“Can’t anyone teach me how to pray?” Flannery O’Conner once wrote in her journal. You’ve asked it. I’ve asked. We all have. We still do. How do we address an infinite, all-knowing, almighty being who is completely invisible to each of our five senses? And yet, as Tim Keller observed in the opening pages of his 2014 book on prayer, “We have to pray.” I just picked up Keller’s book, and already it promises to be a wonderfully helpful work on the why, what, and how of praying to the God who listens. In the introduction, Keller reminds us of these elements of prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. I was taught these via the acronym ACTS. I was taught that every prayer ought to have each of these elements in that order. Yet, you will find that the 150 prayers we call the Psalms don’t follow this rule. Not even The Lord’s Prayer followed that rule. I prefer Keller’s description of these as traditional forms. This means a heart may truly pray in any one or more of these forms in any order, in any combination. Let me give a bit of description of each that I hope you may find helpful.
Adoration is offering praise for who God is, or contemplating the beauty, majesty, and glory of His being. Adoration is expressed with verbs like adore, love, worship, rejoice, honor, magnify, delight, and treasure.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”—Mary, the mother of Jesus
Confession is acknowledging who you are to God. It is giving God an account of how we have failed to love Him perfectly, disobeying Him in thought, word, action, and inaction. Confession takes it shape from verbs like confess, admit, acknowledge, and repent.
“I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin.”—King David
Thanksgiving is declaring gratitude for what God has done and given. This isn’t mere politeness. Giving God thanks is an admission of dependence on Him for all things tangible and intangible, whether food and shelter, or mercy and love. Thanksgiving is declared with verbs like thank, give, and offer.
“Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”—Psalm 118:1
Supplication is earnestly asking God for help in the time of need. It is the expression of our confident hope that God knows what we need before we ask, listens to our prayers, and provides much more than we need. Supplication is given voice with verbs like save, deliver, help, provide, strengthen, and comfort.
“Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me! O Lord, make haste to help me!”—Psalm 40:13
As we learn to pray, let us remember most importantly, that we pray to God our Father, through Jesus our Savior, by the Spirit our Helper. He invites us to pray, and delights to hear us verbalize our love, our repentance, our gratitude, and our needs. Grace to you, Lon