How to Pray, What to Pray, and Why to Pray

child praying

Throughout much of Paul’s writing, we are presented with wonderful models of prayer which when properly examined gives an excellent model for believers to follow. As D. A. Carson points out, “If we follow Paul’s example, then, we will never overlook the monumental importance of praying for others.” In Paul’s prayers we repeatedly see him giving thanks to God, showing complete confidence and faith in God’s plan, and we see Paul make petitions based on God’s word and His promises.

Paul additionally had several goals in his prayers and the first, as well as the most important, was always to bring glory to God. Secondly, it was rooted out of a deep caring passion for all of God’s children and lastly it sought an overflow of strength, assurance, and sound teaching. On multiple occasions, we see Paul praying for people he had never even met, he prayed unceasingly, and he also linked thanksgiving to his prayers of petition while also praying God would fill the believers with the knowledge of God’s will.

Carson then illuminates how, “The sins that cut us off from effective praying may be the displays of evil [or sin in our own life.]” If we hold bitterness in our heart, resentment in our attitude, or grudges in our actions, we are not only a prisoner to that person or circumstance; we also hinder God from hearing our prayers. Instead, we are to be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave us. As believers, prayer is the most important external act of worship available and it is also the most effective way we can approach God. The more one reads God’s word and prays, the more they will begin to understand His ways and the more one understands His ways, the more they will develop faith and trust Him.

Lord’s Prayer: Matthew 6:9-13 (NASB)

“Pray, then, in this way: Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven. ‘Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. ‘And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

This passage of scripture came out of the disciple’s desire to learn how to pray the way John the Baptist taught his disciples, so Jesus gave His disciples and us this prayer because it literally has everything we need to say to God in it. This prayer is a game changer because it touches on every reality of life and it is transforming, healing, and empowering as Adam Clarke demonstrates:

We do not sufficiently consider the value of this prayer; the respect and attention which it requires; the preference to be given to it; its fullness and perfection: the frequent use we should make of it; and the spirit which we should bring with it. “Lord, teach us how to pray!” is a prayer necessary to prayer; for unless we are divinely instructed in the manner, and influenced by the spirit of true devotion, even the prayer taught to us by Jesus Christ may be repeated without profit to our souls.

As David Wenham suggests, “The Lord’s Prayer, in the form we find it in Matthew’s gospel, consists of seven petitions, carefully and chiastically arranged: the first three clauses go together and ask for God’s glory, the last three ask for help in our struggle with evil; the fourth is different, linking the two groups and asking the Father in heaven to supply our down-to-earth needs.” While sometimes unknown, forgotten, or even discounted, this prayer was a Jewish prayer because Jesus was a Jewish Rabbi and He never met a Christian until after He was resurrected. The language in the prayer is very corporate in nature: Our Father, our daily bread, our trespasses, deliver us, and forgive us. All of these characteristics point to this prayer being about the corporate liturgical people of God and the nation of Israel, as R. T. France illustrates, “The instruction is addressed to the disciples corporately, and the whole prayer will be phrased in the plural. It is the prayer of a community rather than an individual act of devotion, even though its pattern would also appropriately guide the secret prayers in the store-room.” The use of “Father” denotes a personal relationship, as Joel Green demonstrates how, “The disciples’ capacity to recognize and address God in prayer as “Father” is rooted, most immediately, in revelation, for Jesus had recently asserted that knowledge of the Father was unavailable apart from the Son’s disclosure of the same.” In Luke 11:1-4, we are presented with Luke’s account of this same prayer, which is significantly shorter. In Luke’s version, Green explains how, “Having established (1) a theocentric worldview (2) that is eschatological in focus and (3) that calls for human partnership in the divine purpose, the prayer Jesus teaches his followers turns more fully to the nature of life before God and within the community of God’s people.” The other major difference in these two accounts, as Adam Clarke highlights is, “The prayer related here by Luke is not precisely the same as that mentioned by Matthew; and indeed it is not likely that it was given at the same time. That in Matthew seems to have been given after the second Passover; and this in Luke was given probably after the third Passover, between the feasts of tabernacles, and the dedication.”

No one in the history of time has come up with a more powerful prayer due to the profound and comprehensive truth found in this prayer, which is also known as the “Our Father” prayer. When life happens and difficulties, temptations, and hardship seem to be around every turn telling you that you do not have a prayer in the world, this is the prayer you speak to the mountain in front of you. Each day, just like the Israelites counted on God to supply manna from heaven, we are to look to God for our daily bread as France elaborates further, “The first of the petitions for the disciples’ own needs concerns material provision…[And] part of what it means to recognize God as our heavenly Father is to be prepared to trust him for food and drink and clothing, and this petition expresses that trust in its simplest form. Even bread, the most basic of survival rations, comes by God’s daily provision.” Every effective prayer we find in scripture has its roots from this prayer, so this daily reliance upon God is paramount in one’s walk with Christ lest we fall back into our old ways like the Israelites did in desert. It is so sad to see what happens when we doubt the faithfulness of the Lord, as Matthew Henry recounts what happened to the Israelites in the desert, “The provisions of Israel, brought from Egypt, were spent by the middle of the second month, and they murmured. It is no new thing for the greatest kindness to be basely represented as the greatest injuries. They so far undervalue their deliverance, which they wished they had died in Egypt; and by the hand of the Lord, that is, by the plagues, which cut off the Egyptians.” The saying, “Complain and you will remain, but praise and you will be raised” comes from this lesson in life. The promises of God are ours, but many of them are conditional and rest upon our decisions in life, just as God promises to work everything for good to those who love the Lord and are called according to His purpose.

Breaking down this prayer into individual parts is another important practical exercise in the exegesis and exposition of this prayer. When we say, “Our Father who is in heaven,” we are acknowledging we are adopted sons and daughters of our Abba Father who welcomes His prodigal children home and that heaven is our final destination, even though sin attempts to keep us separated from it. “Hallowed be Your name,” as Nicu Dumitraşcu illustrates is:

The most significant thing human beings can do is to glorify the name of God throughout their lives. So it is not about sanctifying God’s name in God-self, but about increasing God’s praise in the world, through the worship, learning, teaching, and glorifying of faithful and virtuous men and women, so that the words of the Holy Scripture might be fulfilled, “in the same way let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.

“Your kingdom come,” affirms the kingdom of God is near and why John the Baptist continually preached saying, “repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.” This is an interesting use of wording as France establishes:

The importance and meaning of “the kingdom of God/heaven” [is] a central element in Jesus’ teaching… denoting a specific time, place or situation called the kingdom. The phrase “the kingdom of God” in both its Hebrew and Greek forms denotes the dynamic concept of “God ruling.” It represents, in other words, a sentence of which the subject is not “kingdom” but God.

“Thy will be done” is all about complete surrender and we see Jesus model this declaration in the Garden of Gethsemane praying, “Not my will, but Yours be done.” God’s will is always going to be better than our own, even if it leads to temporary suffering. The best example of this type of submission to the Father’s will occurs shortly after Jesus prayed these words, as Green demonstrates, “There is a certain irony in this, since, if Jesus embraces the cup in obedience to the divine purpose, He will also accept the fate willed for him by Satan; only as the story unfolds does it become clear that Jesus’ death represents not the greatest of the devil’s achievements but actually his demise.”

“Our daily bread,” we have already established points to continuous dependence upon God, but the foundation of this petition comes out of seeking first the kingdom of God because if that is one’s soul desire, all other things will be added unto you. It must be one’s desire and priority to seek God and His kingship above all other wants and desires.

“And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” establishes we must forgive others who have hurt us in order to receive the same forgiveness from God. This principle is paramount to understand as Dumitraşcu further extrapolates, “The difficulty lies not in understanding the text itself, but in its concrete fulfillment. Our human weaknesses, momentary or long term interests, envy, pride, and lust for revenge are just a few of the obstacles to mutual forgiveness among people.”

“And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil” petitions God to protect us during seasons of testing and trials while also guarding us from the devil. “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation, [He] will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.”

It is interesting when you look at this prayer and compare it with the twenty-third Psalm, which David wrote three thousand years ago, and one thousand years before Jesus was even born. A Jewish king would write the twenty-third Psalm, one thousand years before the Jewish Rabbi would give us the Lord’s Prayer. What is even more interesting is how the twenty-third Psalm sounds even more Christian in nature than the Lord’s Prayer.

23rd Psalm: Psalm 23:1-6 (NASB)

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters. He restores my soul; He guides me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You have anointed my head with oil; My cup overflows. Surely Your goodness and loving-kindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

In this elegant poem arises one of the most powerful prayers as you meditate on each line and recite it as a declaration of faith. As Hosia Henley illustrates, “the 23rd Psalm is a great hymn of the faithfulness of God to provide, to protect, and to save those who call on God’s name. Believers see the text not only as being a personal testimony of David, but also as a prayer of comfort to be whispered during times of great peril.” In this passage, we see the Lord is my shepherd and not our shepherd, He makes me lie down in green pastures, He leads me by the quiet waters, He prepares a table for me in the presence of my enemies, and He anoints my head with oil. All of these features make this prayer very personal and passionate and this prayer is normally used at the conclusion of observing the Sabbath.

Both of these prayers also fit together very well in that we see they both begin with: “Our Father who is” and “the Lord is” which is a declaration of truth and faith in God. Both prayers also end with “forever” pointing to the eternity and infinite nature of God. “Surely, Your goodness and loving-kindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the LORD forever” and “For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.” While both of these prayers speak to the providence of God, they contrast each other in that David’s prayer is very extravagant in how, “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies,” while Jesus’ prayer is much more economical as He prays, “give us this day our daily bread.”

Ultimately, prayer says, “I trust you God in everything, I put my hope and faith in you, and I count on you to provide for me all I need.” Notice this says all I need and not all I want. The core of both these prayers is found at their very center, which is restoration and forgiveness. Jesus says, “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” and David says, “He restores my soul.” Jesus understood the key to restoration is found through forgiveness and by wiping out all chances of the repayment of a debt. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is teaching His followers the importance of giving without expectation of return. There is a connection with debt, sin, and trespasses because as we engage in these activities we essentially enter into a place where we have no legal right to be like David’s example of the valley of the shadow of death. Despite this peril, what is most evident is the presence of God as David writes, “Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.” The parallel to this in the Lord’s Prayer comes from, “On earth as it is in heaven.” The translation of on earth is better understood when using the KJV of “in earth” because it points to the kingdom of justice and righteousness found inside every believer, so it should read, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done in me” since the kingdom of God is in us.

Prayer becomes a practice of deep personal surrender as we pray ultimately for His will to be done, and in doing so; we enthrone God over our entire lives as king. The Lord’s Prayer becomes one of the most unifying prayers for the church, while David’s twenty-third Psalm becomes one of the most intimate prayers we can use to commune with the Father. One must be careful not to turn reciting these prayers into some ritualistic habit; instead, they should meditate upon each verse while repeating them if necessary to add emphasis. When life knocks you down, you keep praying these prayers until God lifts you back up and causes that circumstance or trial to act as a stepping-stone to elevate you to a higher place than you were before. As believers, we must be doers of the word and in order to be doers of the word we must meditate on His word day and night, while allowing its truth to penetrate our hearts and become the motivation behind all we do and all we are.


Carson, D. A. Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation 2nd Edition. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group. 2014.

Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary: Luke. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1826. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Clarke, Adam. Adam Clarke’s Commentary: Matthew. New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1826. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Dumitraşcu, Nicu. “The Lord’s Prayer in Eastern Spirituality.” Dialog, 52: 349–356. (2013): 351. doi: 10.1111/dial.12071 (accessed 12-8-15).

France, R. T. The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Green, Joel B. Green, The New International Commentary on the New Testament – The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Henry, Matthew. Matthew Henry Concise Bible Commentary. WORDsearch CROSS e-book.

Henley, Hosia Lee and Garnett Lee Henley. “The 23rd Psalm: An Exposition on its Meaning and Prophecies.” Journal of Religious Thought 59/60, no. 1 (06, 2007): 181-9. (accessed 12-8-15).

Rutland, Mark. “Lord’s Prayer” (Video of sermon, Generations United, Niceville, FL. (accessed 12-8-15).

Wenham, David. “The Sevenfold Form of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s Gospel,” The Expository Times. May 2010 vol. 121 no. 8 377-382. doi: 10.1177/0014524610364409 (accessed 12-8-15).