What Are the Most Common Misconceptions about Prayer?

Are you reluctant to pray because you don’t think it does any good? Maybe you’ve been praying for a while and it feels like God isn’t listening or He’s decided not to answer your prayer. Or, perhaps you just feel you don’t know enough about prayer for yours to be effective.

For years, I’ve heard people (including believers)tell me that they don’t think their prayers are reaching God. Rather than thinking about prayer as communicating with their loving Heavenly Father, they tend to think about it as a task they have to get right, or they shouldn’t bother.

Before you conclude that you aren’t any good at communicating with God or that you have to follow a certain formula to get God’s ear, consider that you might have some misunderstandings about prayer. Here are some scriptural insights to clear up eight common misconceptions about prayer:

Misconception #1: My prayer must be long or elaborate.

Jesus warned His followers to not be deceived into thinking long, wordy prayers would earn them God’s listening ear. In Matthew 6:7, Jesus said: “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (ESV).

Prayer is to be sincere, with more attention given to the condition of our hearts than the length of our words.

In the Old Testament, Nehemiah, the cup bearer to the king, sent up many short “missile prayers” to God. Eight times in the book of Nehemiah, we read that he prayed spontaneously—while working, while talking to others, and while under pressure to give an answer. He could confidently pray throughout the day because he had established an intimate relationship with God during times of extended prayer.

His short “fill in” prayers were the result of a relationship with God. And in the New Testament, we see Jesus responding to short, sincere prayers of faith like “help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24), “Lord, help me” (Matthew 15:25), and “Have mercy on us” (Matthew 9:27).

Misconception #2: Prayer must follow a certain pattern.

Do you find yourself quoting memorized prayers or getting hung up on having to adhere to a certain pattern? Many people believe they must quote the Lord’s prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 before or after certain prayers for God to hear them or accept their prayers. And for some, it’s the only prayer they utter.

But, again, Jesus warned us not to pray with excessive wording, or empty phrases (and words quoted verbatim can tend to be “empty” after a while). Jesus didn’t intend for His prayer in Matthew 6 to be recited word-for-word, but rather serve as a teaching model for what to include in our prayers – adoration of the Father, supplication for our daily physical needs, confession of our sins, and requesting strength to avoid temptation.

From this prayer, some have developed the ACTS Model of Prayer:  Adoration-Confession-Thanksgiving-Supplication. Another pattern is the CATS Model (Confession-Adoration-Thanksgiving-Supplication). 

But the whole point of a model is to help guide us in knowing how to pray, not what to pray. While the Lord’s Prayer is a teaching model and wasn’t meant to be prayed verbatim, it contains an important principle of beginning prayer with adoration for our Father in heaven.

As you come to God, reverently, acknowledging that He is God and you are not, you can then pray from a sincere heart. God already knows what you need, but when you come to Him and talk about your needs physically, emotionally, and spiritually, you are putting yourself in the position of developing a more intimate relationship with the Living God.

Misconception #3: Prayer must contain certain phrases to “work.”

I’m sure you’ve been told to make sure you pray “in Jesus’ name” so God will listen and answer your prayers. The phrase “in Jesus’ name” is not a magical phrase to get God’s stamp of approval, but instruction for us concerning the attitude in which to pray. Jesus said “Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it” (John 14:13-14).

Jesus was telling us to petition His Father on behalf of Him. In other words, ask God the Father for anything that Jesus, His Son, would ask for. That is what it means to pray “according to God’s will” or “in Jesus’ name.”

Therefore, it isn’t the phrase that is so important, but the intention of your heart and in Whose name and on Whose behalf and for Whose glory you are making your request.

Misconception #4: God doesn’t hear your prayers if you sin.

If God didn’t hear the prayer of a sinner who could be saved? Romans 3:23 says “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” When we pray to Christ for our salvation, He hears. Acts 2:21 says, “everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.”

Though we are forgiven of our sin debt once for all by Christ Jesus (Hebrews 7:27), we continue to sin, at times, because we are still in the flesh (Romans 7:18). Yet sin in the life of a believer does not close God’s ears toward him. Sin may affect your fellowship with God, but as a wise, loving parent, God is not going to ignore, reject, or shun His child because of disobedience or rebellion (Matthew 7:11).

God may refuse to grant your selfish requests or demands, or institute discipline as a consequence to your attitude or actions, or wait in silence for you to accept the conviction of the Holy Spirit. But, He will never stop listening to His children and responding to their cries for help (Isaiah 49:15; Hebrews 13:5).

Misconception #5: I must pray through a saint, a priest, or the Virgin Mary.

God made it clear in His Word that His Holy Spirit is our intercessor and we don’t need another person, dead or alive, to get our prayers through to God. Romans 8:26-27 says: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

With God’s Holy Spirit as your Intercessor why would you need the efforts or prayers of a priest or a “saint” or even Jesus’ mother, Mary? Ephesians 3:12 tells us because of our faith in Christ, “we have boldness and access with confidence” to the throne of God and therefore we can “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time ofneed” (Hebrews 4:16). 

Scripture also teaches that anyone who is in Christ (putting their faith in Jesus alone for their salvation) is a saint (Ephesians 1:1, Ephesians 1:18; Ephesians 2:19) and, as saints we are to “confess our sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”

If you are in Christ and living obediently, your prayer is just as effective and powerful as your pastor’s or priest’s. Our righteousness, after all, is in Christ’s work on the cross, not a position or title in the church.

Misconception #6: If two or more are gathered together in prayer, God is more likely to hear.

This could be one of the New Testament passages of Scripture that believers most often take out of context. Matthew 18:15-20 instructs believers how to respond when another believer sins against them. The concluding verse in this passage (“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”) refers to God’s presence, wisdom, and judgment within the midst of church discipline, not prayer itself.

We know this because Scripture teaches if you are the only one in the room, God still hears your prayer and is in your midst (Psalm 139:7-12, Hebrews 13:5). Having a second or third person join you in prayer or agree with you on an issue in prayer (as Matthew 18:19 might seem to apply), does not increase the validity of your prayer or the listening power of God or the strength of His presence or involvement.

A convicted sinner hung naked on a cross cried out “Remember me in paradise” and Jesus heard Him and responded, even though not a soul there validated or agreed with him about that prayer (Luke 23:42-43).

So, if you are alone in your room, in your car, or in your emotional pit, God hears you just as much as if you had two or more people surrounding you and laying their hands on your head as you prayed.

Misconception #7: We must assume a certain position for our prayers to be heard.

Jesus prayed by lifting His eyes to heaven (John 17:1). Yet He also prayed while reclining at a table for supper, and while hanging on the cross. David sometimes prayed face down on the floor (2 Samuel 12:16). And Paul prayed while chained to a prison wall.

Where you are and what position you are assuming (standing, kneeling, sitting, or lying down; arms raised or crossed; eyes open or closed) is irrelevant. God looks at the posture of your heart, not your body.

Misconception #8: We must be praying at the exact moment when (or in the exact location where) a situation is happening for God to act.

It is popular today to form prayer circles, to walk around a certain place, to call up people and have them praying at a certain time, and that is great if it gets people praying. But, God is omnipresent (He is everywhere at all times) and He is at work in places whether you are physically there or not.

He is also beyond time so He already has your situation worked out. So, if your 10 am surgery was unexpectedly moved up a couple hours and your family and friends didn’t know to be praying at 8 am, God still hears, and is already working on your behalf.

In His omniscience, God already knows what was to be prayed. He transcends location and time so you don’t have to worry about your presence being there…it’s His presence that counts.


cover of book When God Sees by Cindi McMenaminCindi McMenamin is a pastor’s wife, Bible teacher, and national speaker who has authored more than a dozen books to help women and couples grow stronger in their relationship with God and others. Her books include When Women Walk Alone (more than 140,000 copies sold),  When a Woman Overcomes Life’s Hurts, When Couples Walk Together (co-authored with her husband, Hugh), and  When God Sees Your Tears. For more on her books, speaking ministry, coaching services, and free resources to strengthen your soul, marriage or parenting, see her website: www.StrengthForTheSoul.com.

Photo Credit: ©Unsplash/Nine-Kopfer

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