As Christians, prayer ought to play a huge role in our lives. Yet, it’s all too easy to have a strained and frustrated relationship with the concept of prayer. What is it even supposed to look like in our lives? I’m not going to pretend that I’m an expert on a subject I can hardly figure out myself. Looking at Jesus’ prayer life offers some keen insights into the practice of prayer and how he carried it out. Who better to learn from how to pray to God than the Son of God himself? Here are some observable practices Jesus employed in and around his prayer life and what they can teach us. 

Jesus prayed before acting.

There were some tremendous miracles performed by Jesus, but when you study them, it’s easy to see how purposeful they were. In the case of Lazarus, we have the added bonus of hearing what that prayer was specifically.  In John 11 Jesus prays the following: “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” Jesus’ priorities are clear: glorifying God. And that can’t happen if God’s not in the picture at all. 

Jesus acted after praying.

Knowing the unmistakable importance of bringing the task to God first, Jesus also recognized the need to act. He knew that he was the boots on the ground in that instant and had the incredible honor of carrying out what God was doing. The very next thing Jesus did after praying before Lazarus’ tomb was to tell him to come out. He advanced in the assurance of what God was doing.

Jesus had requests that were important to him.

In the garden just before his arrest, Jesus made passionate, heartbreaking appeals to God concerning his situation. There were deep personal desires on Jesus’ heart and he brought them to the Father in prayer. His words in Luke resonate with anyone who has felt like they’ve faced a task that will cost them everything: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.”

Jesus didn’t rank those requests above God’s will 

Despite having just asked God if there was any other way, Jesus immediately set his own request aside and submitted to God’s plan above his own. His very next words in prayer were “nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.” No matter what desires may have tugged at Christ’s heart, they took a backseat to his ultimate desire to carry out God’s will.

These are just a handful of attributes from Jesus’ prayer life, and I’m not entirely comfortable with how my own prayer life looks in comparison. I charge into things without even thinking of bringing it to God first or refuse to budge after I do pray. But perhaps the most difficult part for me to overcome is my hierarchy of needs that I push ahead of God’s plan.

I want things, lots of things. Some things are simple like “please let it be warm tomorrow”. Others, like safety and health, are a little more important to me. I don’t always get the things I’ve prayed for. More often than not, it’s another cold day. Even the more important requests have been denied sometimes. I’ve faced situations that were wildly unsafe and the health of my family is a walking cautionary tale of spinal, shoulder, and knee injuries just to name a few. And then a few years ago I begged God not to let my mother die, but she passed away all the same.

If you were to evaluate my prayers by getting the things I asked for, my prayer life would be an absolute joke. You could point to numerous points in my life and wince at all the prayers that were answered with a resolute “no”. But to evaluate prayer in this way would be to assume that prayer is only answered if we like the outcome. That is not the reality of the situation.

God loves us deeply. He tells us again and again in scripture that we are loved and cherished by him. And like any parent knows, raising a child is not about just saying yes to everything. Everyone knows a child who is an absolute terror and disaster because their parents say yes to everything. These demanding children grow up to be incompetent adults who have no way to handle hardship in life.

If we pray for God’s will to be done, that’s going to include copying Jesus’ stance and setting our own requests in second place. If we are going to say, “nevertheless, not my will but yours be done”, we need to acknowledge that we are asking God to bring us closer to his plan, not ours. And sometimes, that plan is going to mean we are in pain or get told no, but it does not mean that we are going unanswered. We need to break the habit of only counting a prayer as answered if it’s an answer we’re happy to hear.

So those prayers I had where my requests were denied are still pushing me to a part in God’s story. In some cases, I’ve since learned why God said no and it’s alarming how good a thing it is that I didn’t get what I wanted. And yes, some are still hard to swallow, but I have to lean into the faith that God knew what he was doing when he said no to those things and that one day it will all make sense.

I once was complaining about shoulder pain in a moment of fussiness to an acquaintance who (well-meaningly) suggested that I might not have prayed enough for it to be taken away. A few days later I recounted the story to my mother, who had her fair share of aches and pains, and asked her how she prayed about her pain. Her response was simple and powerful. In her mind, her prayers about her spinal pain had been answered. The answer was it was there to stay and it was now up to her for how she would respond. Her prayers on spinal pain had since changed to asking God to help her bear it and be a positive example to others. I can’t tell you the number of people I’ve seen who were inspired by my mom’s attitude towards physical pain and I can’t help but wonder how different that all would have looked if her prayers had been answered in some sort of yes machine.

Prayer doesn’t need to be answered yes to be answered, not if we’re praying with the intention of carrying out God’s will. We need the God of the universe who loves us dearly far more than we need a genie in a bottle who arbitrarily grants wishes, and that’s going to mean being raised into someone who can be part of the story, not someone sitting back on their haunches. A prayer that’s answered no can be doing just as much work in the kingdom as a prayer that’s answered yes.

“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”