A Return to the Disciplines: Prayer
On the topics of depth and disconnecting from the world (online or off, see more below), a Christian is someone who follows Christ. And further, a Christian is someone who communes with Christ.
His first disciples did it, following him from town to town, breaking bread and serving with him. And when he commanded those early disciples to go and make more disciples, he promised that he would be with them until the end.
And prayer is our primary means to communicating with God.
Caveat: I am the least qualified person to talk about prayer. Study and meditation, the two disciplines we’ve discussed recently, have been something I’ve always enjoyed. Since I first started to read the Bible in earnest, they have come fairly easily to me. But not prayer.
This is something that I have always wanted to improve. Why? Because it’s so vital to a life of being a disciple of Christ. Richard Foster puts it this way in Celebration of Discipline:
Of all the Spiritual Disciplines prayer is the most central because it ushers us into perpetual communion with the Father. Meditation introduces us into the inner life, fasting is an accompanying means, study transforms our minds, but it is the Discipline of prayer that brings us into the deepest and highest work of the human spirit.
Or, as Martin Luther put it:
I have so much business that I cannot get on without spending 3 hours daily in prayer.
Pray Without Ceasing?
Paul lays it down for us in several places. He often uses phrases like, “make mention of you always in our prayers” or “have not ceased praying for you”. It sounds like he’s a man who spent 12 hours per day in prayer. And it’s enough to get you feeling down about yourself because who can hold to that standard?
It took a long time for me to gain a better understanding of what prayer can (and perhaps should) look like.
First, it’s important to note that Paul’s language may not be completely literal. “Always” can mean, “always in my daily prayer session in the morning before I get to making tents”. Continuing to pray for others could mean that each day he would spend time petitioning on behalf of others and would be consistent in who he would pray for. But it does not necessarily mean that he spent each moment of each day in prayer.
Of course, he likely did devote more of his time to prayer than you or I. But when comparing ourselves to the heroes of the faith, it’s important to be encouraged. Not the other way around.
One way to be in prayer continually through your day is to change how you think of God. He’s not far off, he’s right with you as you go through your day. And the second thing that has helped me has been to stop thinking of prayer as formal sessions of petition where I’m on my knees with folded hands. That is a good way to pray and we need to do that, but that’s not praying without ceasing.
Prayer continually, being in his presence continually, is simply to have ongoing dialogue with him as you go about performing the good works he has prepared for you. Being with your family. Doing your job. Chores around your home. Those are all moments where you can commune with your creator.
Why We Need Prayer
Off the top of my head, here are several reasons why we should spend time in prayer:
- to change
- to seek guidance
- to confess and ask forgiveness
- to make requests, for ourselves and for others
- to center ourselves
- to relinquish control and submit
- to praise him and overflow with thanksgiving
All of the above are vital to walking with God. Am I missing anything? Let me know!
So how does one get better at prayer? Again, I'm not the expert. But here are a few things that come to my mind.
And whatever things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.
So Jesus answered and said to them, “ Have faith in God. For assuredly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be removed and be cast into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that those things he says will be done, he will have whatever he says. Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.
Word, that is a challenge. But look at examples in Scripture for “fervent, effective prayer”. Elijah praying for rain or no rain. Moses praying for mercy on hard hearted Israel. The apostles saying to people, “Walk”. There's a simplicity of faith implied in these descriptions.
I want to be more like a little child when I come to my father.
It takes time
Occasional joggers do not suddenly compete in a marathon. It’s the same with prayer; it takes practice.
To understand that the work of prayer involves a learning process saves us from arrogantly dismissing it as false or unreal. If we turn on the television and it does not work, we do not declare that there are no such things as electronic frequencies in the air the cable.
We can determine if we are praying correctly if the requests come to pass. If not, we look for the “block”; perhaps we are praying wrongly, perhaps there are new principles of prayer to be learned, perhaps patience and persistence are needed. We listen, make the necessary adjustments, and try again.
Expect failures or dryness … it’s a process.
Come to him regularly
We cannot expect to be able to hear God’s voice if we only seek Him occasionally. And if we’re not studying, meditating, and praying often, how can we expect to understand Him and His will?
Caring for others is another sure way to get us into prayer more regularly.
So Jesus stood still and called them, and said, “ What do you want Me to do for you?” They said to Him, “Lord, that our eyes may be opened.” So Jesus had compassion and touched their eyes. And immediately their eyes received sight, and they followed Him.
And when He got into the boat, he who had been demon- possessed begged Him that he might be with Him. However, Jesus did not permit him, but said to him, “ Go home to your friends, and tell them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He has had compassion on you.
Richard Foster sums it up well:
If we have God-given compassion and concern for others, our faith will grow and strengthen as we pray. In fact, if we genuinely love people, we desire for them far more than it is within our power to give, and that will cause us to pray.
That's a beautiful picture. And isn't it the same heart we see in the parables of the good Samaritan and the prodigal son? If it
Keep it simple
Remember that you are a child and God is your Father.
Prayer is such a vast topic, it’s almost a shame to say so little about it. Methods, styles, who to pray for, when to pray … the variety is as vast as the people who make up God’s church. But if I think about it in this way, it becomes daunting. And so I try to keep it simple.
- Jesus taught His disciples to pray with few words (Matt 6:5–15)
- he also taught them to pray in private
- follow His example
- never hesitate to bring the simplest requests to God … Children ask for anything and everything with an expectation their needs will be met
- be persistent (think of the widow and the judge)
For me, things have improved in recent years. I still go through times where I fail to regularly bring petitions and the needs of others to my father. But I have gotten a lot better at communing with him through my days. More conversational, less formal times of just … talking to my Lord. As Foster stated above, it’s a “perpetual communion”.
And I love how Dallas Willard puts it to Christians in The Great Omission:
But you might wish to think about what your life amounts to before you die, about what kind of person you are becoming, and about whether you really would be comfortable for eternity in the presence of One whose company you have not found especially desirable for the few hours and days of your earthly existence.
I want to want to spend time with my Lord.&