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Learning to Pray by Praying


Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1)

How can we learn how to pray? Not think about prayer. Not talk about prayer. Not theologise about prayer. But actually pray.

Jesus prays his way through the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel. As the True Human, the Last Adam (Lk 3:23-38; cf. 4:3), he is an obedient Son who prays without ceasing to his heavenly Father. And so, it is no surprise that his closest friends, witnessing him pray yet again, should want to learn from the Master.

His response is striking. He gives them a form of words, a pattern to follow in their own prayers: “When you pray, say…”

Prayer is the most natural thing in the world—we are God’s creatures, created for fellowship with him. Yet, because of the alienating effects of sin, prayer is also now the least natural thing for us as fallen creatures. Even as reconciled creatures, children of God in Christ, our ongoing sinfulness means that our experience of prayer is often awkward, clumsy. We need to learn how to pray. Not just what to think about prayer. Not just how the gospel makes prayer possible. Not just what a loving, generous Father God is to his children who pray. But actually how to pray.

Of course, we need a theology of prayer. More than anything, this means an adequate knowledge of God, and, flowing from that, an adequate knowledge of ourselves as his sinful, reconciled creatures.

But it’s all too possible to have a profound theology of prayer and yet never really to learn how to pray. I’m discovering that it’s far easier to write a PhD on prayer than it is to pray. And I fear that far too many of us pastors are far better at preaching about prayer than we are at actually praying. But if we do not know how to pray, who will really help our congregations to learn?

We learn to pray by praying. And the best way to learn, as we take our own stumbling steps, is to learn from others.

Part of this learning should happen on Sundays, as we gather to pray with God’s people. Part of it might happen by praying with an older Christian, and catching their prayer habits from them.

But I am more and more convinced that one of the best ways of learning to pray is by using, and growing into and through, prayers written by others. So, when I’m asked what resources I’d recommend on prayer, I can suggest some very good books on the theology of prayer. But I’m more inclined to recommend prayer books, books of prayers. Because I tend to think that many of us need to spend less time thinking about prayer, and more time just, well, praying.

With that in mind, here are a few suggestions of books and resources I’ve found particularly helpful.

  1. The Five Things to Pray for… series from the Good Book Company. This comes top of the list, just because of its simplicity and accessibility. Each book contains a number of Bible passages, with five clear and specific suggestions for prayer from each passage. Brilliant. Easy. Anyone can use it.
  2. Peter Adam’s Daily Prayers. Peter writes, “These are prayers which enlarge and enrich my praying, and which I need to pray every day.” You may need to tweak them to suit you, but I’ve found them enormously helpful.
  3. The Book of Common Prayer. This was how Thomas Cranmer trained generations of Anglicans to pray. For a contemporary version, I heartily recommend the Daily Office in the ACNA’s new Book of Common Prayer. I have a few reservations about some of the other liturgies in this Prayer Book, but the Daily Office and the shorter devotions for Family Prayer are brilliant. And they have the advantage of giving prayers for midday and night time as well as morning and evening.
  4. Lots of people recommend The Valley of Vision, a collection of puritan prayers. For myself, I tend to find them a bit wordy (they’re puritan prayers, after all!)—part of Cranmer’s genius was his lucid brevity.
  5. Evelyn Underhill’s Prayer Book has recently been discovered and published. Underhill was an Anglo-Catholic spiritual teacher and retreat leader. There are a few prayers that might make evangelicals uncomfortable, but on the whole this is a rich (and beautifully produced) resource for private prayer.
  6. Last, and my personal favourite, Lancelot Andrewes’ Private Devotions. Utterly soaked in Scripture, a classic of Anglican devotion. I hope to produce a modernised version of Andrewes’s daily prayers on this blog, along with some thoughts on how to use them.