How to Pray

Jana Carlson

Jana Carlson

I have to work hard at prayer. The hundreds of books that exist on this topic tell me my struggle is not unique.

We want to pray. Our hearts desire to connect with our Savior. But drowning out the distractions of life, shifting our gaze onto Jesus, and making prayer happen is a constant challenge.

The Ideal Quiet Time tells how perfectionism is usually what gets in the way of me making time to spend with Jesus. The same is true for me and prayer.

My Personal Prayer Journey

Prayer has always been a daily part of my life. As a child, we prayed before each meal, and I memorized a prayer that I recited before bed each night.

I remember when I began to think that I’d like to say my own words when I prayed at bedtime. I simply spoke naturally to God, typically thanking Him for things I liked that day, or generic “I pray for Mom, I pray for Dad” sort of prayers.

Laying the Foundation

In later childhood, my prayers became more in depth. I’ve always loved to write, and I stayed up way past my bedtime writing pages of my prayers in my journal. I poured my heart out to the Lord in this way for almost a decade. Those hours of writing in prayer to God were part of the foundation of my relationship with Him.

There were no barriers between God and me during that time. I had not yet been taught any methods or “right ways” to pray. What came naturally to me was connecting with Jesus in the same way I connected with many of my friends and family.

Learning to Adapt

Prayer writing became challenging with the birth of our first baby. I didn’t have hours (or energy) to spend writing. I adapted and prayed silently in my own heart while I read my Bible or fed our baby. I began to worship the Lord in song while I put the baby to sleep. I hadn’t sung in worship on my own much until that point, so it was a precious addition to my spiritual life.

Shortly after that, along came our second and third babies. My heart and mind were so distracted by the continual demands, and I was exhausted most of the time. I still managed fit Bible reading in, and I did try to pray, but the focus was lacking. It felt like I was losing so much of the intimacy with Jesus that I had previously enjoyed.

Losing Ground

A significant impact on my prayer life came from a sermon I’ve wished I had never heard.

The main idea of the message was the value of praise. The preacher stated that we can be so quick to make requests of the Lord that we neglect to praise Him for who He is or what He’s done. I completely agree with this.

Where he threw me off was in saying that our prayers should only be praise. This is so unBiblical. At the time, I did not have the maturity or discernment to clearly articulate in my own mind and heart the Truth about prayer found in God’s Word. Even though I knew this sermon couldn’t possibly be the whole truth about prayer, I could not get it out of my head.

For about two years, I struggled to pray. I tried so hard to only praise the Lord in my prayers, but my relationship with Him was suffering. The closeness and the intimacy were fading away.


One day, the phrase “pour your heart out to God” was stuck in my head. It was during a week when I was completely overwhelmed by life’s demands and I just needed some relief. I took some time to “lay it all out on the table” before the Lord. I poured out my heart to Him verbally the way I used to in my writing.

It was like a dam broke. My heart was flooded and full. I felt like I had connected with Jesus again and He ministered to me in return.

Perfectionism is Paralyzing

That day, I realized how paralyzing the sermon on praise had been for me. In my efforts to pray “just right”, I had stifled the very thing that breathed life into my relationship with Christ.

My prayer life continues to have ups and downs. As I said, it’s an ongoing challenge – no longer a struggle of how to pray, but more a struggle of focus, of actually praying. I’m not a great multitasker, so I struggle to pray while doing other things – even mindless tasks like washing dishes. It’s just a personality thing, I guess.

The Best Prayer

What I have learned is that the best prayer is the one that’s from the heart – whatever that might look like.

An imperfect, but heartfelt prayer is much better than no prayer at all. Length doesn’t matter. Words don’t even matter. (Remember that passage in Romans that talks about groaning prayers? Romans 8:26)

The Bible is full of prayers of those who have gone before. Some are full of praise, others express a deeply troubled heart. The Psalms are a treasure trove of prayers.

God desires a relationship with you. Deep, life-sustaining relationships involve a lot of vulnerability – being real with each other, sharing the good and the bad. Prayer is simply communicating with God – talking to Him, listening to Him. Expressing what’s on your heart creates openness. You can be yourself when you pray. He knows what you’re thinking anyway (Psalm 139:2). You might as well say it. No boundaries. It’s just Him and you.

Practicing Prayer

Much more could be said about how to pray. The Bible teaches us about effective prayer. I don’t think I’m the one to expound on this topic. If briefly sharing my story encourages someone to pray, or fans a flickering flame in a prayerless heart, it was worth sharing.

While I don’t believe in a perfect formula for prayer, I have practiced various types and methods of prayer over the years. I like to change things up when I find myself getting into a bit of a rut, when my prayers are becoming insincere or less thoughtful, or when I’m struggling with general prayerlessness.

If it’s of interest to you, here are a few of the things I’ve done over the years:

  • Prayer journals:
    • Writing out or typing entire prayers
    • Simply listing the things I want to pray about (bullet points)
    • Highly structured and organized journals with requests listed for each day of the week by category, etc. This can help keep me focused.
  • Praying out loud (to avoid getting distracted, losing my train of thought or falling asleep)
  • Different physical positions:
    • Kneeling
    • Standing
    • Sitting, etc.
  • Prayer “formulas”:
    • Following the Lord’s Prayer as a framework for my own
    • The ACTS method: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication
    • The JOY method (Jesus first – praise and worship, Others second – intercession, Yourself last – personal requests), etc.
  • Praying Scripture: By far my favorite way to pray. I frequently go through a Psalm line by line and pray what comes to mind in relation to the verse. This short video series from Don Whitney is an excellent introduction to this concept.

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