Is there a wrong way to pray?

Do you sometimes wonder if you’re praying correctly? Quite often, we do this after we pray for something and receive no response. It can also happen when God simply says “no.” We worry that we used the wrong words or haven’t prayed long enough. Maybe we should have chosen a different novena or prayed with greater confidence.

What if God isn’t even listening because of our sinfulness? Let’s face it, we often second-guess ourselves when it comes to prayer. At some point, it would probably be helpful to ask the question — is there a wrong way to pray?

One could make the argument that the only wrong way to pray is when we don’t pray at all. In a sense, I tend to agree with that statement. No matter how flawed our prayers are, conversing with God is certainly better than ignoring him. On the other hand, Jesus offered some helpful advice about prayer and it would probably be a good idea to listen to him. In the Sermon on the Mount, he highlighted a few things that should be avoided when we pray:

“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Matthew 6:5-6)

“The Sermon on the Mount” by Carl Bloch, 1877. Photo: Public Domain

We need to look closely at the Lord’s words because they could easily be misunderstood. In no way is he saying that it’s wrong to pray in public. Rather, he’s cautioning against praying solely for the purpose of being seen by others. Praying the Rosary at church or taking part in public prayer can be a good thing, but we should be doing it to honor God and not because we want our friends to think we’re holy.

Jesus also offers some advice on the words we should use when we pray:

“In praying, do not babble like the pagans, who think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8)

This passage sometimes gets taken out of context by those who accuse Catholics of practicing “vain repetition.” Jesus is not condemning the use of vocal prayers (such as the Our Father, Hail Mary, or Glory Be), but is instead advocating that we pray from the heart. It’s fine to use prayers composed by someone else, provided that we mean what we say!

Now that we know how not to pray, how about a suggestion on how we should pray? Fortunately, Jesus comes through once again:

“This is how you are to pray: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven. Give us today our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and do not subject us to the final test, but deliver us from the evil one.” (Matthew 6:9-13)

Because we are so familiar with the Our Father, we sometimes take it for granted. That is a big mistake. The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to the Lord’s Prayer as the “summary of the whole gospel” (CCC, 2774) and emphasizes that it is inspired by the Holy Spirit:

But Jesus does not give us a formula to repeat mechanically. As in every vocal prayer, it is through the Word of God that the Holy Spirit teaches the children of God to pray to their Father. Jesus not only gives us the words of our filial prayer; at the same time he gives us the Spirit by whom these words become in us “spirit and life.” Even more, the proof and possibility of our filial prayer is that the Father “sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba!  Father!’” Since our prayer sets forth our desires before God, it is again the Father, “he who searches the hearts of men,” who “knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” The prayer to Our Father is inserted into the mysterious mission of the Son and of the Spirit. (CCC, 2766)

So far, we’ve examined what Jesus said about prayer and listened to some advice from the Church. Now, let’s look at something even more powerful. This is how Jesus prayed on the night before he died:

“Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will.” (Mark 14:36)

We can learn four things by looking at the prayer of Jesus:

  1. We are not speaking to an impersonal force or distant being, but a Father who loves us unconditionally. When praying to his Father, Jesus uses the Aramaic word “Abba.” It implies a deep personal, relationship with a loving Father. St. Paul encourages us to use the same title when speaking to our Heavenly Father (see Romans 8:15).
  2. God can do all things. The word “impossible” doesn’t exist in his vocabulary. Remembering this allows us to pray with great confidence.
  3. Jesus makes it clear that there is nothing wrong with asking for an end to suffering. Our Father wants us to ask for the desires of our heart. Go ahead and do it!
  4. Ultimately, we should be willing to accept whatever our Father gives us. “Yes,” “no,” and “not yet” are all valid answers to prayer. Because the Father loves us, we will always receive what we need.

While it’s true that we can use a number of different words when we pray, it is important that we pray with a particular mindset. It’s something that is evident in the Our Father and throughout the entire life of Jesus. When we pray, we should always desire that God’s will be done. If you’re doing that, you can rest assured that you’re praying correctly!

Because the Father loves us, we will always receive what we need.

Catechism of the Catholic ChurchGary ZimakGlory BeHail MaryJesusOur FatherPrayerSermon on the Mount
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