Prayer is not an incantation that forces God’s hand. Nevertheless, God delights to answer our prayers and teaches us how to pray more effectively. Seven keys to more effective prayer can be summarized with the acronym F.A.S.T.I.N.G., which is appropriate since fasting and prayer often go hand in hand (2 Sam. 12:16; Neh. 1:4; Dan. 9:3; Lk. 2:37; 5:33; Acts 14:23). Indeed, humbling oneself in true fasting is itself a key to more effective prayer (Is. 58). In the acronym, the vowels stand for adverbs, and the consonants stand for nouns.
Pray in Faith
Without faith one cannot pray to God, for the obvious reason that one who does not believe in God cannot draw near to God (Heb. 11:6). God does sometimes answer genuine prayers of the unconverted (Acts 10:1-8), but if prayer is directed at a false god, there will be no answer (Is. 45:20-21; Hab. 2:18).
One must also pray “in faith, with no doubting” to God “who gives generously to all” (Jas. 1:5-8), because Jesus taught that “whatever [we] ask in prayer, [if we] believe that [we] have received it … it will be [ours]” (Mk. 11:24). Faith is important because doubt impugns God’s character (“Is he good and generous enough to give me this?”) and power (“Is he able to give me this?”).
So in prayer, call on God to “remember the word” (Neh. 1:8) that he has spoken. Hold on to God’s promise: “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. … If you … who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him” (Mt. 7:7-11)!
In Matthew 6:5-8, Jesus warns of praying ostentatiously before others for public acclaim. Instead, he tells his disciples, “go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret.” Consistent with his teaching, Jesus often prayed alone (Mk. 1:35; Lk. 5:16).
This is not to say that praying in groups is wrong (see below), but that you should not seek to impress others in prayer. If you tend to be wordy and showy in your prayers remember what Jesus said: “Do not heap up empty phrases.” What matters in prayer is not eloquence but sincerity. We must “cry out … from [our] hearts” (Hos. 7:14). We will find God if we seek him with all our hearts (Jer. 29:13).
Pray in the Spirit
We often “do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). This is comforting, because though we may pray with impure motives and inappropriate goals, “the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Rom 8:27). Be aware of this when you pray and be free! “Do not quench the Spirit” (1 Th. 5:19). Instead, incline yourself to the Spirit’s promptings so that you may pray in line with God’s will.
Pray in the Truth
In James 4:2-3, it says, “You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” So then, how do you ask rightly? You pray rightly by praying with the purpose of hallowing God’s name according to the truth of his revelation (Mt. 6:9-10). Prayer is not about manipulating God for our purposes. It’s about submitting ourselves to his purposes.
You may be familiar with the parable of the importunate widow, who pleads for justice in spite of the fact that the judge is unconcerned and unwilling. In the end, the judge acquiesces because the widow keeps bothering him and he is weary of her “beat[ing] [him] down by her continual coming” (Lk. 18:1-8).
If even an unrighteous judge responds in this manner to the persistent requests of a widow, “will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them?” This story teaches us “always to pray and not lose heart.” God cannot be bothered, so pray impertinently and importunately (Lk. 11:5-8)!
Pray in Networks
Does the fact that more people are praying for something make it more likely to be answered? Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “You also must help us by prayer, so that many will give thanks on our behalf for the blessing granted us through the prayers of many” (2 Cor. 1:11). The logic of this sentence suggests that blessing will be granted through the prayers of many.
This is not because God is tallying the number of prayers as if they were votes, but because the “prayers of many” mean “many will give thanks” when God answers! The more people pray, the more glory it brings to God, and since the purpose of prayer is the glory of God (see above), praying in larger networks of people does affect the efficacy of prayer.
Moreover, Jesus said that “if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” (Mt. 18:19-20). There is power in the testimony of “two or three” witnesses (Mt. 18:16) that is not present in the testimony of a single witness. Though this passage deals specifically with church discipline and absolution, there is something to be said for the unified intercession of the body of believers. “When [we] are assembled, … the power of the Lord Jesus is present” (1 Cor. 5:4).
Pray in the Gospel
James writes that “the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (Jas. 5:16b). There is ample evidence in the Scriptures that sin separates us from God “so that he does not hear” (Is. 59:2). “God does not listen to sinners” (Jn. 9:31), and the Psalmist notes, “If I had cherished iniquity in my heart, the Lord would not have listened” (Ps. 66:18; cf. Prov. 28:9). Sin, bitterness, resentment, and anger can hinder our prayers. Conversely, God delights to answer those who obey him because obedience is a sign of faith (1 Jn. 3:22).
Yet we are told that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Rom. 3:10) and that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). So then, is prayer a doomed exercise?
But thanks be to God who “justifie[s] [us] by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:24). Because we have a high priest in Jesus, we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16). We need not despair, because in the gospel, or the good news, of Jesus Christ we have forgiveness and reconciliation.
This is why the exhortation to confess sins precedes James’s statement that prayer of a righteous person has great power (Jas. 5:16a). Those who pray in the gospel pray humbly and repentantly (Lk. 18:9-14). God promised, “if my people who are called by my name 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 and heal their land” (2 Ch. 7:14). The promise still stands through Jesus Christ (Jn 14:12-14).
How has God answered your prayers in the past? What are some other keys to effective prayer that you see in the Scriptures?
This is Part 3 of 5 posts in my series on prayer. See Part 2 of 5: Using the Lord’s Prayer as a Model for Our Prayers or Part 4 of 5: Coping with Unanswered Prayer.