Flipping through my journals that span the past several years, I notice a similarity in my January 1st entries. They contain my New Year’s Resolutions, and one resolution in particular is usually on the list every year: to grow in prayer.
Of all the spiritual disciplines, prayer has always been a challenge for me. Whether it’s setting aside a specific time to pray, or praying continuously throughout the day, I haven’t been able to cultivate a consistent life of prayer.
Over the past several months, I’ve sought to grow in this area. I have seen progress, but I must confess, the growth has been slow. Certainly, I’ve not yet become the prayer warrior I want to be, but I’m taking tiny steps of obedience to grow in prayer. As I share some lessons I’ve learned—and must keep learning—please don’t assume I’ve mastered this weakness in my life by any means!
Why don’t I pray more? Why do I hurry through prayer times when I do pray? Why do I feel sometimes my words are hollow and meaningless?
"We don’t pray because we are not desperate," writes Nancy Leigh in A Place of Quiet Rest, identifying the top reason for prayerlessness. I think it’s been true in my life. When I review the times in my life when I’ve prayed the most, it’s when I’ve been desperate for God to intervene in my life or in the life of someone I love.
All I have to do is look at the Psalms and I find rich prayers written to God in desperation. These prayers aren’t trite like mine can be. They are deep and come from the very soul of the writers. "Whom have I in heaven but you?" writes Asaph. "And earth has nothing I desire besides you. My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever" (Psalm 73:25–26).
If I’m not feeling my desperate need for God each day, then I’m trying to go through my life on my own. God did not intend this for me. He intended for me to be in communion with Him. Just because I’m "saved" doesn’t mean I’m no longer desperate for God’s intervention in my life. I still need Him to give me strength when I’m too timid to share His love, or to help me speak kind words when I’d rather be harsh, or to seek His wisdom in complicated situations. I can only do this if I spend time in God’s Word and draw on His renewing resources through prayer. The good news is I’m not in this struggle alone.
Help in Weakness
Too often, when I’m struggling in my prayer life, I don’t stop to ask God for help in this area. I just feel condemned and think thoughts like, "I should pray more," or "Tomorrow I’ll try to set aside time to pray during my quiet time." I focus on what I need to do to change. This can lead to a legalistic mindset.
It’s not too often I think, "Lord, You’ve commanded us to pray. I don’t feel like it today, but will you help me desire to communicate with you?"
God has given us a divine helper whose task—among other things—is to help us in our weakness in prayer. Romans 8:26–27 says, "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."
This was a wonderful revelation to me! Although this passage has been familiar to me, its practical application just hit me recently. I’ve always thought of the Holy Spirit as helping me in the weakness of my flesh through the sanctification process. This is true, however, as John Stott clarifies in his book Romans: God’s Good News for the World, the Spirit particularly "helps our weakness in prayer." I no longer see prayer as something to add to my "to-do list" but an opportunity to be helped by God’s Holy Spirit.
But the question remains, how do I put prayer into practice day-to-day?
So when it comes to practical application, how do we "do" prayer? Sometimes what’s effective for one person might not be effective for another. The following are some creative suggestions for developing a prayer life. Some I’ve incorporated into my life, others are ideas my friends have used in their lives.
- Keep a Prayer Journal: For those of us who stay more focused through writing, this might be for you. Write your prayers out word for word in a journal. This helps me concentrate and keeps me from distractions.
- Keep a Prayer Log: Divide a page in a notebook into columns with the headings: Today’s date, Request, How God Answered, Date Answered. You’ll be amazed to see how prayers are answered as you chronicle them.
- Prayer Cards: Take seven index cards and write the day of the week across the top of each one. Then divide your prayer request throughout the week. For instance on "Sunday" I pray for my church, pastors, and that God’s preached Word would affect my heart. Another day is devoted to praying for family.
- Pray Scripture: God’s Word is full of prayers from The Lord’s Prayer to the Psalms. Make them your own by praying them back to God. It’s amazing to discover the people of the Bible had the same needs we do.
- Prayer Box: Take a shoebox and cut a slit in the top. As you think of people or situations to pray for or about, jot them down on a slip of paper and stick them in the box. Then, everyday, take out one or two and pray over them.
It may take time to figure out what best works for you, but eventually you’ll discover something that does. Just keep being persistent and creative.
And persistent I am. There are days I fail and don’t pray at all. There are days that my prayers seem pretty lame. But Colossians 4:2 says to "continue steadfastly in prayer . . ." About this verse, John Piper writes, "There is so much power to be had in persevering prayer. . . . Perseverance is the great test of genuineness in the Christian life."
And so, this year, as I consider my resolutions, I plan to persevere. Prayer is no longer a year-long goal, but a lifetime process of communication with my God. So I continue to persevere, not perfectly, but with the help of One who is perfect.