What should happen when we pray? What kind of thoughts or words are we supposed to have when we pray?
If we take our lead from Scripture, we will find that prayer is likely more wide-ranging than we realize. It may include moments of clarity and vision about the reality of God such as were had by Ezekiel and John the author of Revelation. It may include intense self-reflection as we cry out for both personal transformation and forgiveness. It may entail the recounting of God’s good works as either thanksgiving or an argument for him to work again. It may be that our prayer is a call for help in a moment of crisis.
Prayer is many things, so when I suggest we consider three types of prayer I’m not trying to put limits on our experience or expectations. What I am trying to do is expand our practice of prayer, because many of us get stuck in one mode of prayer: praying for our physical needs or those of others. But if Jesus meant to teach us anything by the prayer that we call the Lord’s Prayer, it’s that those types of prayer are only one among many possibilities. The prayer for “daily bread” is sandwiched (no pun intended) in the middle of other requests.
How should we be praying? Though the form of our prayer may vary as widely as the differences in our personalities, languages and emotional makeup, we might do well to consider these three basic types of prayer:
1) Prayer as a path to understanding and knowing God
The conversations we have with our friends are largely concerned with getting to know each other better, but many of us miss out on doing the same in our talking with God. So even though it’s at the very heart of the biblical vision, this is probably the least commonly explored type of prayer among many Christians. God has spoken to us in his Word and as we meditate on it, we can come to know him better, to begin to grasp, however feebly, the way his mind and heart works. “We have the mind of Christ,” Paul wrote, but many of us keep our distance from his thoughts and ways by only treating him as a moment-to-moment problem-solver. The very meaning of human life is to know our God more fully, to have that friendship with God work itself out in every aspect of our daily life, to come at the last to see him face-to-face. The Lord wants us to know him. “Set your hearts on things above, where Christ is… For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:1-3). So, as one of the New Testament prayers says, “we continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives” (Col. 1:9).
2) Prayer as a struggle for our own holiness and growth
Though we may have tended to neglect the first type of prayer, it’s a little more likely that we have found ourselves on occasion calling out to God because of some frailty or weakness or evil in ourselves. Temptations that continue to overpower us, neglect of living with intention and purpose before God, the here-today-gone-tomorrow desire to “fan into flame the gift of God in us” (2 Timothy 1:6)—all of these may have led us to ask God to change us and make us more like him. And the impulse to pray in this way is right. Paul, in Romans 7, bears witness to the need to pray, out of our struggles and our weakness, for holy lives. Again in the prayer for the Colossians in the first chapter of that letter, he prays that believers might be “strengthened with all power” and “have great endurance and patience” (Col. 1:11). Although it isn’t right for us to be endlessly examining ourselves—we need ultimately to look away from ourselves to God—it is appropriate that we should pray for our holiness and growth in the Lord. We can and should be specific, too: look at the particular weaknesses and sins in your own life and bring them to God, reflecting in his presence on the gift of Jesus’ life, what that gift says about our value in God's eyes and his plans for us, and ask him to bring about change.
3) Prayer as request and intercession for ourselves and the world around us
Finally, yes, we can and should pray for the more immediately visible problems in both our lives and the world around us. Jesus included that prayer for daily bread with reason, even if it isn’t the only kind of prayer we should attend to. James encourages us to pray for the sick (James 5:14-16), and Paul himself prayed for his “thorn in the flesh” to be taken away (2 Corinthians 12). Sometimes, in the course of our praying, we will discover as Paul did that the problems we are praying for are not going to be solved, but rather are a means to help us grow deeper in our relationship with the Lord who is our strength in times of weakness. The New Testament concept of our calling to be priests (1 Peter 2:9) certainly includes the summons to pray for the world in all its troubles. It’s not a bad thing at all if your unbelieving friends know that you are willing and active in praying for them precisely in the places where they recognize their own need for help.