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Effective Prayer (or, How To Get What You Really Want)

Many teenagers know how to get what they want from their parents. After the initial polite request has failed, there comes the sour face, the tears, the heated exchange, the slamming of doors and possibly the threat of leaving home, never to be seen again! However, most parents know that they have to stand firm and show that petulance will not always bring about a change of plan! Throughout life we work out subtle and overt ways of getting what we want. How does this play out for us as Children of God making requests of our Heavenly Father?

Many of us do not find praying easy. How then can we pray more effectively, bearing in mind that we seem so small and our God is the Creator of the Universe? We read in the scriptures that we are God’s children by Grace through faith and that we have access to His Presence. But what does this mean for our ‘little needs’ and requests? God declares that He is interested in every detail of our lives, so to what extent will He listen to us in our hour of need? I write this because I am fully aware that the prayer life of many believers is fraught with difficulties and tensions, having to balance our limits and frailty with who God is. There is often confusion between what we pray, what we think, what we want and what we need.  Many have had the experience of pleading to the Lord with longing and tears for some specific thing to happen only to be disappointed. Why did our Father not keep His appointment? Can He not see how important this is to us?

There are, of course, examples of how certain believers did ‘get their way’ with God. A couple of instances where God seems to have changed his mind are Genesis 18:16-32 – Abraham’s plea for God to rescue even a few faithful people from the destruction of Sodom and Exodus 32:7-14 – Moses’ desire to save the people of Israel when God had vowed to destroy them.

Was God manipulated by Abraham? Not at all. God was pleased that Abraham shared in His desire for justice for those who follow Him. The Lord welcomed Abraham into the ‘discussion’ for what He always intended, that is, to show grace and mercy to those who are faithful. God seemed to change His mind, but grace was always part of His plan. The same might be said for our prayers for those whom God has yet to save.

Moses is willing to forego a tremendous personal blessing as he interceded for the Children of Israel. In this instance, the Israelites had been remarkably rebellious and yet God respected the desire He had put in Moses to fulfil His original intention and promise to bless the descendants of Abraham. One of the lessons for us is that we should not be satisfied and smug in our own salvation but plead with God (as He would wish) for those who are currently disobedient.

If we come to God in prayer with our requests, how then might we ask for the right thing? It is obvious that our own longings are often so dominant that we can easily fool ourselves that what we desire is the same as what God intends. We should certainly avoid the words of Kris Vallotton who said, “Prayer is an act of leadership as it authorises God to do His will on our planet …” (Podcast – October 2019). It should be stated quite categorically that there is absolutely nothing we can pray, say or do that can ‘authorise’ God to do anything! As much as anything else, we know through painful experience that what we want most is not always best for us. Our vision of the future is remarkably limited compared to God’s infinite knowledge.

How do we then interpret the words of Jesus, “If you ask anything in my Name, I will do it” (John 14:14)? or if we know that He hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests which we have asked from Him.’ (1 John 5:15)? The ‘Name of Jesus’ is neither a lucky charm nor a formula. Perhaps we need to understand that ending a prayer with the words, “We ask this in the Name of Jesus, Amen,” should not be done casually. It carries such a formidable weight of authority that it cannot be a wish in the dark or a throw-away line. Before using that Name, we need to be in a place where we have spent time with our Lord and Master to believe it is in line with His intentions.

There has to be something foundational in place for effective prayer to happen and there is a clue in James 5:16, ‘The effective fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much’. We need to consider carefully what we mean by ‘a righteous man’. Perhaps the best interpretation of this is that if a person is in such a place in prayer that their requests are in line with what God desires, the Holy Spirit is able to move from the heart of God through us to an effective conclusion. The prayer is actually rooted in the purposes of God and the person praying is in the privileged place of ‘right standing’ with God to be part of the process through the help of the Holy Spirit. How do we get into this place of ‘right standing’? Abraham had this privilege (as mentioned above) because he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6). Abraham was not proud or presumptuous in his place of righteousness or ‘right standing’. Indeed, if he were, then he would not have been able to submit to God’s intentions.

What characteristics or approach might bring us to the place of ‘right standing’ in prayer? The following pointers are not a legalistic formula for success but a possible place to begin.

1. It can be difficult to clear the debris from our minds in order to focus on God. It is amazing how many prayer intentions are interrupted by the clamour of our racing thoughts. Quieting our hearts before God is an important first step.

2. We should not harbour any known sins, including unforgiveness. The Lord knows (and we know) that none of us is perfect and it may take a little time to become genuinely open to God in prayer. Bear in mind that the Holy Spirit convicts of sin but also points very clearly to Christ’s atoning work so that we can move forward positively and freely to be effective in our prayers. Conversely, Satan highlights our sin to leave us in a place of despair so that we are ineffective.

When Satan tempts me to despair
And tells me of the guilt within
Upward I look and see Him there
Who made an end of all my sin

(Charitie Lees Smith)

Do not harbour sins. Confess them before God.

3. We need to acknowledge who God is and gain clarity in seeing Him both seated on the Throne and yet delighted to welcome us because of Jesus into His Presence as His child. Through the Holy Spirit, we can see both the Grace and Truth of who He is and that He welcomes dialogue with us.

4. Our requests should not be selfish but genuinely in the interests of God’s plan and everyone concerned. Clearly, we need to make our requests known but also be open and willing for any answer that He might give. In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;’ (Romans 8:26). This is just as well, given the rambling nature of much of our praying!

5. The answers to prayer and the gifts we receive from God may be significant to us but the foundation of our living relationship with Him is of fundamental importance. The more the lines of communication are kept open through an ongoing relationship, the more we can perceive His purposes and pray more effectively under His direction.

6. Even when we know for sure that we are praying in line with God’s will, the timing might not be what we desire. The fact that is that Abraham had to wait many years for the birth of Isaac, even though God had sworn an oath to Abraham that he would have a son.  Sometimes the answer to our prayer may be, “Yes, but not yet!’

7. We need to be prepared to be part of the answer to our prayers, like Mary’s request to the servants at the wedding in Cana, ‘Do whatever He (Jesus) tells you!’ (John 2:5 NIV) or God’s requirement spoken through Elisha that Naaman had to bathe in the River Jordan seven times in order to be healed (2 Kings 5).

In these ways, we might be able to understand how to pray more effectively ‘in the Name of Jesus’ from a place of ‘right standing’. As an example of this, over a 25 year period I had the privilege of presenting the Christian message every Friday morning to thousands of teenagers at Presdales School in Hertfordshire, UK. Each week I sought to be open to God in prayer for any message that was appropriate and specific for these students. I tried to ‘keep short accounts’ so that, no matter what had happened in the week before, I wanted to approach God with an open and expectant heart ready for Him to work. On one occasion, my talk had been prepared but, as I was going to sleep the previous evening, some words came to my mind, “Read Psalm 31 … read Psalm 31!” When I woke up, I read Psalm 31 and it had nothing to do with my talk whatsoever! In spite of this, I presented my message and then said, “I am going to end my talk by reading Psalm 31 and I hope it has something to say to you.” After the assembly, I was thanked by one or two people but no one said anything at all about Psalm 31. Six months later, I received a letter that read,

“Dear Mr. Burrell, I hope you are doing well. I have been working at a Mission School here in Kenya. I was not sure whether it was right to come here but when you read Psalm 31 at that assembly several months ago, I just knew I had to go!”

Still to this day, I cannot work out what it is about Psalm 31 that would send someone to Kenya(!) but I can say that, by grace, I was open to the ‘nudge’ from God to read it and it was one of the means whereby He saw through His intention for that particular student. It should also be pointed out that, unlike this example, we are not always party to the outcome of our prayers.

How do we get what we really want in prayer? Part of the answer is that we must align our redeemed lives and desires to be in tune with God’s perfect plan. To put it another way, Delight yourself also in the Lord, and He shall give you the desires of your heart.’ (Psalm 37:4). If we respect the Sovereignty of God in saving grace and also in sanctification, it follows that prayer directed by our Lord’s wonderful authority is always going to be the most effective. What starts in the heart of God and finds its way by the Holy Spirit into the heart of man will return to the heart of God. Prayer is a gracious gift that offers us the remarkable privilege of being involved in the process and the outworking of His plans.



Paul Burrell lives in Bishop’s Stortford, Hertfordshire, England. He studied Composition and Biblical Studies at The University College of North Wales where he gained a B.Mus degree. He won the BBC Royal Wedding Song Competition in 1986 and since then has written music for major sports events and for British Cathedrals including Westminster Abbey. He also won two scholarships to the Chautauqua Institution, NY.