According to the Pew Research Center, 55 percent of Americans say that they pray every day. However, their prayers may not be the kind of prayers that Jesus taught the disciples to pray. From the Expositor’s Bible: Colossians and Philemon written in 1902:
Many people’s notion is that prayer is urging our wishes on God, and that His answer is giving us what we desire. But true prayer is the meeting in harmony of God’s will and man’s, and its deepest expression is not, Do this, because I desire it, O Lord; but, I do this because Thou desirest it, O Lord.
We read example after example of God’s people praying.
- In prayer, they offered thanks (Daniel 6:10).
- They prayed for forgiveness (Numbers 21:17) and for mercy (Deuteronomy 9:26).
- They prayed in barrenness (1 Samuel 1:10) and in plenty (1 Chronicles 29:9-11).
- They prayed that God would open the eyes of some (2 Kings 6:17) and shut the eyes of others (2 Kings 6:18).
- God’s people asked for boldness (Acts 4:29).
- They interceded for others (1 Samuel 12:23).
- They prayed for healing (2 Kings 20:2), for protection (Ezra 8:21), for success (Nehemiah 1:11).
- They prayed in whispers (Isaiah 26:16), and they also cried out (Psalm 28:2).
Jesus was in the habit of praying. And if it was important to him, it’s important to us. Though we can find many lessons throughout the Bible on how to pray, here are just three elements of prayer that we can put into practice now.
Steadfastness in Prayer
Successful athletes know what it means to pursue a goal with earnestness. Practicing day after day, week after week, they press on in spite of weather and weariness. They manage their time and make daily practice a priority. Everything else gets rescheduled so that they can continue to struggle towards their goal.
In Colossians, we’re told to approach prayer the same way:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. (Colossians 4:2)
The Amplified Bible classic edition translates the same verse like this:
Be earnest and unwearied and steadfast in your prayer [life], being [both] alert and intent in [your praying] with thanksgiving
Earnest, unwearied, and steadfast describes Jesus’ prayer life throughout his earthly ministry. Imagine how revolutionary our prayer lives would be if they were described the same way.
Watchfulness in Prayer
As a teacher, I can tell when students are paying attention and when they’re allowing their minds to wander. I can bring the most interesting and interactive lesson to the classroom, but focus is something that only the students themselves can bring.
God calls us to a prayer life marked by “watchfulness” or attentiveness. Jesus was clear that he expected this level of concentration and focus from his disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, and we can assume he asks a similar level of watchfulness from us as well:
Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Mark 14:38)
Vine’s Expository Dictionary describes “watch” as “vigilance and expectancy as contrasted with laxity and indifference.”
In the classroom, any number of things can cause students to “check out” mentally. They can be sleep deprived from other responsibilities or because of poor time management. They can be anxious about upcoming exams. They can be distracted by personal struggles or interpersonal relationships.
A prayer life marked by watchfulness is one where the distractors of sleepiness, anxieties, and conflicts are replaced by attentiveness and focus.
Thankfulness in Prayer
A grateful heart keeps us humble. Expressing thanks during prayer reminds us that all we have is from God, and not because of our own efforts.
God’s Word tells us that thankfulness is to be found in all our prayers:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. (Philippians 4:6)
From Pastor Colin Smith:
Perhaps Jesus never mentioned gratitude—not even in the Beatitudes—because it came so naturally to him. How could he go to sleep each night without thanking his Father for all that had occurred during the day? How could he wake each morning without giving thanks for the rising sun and the opportunity to do his Father’s work? As the day unfolded, he must have often expressed gratitude for a sturdy boat, a cloudless sky, lilies along the roadside, tasty bread and fragrant wine. But according to the gospels, Jesus didn’t lecture about thankfulness. He lived it.
Prayer is not an exercise we engage in only at bedtime or before a meal. We live in a constant attitude of prayer where we seek God in the little things and in the big. These words written more than 100 years ago still ring true today: “So there should run all through our lives the music of that continual prayer, heard beneath all our varying occupations like some prolonged deep bass note, that bears up and gives dignity to the lighter melody that rises and falls and changes above it.”
Why pray? Here’s one answer from the Holman New Testament Commentary: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians (Anders, 1999):
Dr. A.C. Dixon once wrote, “When we rely on organization, we get what organization can do; when we rely on education, we get what education can do; when we rely on eloquence, we get what eloquence can do; and so on. I am not disposed to undervalue any of these things in their proper place—BUT when we rely on prayer, we get what God can do.
How easy it is to grow weary, lose focus, and become ungrateful. And yet, these very weaknesses—the same weaknesses faced by the disciples—point us to the One who prays for us. Like the disciples, let us be encouraged by Christ’s reminder to watch and pray. His example of steadfastness, watchfulness, and thankfulness teaches us to rely on what God can do through prayer rather than rely on ourselves.
 McClaren, Alexander, 1902, The Expositor’s Bible: Colossians and Philemon, Edited by W. Robertson Nicoll. Hodder and Stoughton: London, p. 354
This article first appeared on Unlocking the Bible as Three Biblical Practices for Prayer, 28 March 2015