"As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven." (Neh. 1:4)
The first chapter of Nehemiah is a great teacher in the school of prayer. Having learned of the sorry state of Jerusalem ("The remnant...is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are destroyed by fire"), Nehemiah is crushed. Before he takes action, he devotes himself to prayer, teaching us in the process how to wrestle faithfully with God.
Here are some of the lessons I've learned about prayer from Nehemiah 1:
Fasting before God Often neglected, fasting is of great use in seasons of desperate prayer. John Calvin reminds us of the purposes of fasting: "A holy and lawful fast has three ends in view. We use it either to mortify and subdue the flesh, ...or to prepare the better for prayer and holy meditation; or to give evidence of humbling ourselves before God, when we would confess our guilt before him." Note that all three purposes of fasting are of great aids in prayer.
Praising God Despite his desperation, Nehemiah begins his prayer with a heavenly focus: "O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him..." Such praise not only honors the Lord, but it gets our hearts right, realigning our prayer with the highest good possible: not our will but God's glory. When we are too quick to our supplications, our hearts are likely to remain selfish and our prayers less than glorifying to God.
Asking God for an audience This is a major feature of prayer throughout the Psalms, yet something not often heard in our own prayers: "Let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant..." When our prayers include a request like this, we aren't implying that God might need some help paying attention like he's a distracted toddler. Rather, we are admitting that God's gracious ear is just that, gracious. That we don't deserve His loving attention and open ear. Including a request like this is another way to humble our own hearts and make sure our interaction with God honors Him as God.
The role of confession Before Nehemiah gets to the heart of his request, he spends time confessin the sins of Israel and adds, "Even I and my father's house have sinned." Not only is confession "good for the soul," it's an essential part of seeking God's deliverance. If our sins have anything at all to do with the situation we find ourselves in, then seeking deliverance without confession proves to God we haven't learned from His Fatherly discipline at all. While it may feel like confessing our sins is giving God a reason not to answer our prayers, the opposite is actually the case.
Claiming God's promises Nehemiah doesn't simply present his request for help, but asks God to "Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses..." and proceeds to repeat God's Word back to Him, "showing God His own handwriting," as some have said. Jesus showed us to pray, "Not my will but yours be done." But how do we know we're praying according to God's will if we aren't studying His Word and bringing it back to Him in prayer?
Arguing with God If prayer is wrestling with God, then learning how to argue with God well can only help. Nehemiah not only repeats God's promises, but provides reasons for God to answer His prayer: "They are your servants and your people, whom you have redeemed by your great power and by your strong hand." Giving God good reasons to answer our prayers isn't being argumentative but honoring the Lord by showing that we've actually thought through what we're asking. On the other hand, if we can't think of any reasons for God to answer our particular requests, then maybe we shouldn't be praying them at all.
Asking God Ironically, many of my prayers fail at this particular point. Nehemiah didn't just ask God for some general help, but asked specifically: "grant [me] mercy in the sight of this man." In other words, he prayed for success in his conversation with King Artaxerxes. When I examine my prayers, I often find a failure to make a request of God clearly and specifically. I ask for "blessing" and "help" but avoid specifics, perhaps in an attempt to by not naming specifics, I try to protect from the disappointment of unanswered prayer. Regardless, we honor God by bringing our hopes before Him specifically, still trusting His perfect will for the answer.