The Discipline of Prayer
The Discipline of Prayer
By Andrew Rutten
There may be no more universally affirmed yet underachieved discipline as that of prayer. As Christians make New Years Resolutions, they often make ones like “I need to pray more” or “I would love for my prayer life to get better”. Ever made a statement like that? I know I have.
Yet, while we often want a greater prayer life or want a deeper intimacy with God, there is little to no action we take in getting us to our desired goal. Prayer is affirmed as good, even outside the church; yet so few would say they pray enough or are happy with their prayer life.
The obvious question then, is: why is prayer admired but ignored? If you have ever felt alone in wanting to pray but rarely actually praying, take comfort in knowing you are not alone. Even though we all struggle, it’s not okay for us to give up on prayer entirely. So let’s examine prayer a little closer, and hopefully we can be motivated to initial steps in developing a greater life of prayer.
WHAT IS PRAYER?
Before the tips and tricks of developing a prayer life come out, we must examine the basics of prayer. A shallow understanding of prayer and a lack of understanding of the nature of prayer fuels fruitless prayer goals. Therefore, the worst thing we could do is skip to practical steps. Instead, consider for a moment, what exactly is prayer?
Tim Keller combats the idea of too quickly defining prayer in his book, Prayer. He remarks that definitions often limit ideas too severely, and this may be dangerous with prayer. In part, I agree with Keller. So I will not give any sort of definition, but basic parameters are needed in such a topic as prayer.
For our purposes, as you think of prayer, consider a two-way conversation, both speaking and listening to God. Often we view prayer as our speaking to God, yet this is only half of the conversation.
Every night as I come home for work, I could carry out this one-sided view of relationship with my wife. If night after night, I entered our home, word vomited my day’s activities, told my wife what I’d like her to do for me, then kissed her on the cheek. How healthy of a relationship would that be?”
A similar mindset must translate into our comprehension of prayer. Prayer is our speaking to our Creator God, and it is quieting ourselves before that same Creator to listen to His Spirit.
More detail on these specific two aspects of prayer in the coming weeks. But for now we must move from simply an understanding of what prayer is to a motivation to actually pray.
A seminary professor of mine would end every lecture with a simple question, “So what?” Understanding Scripture and theological ideas does no good if we never take the final step of asking, so what? Why does that information matter? Why should I care? How should that impact my life?
A similar approach should be taken to our contemplation on prayer. The simple grasp of prayer as a two-way conversation with God does no good if we do not ask the question, so what? Even if I know what prayer is, why should I pray? Let me give four reasons (although you may come up with quite a lot more, this list is a starting point).
1. Preaches our Gospel
One of the greatest benefits of prayer is that in the simple act of praying we are preaching the gospel to ourselves, whether we know it or not. The Gospel message is that God does for mankind what we could never do for ourselves. Prayer is a gospel application. For prayer is us admitting that we need help. If this was not true, then we wouldn’t pray—we would simply act.
But even at its most oversimplified level, prayer is us admitting that what we cannot do, we ask God to do for us. Therefore, when we pray we are preaching to ourselves our need for God and we are acknowledging our place before God. Prayer is a gospel application in our lives.
2. Reorients our Hearts
Have you ever noticed the difficulty in staying angry or withholding forgiveness when your prayer life is at its peak? Coincidence? I don’t think so. As we partake in the two-way conversation with God, it reorients our hearts back to God and godly living. Humbling ourselves before our Creator reminds the heart of where we belong and develops our new heart that beats for the things of God. A consistent discipline of prayer is formational for how we live.
3. Moves our God
If that title scares you, hang with me for a second. Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon once said, “prayer is the slender nerve that moves the muscle of omnipotence.” What he is saying is that biblically speaking, prayer has real life implications. God listens to prayer and he acts on prayer. If we do not believe this, prayer becomes a chore and not the power source that God has opened up. We must believe God has sovereignty over the means and not just the end. He is sovereign over the end result, but he may use whatever means possible. And often the means God uses to act are the prayers of his people. Our requests and obedience to hearing his voice can be the means to accomplishing an end that would otherwise not have taken place.
4. Quiets our Hearts
We have never been so connected to everything going on in the world. The phone or computer you are reading this on connects you to whoever you would like in whatever location you would like. Our world is loud with busyness: constant information, notifications, new instagram stories to watch, new emails to get to, etc. Prayer is the brakes that quiets our hearts when a brick has been on the gas for a long period of time. The moments where we quiet ourselves before our Creator may be the slowest and yet most powerful moments in our days.
HOW TO PRAY?
Although we do sometimes solely need a gentle reminder of the discipline of prayer, it would be futile to end this article without some practical next steps. Most of us know we should pray, but for many of us with a struggling discipline of prayer, there remains a lingering question: “How do I begin to pray”? Let me offer a few suggestions.
One way to begin a discipline of prayer is by committing to a daily office. Saints for years have practiced the discipline of the daily office, which is (committing to short prayer three times a day). Sometime in the morning, afternoon, and evening, stop what you are doing for 5-10 minutes. As you break from your work, read a short passage of Scripture and pray. Pray over that Scripture, pray for the task at work, or pray for the meeting you are about to go into. It doesn’t matter. Just stop three times a day to center your heart around God. To help with this, you can even download an app that gives you Scriptures and guided prayers.
Another hindrance to a consistent prayer life is the plaguing obstacle of not knowing what to pray for. Even when we want to pray and quiet ourselves to do it, our minds draw a blank, or we think of every mundane task that has to get done over the next six months. What is helpful at times is coming up with a list for each day of the week and praying through that list.
For example, Mondays you could pray for the world. Pray for unreached people groups, the persecuted church, missionary connections overseas, etc. Then Tuesday you may specifically pray for your city. You could pray for city officials, businesses, your neighborhood, the poor, etc. You get the point. Prayer should not remain rigid and methodical, but to begin this is often helpful.
Another discipline of prayer that is often forgotten today is praying Scripture. That is, don’t simply take in information as you read Scripture. Instead, pray through your reading of a story, or a Psalm, or an epistle’s exhortation. Pray in a repentant tone for where you fall short of the command of that passage, pray in thanksgiving for the grace of God found in that passage, or pray for empowerment to live in such a way. And as you pray Scripture, listen to what the Spirit of God might uniquely be speaking into you through that passage.
Lastly, do not forget to listen in your prayers. Later in January, there will be a specific blog on meditating on God’s Word and the art of listening in prayer. Prayer is a two-way conversation: as you speak to God, carve out time to quiet yourself and listen.
For any who deeply desire to develop a passionate and powerful life of prayer, it must come through practice. No relational strength is built in a day. Press on through the difficult times and find your way journeying to the beauty prayer truly is. JI Packer says that oftentimes disciplines must move from duty to delight. But if you do not power through the stage where it is a duty, you will never experience delight. Power through.
And if you want to read more on prayer (from wiser men than me), here is a list of the works that have shaped my understanding of prayer in the best ways possible. Enjoy.