Sometimes it seems as if many believers feel the need to alter who they are when they come to God in prayer, particularly when others are around. As if God will not hear them if they are themselves, they play characters, hoping to be more acceptable to God and others.
I have personally struggled over the years with what to say and how to say it when I pray. I’m in good company. Even the apostles asked Jesus to teach them to pray. And with kind, compassionate patience in his voice, he taught them to pray simply, humbly, confidently, according to God’s word, and for God’s glory.
You could sum up Jesus’s teaching into a few guiding principles.
1. Slow Down and Be Okay with Silence
There is no need to use filler language to take up every ounce of space in prayer, as if the Lord can’t handle the silence or doesn’t have time to listen. You don’t have to speed through like an auctioneer. I can’t imagine how I would react if someone came up to talk to me like, “Stephen Miller, just… just Stephen, we should just go to lunch together, Stephen Miller. Just let’s just go grab… just a burger, Stephen. Stephen, I know you like a good burger from time to time, Stephen Miller. Stephen, just then we could just grab a frozen custard, Stephen Miller.” I know that I am not God, but in my flesh, I might be too weirded out to get a burger with that guy. If we would naturally react to someone talking to us that way, why do we feel the need to speak that way to God? He knows our hearts. Slow down. Be okay with pauses. Perhaps God wants to speak to you in the silence.
2. Pray to God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
God is Trinity. One God, three distinct persons, each person fully God. It is truly a great mystery, and I don’t know that we will ever understand it this side of Heaven. Yet each person within the Trinity is distinct. The Father is not the Son and the Son is not the Spirit. We rightly relate to God as a Trinity, adoring and thanking and pleading with Father, Son, and Spirit in our prayers. Yet while doing this, it can be easy to get confused and begin to thank the Father for dying on the cross and so on and so forth.
While God knows what we mean and sees past our broken prayers, this has got to confuse people who are listening to our prayers, trying to pray along in agreement. When you pray, consider the person of the Trinity to whom you are praying. The Father sends the Son to be the Savior of the world. The Son came obediently, died in our place, rose from the dead, then sent his Spirit to convict of sin, to convince of truth, and to equip and empower us. So as we pray, pray with that in mind.
3. Use Normal Language
My great Grandpa was a firm believer that the only inspired word of Scripture was the King James Version. When he quoted scripture (and he could quote most of the Bible I think), it was always KJV. While he was one of the biggest spiritual influences in my life, it was odd to me when he began to pray out loud, because he prayed in old English. “Our Gracious Heavenly Father, Thou hast bestowed upon us this bountiful feast and the glory belongest to Thou and Thou alone. Wouldst Thou blesseth this meal by Thine own good pleasure…” Then, once he said amen, he would resume speaking in modern language. When you pray, there is no need to speak like someone from a bygone era in order to sound more spiritual or reverent. Use normal language, and pray like yourself.
4. Use Your Normal Voice
We have all heard the hyped-up emotional vocal inflections of a man trying to sell a prayer the way a voice-over actor sells a product. He may talk like Ron Burgundy in real life, but as soon as he begins praying, his voice takes on a reflective Enrique Iglesias whisper that sounds a bit like being on the verge of tears while trying to woo someone into making an emotional decision. We should pray with all of our emotions and affections, but it must be sincere and authentic. If you’re moved, be moved, but be real about it. No need to alter your voice or manufacture emotion. God knows our hearts better than we know ourselves.
5. Keep It Short and Simple
Our prayers can be simple and still faith-filled. I often say that God can use a three-minute worship song as much as a nine-minute worship song. The same is true of prayer. God won’t hear us any more because of our long-windedness. Prayer isn’t a love bank where many words equal a more substantive deposit. Our prayers don’t have to be long or eloquent. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he taught them a short prayer that exemplified the vertical (glorifying God) and the horizontal (edifying others) aspects of prayer. When praying with others, aim to build them up with short, thoughtful prayers, and if you feel the need to pray longer, go to God “in secret” (Matthew 6:6).
It’s never too late to be yourself. God is looking for a relationship with us, not whomever it is that we are trying to act like when we come to him. Prayer starts with our adoption in Christ. That’s why Jesus taught us to begin with God as “Our Father.” There is an intimate reverence there — a humble familiarity.
Prayer is naturally one of the most spiritual things we can do as believers, so we don’t need to add anything extra to over-spiritualize it. We can simply come as deeply joyful sons and daughters with reverent awe that we have been rescued by a God who loves us and hears us.