So many posts and articles I see concerning prayer try to offer something new and exciting to the table. Sometimes it’s a particular form, ritual, or activity. One title said something like “5 Prayers to Unleash God’s Power in Your Life.” As if we have God on a leash!
I wonder if we’ve forgotten the essence of prayer. We’re told when we first become Christians that Christianity is not just a list of rules or a system of activities: it’s a relationship with God. But sometimes we can lose that focus and end up just doing things rotely. Remembering that we’re communicating with a Person can transform our viewpoint. The Bible uses different metaphors to picture the various aspects of our relationship with God: father/child, bride/bridegroom, shepherd/sheep, king/subject, master/servant, Savior/sinner, teacher/disciple. Sometimes we approach God with those different aspects in mind. I most commonly think of prayer as just talking to our heavenly Father due to the prayer Jesus taught, the one we commonly call “The Lord’s Prayer.” We don’t search for different forms with which to talk to our earthly parents: why do we do so with God?
Well, prayer is a little different. For one, we can’t see God, so that feels a little awkward sometimes. And, for another, He is God, after all. That can be a little intimidating. And then, how can we have a conversation when we fall asleep mid-sentence or have to juggle massive prayer lists?
The best place to learn to pray is the Bible. We don’t have to restrict ourselves to just the words of Scripture, but they can form the basis of our approach to God. Jesus gave us a pattern for prayer in what is commonly called “the Lord’s prayer” (Matthew 6:9-13). The psalms give us multiple examples of someone pouring his heart out to God, even his not-so-nice feelings, reminding himself of truths about his God and straightening out his thinking. The epistles include marvelous examples of prayer. When we pray these Scriptures, we know we’re praying according to God’s will. We base our hope in God’s answer on what He has said. David said, “O LORD God, the word that thou hast spoken concerning thy servant, and concerning his house, establish it for ever, and do as thou hast said.” (2 Samuel 7:25, KJV). The psalmist of 119 said, ” Remember your word to your servant, in which you have made me hope” (verse 49).
Other Bible passages provide wonderful examples of prayer that we can learn from. Nehemiah’s quick prayer before answering the king (Nehemiah 2:1-8) is one of my favorites, because I send up those quick requests for help or wisdom frequently. On the other end of the spectrum are all 176 verses of Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible. We have Daniel’s prayer, Habakkuk’s, Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in John 17, His agonized prayer in Gethsemane, Paul’s and Peter’s prayers for their readers in the epistles, and multitudes of others. I’ve copied various prayers from the Bible into the “Notes” section of my phone to have them quickly available. One of my favorites is from Colossians 1:9-12 (KJV):
For this cause we also, since the day we heard it, do not cease to pray for you, and to desire that ye might be filled with the knowledge of his will in all wisdom and spiritual understanding; That ye might walk worthy of the Lord unto all pleasing, being fruitful in every good work, and increasing in the knowledge of God; Strengthened with all might, according to his glorious power, unto all patience and longsuffering with joyfulness; Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.
See how immensely different this prayer is from the kinds of prayer requests we usually share with each other? It’s certainly not wrong to pray for health needs and financial concerns and such, but we need the elements in this prayer so much more than any physical desire.
Sometimes we compartmentalize our quiet time with a certain amount of Bible reading, prayer, and maybe memorization. But we can pray while we’re reading the Scripture. When we come to a passage of praise, we can lift our hearts in praise to God right in that moment: we don’t have to make a note of it to remember later when we pray. It’s the same with a petition or intercession for others. When something we read in the Bible reminds us of a need in our lives or others’ we can stop and pray right then. I used to think something wasn’t “officially” prayed for unless I had mentioned it during my quiet time, but later I learned I could talk to God all day, mentioning requests and concerns as they arose.
The Bible says that the marriage relationship pictures that of Christ and the church. So let’s compare the two in the realm of communication. Husbands understand if a wife has a super-busy day or if she is tired. But if that happens all the time, and she is frantically running around taking care of children, housework, even outside ministries, and never has time to just sit down with him, he’s not going to feel loved and wanted. If she spends the time they do talk in losing focus, daydreaming, pondering what to put on her grocery list, he is not going to feel heard. If the only time she communicates with him is on the run while doing other things or when she needs him to do something, or if their only conversation is in the last few minutes before sleep when they’re drifting off in mid-sentence, their relationship is going to suffer.
There is nothing wrong with those types of communication in themselves. We are to pray without ceasing, all through the day, even while doing other things, as I mentioned before. He wants us to come to Him with our needs, and ending the day talking with Him is lovely. But there needs to be some times of just pure focus on Him, on worship and learning from Him. Even though God doesn’t “need” us in the same sense a husband does, He wants to fellowship with us, and He knows we need to hear Him.
Because we’re easily distractible, sometimes it does help to have something to help us remember what we’re doing. Some use acronyms, like ACTS: adoration, confession of sin, thanksgiving, and supplication. Another is PRAY: pray, repent, ask, yield. Sometimes if I have a hard time keeping my thoughts together, I pray through the Lord’s prayer, stopping at each phrase to expand the thought in my own words. For instance: “‘Our Father, which art in heaven’…thank you for your omniscience. You know every care in my heart as well as the rest of the world. Thank You for Your power, Your Holiness, Your love,” and so on.
Elisabeth Elliot said of distractions:
Distractions can be useful. They provide constant reminders of our human weakness. We recognize in them how earthbound we are, and then how completely we must depend on the help of the Holy Spirit to pray in and through us. We are shown, by a thousand trivialities, how trivial are our concerns. The very effort to focus, even for a minute, on higher things, is foiled, and we see that prayer–the prerequisite for doing anything for God–cannot be done without Him. We are not, however, left to fend for ourselves.
The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness. For when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words, and God who knows everything in our hearts knows perfectly well what he means, and that the pleas of the saints expressed by the Spirit are according to the mind of God” (Romans 8:26-27 JB) (A Lamp For My Feet).
In another place, Elisabeth said:
When I stumble out of bed in the morning, put on a robe, and go into my study, words do not spring spontaneously to my lips–other than words like, “Lord, here I am again to talk to you. It’s cold. I’m not feeling terribly spiritual….” Who can go on and on like that morning after morning, and who can bear to listen to it day after day?
I need help in order to worship God. Nothing helps me more than the Psalms. Here we find human cries–of praise, adoration, anguish, complaint, petition. There is an immediacy, an authenticity, about those cries. They speak for me to God–that is, they say what I often want to say, but for which I cannot find words.
Surely the Holy Spirit preserved those Psalms in order that we might have paradigms of prayer and of our individual dealings with God. It is immensely comforting to find that even David, the great king, wailed about his loneliness, his enemies, his pains, his sorrows, and his fears. But then he turned from them to God in paeans of praise.
He found expression for praise far beyond my poor powers, so I use his and am lifted out of myself, up into heights of adoration, even though I’m still the same ordinary woman alone in the same little room. (From the chapter “Meeting God Alone” in On Asking God Why).
She went on to say that hymns were another source she used. They often combined prayer and praise
So sometimes we can use these boosts to our prayers as long as we remember that relationships are built on and maintained by communication, not just going through motions, not just repeating “vain repetitions” (Matthew 6:7, KJV), or “empty phrases” (ESV). God communicates with us through the Bible; we communicate with Him through prayer. May we always keep in mind that our time in prayer and the Word of God is communication with the One who loves us more than anyone else could and desires our fellowship and worship.