As Christians, we know that we should pray. Most of us want to pray. Yet, the vast majority of us struggle to develop a meaningful prayer life. We crave deep and authentic communication with our Heavenly Father but much of what we experience in prayer seems rote and impersonal.
So, where is the disconnect? I think we don’t talk about prayer rightly. Prayer is conversation. It is a two-way dialog between God and us. God speaks… we listen and respond; we speak… God listens and responds. Let’s unpack that for just a minute:
God speaks. I think our greatest problem with prayer is that we assume we must initiate the conversation. That is simply not true. God initiates the conversation. He first spoke to us through His Word and He continues to speak to us through his Word. That means that our prayer life must be grounded in the Scriptures. This may come as a shock to you but there is absolutely no way you can have a meaningful life of prayer apart from devoted time in God’s Word. Consider these verses:
“For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Hebrews 4:12)
“All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
God, through the power of his Holy Spirit, works like a skilled surgeon as he slices through the layers of our life and exposes the true motives of our heart. He does this not to harm us but to make us useful for the ministry to which he has called us. In a very real sense, reading and meditating on God’s Word is just like sitting and listening to a friend talk to us over a cup of coffee. It is transforming, refreshing, and at times painful. But if we desire to know God intimately through prayer, we must tune our hearts and our minds to his Word.
We listen and respond. Are you a good listener? Most of us are not. We hear but we do not listen. Listening involves more that just hearing the words someone is saying; it means that we allow those words to find a resting place in our minds and hearts. Like a diamond reflects and refracts light as it is held up to the sun, we take the words we hear and allow time for them to reach the very depth of our souls. Are the words true? What do they mean for my life? Do they expose pride? Are they comforting? What will happen if I allow them to transform me? As we consider God’s Word we are reminded by Him, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). What is God’s Word accomplishing? We have seen that it “discerns the thoughts and intentions of the heart” and enables believers to “be complete, equipped for every good work.” As we soak in the Scriptures, we are assured that these things will happen in our life. It will be painful and beautiful at the same time.
Listening to God is not the end of this journey; we must respond. As we encounter his glory in the Scriptures, we erupt in praise. As we come face to face with our sin, we cry out in repentance. As we see his faithfulness to his people, we rejoice. One of the best ways to do this is to consciously and consistently respond to God as you read his Word. For example, if you are reading about God’s faithfulness to the nation of Israel (Exodus), praise him for his faithfulness in your life. If you are reading about David’s repentance (Psalm 51), confess your own sin to the Lord with a contrite heart. If you are reading his Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20), ask God to give you a passion to make disciples.
There are specific passages of Scripture that I pray on a daily basis and I have found that this is very helpful in my own prayer life. Also, as I follow a yearly Bible reading plan (Robert Murray McCheyne plan) I encounter passages of Scripture that become prayers each day.
We speak. This is probably the most common thing we think about when discussing prayer. After all prayer is telling God what we need, want, and desire. Right? Not really! We see clearly, in Matthew 6:9-13 (The Lord’s Prayer), Jesus doing something quite different as he teaches his followers to pray. His primary concern in prayer is that God be glorified and his will be accomplished in this world. You see, when God’s Word saturates our hearts and minds (the beginning of prayer) we desire to see God work powerfully in the world around us more than serve as our cosmic bellhop.
If you were to pause for a moment and take inventory of the prayers that you often pray, how many of those prayers are about you and your needs? How many of them are about God’s will and work in this world? It is easy to justify our lack of kingdom-focused prayers. We have problems and circumstances that we need God to take care of and fix. We have needs that are not met and wants that are not satisfied. This is why it is so essential to be a Word saturated people. As we are reminded who God is and what he is doing, we begin to recognize we are not the center of the universe. When this occurs we begin to pray kingdom-minded prayers. We are less concerned about our immediate circumstances and more focused on God’s glory.
This may sound difficult but I find it difficult to pray kingdom-focused prayers without a script. I recognize there needs to be a spontaneity to our prayer life (we are to “pray without ceasing”) but I also have experienced the value of a scripted prayer life. Not only do I pray through the Scriptures but I also pray through a list. I will share my list with you if you are really interested but basically I pray for my wife and kids (daily concerning different things), various family members (one for each day of the week), our church family (daily concerning different things), ministry partners (other pastors, professors, etc.) and missions (institutions, ministries, personnel). I also pray through our membership directory each month. This has allowed me to focus on others instead of myself. My spontaneous prayers throughout the day are usually focused on my circumstances and personal concerns.
God listens and responds. The fact that the God of the universe listens to our prayers is mind blowing. He is not obligated to listen but, like a loving father, he hears the cries of our heart. He also responds! His response is not always what we would expect but he does answer our prayers. God answers our prayers in three primary ways: (1) yes, (2) no, (3) wait. Most of us like the first answer, hate the second, and would rather have a root canal than be told the third. Yet, God responds for our good and his glory.
Throughout Scripture we see God answer people in these three ways. He said, “yes,” when Hezekiah asked for his life to be spared (2 Kings 20:1-11). He said, “no,” when Paul asked for the thorn in his flesh to be removed (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). He said, “wait,” when Habakkuk asked him to move quickly (Habakkuk 1:2-11). He responds to us with those same answers when we pray. We should expect God to respond and be willing to accept that his response is best regardless of whether or not that is the specific answer we want.