What Jesus teaches us about why and how we should pray

Prayer is an essential part of the Christian life and even may non-believers make prayer a regular part of their routines.  But even for seasoned Christians, prayer can feel confusing or sometimes even pointless.  It's probably for that reason that Jesus' disciples took their questions about prayer to him and the instructions he gave were recorded in the Gospels for our benefit.  So here's a quick look at the how, where and why of prayer.

How to do it
Should we pray in our heads, aloud, with hands outstretched, hands clasped together or on our knees? Prayer can take many forms, and we can find instruction on the different ways to pray from the accounts of Jesus' own prayers - "Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground," (Matthew 26:35), "He withdrew about a stone's throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed," (Luke 22:41) and his instructions to his disciples in which he mentions standing in prayer (Mark 11:25, Luke 18:13).

Aside from guidance on body language during prayer, Jesus' prayers also provide us with lessons on how long we should spend praying at any one time. Christ's own prayers varied in length. At one time he returned to the disciples after praying for an hour, Matthew 26:40 ("Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping,") and on another occasion he spent the whole night praying to God (Luke 6:12). It's probably best not to get caught up on how long we spend in prayer as the duration will inevitably vary. But if we're doing it as Jesus advised, habitually and faithfully, then our prayer commitment should go beyond 'squeezing it in' before bed or on our commute to work.

Where to do it
Another element of prayer that is of great relevance, and is alluded to multiple times by Jesus, is our intent. Where we pray can have an impact on the intentions behind our prayers and how they manifest. Prayer isn't about performance, but when praying in the presence of others it can risk becoming so. When Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer in Matthew 6:6, he tells them to go to their room to pray in secret. What we learn from his instruction is that it's important to spend time alone with God because when we are surrounded by others in prayer our focus can shift to what our prayer may be communicating to them, instead of what we're communicating to God.

Jesus didn't just tell his disciples to pray alone, he also practised it. "Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed," Mark 1:35.  Prayer can help us to know inner peace, but sometimes we need to take ourselves away from others to experience this. In addition to providing us with the optimum environment for encountering the peace that prayer can bring, meeting with God alone can also motivate us to approach Him with good intentions.But this isn't to say that we can't ever pray with others, that's encouraged too in Matthew 18:19, for example, where it says, "For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them."

Why we do it
Prayer acts as a tool of communication between us and God. The accounts of Jesus' own prayers are representative of a conversation between him and his Father. As with any conversation, there are many reasons why we might pray. Some of the ones that Jesus highlights are: to ask God to help us "not fall into temptation" (Luke 22:40,46), to forgive us our sins and to have mercy on us; to humble ourselves and to receive the support we need to successfully undertake a spiritual challenge. What's revealed to us through Jesus' examples, parables and teachings is that there's no problem too big for us to bring to God and there's no limit on how many times we can talk to Him about something.