Prayer Tips: When to Pray

In the early days of his Christian walk, someone said, “I just don’t seem to have time to pray!” A mentor responded in a gentle tone with a stubborn and convicting principle: “you make time for your priorities.” Yet, the question of when to pray is a potent one in the distractedness and business of modern life with its constant connectivity, appointments, virtual appointments, pings, and notifications. Even if we know better than to make excuses for ourselves, the believer who claims a relationship with the living God is commendably concerned about both the quantity and quality of time spent in prayer. While we should clearly pray whenever moved by some external or internal prompting, anything worthy of our attention deserves a dedicated time, no less so the life of prayer.

Seeming to undermine our subject, the Apostle Paul writes these challenging words: “Pray without ceasing.” (1Th 5:17)[1] Assigning a time to prayer would seem too limiting for so grand an activity if we ourselves were not constrained to live one moment after another with a restricted band of attention. Paul’s meaning in the context and in comparison with other texts seems to be that we should not stop praying through changing circumstances that may tempt us to give up (cf. Luke 18:1), in which case it’s the persistence rather than the frequency of our prayers that he has in view. He may also be thinking of maintaining a posture of prayerfulness at all times. But again: anything worthy of our attention deserves time devoted to it.

The Psalmist exclaims, “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous rules.” (Psalm 119:164) While the phrase “seven times” is widely recognized as a figure for continual prayer, Christians did carry over a pattern of praying at set hours from Jewish practice (e.g., Acts 3:1). This was developed over time from a base of evening and morning prayer, to the addition of praying at the third, sixth, and ninth hour. Eventually, seven or eight set times of daily prayer came to characterize the divine office, or liturgy of the hours, prayed by monks and clergy. The characteristic mainstays of these set hours were the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and successive sections of the Psalter. This tradition was simplified by the Church of England at the reformation back to the non-monastic pattern of morning and evening prayer.[2] The monthly recitation of the Psalms and an annual cycle of Scripture reading are the core of the daily office in the Book of Common Prayer, filled out by the Lord’s Prayer and prayer based around it.

Many have seen precedent for a morning and evening pattern to prayer, though not binding, in the Old Testament institution of the morning and evening sacrifice (Exo 29:38ff). Others have added midday prayer to extend the spirit of prayer from morning to evening: “From the rising of the sun to its setting my name will be great among the nations, and in every place incense will be offered to my name, and a pure offering.” (Mal 1:11) Praying before meals has Scriptural precedent (1Ti 4:5). As does rising in the middle of the night to praise God (Psalm 119:62). Many cherish bedtime prayers, known as Compline, after the example of the Psalmist: “I will lay me down in peace, and take my rest, for you, LORD, only, make me dwell in safety.”[3]

Today there is no shortage of Bible reading and prayer plans that one can follow through devotional books, study Bibles, email lists, and smartphone apps. These are a continuation of the church’s aspiration to pray without ceasing and to join the Psalmist in praising God seven times a day. Our problem is not a lack of resources. But one other thing is clear: we must make time to pray and praise God. If we cannot make and keep appointments with our Triune God, our relationship with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, like any other, will suffer. The invitation is this: have a plan and follow it, pray spontaneously as well, and let all your time be lived out in the presence of our gracious God.

The Rev. Steven McCarthy is a presbyter in the Anglican Diocese of the Living Word (ACNA). He and his wife live in their hometown of Lansing, Michigan where they are raising three young children.

[1] Scripture quotations from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, unless otherwise specified.

[2] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 3rd Rev. Ed., F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone, editors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 1184–1185.

[3] Psalm 4:8 from The New Coverdale Psalter (Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019).


Steven McCarthy