I love the LORD because he hears my voice and my prayer for mercy. Because he bends down to listen, I will pray as long as I have breath!
– Psalm 116:1-2, NLT
What does it mean to pray, to really pray, to communicate with the heart of God? Perhaps you have always prayed in a certain way, and you flourish in it. Perhaps you struggle with the concept of prayer. Perhaps you feel guilty at not prioritizing prayer as much as you feel you should. Perhaps you are content with the way you pray and how much you pray. We are all in different places in our journey of prayer, and all along this journey each of us will have different experiences at different times. A few years ago I began to ask endless questions about prayer, having never really thought to question it before. I had had lengthy ‘quiet times’ of prayer almost every day since becoming a Christian several years before, but suddenly it all seemed baffling and confusing, even the very basics of how to do it. I have heard people speak of prayer as a combination of asking, thanking, listening and worshiping – and I had preached many times on the importance of prayer and different styles and methods of prayer – but now I found myself consumed with questions about the nature of prayer and how to do it.
I questioned a few trusted friends who I considered to have a deeper or more mature relationship with God than my own, and I kept being given abstract answers such as ‘gravity’ or ‘a living temple within’, or ‘it’s easy; simply come’. I couldn’t help myself from feeling more frustrated and asking what it all means. What about distraction? Should we pray with words or come to God in silence? Should we talk about our life issues with God or prioritise thanking and adoring Him? Should we bring questions to God or accept His sovereignty and surrender? What about the Lord’s Prayer? Confessing sins? Interceding? Waiting on God? Being guided by the Spirit in prayer? Readings the psalms as prayer? ‘Receive’? It all just seemed so confusing – so many ‘right answers’ and, having stepped back to think about it, I just didn’t know where to start with prayer and felt confused and overwhelmed whenever I tried. This frustrated me even more – my whole Christian life for the seven years that I had been a Christian had been centred around prayer, and now it seemed that almost overnight my mindset had changed somehow and I no longer knew how to do it.
‘Intimacy with God’? I had preached on that several times. But what does it mean? And how do we get there? ‘Life should be like a prayer’; ‘prayer should be like breathing’ – what does it look like? How are we to bring substance from all this? Finally, more out of frustration than anything else, I surrendered to God my prayer life and asked Him, Lord – how should I pray? Then I was surprised to find that a sense of peace came over me and I felt that I would never be able to work out a perfect routine in prayer that God would be able to fit within, and that I needed His guidance. I felt like I was a child moving from one school to another: I had managed to sort out my routine and I knew how life was supposed to work, and I had been comfortable within it – but now I was in a new place and needed to let go of control and learn; I couldn’t be in charge any more. Lord, teach us! Help us to come to You in with open hands, and let You lead us and teach us to pray.
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty. This I declare of the LORD- he is my refuge, my place of safety. He is my God, and I trust him.
– Psalm 91:1-2, NLT
I surrendered to God on my knees and started from scratch – after years of praying a lot and then suddenly no longer understanding how to pray or what God wanted of me, He began to teach me the simplest of things all over again. Lord, teach us to pray. May we surrender to God our prayer life and come to Him without an itinerary or list of discussion points or expectation of what He may do: let us come with open hands and let Him speak as He wishes in the ways He wishes, and let Him teach us to pray. I haven’t worked it all out; I’m not sure that anyone has. But that’s the beauty of it: having to follow God’s lead in a relationship that we cannot possibly understand and that will never fit within human logic or our man-made systems.
Many Christians have the intention to pray but then don’t quite get around to making time for it. I believe that if we really want to know God, or please God, or even simply call ourselves His followers, we must learn to prioritise prayer in whatever form that may take. If we want the life that Jesus offers, or the fullness and rest and peace and power that the Bible talks about so much, how can this be possible unless we have that time alone with Him, prioritising being with Him and talking with Him? There are limitless ways of praying and styles of praying – maybe you benefit most from going for countryside walks with God, or cycling and praying, or kneeling by your bed in prayer, or sitting by the fire to pray. But whatever our preferred style or posture may be, God absolutely loves it when we set ourselves apart for the purpose of talking with Him, even just for a few minutes at a time. We need not hold onto crippling guilt for failing to have a consistent ‘quiet time’ each day – I don’t believe that holding onto a sense of guilt is what God wants for us – but He does long to spend time talking with us and listening to our prayers. He delights in it. He waits and watches with eager expectation, longing for us to talk to Him, to remember Him and acknowledge Him and speak with Him – both throughout each day and at specific times; both with other people and alone; both planned and spontaneous – God simply loves it when we pray. Let’s get on with it, then.
The pastor of the church I attended in Bolivia wrote a great song about how it is not enough just to sing to God or desire Him or talk about Him or work for Him – it is necessary to die to self and receive the kind of life that only God can give. Giving up a little time and energy to pray can be to some of us a great sacrifice. Are we willing to die to self and sacrifice a little of our time and energy for God? Is He ‘worthy of our praise’? Does the Creator of the Universe rank high enough in our priorities that we would consider giving a few minutes each day to talk to Him? May we surrender our knees to God and set prayer as a priority in our everyday lives.
Reading is good, hearing is good, conversation and meditation are good; but then, they are only good at times and occasions, in a certain degree, and must be used and governed with such caution as we eat and drink and refresh ourselves, or they will bring forth in us the fruits of intemperance. But the spirit of prayer is for all times and occasions; it is a lamp that is to be always burning, a light to be ever shining: everything calls for it; everything is to be done in it and governed by it, because it is and means and wills nothing else but the totality of the soul — not doing this or that, but wholly…given up to God to be where and what and how He pleases.
– William Law
Prayer is such a privilege, being able to come directly into the presence of the Living God, thereby fulfilling our life’s purpose, and knowing that He is actually interested in us and genuinely pleased and excited that we are taking an interest in Him. What an incredible blessing! And how wonderful that prayer does not have to be in any specifically imposed time or location, or with any set routine or system or special words but that we can come to God as a child coming to the Father, as a friend to a friend, as a spouse to their beloved.
Richard Baxter counsels us in The Saints Everlasting Rest to seek out “the fittest time for prayer, the fittest place for prayer, and the fittest preparation of the heart” for prayer. For example, if we know that in the early morning we are the most wide awake, the most distraction-free, perhaps the most productive – this is the time we should set aside for prayer; giving God our ‘first-fruits’, not the dregs or leftovers of our time and energy. For some people the very end of each day is the best time for prayer – a time to think back over situations in His presence, reflect and pray for the people and situations that come to mind, in a relaxed way. Some like to prepare their hearts for a time of prayer through music, and others like to pray with a coffee – there are many times, places and situations that each of us could explore as to the most fitting time, place and atmosphere for our times of prayer. These things may not make it necessarily easy, and might not cause us to feel ‘fulfilled’ – but surely a sense of ease and fulfillment, or a special feeling, is not what we seek – but communication with God Himself, and this we can trust in whenever we pray, however we may feel. He loves it when we talk to Him.
Many 18th and 19th century Christian writers suggest that people set a specific time and place on a regular basis to pray. One example is Andrew Murray’s image of entering the classroom of prayer: entering a specific place (he offers the example of a closet) where we expect God to teach us, and there we learn from Him. Some people like to schedule in an appointment in the diary so that nothing else can disturb or rearrange that time of prayer – this can be helpful in preparing the heart for prayer and instilling an attitude of reverence and expectation; and an awareness that our communication ‘gets through’ and is productive. Even something as simple as adopting a posture of kneeling for prayer – this can help set our hearts, minds and attitudes in a way that is useful for prayer, and the space or setting need not matter. Some people find kneeling for prayer helpful in ridding the mind of distractions, as well as teaching the attitude of humility before God. When we kneel before God we recognise our own unworthiness of His love and attention, and this way it brings us back once again to the beauty of His grace and mercy. We acknowledge His greatness and His majesty, and the fact that He reigns over us. We surrender to God, on our knees. “Three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to his God, just as he had done before.” – Daniel 6:10, NIV.
[Prayer] must be to the glory of God, in full surrender to His will, in full assurance of faith, in the name of Jesus, and with a perseverance that, if need be, refuses to be denied. All this must be learned. It can only be learned in the school of much prayer, for practice makes perfect. Amid the painful consciousness of ignorance and unworthiness, in the struggle between believing and doubting, the heavenly art of effectual prayer is learnt. … Is it not wonderful? To be able to go alone with God, the infinite God. And then to look up and say: My Father! … O let the place of secret prayer become to me the most beloved spot on earth. … Let Thy wonderful revelation of a Father’s tenderness free all young Christians from every thought of secret prayer as a duty or a burden, and lead them to regard it as the highest privilege of their life, a joy and a blessing.
– Andrew Murray, in Teach Me To Pray, Lord
Many people want to follow Jesus’ example in the power he used in miracles, and the love he displayed in addressing people, but ignore the example of prayer that he set us. Sometimes we fail to understand that every part of life, to live for Christ and imitate him to the glory of God, must be fueled with prayer. When we come to God in prayer He can teach us in that place to live in a way that pleases Him, and mold us into His likeness to reflect His light and follow the example of Christ. Jesus often set aside time to pray – as did the Old Testament prophets and New Testament Early Church. Without this place of prayer fueling all that we do and motivating and inspiring us to live a life of faith, we enter our situations unprepared for what the world and the enemy will throw at us. Then we may miss divine opportunities, and stumble at obstacles, and fail to notice the things that God wants to show us each day.
But we cannot do this alone. The discipline of prayer may be taught, or acquired with time and energy – and the love of it, too, instilled over time – but I believe that we really need to surrender our prayer lives to God so that He may shape us and teach us to pray in a way that pleases Him. Then He can show us what He may want to show us, and bring us to intimacy with Him. May we surrender, and let Him teach us. In his book on Prayer, Richard Foster tells us, “Be assured of this: everything will try to pull you away from the sacred time. Your phone will ring. Your pen will run dry. Someone will knock at your door. You will suddenly have an urgent need to do something you have left undone for years. In that split second you alone will decide whether you will hold steady in the inner sanctuary of the heart or rush out of the holy place, tyrannized by the urgent.” As we surrender to God, may He prepare and equip us for the difficulties we may face in prayer – the distractions, the hollow emptiness that we may sometimes experience, the frustration at seemingly unanswered prayer – may He fill us with a love that runs deeper than all of that, so that we can continue to pray and seek Him through all times and all situations, and so that our roots will grow down deep into His love and keep us strong. May we surrender to God our prayer life – give Him our knees and let Him shape and teach us, bringing us closer to Him and showing us how to live for Him.
God my Teacher,
Thank You that I can come to You in prayer.
Thank You that You love it when I do.
I surrender to You my knees, my prayer life.
Please teach me to pray.
Take me into Your holy classroom and lead me.
Show me how to pray and live in a way that honours You.
I choose to prioritise spending time with You – please help me.
I surrender to You my knees and I ask for Your strength.
May I live in Your ways, praying in a way that pleases You.