A couple of weeks ago I wrote about #RealLifeDevotions, which often look different from Instagram-worthy ideals. That post focused on Bible reading, but the other half devotions, or quiet time, or “God and I” time, or whatever we want to call the time we meet with the Lord, is prayer. Just like Bible reading, we often neglect to pray until we can set aside a certain amount of time or set up prayer time the way we think is ideal.
Like Bible reading, my prayer time has varied through different seasons of life. For a while I had a regimented system of what to pray for on certain days. Another season, I used the acronym ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication (requests). That seemed a little artificial (who else do we talk to in acronyms?), but it did help me to include other elements besides requests. When my children were young, I prayed while rocking or nursing or falling asleep.
I used to think I hadn’t officially prayed for something unless I brought it before God during devotional time. But then I reasoned that real life conversations aren’t crammed into one 10-15 minute segment of the day. We speak to those closest to us throughout the day as well as setting aside special times to talk.
The Bible is the best textbook on prayer. God gives us instruction about prayer, more than can be included in one blog post (avoid vain repetitions, empty phrases, praying for “show,” ask in faith, confessing known sin, etc.).
Not only does God give us specific instructions about prayer, but He also gives us examples of how and when people prayed and what they prayed for.
Prayer isn’t a ritual: it’s a conversation with God. Like any other relationship, we need one-on-one time, with everything else set aside. Daniel had set times to pray. Jesus’ life on earth was incredibly busy, but He got up early in the morning to be alone with His Father or prayed through the night. His prayer time was interrupted, just as ours sometimes is.
But Jesus and others Bible people also prayed “in the moment.” One of my favorite prayers in the Bible is Nehemiah’s quick appeal sent up to God right after the king asked him a question. So I began praying for a need as soon as I heard it, or thanking God for something just as it happened, or asking for wisdom, forgiveness, guidance, strength, etc., all through the day.
The psalms give us examples all over the spectrum, from the highest praise to the deepest lament. The epistles share some of the deepest prayer requests I’ve seen. For a long time, I had a sheet of Paul’s prayers typed out and tucked in my Bible, and I would pray through them for myself and loved ones. One of my favorites is Colossians 1:9-12:
And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light.
We’re not restricted to Biblical language, but Biblical prayers help us know we’re praying God’s will. But, really, we can turn almost any Scripture into prayer. We can ask God to help us heed the warning we’ve read, obey the command, trust in the promise, etc.
Usually I speak to God off the top of my head with whatever I’m thinking or concerned about at the moment. But sometimes I feel the need of structure to corral my wandering thoughts. The acronym mentioned above helps, but often I like to use what we call “the Lord’s prayer” in Matthew 6 as a basis. I first saw this idea in a book by Anne Ortland. It might go something like this.
Thank you for being my Father. Thank you for drawing me to yourself and making me your child. Thank you for your tender love and care for me.
Which art in heaven
I’m grateful that You are not just my father, but my heavenly Father. You are all-wise, all-knowing, all-powerful.
Hallowed be thy name.
Help me to honor your name in everything I say and think and do. May the nations come to know you and consecrate your name.
Thy kingdom come
I look forward to the day when your kingdom comes, when sin is done away, when all wrongs will be made right.
Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven.
Help me to know and do your will. Help me to trust, when the world seems so far from you, when circumstances seems most antithetical to your will, that you are working all things together for good behind the scenes. I pray that you would turn people’s hearts toward you, open their eyes, that they might clearly understand who you are and believe on you.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Thank you that you have always supplied all that I needed and much that I wanted. I ask and trust you for today’s needs.
And forgive us our debts
Please search my heart and show me anything I need to confess to you, anything I need to turn from or make right.
As we forgive our debtors.
Help me to remember I have no right to ask your forgiveness if I am not willing to forgive others (Matthew 6:14-15). Help me not to hold grudges or resentment, but to forgive as freely and fully as you have forgiven me.
And lead us not into temptation
You know what’s ahead today. You know my weaknesses. Please strengthen me and help me to remember your truth to combat the devil’s lies.
But deliver us from evil
I’m trusting you for protection, spiritually, physically, emotionally, and mentally.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.
Then there are times in life we just don’t have the words. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27). A favorite from the OT that I love is when Jehoshaphat says, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are on you.” I’ve had to say something like that often.
The more we know what the Bible says about prayer, the more we can pray confidently, asking God to “do as you have spoken” (2 Samuel 7:25). “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us” (1 John 5:14).
I saw a Twitter post once that spoke of “throwing the promises of God back in His face.” It’s good to base prayer on God’s promises, but not like this. Some have advocated storming heaven and demanding God answer a certain way. No, we approach Him in humility. That doesn’t mean we’re not honest or fervent. But we’re not belligerent or demanding. We don’t remind Him of His promises because He doesn’t remember them. He does. We plead them to be in accord with His will and to pray in faith.
You’ve heard the phrase “Prayer changes things.” Sometimes it does. More often, prayer changes us. Elisabeth Elliot once said, in answer to the question, “Does prayer work?”:
The answer to that depends on one’s definition of work. It is necessary to know what a thing is for in order to judge whether it works. It would be senseless, for example, to say that if a screwdriver fails to drive nails into a board it doesn’t “work.” A screwdriver works very well for driving screws. Often we expect to arrange things according to our whims by praying about them, and when the arrangement fails to materialize we conclude that prayer doesn’t work. God wants our willing cooperation in the bringing in of his kingdom. If “Thy kingdom come” is an honest prayer, we will seek to ask for whatever contributes to that end. What, after all is said and done, do you want above all? Is it “Thy will be done”? If so, leave it to Him.
Is it “My will be done”? Don’t waste your time and God’s by praying. Have it your way (A Lamp for My Feet).
Even knowing how beneficial prayer is, sometimes we just don’t feel like praying. A former pastor once said that one of his best times of prayer started out with confessing to the Lord that he didn’t want to pray. J. Sidlow Baxter has an almost amusing story of praying despite his emotions until they came along.
Elisabeth Elliot wrote of starting prayer time saying, “Lord, here I am again to talk to you. It’s cold. I’m not feeling terribly spiritual,” but then finding help in the psalms and hymns.
The point of praying isn’t to have an Exhibit A of ideal form. It isn’t about impressing God. It’s about getting to know Him, growing in our love for Him and likeness to Him. The more we read His Word, the more we talk to Him, the more natural and effectual prayer will be.
Has your prayer life changed through the years? Has prayer been a struggle? What has helped you learn to pray?
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