Speaking of prayer, 16th century Protestant Reformer Martin Luther said this: “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” Prayer lies at the heart of the believer’s relationship with God. That said, prayer can sometimes be a struggle. So sometimes we need help.
Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel (11:1) Jesus teaches his disciples the Lord’s Prayer because they’ve asked for help: He was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John also taught his disciples.”So, thankfully, there are lots of ways to pray. Using the Lord’s Prayer as a model and guide is one that Christians have used for centuries.
Another approach is to use what many call the “A.C.T.S.” model for prayer. It provides a helpful outline for praying. Each letter in the acronym refers to a particular kind of prayer: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication.
In this post I’m going to reflect a little bit on each of these aspects of prayer. I’m also going to point to examples of each in Scripture, because I believe our prayers are stronger when guided by God’s word. If you are someone who seeks to pray, but has trouble doing so, perhaps this will help you. I think the “A.C.T.S.” model of prayer is an effective guide to having a fuller and more meaningful prayer life.
Prayers of adoration are prayers of praise, and the Bible is full of praises directed to God. Here are two examples, one from the Old Testament and one from the New Testament:
Let the whole earth shout triumphantly to the LORD! Serve the LORD with gladness; come before him with joyful songs. Acknowledge that the LORD is God. He made us, and we are his–his people, the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him and bless his name. For the LORD is good, and his faithful love endures forever; his faithfulness, through all generations.Psalm 100:1-5
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Because of his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you. You are being guarded by God’s power through faith for a salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. You rejoice in this, even though now for a short time, if necessary, you suffer grief in various trials so that the proven character of your faith–more valuable than gold which, though perishable, is refined by fire-may result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him; though not seeing him now, you believe in him, and you rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy, because you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.1 Peter 1:3-9
The example from the Psalms overflows with joy and gratitude. The psalmist is directing his readers to praise God, to give thanks, to rejoice, all because of who God is and what he has done. The same is true of the opening of 1 Peter. Here Peter is encouraging the recipients of his letter to reflect upon who God is and what he has done. He connects the reality of who God is to their everyday (and sometimes difficult) experiences as followers of Jesus. Worship springs from seeing this connection, and ought to lead naturally to bless God and, as Peter puts it, to rejoice with inexpressible and glorious joy.
Now, when we praise God we are acknowledging and reminding ourselves why we believe in, worship, and obey God. We bring to our immediate attention to God’s attributes and actions. Our God is not just any God. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, of Moses and David, of Isaiah and Daniel, and of Peter and Paul. Our God is one who has acted in creation and history for the purposes of salvation, to establish an everlasting covenant with his people. This God and no other is worthy of our praise and worship. And when we praise God in our prayers (and in song) we don’t do so to make God feel better about himself. God doesn’t need our praises; we do. We need to be reminded regularly of who God is and what he has done.
Being reminded of who God is also reminds us of who we are. God is holy; we are not. We are broken and sinful. We need forgiveness. We need to have our consciences cleansed. We need to fess up to our mess ups. Confessing is part of what it means to hear and respond to the call of Jesus in his first sermon in Mark’s Gospel: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
God, create a clean heart for mePsalm 51:10-12
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not banish me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore the joy of your salvation to me,
and sustain me by giving me a willing spirit.
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.1 John 1:9
Confession relieves. It lifts the weight of guilt and shame. It brings us closer to wholeness, and it brings us back to ourselves, to who God created us to be. By confessing we face ourselves. And in truth, we can only fully face ourselves when we’re willing also to face God. Not only that, but we can only truthfully face God when we face ourselves. Neither is genuinely possible without the other. Ultimately, confession points us to the heart of Jesus and what he was willing to endure so that we could be reconciled to God. The forgiveness that follows confession is available to us because Jesus was crucified in our place to pay the penalty you and I deserve.
Having grown up Catholic, I have had the experience of being in a confessional booth and confessing my sins to a priest. Though the last time I remember going to confession, the priest and I actually sat in a pew together. Protestants will (pardon the pun) protest such a practice. Yet, whatever anyone thinks of Catholic sacramental theology, in Scripture confession is not an altogether private matter. Though no doubt many present day believers would find doing so uncomfortable, James 5:16 tells us to confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. Often God meets us through other people. Perhaps this verse from James is also part of what it means when in Galatians 6:2 Paul says Carry one another’s burdens.
Praise and thanksgiving are close cousins. We see this over and over again in the Psalms. Here’s one example:
Therefore I will give thanks to you among the nations, Lord;Psalm 18:49
I will sing praises about your name.
It seems to me that in many respects we live an age of ingratitude. People often feel entitled. Rather than experiencing life with a humble sense of thanks, instead we can have a prideful sense of deserving special privileges. We earn our blessings. We work hard for them. They are our accomplishments. Or at least we sometimes live this way.
There are numerous calls in Scripture for God’s people to be thankful–and to give thanks to God specifically. I think this is a reminder of how life is a gift. It’s a reminder of what we read in James 1:17: Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, who does not change like shifting shadows. And so thanksgiving is not only about being grateful for what we have, but acknowledging the source of our blessings. As someone once said, “The atheist ultimately has no one to thank.”
Scripture also reminds us that there are reasons for thanksgiving beyond material well-being. Because even if life doesn’t go the way we want, and we don’t get what we want, we can still have plenty of reason to be grateful. More than enough, in fact. Ultimately, our gratitude in rooted in our experience of coming to faith in Christ and how that transforms our lives and our perspective. For example, when writing to the Colossians Paul says this:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. You have already heard about this hope in the word of truth, the gospel that has come to you. It is bearing fruit and growing all over the world, just as it has among you since the day you heard it and came to truly appreciate God’s grace.Colossians 1:3-6
Making a practice of thanksgiving transforms our attitude to the good things of this life, enables us to be resilient when circumstances are difficult, and orients us towards our ultimate hope in Christ. When we don’t feel thankful, praying a prayer of thanksgiving with the help of Scripture may very well lead to a deeper experience of gratitude.
If you were to ask most people what prayer is, I’m guessing many, if not most, would say that prayer is asking God for stuff. Now, when I say stuff, I don’t only mean possessions. I mean that we ask God to act on our behalf. We ask for help. We ask God to provide. We ask God to heal a sick loved one. This kind of prayer is called petitionary prayer or, as the “A.C.T.S.” model says, supplication. It means to request something from God.
And isn’t it interesting that in the “A.C.T.S.” model of prayer that prayers of supplication are last?
This is similar to the Lord’s Prayer, which begins with prayers for the hallowing of God’s name, the coming of his kingdom, and the fulfilling of his will. Only then do we offer prayers for our daily bread. As far as prayers of petition go, Paul gives us the best example outside of Jesus himself:
Don’t worry about anything, but in everything, through prayer and petition with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.Philippians 4:6
I do think, though, that learning to pray prayers of adoration, confession, and thanksgiving has an effect on what we see as needs. It shapes our perspective and priorities. At the same time, we are encouraged by God to pray for our every need.
We don’t always discern well between wants and needs, and I think growing in our discipleship to Jesus is in part the process of becoming more discerning in this very way. Prayer, especially when we take our cues from Scripture, is a training ground of the heart.
So that’s the “ A.C.T.S.” model of prayer. If you’re the sort of person who finds it hard to know where to start praying, I think it’s a helpful guide. Should you choose to make use of it, let it be a doorway into prayer, into deeper communion with the God to whom you pray. It’s not meant to be a legalistic formula. Instead, it’s an invitation to enter more fully into the presence our Creator and Redeemer. So may he bless you as you bring your praises, gratitude, your open heart, and your needs to him.