Mentors in Prayer

Developing Your Prayer Life

Teaching t10560


Reiterate series topic and rationale.  Having examined last week some common hindrances to prayer, I want to conclude our series this week by sharing some practical advice for developing your prayer life. 

In doing this, I am acutely aware of my own deficiencies in this area.  In fact, of the basic means of spiritual growth that the Bible emphasizes, prayer has always been the one in which I have been most deficient.  So I am no prayer ninja master!  There are people in this room who are more advanced in prayer than I am—and I hope we hear from some of them during Q & A.

But by God’s grace I have made progress as a pray-er—and although I still have a long way to go, I am excited about the increasing role prayer has in my life.  In that spirit, I want to share with you some biblical principles that have helped me to make progress.

Remember that God will help you to pray

There is no question that is more likely to get most Christians under a pile than: “How is your prayer life?”  Most of us are all acutely aware of how much more we should pray, how easily we lapse into prayerlessness, how difficult it is to pray alone very long without being distracted, etc.  We hear about spiritual giants who spend hours in prayer alone every day, etc.—and we either feel guilty or we grow cynical.  This whole area can feel like resolutions to lose weight or exercise—you’ve made these resolutions and failed at so many times that the mere thought of doing this again makes you feel defeated.

Because of this, it is crucial to remember that God will help you to pray.  He does this in several key ways, and the more you focus on this, the more progress you will make.

God places within you the desire to talk with him.  His Spirit within you is the One who awakens the realization and desire to re-connect with him.  Ironically, the fact that you feel concerned about how little you pray is itself a sign that you are a child of God indwelt by his Spirit.  (How often were you concerned about this before you met Christ?)  Rather than flinch in guilt, thank him and draw near!

God is always delighted when you respond to his invitation.  Like the Prodigal Son’s father, God always welcomes you into his presence.  Because of Jesus’ full payment for your sins, he is glad to talk with you, without one word of disappointment or disgust—no matter how long it has been since you talked with him.  So don’t waste any time or energy beating yourself or explaining why you’ve been absent.  Just thank God for his unconditional love, and start relating to him.

God will help you in what to say to him.  He’ll remind you to praise him for who he is and thank him for his many gifts.  Over time, his Word will teach you what to pray for, and his Spirit will guide you as you learn to discern his voice.

So ask God to help your prayer life.  “Recently I read again of (someone) who simply decided to make such a commitment to pray, and my conscience was pricked.  But I knew myself well enough to know that something other than resolve was being called for.  I began to pray about praying.  I expressed to God my frustrated longings, my jaded sense of caution about trying again, my sense of failure over working at being more disciplined and regular.  I discovered something surprising happening from such simple praying: I was drawn into the Presence of One who had, far more than I did, the power to keep me close.  I found my focus shifting subtly from my efforts to God’s, from rigor to grace, from rigidity to relationship.  I soon realized that this was happening regularly.  I was praying much more.  I became less worried about the mechanics and methods, and in turn I was more motivated.  And so God cares for us, I realized anew, that he himself helps us to pray...”1

Keep in touch with God throughout the day

In American Christianity, there seems to be a consensus that the key indicator of the health of your prayer life is the “quiet time.”  This term refers to spending daily scheduled (preferably morning), solitary, sustained (at least 30 minutes) time in prayer.  Now, I don’t want to suggest for a moment that this shouldn’t be a goal for our prayer lives.  But the truth is that this is pretty difficult to attain—I know it is for me, and I suspect it is for you.  My mind wanders, I feel very sleepy, etc.  I think we need to work toward this goal—and I’ll share some practical tips to make progress in this area in a few minutes.  But I think it is a big mistake to make this difficult goal the only index of your prayer life.  It is also vitally important to keep in touch with God throughout the day.  This is the kind of prayer Paul recommends in 1Thess.5:18 (read).  He can’t mean that we should literally pray all of the time.  We can’t do this when we sleep, and we shouldn’t try to do this while doing other tasks that require our full attention (e.g., driving in heavy traffic).  Rather, Paul is urging us to turn to God in brief, personal prayer throughout each day.  There are two main ways to do this...

The first is spontaneous solitary prayer.  One way to begin practicing this is by breaking your day up into situations that require your full attention—and choosing to address God in the transitions between those situations (e.g., WAKING UP; DRIVING TO WORK; BATHROOM VISITS; ON WAY TO LUNCH; DRIVING HOME; BEFORE FALLING ASLEEP).  Thank God for how he helped you in the previous situation, and ask him for his help in the upcoming situation.  You will find that these brief but honest prayers keep you more dependent on God and more aware of his activity in your life.  This is why some mature Christians even contend that this kind of prayer is more important than the quiet time (“Seasons of prayer are good, but the spirit of prayer is better.”).

The second is praying conversationally with other Christians.  I am convinced that this is the secret weapon in prayer—especially in our hyper-individualistic culture.  I don’t have time to make the New Testament case for praying with other Christians—but it is everywhere.  For starters, read through the book of Acts and circle every verse that mentions this.2   Like every other area of spiritual development (e.g., learning the Bible, learning how to share our faith, etc.), development in prayer requires praying with others.  It’s not just that others can teach you how to pray more effectively as you pray with them (they can).  It’s also that praying with others helps you to keep regular touch with God, because it is easier to drift away from prayer when you only pray alone.  (You also will stay closer to the people you pray with, because there is nothing more personally unifying than talking to God together.)  So incorporate praying with others into your life in two ways:

Schedule it.  If you get together with a friend weekly, agree to end that time by praying together.  If you are married and you and your spouse both know Christ, commit to pray with each other at least twice a week.  If you are in a home group, get involved in their weekly or bi-weekly prayer meeting.

Suggest it spontaneously.  I learned this from Jeff Gordon.  We would have an enjoyable conversation—and at the end he’d almost always say, “Do you want to pray for a minute before we go?”  What a great way to end a conversation with another brother or sister in Christ!  And what a powerful way to be a spiritually uplifting influence on others!

If you make progress in spontaneous solitary prayer and in praying with others—so that you are talking to God several times a day in these contexts—you will be amazed at how your awareness of God’s involvement in your life increases.  THIS WEEK, try praying at least twice a day “between the situations” and at least once a day with another Christian.

Structure quality time with God for enjoyment & progress

Having said this, nothing takes the place of meeting with God regularly and alone.  As an activistic person living in a hectic society, this is an ongoing battle in my life.  But because I know God delights to spend quality time with me and will help me in this, it is also exciting to make even incremental progress.  Here’s a short list of practical tips:

Find a time and place that are normally undisturbed.  You will have enough internal distractions to fight—you don’t need needless external disturbances.  Morning is best for me, because (after coffee) my mind is usually more alert than at night.

Keep a pen and notepad handy to write down those sudden, urgent things that come into your mind—and insights and promptings that come from God.

Do what works best for your body: posture, sitting, walking, praying aloud/writing prayers, etc.  You are an embodied being, so these things matter.  Whatever helps you focus best on talking with God is what you should do in this area.  It may take time and experimentation to figure this out.  Praying out loud and/or walking in an undisturbed place work best for me.

Begin normally with some Bible reading and reflection.  I find it virtually impossible to plunge right into sustained communion with God.  I usually ask him to help me feed from his Word, and then read and reflect on two chapters (e.g., explain CARSON’S FOR THE LOVE OF GOD).  Whenever possible, turn what you read into personal prayer to God (praise for his attributes; commands into requests; conviction into confession).  Besides often being built up by what I read, this also quiets my mind and heart to talk with God.

Have a “default prayer” ready if you get stuck.  It is common to feel like I have nothing to say, which makes me more vulnerable to distraction.  Play or sing a song that praises and thanks him.  Personalize the “Lord’s Prayer” as we discussed a few weeks ago.  It gets me focused on God—his love and his authority—and it helps me present myself to God to serve him today and ask him for what I need to do that.

Remember to balance your personal requests with praise/thanks to God and prayer for others.  Praise and thanks keep God big; prayer for others helps us become other-centered.

Spend an amount of time that is both long enough and short enough.  It usually takes me at least 5-10 minutes before my fleshly aversion dies down so that I can connect with God.  This is what the Puritans meant when they said “Pray until you pray.”  So unless I set aside at least 15 minutes, this time is so unrewarding that I quit doing it.  On the other hand, if you begin by saying “I’m going to spend at least an hour a day”—you’ll probably fail miserably before long and quit (LIKE PHYSICAL EXERCISE).  It’s better to start short and enjoy it—and then build longer as the desire grows.

If you want some additional reading on this aspect of your prayer life, I highly recommend Joel Comiskey’s Appointment with the King.  It is grace-oriented, practical and motivating.

Learn to pray by praying

The only way to become proficient in prayer is to pray!  Prayer is like learning a foreign language.  It helps to have a good teacher and textbook—but there is no substitute for actually speaking the words, and plunging in to converse with people who speak that language.  In the same way, listening to this teaching, or reading a good book on prayer can help—but there is no substitute for putting in the time actually praying. 

“... each Christian’s prayer life, like every good marriage, has in it some common factors about which one can generalize and also uniquenesses which no other Christian’s prayer life will quite match.  You are you, and I am I, and we must each find our own way with God, and there is no recipe for prayer that can work for us like a handyman’s do-it-yourself manual or cookbook... Praying is not like carpentry or cookery; it is the active exercise of a person relationship, a kind of friendship, with the living God and his Son Jesus Christ... (And) as in other close relationships, so in prayer: you have to find out by trial and error what is right for you, and you learn to pray by praying... The only rules are, stay within biblical guidelines and within those guidelines, as John Chapman puts it, ‘Pray as you can and don’t try to pray as you can’t.’”3

If all this sounds foreign but attractive to you—if you’d like to have a personal relationship with God that can grow and deepen over time—you can begin this relationship today by simply asking God to forgive you through Jesus and put his Spirit into your heart.  You can pray with me to do this as we close...

1 Cited in Donald S. Whitney, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life (Navpress, 1991), pp. 238,239.

2 See also the Lord’s Prayer (“Our Father...”), Acts 2:42 (“the prayers”), Acts 4:24-30; and 1Cor.11:5; 14:15-17.  Because most of the New Testament exhortations to pray use the plural pronoun, they at least include the idea of praying together as their intended meaning.

3 J. I. Packer, cited in A Call to Spiritual Reformation, by D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1992), pp. 37,38