Is There a Right Way to Pray?

by Rachel Syens

Recently, my small group had a discussion about our prayer lives growing up. Many of us shared similar experiences: family prayer before dinner, bedtime prayers, and special prayers for Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, and other important holidays. But the way we prayed was vastly different. Some recited the Lord’s Prayer or prayed from scripture. A friend explained how she and her siblings were encouraged to pray a new prayer each night, focusing on making it unique. In my family, we prayed (and still pray) using the same format every night: thanking God for each other and our love, but modifying prayer requests based on the conditions and circumstances in our lives.

There are many different ways that we pray, and our life experiences may have conditioned us to focus on a certain way. But is there a right way to pray? The short answer: no. There’s no right way or wrong way. Prayers can be long or short, formal or informal, joyful and angry. God promises to always listen to us and our prayers.

Prayer can take any format

Our Christian community is beautiful because it is diverse; we can see this echoed through the many different styles of worship. Theologian and writer Rachel Held Evans wrote: “The church is God saying: 'I'm throwing a banquet, and all these mismatched, messed-up people are invited.’” Each of us comes from a unique set of circumstances, childhood upbringings, and experiences that have shaped who we are today. Those experiences are interwoven with our faith and inform how we interact with God, as well as fellow believers.

Prayer traditions can also change over time. Many of us, myself included, have been through a stormy season this past year. At times, I have found it difficult to keep a prayer routine or schedule. Instead, I find myself praying throughout the day, as a thought pops into my head, a pain of anger or frustration strikes, or a joyful moment occurs. These prayers are always informal - sometimes I speak them out loud, sometimes I keep them in my mind. They rarely begin with “Dear God” or “Lord” and even less often end with “Amen.” But they are prayers all the same, and I can rest peacefully knowing that God hears them.

Prayer can happen anywhere

One of my favorite quotes is from sixteenth-century theologian Martin Luther, who said: “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” It’s wonderful if you have a specific place in your home to pray - maybe it’s kneeling by your bed just before sleep, or sitting by a sunny window in the early morning. But prayer is not limited to certain locations—it can happen anywhere. During the COVID-19 pandemic, my gym has been closed and I found myself taking more walks outside. I’ve watched a full year of seasons come and go, the leaves turning glorious shades of fiery red, orange, and yellow, gentle snow covering the grass, and beautiful pink buds emerging from the thawing ground. I find myself reveling in the beauty of creation, thanking and praising God for the joy of seasons, the promises of new life. These exaltations are prayers, too. Colossians 4:2 tells us, “[d]evote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” If you feel stuck or stale in your prayer life, try visiting a new location and letting it guide you.

Prayer isn’t always joyful

Sometimes, we don’t feel joyful. There are days when waves of anger crash over us, sadness overtakes us, and happiness is elusive. God wants to listen to our prayers on those days, too. I have gone through trauma and tragedy over the last year, and my prayers have been angry. I have cried out to God with questions of “Why?” I have prayed openly about doubt and fear. I have prayed through tears and through screams. I have simply said, “I don’t understand” many times again and again.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in this place. My friends: don’t be afraid to pray angrily. Poet e. e. cummings wrote: “exists no miracle mightier than this: to feel.” God created us with a wide breadth of emotions. God created us with love, and to love. When love is lost, or joy is taken away, it is expected that we feel anger and sadness. God is our perfect Father, who lets us yell and scream and cry all while patiently listening, ready to comfort us.

God is always listening

However we pray, wherever we pray, and whether we pray out of anger and suffering or joy and thanksgiving, let us remember that God is always listening. Prayer is the intersection of our deepest thoughts, our darkest truths, our most broken and beautiful selves with our creator God. This will be a different experience for each of us. We can revel in the beauty that there is no single way to pray, and rest assured that God will always hear us.

Irish theologian and poet Pádraig Ó Tuama describes prayer beautifully: “Prayer is a small fire lit to keep cold hands warm. Prayer is a practice that flourishes both with faith and doubt. Prayer is asking, and prayer is sitting. Prayer is the breath. Prayer is not an answer, always, because not all questions can be answered.”