I do not know about you, but I struggle with the activity of praying. I typically last for about a few minutes and then from out of nowhere the to-do lists, the meetings I have, the curiosity of who won last night’s match, or the newspaper headlines flood my mind and I’m off on a tangent. I then realize this and try to pick up where I left my prayer, but before I know it, it has happened yet again. I think this is a struggle many Christians can relate with, and I think one helpful way of dealing with this is being more focused and balanced in prayer. What I am suggesting in this article is to use the simple acrostic A.C.T.S to help develop four broad aspects of prayer:
A – Adoration
C – Confession
T – Thanksgiving
S – Supplication
Not every prayer needs to have all four parts, but in general, our prayer life should have a good balance of these four. While we must be careful not to merely get into a system of prayer, many people have found the ACTS system helpful. This has not only helped me break down my prayer time into chunks, but has also enabled me to have a better focus when I pray. To provide some insight into each of these elements, we are going to look at various prayers recorded for us in Scripture—both in the Old Testament as well as in the New Testament.
The first element of prayer is praise, or adoration. This means we adore God for who He is, meaning that when we come to God, we praise Him for the way He has revealed himself in the creation and in His Word. Here are some examples from the prayers of Jesus, Nehemiah, Jeremiah, and Paul.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we see Jesus teaching us to begin our prayers with adoration: “Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be Your name”. Similarly, Nehemiah begins his prayer in Nehemiah 1:5: “O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments”. Even though Nehemiah had received discouraging reports about Jerusalem, he deliberately postpones the cry for help, and spends time reflecting on the character of the God he is praying to. Or observe how Jeremiah addresses God in different ways to praise God for who He is. “Apart from addressing Him always as ‘LORD’ (Yahweh), Jeremiah also calls God ‘LORD of hosts’ (11:20,22, 15:16, 20:12, 32:18), referring to Him as his strength, fortress and refuge (16:19), as great and mighty (32:18,19), saviour (14:8) and a creator (v. 22)”.1 Note that Jeremiah was able to look beyond the current state of affairs and trust God for who He is.
The apostle Paul offers prayers of praise to God for His eternal qualities and presents, in a form which invites all his readers to join in each act of praise. Here are a few of many examples, “O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways! . . . To Him be the glory forever” (Rom. 11:33-36). “To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory forever and ever” (1 Tim. 1:17). Honour is due because of Christ’s work in saving sinners, of whom Paul was chief, and a pattern for those who afterwards would believe to life everlasting (vs. 15,16). This pattern from Scripture shows that we are to spend time in praising and adoring God.
Second, prayer should include confession of our sin. As we remember who we are when we come into God’s presence, we see that we have come desperately short of His standards and we need His forgiveness. Confession of sins sometimes may seem as a ritual, as lip service but true repentance recognises who God is, that God is God, and we are not. We see this in the prayers of Jesus, Jeremiah, and Daniel.
Jesus teaches the need for confession in our prayer life in the Lord’s Prayer, as he teaches us to say, “Forgive us our debts.” Notice how many times Jeremiah acknowledges in several verses the words “the Lord our God” in Jeremiah chapter 3. The entire prayer is uttered in the proper sense of the holiness and the righteousness of God, the great I AM! And he speaks to God in personal terms, with whom he has a personal relationship, there is a sense of belonging. So, our confession restores the intimacy that we have with God. Likewise, “when we come to God, we must renounce anything and everything else we have ever trusted to bring us joy and meaning in life”.2
We see in Daniel 9, that Daniel’s confession is both personal and corporate (vs. 5). We can notice how many times he has said we have sinned (vs. 7, 8, 10, 11 & 15), we have done wrong, we are guilty, we have rebelled, we have not obeyed, we are wicked. Similarly, when we confess our sins to God both individually and as a church, we also need to spell out the ways in which we have fallen short. The mature Christian weeps with loathing over his shortcomings which is shown to him more and more day after day. The longer we journey in this Christian life, the more we are aware of the sinners we are and grow in our appreciation of the scandalous grace of our Lord Jesus. This leads us to thanksgiving.
Third, when we pray, we should always give thanks (Eph. 5:20). In thanksgiving we acknowledge and express gratitude to God for the grace and mercy God has shown toward us. To distinguish it from adoration, in thanksgiving we are saying “thank you” to God for the way in which his character has had an impact on our lives. Let’s see this in Jesus, Paul, and Daniel.
It would appear that thanksgiving is absent in the Lord’s prayer, but it is implied in the petition: “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11). The reason for making this assertion is simple: we are to be alert not only to the need that we have daily for food, but to the reality of God’s daily provision for our needs. That realisation should produce in us an attitude of thanksgiving. We see several examples of thanksgiving in Paul’s writings, for a wide spectrum of reasons: the visit or presence of other brethren (Acts 28:15), the faith shown by churches (Rom 1:8; 6:17), the gift of God’s grace to them (1 Cor 1:4) or God’s bringing about care of the church by others, for example, Titus (2 Cor. 8:16). Though we may (and must!) give thanks for physical things, there is also the need to remember the more important spiritual gifts we have received, such as personal deliverance from “the body of this death” (Rom 7:24,25) and God’s work through Christ (1 Cor 15:57; 2 Cor. 2:14).
This thanksgiving for spiritual gifts is possible even when our lives seem to be spinning out of control, as we see in Daniel 6. Daniel is facing the real prospect of being thrown into the lions’ den. And what do we read? We read that he went down to his house, he got down on his knees and he gave thanks as he had done previously (Dan. 6:10). Like Daniel, and like Paul and Silas in the Philippian prison, we too can give thanks in all circumstances because we know our God works all things for our good (Rom 8:28).
Fourth, prayer rightly includes supplication or petition, meaning we bring our requests for the needs of others and ourselves to God. Whether our circumstances are good, bad, or ugly we can always come to God and bring our petitions to God with thankfulness. In some ways, this may be the aspect of prayer we struggle the least with—we are so quick to ask for things! While there is nothing wrong in asking our Father what we want, Scripture directs us to give thought to what we are asking for. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus teaches us to ask, “give us today our daily bread” (Matt. 6:11)—a simple and humble expression of our dependence on God for our daily sustenance. We see this illustrated in the prayer life of Paul, Daniel, and Jeremiah.
Paul prayed for the spiritual health of the churches on several occasions. He requests that the Thessalonians pray for him (2 Thess. 3:1), specifically that the word of the Lord which has been entrusted to him would not be hampered by those who oppose it. Paul also pleaded to the Lord three times, that the thorn in his flesh and the harassing demon would leave him. However, God’s response was, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor. 12:7-8).
In Daniel 9:16-19, we see Daniel offer a petition to the Lord, and the petition is not about what he wants or even what the people want, but it is about God and His glory for it is Daniel’s knowledge of God that underpins all that he prays. Jeremiah also always turned to his God. For example, we read in Jeremiah 17:14, “Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise”. When we read the book of Jeremiah, we see he had no one else to turn to, but his prayers show that he knew exactly where reliable, sure help came from: from his God who is his strength, his fortress, and his refuge. Jeremiah 16:19 (ESV), “O Lord, my strength and my stronghold, my refuge in the day of trouble, to you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth and say: “Our fathers have inherited nothing but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit”. It is perhaps that sentence which sums up the prophet’s attitude to his God. Despite everything that was thrown at him, he believed sincerely in God and trusted to be delivered from his troubles. This is the attitude with which we are to bring our needs before God, trust in God’s ability to intervene.
To summarize, I think A.C.T.S is a helpful acrostic for remembering both the elements and the priorities of prayer. Unfortunately, we often spell our prayer life something like S.C.A.T because we start with supplication and spend very little time, if any, on adoration, confession, and thanksgiving. But as we have learnt from the prayers in the Bible, our prayers are to be shaped by our dependence upon God, and are to be for his glory, regardless of the circumstances.
And so even as we go through this pandemic with much loss, sickness, brokenness and some uncertainty of the days ahead, we can pray to the Lord of Hosts adoring God for who he is and confessing anything and everything else we have ever trusted to bring us joy and meaning in life apart from God. We can approach the King of the ages, immortal, invisible God, and thank Him for His great plan in fulfilling his purposes despite our circumstances and offer our supplications to the Lord for this pandemic to leave us yet knowing that His grace is indeed sufficient for us and His power is made perfect in our weakness while also being rest assured that our LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God will keep his covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments and we can say, Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done.
2 Ryken, P. G. (2001). Jeremiah and Lamentations: From Sorrow to Hope (p. 69). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books.
Pray Big: Learn to Pray Like an Apostle by Alistair Begg