4 Things That Have Changed How I Pray
So, how’s your prayer life? Real talk. How rich is your time with God in prayer?
Let me give you a few snapshots of what my prayer life can often look like on any given day. Does any of this sound familiar?
When I’m having my quiet time early in the morning, I often can’t string together a coherent thought. I search my mind for something of substance to share with God and somehow end up reminding myself of what emails I need to send and what projects I need to work on that day. In no time, I’m convincing myself I’ll pray later.
When my family sits down to dinner, I say a prayer because we just sat down to dinner and that’s what you do. I say things like, “Thank you for this day,” or “Bless this food to the nourishment of our bodies,” without thinking.
When I’m tucking my daughter into bed, I want to be the spiritual leader in my home, so I pray with her before I turn out the lights. Many times I’ll ask her to pray instead because I want her to learn a habit of prayer, but it’s also because I’m just too tired and I don’t feel like being the spiritual leader.
Prayer is hard. I’ve been following Jesus for nearly 30 years and I still don’t have this figured out. A little over a year ago I began feeling convicted that God wanted me to love Him with more of my heart, not just my mind and my habits. After reflecting on the matter, I loaded up with some books on prayer and study materials for the Psalms and asked God to lead me into a more powerful and intimate prayer life.
This Is Not a Spiritual Life Hack
I have a bad habit of trying to hack my spiritual life. Now, there's nothing wrong with learning more about the spiritual disciplines and I would encourage you to do so, but I also have to constantly fight the thoughts that maybe one day I can unlock the perfect system of personal spiritual growth. I would finally have everything figured out and I could put my spiritual walk on cruise control.
I wish I could share some new, radical, guaranteed-to-work tips and tricks for prayer, but that's not really how Christian faith works. What I'd like to share are some methods for prayer that are actually as old as the Church itself, but nevertheless are things that I'm just now beginning to get my head around.
Ways I’ve Been Learning to Pray
Let the Psalms give you the words to pray. In both Answering God and Working the Angles, Eugene Peterson (who has been my jedi master for studying the Psalms) writes about gaining a better vocabulary for prayer by immersing ourselves in scripture, specifically, the Psalms. By praying the Psalms regularly, I’ve slowly become more familiar with the Bible’s language for prayer. In the same way that I would learn Italian better and faster by going to live in Florence, I can learn the language of prayer better by living in the Psalms.
Praying through Psalms also has the added benefit of keeping me focused. When I randomly scan the fog of my mind early in the morning in prayer, my thoughts often wander into the wilderness of the day. A Psalm sets my gaze on the Lord, which is where all prayer needs to begin. With my mind fixed on Him and with a Psalm on my lips, I’m reminded of deep truths and promises that convict and encourage me and the distractions of the day are all of a sudden very small and very far away.
Set prayer apart. In order to avoid the trap of simply capping off my morning Bible reading with a quick 20-second “be with me today” request as I set my mind on the work I have to get to, I’ve started to reserve a separate portion of my mornings exclusively devoted to prayer and meditation. I’ll spend my breakfast with my Bible, go for a jog, take a shower, then sit down in my office (away from my computer and phone) to spend 15 or 30 minutes praying through a Psalm, interceding for my friends and family, then sitting in silence for a few moments to listen for the Spirit (remember: prayer is a conversation, not a voicemail).
This simple act of giving prayer its own space prevents me from dismissing or abbreviating it so easily. It's no longer a garnish for the “main course” of Bible study, but a feast in its own right.
Schedule prayer. For most of my life as a believer, if I could manage to have five solid minutes of prayer once each morning, I felt like I was doing all right in that department. However, if you look at the lives of some of our Old Testament fathers or read the exhortations of Paul, you should know that praying once a day is only scraping the tip of the iceberg of intimacy with God. Paul tells us to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and at all times, with alertness and perseverance (Ephesians 6:18).
But life comes at you fast, and I know if I don’t make a plan, it doesn’t get done. I’ve started to schedule prayer time not only in the morning, but during my lunch break and at the end of my workday. I now have a rhythm and continuity in place that keeps my mind on God and giving Him glory with my day’s tasks and gives me more strength to resist sin and laziness throughout my day.
Keep a journal for intercession. In years past, I’ve kept a journal for jotting down the prayer requests of my loved ones so that I can be sure to follow through whenever I reflexively tell someone, “I’ll be praying for you about that.” The problem with that is that my prayer list got really long. So I gave up on the journal and went back to the generic prayers of “Be with my friends and family today…”
But we pray best when we pray with specificity, so I’ve started back at it with the Notes app on my iPhone. This time I’m applying a strategy from The Disciplines of a Godly Man by R. Kent Hughes, in which the author categorizes his prayer requests and prays through a category each day of the week. So, for example, I can spend Mondays praying for my wife Amy and our children. Tuesdays I can pray for the rest of my family and my community group. On Wednesdays I can pray blessings for my pastors and our church body. Prayer doesn't need to be a fully comprehensive report-and-request meeting every day. It just needs to be focused and authentic.
There is No Merit Badge for Prayer
As I mentioned before, the self-righteous part of me wants to tell you that I've figured out prayer. I want to promise you that if you try these things, you’ll experience God in a deeper way. I wish there was a badge we could earn together. But the reality is, I've only learned that I'm going to be learning to pray for the rest of my life. Much like how I'm going to be learning to love my wife for the rest of my life, the goal ought not be to “figure it out,” but to seek out the Lord every day with genuine desire, and find creative and meaningful ways to connect with Him.
If you’re interested in doing some more reading on prayer and the Psalms, I would encourage you to pick up any of these fine books. Maybe we could grab coffee sometime and share what we’ve learned:
- Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller
- Answering God by Eugene Peterson
- A Long Obedience in the Same Direction by Eugene Peterson
- Praying with the Psalms by Eugene Peterson
- A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World by Paul E. Miller
- The Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs of Isaac Watts by Doxology & Theology
- The Valley of Vision, edited by Arthur Bennett
- The Book of Common Prayer