Spiritual Growth

Lent Demystified: What Is Prayer? (Plus Seven Ways to Pray)

When prayer is understood in the broadest sense of being in relationship with God and not just talking to God, it becomes possible to pray unceasingly.

By Christine McParland

During Lent, many Christians focus on growing in prayer. They often commit to praying for a set length of time each day or meditating on prayers of a specific style. But while praying more sounds ideal in theory, many of us struggle to put it into practice. We may struggle to understand what prayer actually is, let alone know how to pray.

So, what is prayer, and how can we grow in it—not just during Lent but throughout our lives?

If you’re like many people, you probably think of prayer as time spent sitting or kneeling, head bowed, eyes closed, hands folded, talking to God with your spoken words or inner thoughts. But the apostle Paul tells Christians to “never stop praying” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, NLT), which would be impossible if prayer required being physically still and mentally focused on our words.

Let’s expand this vision of prayer and consider how it’s possible commune with God throughout the day.

What is prayer?

The Billy Graham Association defines prayer as “spiritual communication between man and God, a two-way relationship in which man should not only talk to God but also listen to him.” Anglican and Orthodox definitions describe it, respectively, as “giving our attention to God” and “the elevation of the mind and the heart to God in praise, in thanksgiving, and in petition for the spiritual and material goods we need.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church goes even further, defining Christian prayer as a “vital and personal relationship with the living and true God” and “communion with Christ” (CCC, no. 2558 and 2565).

When prayer is understood in the broadest sense of being in relationship with God and not just talking to God, it becomes possible to pray unceasingly.

But what does this look like practically? How can we remain in a prayerful relationship with God in the midst of our busy schedules, lengthy to-do lists, and endless distractions?

The answer to that question will be unique to each one of us, but thankfully we don’t have to figure it out on our own. First, pray about it (this may seem obvious, but it’s easy to overlook!). Ask God how you can best grow in prayer, and let the Holy Spirit lead you. If you don’t feel led in a specific direction, try one of the following suggestions and see if it works for you.

7 Ways to Pray

Below you’ll find seven different ways to pray, drawn from a variety of Christian traditions throughout church history. Anyone can pray in any of these ways, but they’re not a one-size-fits-all for every person in every season of life. The specific form of prayer is not as important as the goal of prayer: to take you deeper into communion with God. 

1. Pray with pre-written prayers

Sometimes you just don’t have the words to pray. While “the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words “ (Romans 8:26, ESV), it’s also powerful to pray the same words that Christian brothers and sisters around the world and throughout time have prayed. This practice is more common in liturgical traditions, which often use resources such as the Liturgy of the Hours or the Book of Common Prayer, but thanks to the internet, these forms of prayer are readily accessible to Christians of all traditions!

2. Journal your prayers.

Prayer journals are a popular way to keep track of specific requests and answers to prayer, but you can use a journal or notebook to write out your prayers as well. This is especially helpful if you struggle to focus your thoughts while praying.

3. Pray with Scripture.

While there are many prayers in the Bible—from the psalms to the Lord’s Prayer—that you can easily pray on your own, you can also prayerfully read through any passage of Scripture. This practice is also known as lectio divina, a Latin phrase that means “divine reading.” To help guide you along, you can try a devotional or Bible that’s formatted for lectio divina.

4. Pray with your imagination.

Similar to lectio divina, imaginative prayer relies heavily on Scripture but goes one step further by putting yourself into the Scripture passage. This is more commonly done with stories from the gospels; for example, in the account of the bleeding woman (see Matthew 9, Mark 5, and Luke 8), how would you imagine yourself in the scene? As one of the disciples, an onlooker in the crowd, or the woman seeking a healing miracle from Jesus? One important note: you’re not adding to or reinterpreting the Scripture from this perspective—you’re simply imagining what it would have been like to be there in person. Would you say anything to Jesus, and how might he respond to you?

5. Pray with your breath.

Breath prayer is very brief, usually a short phrase to say while slowly (and deeply) inhaling and exhaling. Common breath prayers include “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” or “Jesus, I trust in You,” or simply repeating the name of Jesus. You can also pick a Bible verse to use as a breath prayer.

6. Pray the Daily Examen.

The Daily Examen developed by Ignatius of Loyola is an effective tool to help you notice God working in your daily life. As you review the events of the day, you’ll notice the moments and events when you felt closest to God—and the ones when you felt furthest away. As you pray through these, express gratitude for gifts, ask forgiveness for sins, and invite God to give you wisdom for tomorrow.

7. Make space for silence.

However you choose to pray, remember that prayer is a two-way conversation. It will be difficult to hear God speaking back to you if you’re doing all the talking! Allow at least a few minutes of silence during your prayer time. Don’t feel pressured to “hear” anything from God; simply enjoy being in his presence and allow him to speak if he so chooses.

If you’re in a season when you’ve tried everything and nothing seems to be helping your prayer life, don’t lose heart! Here is some encouragement for you.

How are you focusing on prayer in this season? Have you found other ways to pray that work for you? Please tell us in the comments below!

Curious about Lent? Read more in our Lent Demystified series!

Find books about prayer for this Lenten season here.

Christine loves how stories open our imaginations to God and His work in our lives. As a marketing coordinator at Tyndale, she is excited to help readers connect to life-changing stories through books, Bibles, and blog articles. In her free time, Christine enjoys reading multiple books simultaneously, exploring the forest preserve near her home, and writing about everything she sees and experiences.

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