Articles & News

Lessons on How to Pray

May 31, 2023

-Dr. J. Vernon McGee, from "Lessons on How to Pray"

Who from the Bible do you think of as great men of prayer? Moses on Mount Sinai interceding for the children of Israel? David with his psalms? Elijah who stood alone before an altar drenched with water at Mount Carmel? Daniel who opened his window toward Jerusalem and prayed every day? The Lord Jesus was the Man of prayer, so much so that one of His disciples asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1).

But with all of his other qualities, we seldom think of Paul as a man of prayer, yet this is the field in which he excelled. In his letter to the Ephesians Paul prays twice (1:15-22) and (3:14-22). Let’s look at what characterized these two prayers.

Effective prayers are motivated by good news.

What was it that caused this apostle to go to prayer? He tells us:

Therefore I also, after I heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints. -Ephesians 1:15

What sent Paul to prayer? Not bad news, but good news. Unfortunately, the most common motivation for us to pray are trouble, sickness, distress, or crisis. By all means we should we pray at those times, but it’s not the only time we should pray. Paul said, in essence, “When I heard about your faith—faith in God, faith in Christ—and then I heard of your love to the brethren, it moved me to prayer.” It was good news that prompted him to pray.

Effective prayers are for others.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, making mention of you in my prayers. -Ephesians 1:16

There certainly were times Paul prayed for himself, but Paul prayed publicly for others.

This is an area you can engage, too. You might say, “I’m not able to teach, I’m not able to preach, I’m not called as a missionary, I can’t even sing in the choir.” My friend, you can pray. Actually, prayer is one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit. One of the greatest ministries you and I can have today is to follow Paul’s example and engage in a ministry of praying for others.

Effective prayers are brief.

Martin Luther argued that the fewer the words, the better the prayer. Some people think a long prayer means we’re better heard or super religious. But really, we may be just talking to ourselves.

I like what a lady once said when a visiting preacher was quite lengthy at the prayer meeting. The people were kneeling while he stood up to pray. He was really wandering, as sometimes preachers do, until finally this lady reached over, pulled his coattail, and said, “Call Him Father, and ask Him for something!”

Short and Sweet

  • The Lord Jesus said in Matthew 6:7, “And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words.”
  • One of Moses’ greatest prayers for Israel is recorded in only four verses (Deuteronomy 9:26-29).
  • Elijah, on top of Mount Carmel as he stood alone for God against the prophets of Baal, prayed a great prayer that is only two verses long (1 Kings 18:36, 37).
  • Nehemiah’s great prayer is recorded in only seven verses (Nehemiah 1:5-11).
  • The prayer of our Lord in John 17 takes only three minutes to read in the Greek.

Effective prayers are submissive.

For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. -Ephesians 3:14

“I bow my knees.” That is something that is needed today. I wish we could return to the old-fashioned way of kneeling at the time of prayer.

During my first year of being a pastor I was invited to hold a series of meetings in Tennessee. The first service at that little country church was packed out. I said, “Let’s pray,” and I shut my eyes. I heard a tremendous shuffling, but I didn’t dare look up because I didn’t want to be irreverent. I kept my eyes closed until I said, “Amen.” When I opened them, I didn’t see a soul! What happened? Did they all leave while I prayed? But then they began to pop up between the pews just like the corn comes up—a few at a time—and shortly they were all back in their pews again. They had been kneeling on the hard wooden floor.

Kneeling is a good position to pray. I urge you to get down on your knees when you pray privately. In fact, get on your face before God. When we bow, we acknowledge that He is sovereign and we are obedient to Him. My, how we need to not treat God as an equal but as the Lord of heaven. We do well to go down on our faces before Him. We need to learn to get our bodies into a subordinate position.

Oh, may God teach us to pray, and to pray as the apostle Paul prayed.

For more from Dr. McGee on the content of Paul’s prayers, download the entire booklet, “Lessons on How to Pray.” You’ll learn how to:

  • Pray with thanksgiving
  • Pray to the Father
  • Pray for spiritual understanding
  • Pray for spiritual power

My Turn: Homework from Dr. McGee:

“When I was teaching in the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University), I would ask the students during their studies of Paul’s epistles to make a list of all his prayers. They were to put down every time Paul said he was praying for someone. Lo and behold, student after student would come to me and say, ‘I had no idea Paul had such a prayer list. I didn’t know he prayed for so many people!’ Paul was a great man of prayer.

“What kind of prayer list do you have? How many people do you remember in prayer, even once a week? Maybe you are living a busy life these days, but I challenge you to once a week take time out to go down a list and remember specific people in prayer.”