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 (Manna 96: Spiritual Nurture: Prayer)
Lessons in Effective Prayer
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Raymond Chou—San Jose, California, USA

Prayer is an integral part of being a Christian. Most of us understand how important prayer is for ourselves and as intercession for others and the work of the church. But we may have, on occasion, asked ourselves—whether we are new or "veteran" Christians—"How do I know if God has heard my prayer?" Some have prayed for a long time but have found no resolution to their problems. So we cannot help wondering why God seems so responsive to others but aloof and uncaring about our concerns and prayers.

The Scriptures assure us that God heeds prayers (Jer 29:12–13). Like any loving parent, our heavenly Father wants to grant us the good things we ask Him for (Mt 7:9–11). The reason for unanswered supplication must thus lie with us. We should ask ourselves, "How can I make my prayer more effective?" Jesus Himself teaches us four essential lessons.


"And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward." (Mt 6:5)

The first lesson Jesus taught His disciples was not to be hypocrites in prayer. He pointed out that the Pharisees stood in prominent places and offered loud prayers because they enjoyed being seen. A hasty conclusion from this negative example is that we should not pray in locations where others can see us. Some Christians further suggest that people should not even pray together in the chapel. However, this extreme stance is not the Lord’s intent.  

When Jesus lambasted the Pharisees as hypocrites, He wanted to highlight the divergence between the Pharisees’ inner and outer selves. What lay within their hearts and minds was far from what their reverent actions suggested. Their communication with God through prayer did not spring from an inner piety but had become just another way to garner the praise of others. Jesus emphatically warned His disciples against such hypocritical prayers. For His true followers, any external manifestation of devotion must spring from and be consistent with an inner sincerity and faith.

Hence, regardless of where we pray today, we must do so sincerely. If we attend prayer sessions as though they are tasks to check off the to-do list or pray routinely but without the heart to draw closer to God, then our actions lack the sincerity that Jesus demands.

Reminder 1: Prayer is not just a physical action and outward display of devotion to Jesus; it must reflect our inner sincerity.


"But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly." (Mt 6:6)

Secondly, Jesus taught His disciples to go to a secret place, close the door, and pray. But Jesus was not speaking of a physical space. Locking ourselves in a physical room will not cut us off from the world's distractions. Our thoughts and emotions may still dwell on all manner of things lying on the other side of the door. Perhaps it is the news we were reading, the errands we were supposed to run, or the work we must do.  

In a world where our computers, smartphones, and smarter watches handcuff us to the world 24/7, Jesus wants us to consciously and consistently close the door of our hearts when we pray. Switch off the troubling panoply of daily anxieties and the tempting notification alerts so that we have a quiet place to meditate on our faith and commune with God in prayer. Only through such quiet contemplation can we reflect on our relationship with God and think about the path He wants us to take.

A Grave Misfortune

There is one alone, without companion: 

He has neither son nor brother.

Yet there is no end to all his labors, 

Nor is his eye satisfied with riches.

But he never asks, 

"For whom do I toil and deprive myself of good?"

This also is vanity and a grave misfortune. (Eccl 4:8)  

The protagonist of this passage is very pitiful. He toils ceaselessly but does not know why and for whom he is suffering. Today, our busyness may hinder us from progressing along our path of faith. Worse, we are so distracted that we may unknowingly stumble onto the wrong path and lose our salvation. This would be a grave misfortune indeed.

Jesus' lesson in prayer highlights the need to set aside a time and place to calm our hearts so that we can seek after God in quietude. Perhaps we have judiciously set aside time to pray each day, yet feel no improvement in our faith and attitude towards God. If so, consider finding a better time and place to pray. Subsequently, when we start praying, we must consciously pull our minds away from the shows we were watching, the games we were playing, and the work we were doing. Turn off our phone notifications, and turn our hearts towards our Father in heaven.

Reminder 2: Shut down and shut out all distractions around us to draw closer to God in prayer.


"And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words" (Mt 6:7)

Continuing His teaching, Jesus reminded His disciples not to use vain repetitions in prayer. Is the True Jesus Church guilty of this error of mindless repetition, since we teach believers praying for the Holy Spirit to say "Hallelujah, praise the Lord"?

The correct understanding of Jesus’ reminder lies in these phrases: "vain" and "many words." The heathen supplicated their deities with repetitive phrases. But to our Lord, these were empty and vain words chanted without much thought and commitment. We will be guilty if we repeat our prayers without any consideration of the words we mouth and fail to carry out the actions of repentance we promised.

Prayers are not granted simply because of the volume of words and promises or how long we kneel. The Lord Jesus focuses on the sincerity underlying our words and our resolve to carry out what we have said in prayer. Critically, we must pray in spirit and truth (Jn 4:24). The Bible records examples of both long and short prayers that God has answered. What did these have in common? They were sincere and heartfelt. Elijah prayed seven times for rain with unwavering faith (1 Kgs 18:41–45). In contrast, Abraham's servant made a quick, silent prayer when seeking a wife for Isaac. After he finished his short prayer, God immediately showed him the way (Gen 24:12–15).  

Reminder 3: Pray what we mean, and mean what we pray.

Another important aspect is that these sincere prayers were made by faithful and upright people. Today, for our prayers to be answered, we must walk according to the Holy Spirit’s bidding and the truth. An effective prayer does not start when we kneel. The outcome of our prayer is predetermined by our spiritual actions in our daily life.  

"For the eyes of the LORD are on the righteous,
And his ears are attentive to their prayers;

But the face of the LORD is against those who do evil." (1 Pet 3:12)

One who turns away his ear from hearing the law,
Even his prayer is an abomination. (Prov 28:9)

The Bible is unequivocal. Our prayer is detestable to God if we do not obey His commandments. We may be sincere and fervent in prayer to Him. We may have wept in repentance. But if we get up from prayer and go forth to sin, how can we expect Him to take our repentance seriously? So, the Bible teaches us to worship in spirit and truth to seek God’s pleasure. It is not just about how loud or long we pray; we must live out the image of Christ.

Reminder 4: Pray like Christ; pray to be like Christ.


"Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him." (Mt 6:8)

Concluding His lessons to the disciples, Jesus warned them not to be like the Pharisees or the heathens they saw daily. Jesus knows that we are easily influenced by our environment and what we see the people around us say and do. We mimic their behaviors and adopt their values to fit in.

Some societal norms that we conform to make us better neighbors or citizens. But we must be discerning and avoid those that affect our spirituality. In his letter to young Timothy, the apostle Paul warned him—and warns us today—that in the last days:

[M]en will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away. (2 Tim 3:2–5)

Do not allow these people and such attitudes to affect our hearts when we pray.

Besides desisting from wrong, "do not be like them" means uncompromisingly doing what is right, such as praying and attending services. We should not become less fervent when we see other members being less fervent or grow cold in faith when we see others backsliding. Some people may hinder or taunt us when we try to maintain our spirituality or uphold our Christian principles. Do not let their mockery deter us. Instead, we should continue to "put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another" (Col 3:12–13). Hold fast to the pattern of sound words that our Father has given us because this make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 3:15–17). When our thoughts and ways are right in the eyes of God, He hears our prayers (Prov 15:29).

Reminder 5: In our prayers, do not let others affect our faith, peace and sincerity.

A Timely Reminder

God puts people in our lives to encourage us. And they can be the most unlikely people. In college, I had a roommate who bugged me every day. Like clockwork, he would ask me: "Have you done your homework? Have you prayed today? Have you read the Bible?" He was not even Christian! One day, I irritably told him that he nagged me more than my mom did! "What does this have to do with you? You are an atheist," I said. He nodded and replied, "I am not a Christian, but you are." Suitably humbled, I obediently went to pray.


Besides teaching us how to pray (Mt 6:9–13), the Lord Jesus also teaches us how to pray effectively. Prayer is an outward manifestation of our inward sincerity and faith in God. It should not be an empty, superficial display. Prayer is a time that has to be set aside for God, and we ought not to be distracted by the things around us. Moreover, the words we utter in prayer must be sincere, with a genuine desire to act on the resolutions we make in prayer. Finally, our prayer and attitude towards prayer should not be influenced by others, nor should we be discouraged by those around us.

May the Lord Jesus give us the wisdom to understand His lessons in prayer, and the strength to persist with what we have learned, so that we may continue to offer effective and edifying prayers for our church, our family, and our faith.

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Author: Raymond Chou