We do not know what we should pray for as we ought. — Romans 8:26

Even those who presume to have expertise in prayer are not likely to question this bold affirmation. Even the great apostle, who could assert “For me to live is Christ,” admitted that he did not know what to pray for as he ought to know. He did of course pray, and he knew something about what to pray for, but he did not know as he ought to have known.

The same verse explains why this is, our weaknesses. “The Spirit helps us in our weaknesses,” it says, and goes on to state a remarkable assurance: “The Spirit himself makes intercession for us with groaning which cannot be uttered.” When it comes to prayer the believer has a lot going for him. When he fouls up his prayer, not being able to articulate his heart’s desire, the Spirit comes to his rescue by saying for him what he is unable to say for himself.

And this must be in a Spirit language, that cannot be put into words, that only God understands, for it goes on to say, “He who searches the heart knows what the mind of the Spirit is, for He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God.”

Then in verse 34 of the same chapter we are told that Christ, who is at the right hand of God, makes intercession for us. What blessed assurance! In our stumbling efforts to pray, the Spirit is there to help us. Then there is Christ in heaven praying for us. As Hebrews 7:25 has it, Christ always lives to make intercession for us.

But all these breath-taking assurances do not rule out any effort on our part to improve our prayers. It is likely a common problem for a believer to be unsure what he should pray for or pray about. We should be open to suggestions from prayer veterans on how to make our prayers more meaningful and more appropriate.

One device that you might find helpful is an acrostic — ACTS — which stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanks-giving, Supplication. Easy to remember, each letter can serve as a prompter from one part of the prayer to the next. And they lend themselves to variety in that there are numerous ways to adore or praise God, different things to confess and to be thankful for. And supplications — petitions and prayers for self and others — will vary with time and circumstances.

Adoration (praise) — It can be expressed by “praying Scripture,” as in Isaiah 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of His glory.” Or 1 Timothy 6:15-16: “He who is the blessed and only Potentate, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality,dwelling in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see, to whom be honor and everlasting power.”

We can praise God as creator of heaven and earth, as the sustainer of all things, for his mighty works in human history, with some of the things named. We can adore him for his philanthropy, his abundant mercy, his eagerness to forgive. In the privacy of our place of prayer we can lift our hands in adoration, “Bless the Lord, O my soul; let all that is within me bless His holy name,” as in Psalm 103.

The Psalms are a storehouse for prayers. As we read Scripture we will become more aware of resources for prayer and praise. Note, for instance, the different attributes assigned to God, which we may use in prayer — God of hope, God of mercy, God who knows the heart, father of the family of God in heaven and on earth, who is faithful, who isn’t willing for any to perish, and on and on.

Confession (and profession) — Now is the time to profess our faith that Jesus is Lord and that God has raised him from the dead. We believe in the remission of sins, the communion of saints, the resurrection of the dead, the parousia, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

And confess our sins. It is not too often to pray the sinner’s prayer daily, “God, be merciful to me a sinner,” laying our souls bare before him who knows the secrets of our heart — our pride and selfishness, our shallowness, our carnality, our impatience and unkind words. With the Palmist we can confess, “I was so foolish and ignorant, I was like an animal before You. Nevertheless I am continually with You; You hold me by my right hand. You will guide me by Your counsel, and afterward receive me to glory” (Psalm 73:21-24).

Thanksgiving — In Acts 17:25 Paul names three things that we should regularly thank God for: “life, breath, and all things.” And in 2 Corinthians 9:15: “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” The “three F’s” are a useful prayer reference: faith, family, friends. Then there are wealth and health.

Prayers should be specific. We are not just to thank God, but name what we are thankful for. We are not simply to ask for forgiveness, but name the sins. It is well to call the names of those we pray for, whether the sick, the discouraged, or missionaries in the field. There is something special about lifting people’s names to the throne of grace — including those who are our enemies and those who are rude to us. It is also therapeutic for us to pray for those whom we may love but don’t like!

Supplication (petitions and intercessions) — It befits the humble believer to pray for others more than self. Prayer should be more for wisdom and courage to confront the problems of life than to escape them. We should pray for peace in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, across the continent of Africa, and around the world. And for our troubled, terrorized, violent world; for world leaders, our president, and for sanity and civility in our nation’s capital. Like our Lord, we should pray for the community of faith, for its unity and its witness to a lost and sinful world. We make better parents and grandparents when we pray for our children and our children’s children — pray and keep praying, however futile it may seem, for the prayers may await eternity to bear fruit.

Praying A-C-T-S can be adjusted to shorter or longer prayers. All of the acrostic or only part can be followed at any given prayer time.

I understand that the believer’s prayer is always to God, to whom we have access through Christ. We do not, usually, pray to Christ, nor to the Spirit. As we have seen the Spirit helps us in our prayers, but the Spirit is not the object of our prayers. Christ himself prayed to God, and he taught us to pray, saying “Our Father who art in heaven.” He never indicated that we are to pray to him.

But we might talk to Jesus as our Lord and Savior, as our friend and example, as Stephen did in Acts 7:59. I might one day write on “Praying to God, Talking to Jesus,” but I will say here that I can see a devout believer talking to our Lord as he drives to work — “Lord, help me to be an example of sweet reasonableness to those foul-mouthed people I work with.” While that is communion with Christ, I see it as different from set, regular prayer in one’s secret chamber, which is directed to God and has such content as suggested by A-C-T-S.

And our prayers at church. Believers gather in the name of Christ, and pray to the Father of the family of God in heaven and on earth, and praise him and thank him for his glorious, unspeakable gift, Jesus Christ our Lord.