There are numerous keys to making prayer more effective, but one of the most important is simply praying from the heart.
"Why doesn't God do something?" That question must have been asked by many in ancient Israel. They saw things go from bad to worse in their personal lives and on the national level as well. The economy was sick. There was political corruption, crime, religious confusion, a constant threat from enemy nations — even the weather was not acting right. Yet God didn't intervene to change things for the good. Why? "They have not cried unto me with their heart," God declared (Hos. 7:14). Isaiah described the general lack of heartfelt prayer this way: "There is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee" (Isa. 64:7). It's no different today. Except when a real crisis strikes, most people in the world around us, if they pray at all, are accustomed to offering dull, empty, meaningless prayers. Since they do not get results, it is little wonder many doubt God's existence or at least admit they do not know who He is. Finally they give up entirely on prayer. "What is the Almighty," they ask, "that we should serve him? and what profit should we have, if we pray unto him?" (Job 21:15). We in God's Church know there is much profit in praying to the true God. Prayer changes things. It can bring real peace of mind, divine guidance, deliverance from problems, healing, spiritual strength and countless other blessings. But for our prayers to be really effective, we must learn to put our hearts into them. How can we better do this?
Just praying once about a matter and then "leaving it in God's hands" may not always be enough. God may want you to prove your sincerity and your earnestness by praying more than once for whatever you need. Consider Elijah. He prayed that a severe 3½-year drought would be broken. Elijah went to the top of Mt. Carmel and "cast himself down upon the earth, and put his face between his knees" (I Kings 18:42). This was not a "sleepy-time prayer." No "60 seconds of silent meditation" was this. Elijah was totally wrapped up in what he was doing — calling upon the almighty Creator of the heavens and earth, the One who controls the weather. After praying, he sent his servant up to an elevated viewpoint to see whether any rain clouds were forming in the sky yet. "And he went up, and looked, and said, There is nothing" (verse 43). What if Elijah had said, at this juncture: "Well, I've prayed once about the matter. Now I'll just wait, knowing that whatever happens will be for the good"? Would any rain have fallen on the parched land? It's doubtful. But that was not Elijah's reaction. He prayed again. Once more his servant went to look for storm clouds. Nothing. Again Elijah prayed. And again. And again. Seven times he petitioned God to make it rain. Seven times his servant went to look. Then the answer came: A small cloud appeared and quickly grew until "the heaven was black with clouds and wind, and there was a great rain" (verse 45). Are we to think such prayer was only for Elijah's day? No, for this very incident is mentioned by the apostle James as an example of how Christians ought to pray for one another (Jas. 5:16-18). James points out that Elijah was no superhuman. He "was a man subject to like passions as we are." But — and here is what made the difference — when he prayed, "he prayed earnestly" (verse 17). Elijah's prayers got results. James assures Christians that theirs can, too — if they are fervent prayers, for the "effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much" (verse 16).
Jesus tells how to pray
Persevering is an important part of praying fervently, as Jesus Himself instructed. One day, when He had finished praying, His disciples asked Him to teach them how to pray. Jesus first gave them His prayer outline (Luke 11:1-4). That told them what to pray about. But it didn't tell them how. So Jesus immediately explained to them about the man who at midnight needed to borrow some food from his neighbor. The man's first request got nothing. But he continued to seek, to ask and to knock. Finally the neighbor crawled out of bed and gave him the bread he wanted. "I say unto you," Jesus commented to His disciples, "Though he will not rise and give him, because he is his friend [likewise, God does not always grant our requests merely because we are Christians — how we pray is a determining factor!], yet because of his importunity [persistence, urgency] he will rise and give him as many as he needeth. And I say unto you, Ask seek... knock" (verses 8-9). Again in Luke 18 Jesus stressed how we ought "always to pray and not lose heart" (verse 1, Revised Standard Version). In this case He told about the widow and the unjust judge who finally granted her request because of her "continual coming" (verse 5). And if an unjust judge would listen to a persistent widow, Jesus remarked, how much more surely will our heavenly Father respond to our needs? "And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them? I tell you that he will avenge them speedily" (verses 7-8). As we have seen, Elijah had to pray seven times for rain. The Bible shows that Jesus prayed fervently three times that His cup of suffering would pass from Him if it was God's will (Matt. 26:36-47). The apostle Paul beseeched God three times about his "thorn in the flesh" (II Cor. 12:7-9). While we may have to pray about some matters repeatedly, we should not assume that we always have to make a request more than once. The Scriptures contain numerous examples of miraculous answers that came after only one prayer was made. If after we pray once about a problem, however, the problem persists and we still need deliverance, we should feel free to pray again, if it takes one time, three times, seven times — whatever it takes until we are no longer bothered by the problem — unless, of course, God should make it apparent, as He did to Paul, that we are going to have to live with the problem for the time being.
God knows best
Importunity and persistence, it should be pointed out, do not mean nagging at God. They don't mean sounding like a stuck phonograph. They mean being close to Him and talking to Him from the heart. They mean praying always or "without ceasing," as I Thessalonians 5:17 describes it, keeping constantly in touch with Him mentally in between periods spent in a private place or prayer closet. Prayer does, in fact, require effort. But it is effort richly rewarded. It takes time to develop the right prayer habits. Actually, if you are a Christian, a begotten child of God, your heavenly Father always answers your prayers. Many times the answer is an immediate "Yes." Sometimes, however, the answer is "Not yet," in which case God may want to see more effort put into seeking the answer or into getting ready and qualified to receive it. There are also times when God's answer may be "No" granting what is asked may just not be good for the people involved. This helps to explain why God responds differently in situations that seem almost identical — why one family may have a child hit by a car and the child is miraculously healed, whereas another family has a child who is hit and killed. Or why one Church member may be healed of cancer whereas another one dies. Or why the same person may sometimes be immediately healed of one sickness or disease, but not healed of another. God knows the individual needs of each of us. He is more interested in building eternal character His workmanship — in us than He is in giving us a smooth, effortless, problem-free existence in this temporary life. If God always answered our prayers with an immediate "Yes," we would need no faith. It would just be automatic: We would pray and the request would be granted right away every time. Neither would we need faith if God never granted our requests, never having promised to do so. We would have no reason to expect an answer, and none would come. But — and this reflects some of God's great wisdom — by answering our prayers sometimes with an immediate "Yes," sometimes with a "Not yet" or "Wait" and sometimes with a "No," God puts us in a situation where we must exercise faith. And, we should remember, even that faith is the gift of God (Eph. 2:8). The Holy Spirit strengthens us and leads us to have the spiritual conviction we need to overcome the trials of this life. We must maintain and strengthen our conviction that God always knows best, that His Work and truth stand fast. Each of us has to decide that while we in our limited wisdom may not understand exactly why God allows a particular test to come upon us, we will say as Job did, "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13:15). Then we can know that "all things work together for good to them that love God," as Romans 8:28 promises. Verse 27 explains that sometimes we may not know how to pray in a particular situation or trial. In such cases God's Spirit in us communes with God and "maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God." It follows that the more of God's Spirit we have in us, making "intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered" (verse 26), the more effective our prayers will be. Ask for more of God's Spirit to help you pray. He is more than willing to give it to you, as Jesus pointed out when He was teaching about prayer (Luke 11:13).
Be mindful of God's mercy
It is possible for a person to exclude some of his own prayers from being answered because he does not allow for God's mercy. When he is sick, he may find it difficult to have faith that he will be healed. Perhaps he knows full well he is sick because God's righteous laws have been broken and he deserves the sickness he has brought upon himself. The same process of reasoning may take place concerning any other trial or problem in life. We are all aware of God's righteous laws and His perfectly just judgment. But sometimes people stop there. There is no doubt about it, God loves righteousness (the keeping of His laws). However, there is an additional, all-important aspect to God's character: His loving-kindness His mercy when we have a repentant attitude. Notice how this fact is expressed in Jeremiah 9:24: "I am the Lord which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things [all three!] I delight." What if God delighted in judgment based on righteousness alone? Stop and think how that would be. We would be doomed! His laws — His righteousness — would stand fast for ever and ever, as they do now. And His judgment would be perfect. We've all broken God's laws, so He would be thoroughly justified in pronouncing a sentence of "guilty" upon us all. We would have to die. And that would be that. Except, you see, along with judgment and righteousness — not in place of them, as churches of the world preaching that there are no works to salvation would have it, but along with them God also delights in mercy, in lovingkindness. It is because of His delight in loving-kindness that He provided a sacrifice for our sins and that He does not condemn the world as He so justly could do (John 3:16-17). When we pray to God we should remember that He is not a stern, harsh, feelingless Being just waiting for a chance to see us get what suffering we deserve. "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him "Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting" (Ps. 103:8-17). God is merciful, tender and compassionate. Talk to Him with that in mind. Because of His mercy you can have confidence that He will hear and answer. "Let Israel hope in the Lord: [Why?] for with the Lord there is mercy" (Ps. 130:7). Hebrews 4:14-16 explains that Jesus is now our great High Priest. He can be "touched with the feeling of our infirmities" because He was "in all points tempted [tried] like as we are" (verse 15). "Let us therefore come boldly [that is, with feeling, conviction and confidence] unto the throne of grace [the mercy seat!], that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need" (verse 16). That invitation should help us all put our hearts into our prayers, knowing that how God will respond is not automatically decided beforehand. The answer we receive can depend on how we approach that throne of grace.
Reason with God
It is not wrong to reason with God. In fact, God urges, "Come now, and let us reason together" (Isa. 1:18). Abraham reasoned with God concerning the city of Sodom. As a result God promised He wouldn't destroy it if there were only 10 righteous persons therein (Gen. 18:23-33). Moses reasoned with God about the rebellious Israelites. God was going to destroy them for their idolatry, but changed His mind because of the intercession of Moses (Ex. 32:9-14). Reasoning with God does not mean making excuses for what we are or what we have done. Nor does it mean trying to get God to change His laws. It means giving God reasons for why we ask what we ask in prayer. How God answers our prayers may often be flexible and depend on how and why we make the requests we do. He wants to know our reasons for asking, just like any loving father wants to know why his children ask for something. He wants to know we sincerely mean it when we pray. When David prayed he knew a real God was listening. That's how we ought to pray.
Prayer and supplication
It is clear from the Bible that a Christian should offer up both prayers and supplications (Acts 1:14). They are not the same. If prayer is heartfelt talking to God, supplication is a special, moving appeal to God. It is done with an extra degree of heartrending feeling, even accompanied by fasting. In the Scriptures various words translated supplication mean "entreaty," "earnest prayer," "imploring," "petition." There are similar meanings in many scriptures where the English word cry appears in the sense of crying out to God. "Hear my prayer, 0 Lord, and give ear unto my cry," David wrote (Ps. 39:12). God's elect are described as those "which cry day and night unto him" (Luke 18:7). That's the same as saying they are "Praying always with all prayer and supplication [being persistent!] in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints" (Eph. 6:18). In our crowded living conditions it is frequently a problem just to find a closet or a private place where one can kneel to pray. It is harder yet to locate a place where one can actually call out to God vocally. Not that it is necessary to do so for God to hear, but you just might find it a help in praying from your heart if you can do it occasionally. Apparently David did so often. "Evening, and morning, and at noon, will I pray, and cry aloud [literally, "make a loud sound, a great commotion"]: and he shall hear my voice" (Ps. 55:17). Yes, David went so far as to beseech
God to bend His ear down in order to better hear him: "Bow down thine ear to me," he prayed (Ps. 31:2). King Hezekiah was sent a letter threatening that there would be an attack by the Assyrian army. "And Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it: and Hezekiah went up unto the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord" (Isa. 37:14). When you receive some bills you cannot pay, or a threatening note from your child's school principal, or a notification that you have lost your job because of the Feast, or any other bad news, did you ever think of taking the document itself to a private place and spreading it out before God, asking Him to look at it? Listen to how Hezekiah prayed: "0 Lord of hosts, God of Israel, that dwellest between the cherubims... thou hast made heaven and earth. Incline thine ear, 0 Lord, and hear; open thine eyes, 0 Lord, and see" (verses 16-17). Hezekiah meant it. And God responded. Position is also a factor that can contribute to earnestness in prayer. As has often been recommended, one of the best positions is kneeling with hands spread toward the heavens. One of several other biblical examples is kneeling with face to the ground. Of course, some people are physically unable to kneel or to remain kneeling for prolonged periods. God understands that. In such cases the position of the heart is of more value than the position of the body. The important thing is to avoid halfhearted, indifferent prayers — prayers that go no higher than the ceiling.
Let your requests be made known
"Why should I pray to God if He already knows everything I need?" some might wonder. It's true. God already knows what we need (Matt. 6:8). But He wants to hear from us anyway. He wants to know we are really in earnest. A parent may know a child wants something, but the parent still usually waits for a child to ask for it. "In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God" (Phil. 4:6). Tell God what you need. He is waiting to hear. He is not making it difficult for us to reach Him. God is "not far from every one of us" (Acts 17:27). He just wants us to put our hearts into it when we pray to Him. God has a full measure of the wisdom that is "gentle, and easy to be intreated, full of mercy" (Jas. 3:17). He is the God "that giveth to all men liberally" (Jas. 1:5). Put some heartfelt feeling into seeking God through prayer. You will find it well worth the effort. "For the Lord God is a sun and shield: the Lord will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly" (Ps. 84:11).