demanded energy, focus and attention to detail.
You may have heard the saying, “Details make the difference.” In other words, when someone takes the time to pay attention to details, the end result is usually of higher quality.
A key for effective prayer is to take your time and be detail-oriented. For example, we can tell the difference between a barber who hurriedly cuts our hair in five minutes and a barber who takes his time and cuts our hair in 50 minutes. We can taste the difference between food that was thrown into a microwave for three minutes and food that has been carefully prepared and marinated for three hours.
Likewise, there’s a big difference between rushed prayer and thoughtful prayer.
A key for effective prayer is to take your time and be detail-oriented. Prayer should be “very fine,” or specific. The sample prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 was never intended to become a chant that you recite to yourself and then call it a day—yet many do that exact thing! For more insight on this pitfall, read “How to Avoid Repetitious Prayer.”
Our job is to elaborate on each of those categories carefully, intentionally and in a heartfelt way. And, of course, we can also branch out of the prayer categories given in Christ’s prayer recipe. Like any Father, God wants us to share our deepest thoughts, worries, feelings and joys with Him!
So, the next time you are on your knees, remember to grind the spiritual incense extra fine.
For more insight on communicating with God, read “How to Talk to God.”
Step 4: Pray from the heart
Jesus Christ was the perfect example in every matter, including prayer. As discussed earlier, the Gospel accounts testify that Jesus prayed regularly. Few of His prayers are recorded in detail, so we are left to imagine what He said in His prayers and how He said them.
However, Scripture provides indications about the way in which Jesus offered up prayers. Notice the description given in Hebrews 5:7: “In the days of His flesh, when He had offered up prayers and supplications, with vehement cries and tears to Him who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His godly fear.”
Jesus—God in the flesh, our Savior—poured out His heart to His Father in prayer.
God expects us to pray fervently and with emotion when we face difficult circumstances in life.Imagine what vehement cries and tears would have looked like or sounded like.
Also consider the apostle John’s prophetic vision of the prayers of martyrs: “When He opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held. And they cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘How long, O Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?’” (Revelation 6:9-10).
These examples show us God expects us to pray fervently and with emotion when we face difficult circumstances in life.
To learn more about praying to God from the heart, read “Prayer From the Heart” and “What Can We Learn From Daniel’s Passionate Prayer?”
Effective prayers after the amen
God expects His servants to remain in constant communication with Him. Praying is a developed skill. We have to learn how to pray—and how to pray effectively—in the same way that the priests had to learn how to offer incense.
God makes allowances for us based on our physical circumstances, but we must do our part in praying in the way He wants.
So, schedule your prayer, use the recipe, be detailed and speak from the heart.
Those are four keys to effective prayers!