Short Prayers, Good Prayers

 Ever since I was a younger Christian I’ve heard many godly men exhort me to spend long periods in prayer.  Some recommended waking up early to pray (from 5-6 AM), others recommended taking a day off each month to pray.  I’ve also read many accounts of great Christians who have spent hours upon hours in prayer – which has no doubt benefited Christ’s church.  I have to confess: though I do pray fervent prayers quite often, I find it very difficult to spend hours in uninterrupted prayer.  But I don’t despair for reasons that follow.

As wonderful and beneficial as longer prayers are, I think we have to be careful when it comes to this topic.  We’ve always got to remember not to judge prayers based on how long they are.  The essence of true prayer is a believing heart calling upon the Father through Christ by the Holy Spirit (see Heidelberg Catechism LD 45).  In fact, Jesus told us not to heap up empty phrases when we pray, thinking that we will be heard for our many words (Matt. 6:7).  And the pattern for prayer that he gave us is pretty short (Matt. 6:9-13).  I appreciate how Philip Ryken discussed this in When You Pray.

“Knowing God as Father means…you can keep prayer simple.  When children need something from their fathers, they do not hire a lawyer, draft a formal petition, or get down on their knees, they just ask.  That is why Christian prayers are straightforward.  The prayers of pagans tend to be overly complicated, but when Christians pray, they pray to their Father.”

“As a general rule, the prayers of God’s children are short and sweet.  Martin Luther (1483-1546) once said, ‘Our prayer must have few words, but be great and profound in content and meaning…Few words and richness of meaning is Christian; many words and lack of meaning is pagan.’  Indeed, one of the striking things about most biblical prayers is their brevity.  It is hard to find a prayer anywhere in the Bible that when read aloud would be more than five minutes long.”

“Some Christians measure spirituality by the amount of time a person prays.  True, there is plenty of teaching in Scripture about being devoted to the life of prayer.  Jesus himself spent a great deal of time in prayer, and the apostle Paul tells us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV).  However, the effectiveness of our prayers does not depend on the length of our prayers.”

Ryken goes on to discuss Elijah’s short, fervent prayer in contrast to the long-winded prayers of Baal’s prophets (1 Ki. 18).  Elijah’s prayer was brief and simple.  Or consider Isaiah’s prayer in which he confessed his sin (Is. 6:5).  Think about the publican’s prayer: God be merciful to me, a sinner (Luke 18:13).  Thomas’ confession-prayer also comes to mind: My Lord and my God! (John 20:28).  Ecclesiastes even says, Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few (Ecc. 5:2 NIV).

God’s people all have different personalities and temperaments.  Some can pray for hours on end with great fervency.  Others pray short fervent prayers throughout the day.  The point is that we pray often, from the heart, to our Father in heaven.  The saint that prays for hours is not more spiritual than the saint that prays frequent, brief, heart-felt prayers.  My own prayer life has grown since I’ve come to understand what Ryken means in this closing paragraph.  You may want to read it a few times if you’ve struggled in this area.

“God does not need any lengthy explanations.  If you find that your prayer life is too weak, is it possibly that you are trying to make things too complicated?  Our prayers must be fervent, of course, and they ought to be frequent, but they do not need to be fancy” (p. 30-31).

Philip Ryken, When You Pray.

shane lems

8 Replies to “Short Prayers, Good Prayers”

  1. Maybe you didn’t mean to say this, but many of my friends are taking this to say, “It is OK that you don’t spend a lot of concentrated time in prayer.”

    You say, “I’ve also read many accounts of great Christians who have spent hours upon hours in prayer – which has no doubt benefited Christ’s church. I have to confess: though I do pray fervent prayers quite often, I find it very difficult to spend hours in uninterrupted prayer.”

    Which would lead me to believe you think praying often trumps praying long.

    Jesus didn’t pray long prayers? Have you ever read a biography of ‘great Christians’ that did not indicate that they pray for long periods of time?

    A year ago, I would have agreed with you. I’m not a particularly verbal person. When I sit down to pray, I typically think I have nothing to say. But I started setting aside a specific time to pray, starting with 15 minutes, because that’s what I thought I could do. And as I’ve exercised this prayer muscle it has grown. I find more and more to pray for. And to my surprise has done more for my general spiritual growth than any other spiritual discipline I have participated in.

    My fear is that your post will lead people away from a great blessing God has for his people if they would set themselves to a dedicated time of prayer each day. As I disciple people and confront them on this issue I typically come up against this resistance, “I can’t pray for a long time.” My response is always, “OK, then, how long do you think you could pray for?” The point is not length, that will come. The point is consistency and a dedicated time.

    Much like exercise, you aren’t going to start out doing 100 push ups every day. But could you do one tomorrow? Maybe 2 in a month? 10 by the end of the year?


    1. Dave: thanks for the helpful comments. I had thought of the angle you brought up and it is very much worth mentioning. I’m glad for your comments. I certainly wasn’t advocating less prayer; rather I was encouraging towards more prayer. And I didn’t mean to speak on the topic of set prayers, though one could certainly set brief prayer times throughout the day.

      I believe very much that what Ryken has noted and I’ve explained will increase a person’s habit of daily prayer. And perhaps it will even help to the point of longer prayers. The pastoral point is that a day full of short fervent prayers is a blessed thing that might be an easier goal for many Christians than long prayers (which often leave one discouraged because of frequent failures in length).

      I’d encourage you to read that section of Ryken for more info. Length isn’t really the main part of prayer; frequent and fervent prayer is what we should be aiming for.

      Thanks again,


      1. Dave: I’ve been thinking about your comments, and I ran across a Spurgeon quote that helps reflect the theme of this blog post: “I never pray for more than five minutes at a time, but I never go five minutes without praying.”


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