What does prayer look like?
Someone once asked me if thinking about something is the same thing as praying about it.
The short answer is no.
But the long answer is I get it. You feel like you’ve been praying about it because you have been thinking and thinking about it, and so you convince yourself that you have been praying about that thing all the while. I do it too. But the reality is that thinking about something and actually conversing with God about it are two very different things. One comes as naturally as breathing. The other takes a little more work.
So, what does prayer look like? Do my eyes need to be closed? Do I need to be on my knees? Should I begin with The Lord’s Prayer or Psalm 23 or something?
Bushels of books have been written on the subject (and I’ll link you to my favorite at the end), so I won’t attempt to answer all our questions about prayer in one blog post, but I thought I would share with you one practice that has helped me immensely over the years.
I use the acronym ACTS. It stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. ACTS provides a helpful structure for me to talk with God and stay focused (my mind is prone to wander to my grocery list during even the most fervent prayers). Although I have used this pattern for many years, my approach has shifted as I have grown in my prayer life. Here is how I use the ACTS tool today:
Adoration: I have always had a hard time with this one. Am I supposed to list qualities about God? Should this sound like a praise and worship song? How exactly do I adore God? I’ve tried all sorts of tools over the years – one teacher suggested going through the alphabet and choosing a word that describes God for each letter – but they all felt like I was checking a box rather than actually praising God.
Now I use Adoration as tool to remind me who I am taking to. God, you are the Creator of the universe. You split the sea, dropped manna from heaven, and defeated armies against impossible odds. Jesus walked on the water, healed the blind, and raised the dead. Nothing is too hard for you. You are faithful when we are faithless and loving toward all you have made. You never leave or forsake me and you are near to the brokenhearted. Those who hope in You will renew their strength. Adoration is a faith-building step. It’s when I remind myself that I am coming before Someone who loves me enough to die for me and powerful enough to conquer death. The adoration step is not about dutifully listing nice things about God; it’s about reminding myself exactly who I am talking to.
Confession: This one can get tricky. In the past, the Confession part of my prayer time would either look like self-flagellation or a rote mental calendar review. I would pick apart my day, confessing every micro-sin, worrying that I had missed something and was now accidentally voiding my prayers by failing to confess my gluttony with that second handful of chips. Yuck. Don’t get me wrong, confessing specific sins is an important discipline. It helps us to acknowledge areas in which we need the transforming grace of God to work in us. But don’t view your confession time as that thing you need to do so that God will answer your prayer. That’s not what this is for.
Confession looks very differently for me now. Now it begins with me confessing my unbelief. Like the man who told Jesus, “I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24) I acknowledge that even though I just said all of those nice things about God in my Adoration prayer, I clearly don’t always live like someone who believes them. I confess my worry over my kids or my finances even though I know that He is sovereign over them. I confess that even though I know that I am fearfully and wonderfully made and the temple of the Holy Spirit, I hated my thighs today and wished my waist was smaller. I ask God to show me what I need to confess, not because I see that confession as the golden ticket to an answered prayer, but because acknowledging those areas of unbelief helps build my faith. It invites God to change those parts of me.
Thanksgiving: For some, this is simply a time of counting one’s blessings. You can use this part of your prayer time to thank God for everything from your new transmission to that bunny you saw in your backyard. I often begin with thanking God for those good things in my life. But now I try to move this part of my prayer time to specific answers to prayer. Again, this is a faith-building exercise. When I remind myself of how God has answered previous prayers, I set myself up perfectly to make my requests with a heart of faith.
Supplication: After building my faith through Adoration, Confession, and Thanksgiving, the Supplication part of my prayer looks less like a honey-do list and more like a sweet conversation between Father and daughter. I’m able to present my requests to God with a sense of peace (Phil. 4:6-7). I am assured of God’s power and presence in my life and I am more likely to actually leave my requests at the altar instead of ruminating about them as soon as my prayer time is done.
The ACTS approach to prayer is not a magic formula for answered prayer, and it certainly is not the only way to approach conversation with God, but it is a helpful tool for structuring our prayer time. And best of all, it helps us build our faith! It’s like strength-training for our spiritual muscles!
If you would like to continue to explore this topic of prayer and how you can deepen your own prayer life, I highly recommend Paul E. Miller’s book, “A Praying Life.” And if you read it, let me know what you think!
“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph. 3:20-21).