Whenever we acknowledge that our prayers have become a boring exercise rather than a real conversation with a real person, it’s time to explore creative, tried and tested methods to rebuild a meaningful, enthusiastic and transforming prayer life.
As much as we dislike to admit it, many of our prayer lives are sometimes to be found in a barren place, where boredom, haste, fatigue and the feeling that we need to tick another box on our never-ending to do list, come together.
We pray in a repetitive way, about the same things, in the same way, and we try to keep our focus, while our minds wander towards topics that are not part of our prayers. As a result, we feel the need to shorten our prayer time, we get off our knees with a feeling of relief that it’s all over—or, on the contrary, we end up feeling guilty for the drought that our prayer experience has become.
Although it’s difficult to come up with a set of strategies that apply to everyone, to reinvigorate the prayer life, there are ways to reach transforming, profound prayer, ways which have been already tested by those who have sought to deepen their relationship with God—although there is still room for discovering creative ways and for adjusting old ways of praying to our own personal way of praying. However, the way in which we pray will forever be shaped by the image that we hold of the God to whom we pray.
Prayer and the image of God
Christian author Robert Velarde notes that it is essential for praying to see God as a real being, while noticing that if God were impersonal, praying would make little sense, and that if He were personal but indifferent and distant, prayer would be pointless. The Bible tells us, however, that God is a person, and that His attributes (He is loving, almighty and all-knowing) play an important role in the way in which we relate to Him through prayer.
Our wish to talk to someone is strongly linked to what we think about that person, writes Christian author Anne Woodcock, in a brief analysis of the reasons why we avoid prayer. Woodcock thinks that one of the main reasons of a complicated prayer life is our distorted image of God’s character. She emphasises the need to know exactly what Our Father is like.
What makes the prodigal son head back home—even though the burden of his guilt must have been very heavy—is the fact that he is aware, if only in part, of his Father’s goodness. He is a father who otherwise had no real joy from any of his sons, writes Andrei Pleșu. He notes that, despite their differences, both sons are rebellious, and they both enter into conflict with their father while sabotaging his wealth and status.
If we are to speak of wastefulness in this parable, the waste of fatherly love is what comes into the foreground, notes Pleșu, who emphasises the way in which the Father welcomes his prodigal son: by running to welcome him (in semitic cultures, an honourable man never runs), falling on his neck and giving him back his role, celebrating his return with an amazing feast, forgiving him then with “more than the just measure” and adding “his forgiveness to the over-abundance of grace”. It is an unconditional love that is manifested toward the older son as well, so that the ‘waste’ of love goes beyond and overcomes the waste of evil, the philosopher concludes.
“Prayer is the opening of the heart to God as to a friend”—this is how Christian writer Ellen White defines prayer. Sin has interrupted this open communication, and Adam and Eve have for the first time hidden themselves from God, the God whose company they used to enjoy until then. The same hide-and-seek game we play to this day, when we don’t manage to reconcile the image of a holy God with that of the Father who loved us so much so that He “crushe[d] him and caus[ed] him to suffer” for our own redemption, His only Son.
If we imagine God watching us with displeasure, anger or indifference, then our conversation with God becomes blocked, because the way we perceive Him places unsurmountable barriers between us and Him.
Using the words of the Scripture for a transforming prayer
There are parts of the Bible (and most likely circumstances of our own lives) which awaken our desire to pray by using the words or concepts that we read about. Sometimes, we instantly turn a biblical verse into a personal prayer, but there are authors who suggest that we regularly exercise praying by using the texts of the Bible in order to enliven our prayer lives.
George Muller acknowledged that his devotional life reached a whole new level when he started praying in this way, by taking on the requests or the thanks of the biblical authors and introducing them into his own conversations with God.
Using the words, the passages or the biblical images in prayer represents a simple antidote to the routine in which our prayers often get caught up, in which we gravitate toward the same problems, writes professor Donald Whitney. He underlines the fact that every time we pray in this way, we use words and ideas that come from God’s heart and mind, allowing them to travel through our minds and hearts, before sending them back to their Author.
Our tendency is to pray again and again about a limited number of problems, but if we learn how to pray based on our inspiration from the Bible, we can manage to pray for a wider number of problems and to keep our prayers in the realm of biblical topics, explains Andy Naselli, professor of the New Testament.
Prayer that flows from the text of the Scripture is useful because it gives us the certainty that we are being listened to and that our prayers will receive an answer (1 John 5:14-15) and it help us live a life aligned to biblical teachings, in a world that is opposed to God’s will.
In his additions to the Bible, NIV Lifehacks Bible: Practical Tools for Successful Spiritual Habits, Joe Carter asks three questions that we should use to extract our own reasons for prayer from the biblical text: 1) What reasons for joy, gratitude and worship does this passage inspire in me? 2) Is there anything in this passage that reveals the sin in my life and that would lead to redemption? 3) What are the requirements for me or for others that this passage will inspire me to bring forward before God?
Early morning prayer
What we are used to doing in the morning, in the early hours of the morning, says a lot about the priorities that we have, writes pastor David Mathis, in a meditation about the importance of the habit to pray as the first thing we do in the day.
When we have a stringent need or an extraordinary opportunity, we wake up early to face the problems or to bring the opportunities of the day into fruition, notes Mathis, by listing a series of crises and opportunities that the characters in the Bible managed by searching for God in the first hours of the day. The stillness of each morning, the energy we have after a restful night and reducing the possibility of distraction turn these moments into very precious ones, highlights the pastor, who insists on the need to make God’s voice the first one we hear on a daily basis.
Jesus Himself used to pray in the morning, while it was still dark (Mark 1:35-37), despite His busy schedule and the inevitable tiredness that followed after He would preach to the masses that looked for Him.
He who wastes his time in the morning, by not looking for God, won’t find Him in the rest of the day, wrote the Christian author E.M. Bounds, by noting that those who achieved the most for God are those who have started their mornings on their knees. Robert Murray M’Cheyne, a Christian servant from the 1800s in Scotland, in describing the difficult road of devoting the first moments of the morning to prayer, wrote about his decision to begin his day with God, so as to “see his face ﬁrst, to get my soul near him before it is near another.”
Morning prayers help us pass the whole day in a spirit of prayer, turning to God in every situation that makes us uneasy, in every concern that enters our thoughts and every lack of clarity about the direction of travel. Looked at from this angle, prayer does not waste the minutes we devote to it, but becomes, as pastor Charles Stanley says, “life’s greatest time saver.”
How does a prayer journal help?
The prayer journal is said to represent “the easiest way to pray”, but also a remedy for the mind’s tendency to wander during prayer.
Writing down the requests we bring before God and putting a date on them is a great way of building our faith in the power of prayer, writes the Christian author Debbie Przybylski, noting that such a journal is a chronicle of God’s good will toward us. The journal can also be used to keep the general or more specific messages we receive from God during prayer time, to put together lists of subjects of prayer, and finally to follow our spiritual progress and the way in which God works in our lives.
In times of crisis, discouragement or spiritual drought, to open one of these journals can equate to getting a fresh infusion of hope and gratitude. We tend to forget the problems we faced, as well as the fears and worries which have tired us at certain times, as a prayer journal can remind us of tens of opportunities in which God has responded in surprising ways to our needs: “…so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live” (Deuteronomy 4:9).
Transforming prayer and specific requests
Although God does not need to be informed of our needs (“Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him” – Matthew 6:8), His encouragement is to request things which we need, and the promise is that we will be listened to. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).
The Apostle John highlights the fact that we can pray for specific needs, having faith that we will get an answer, if our requests are aligned to His will: “This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him” (1 John 5:14-15).
When we pray for things in general, we give God the opportunity to come out clean-handed in case He doesn’t help us solve the specific problems we are faced with.
When we pray for something specific, we can see clearly the answer to our prayers, and with each granted answer, our faith becomes even stronger. On the other hand, if we pray only for generic things (“God, bless my family/friends/Church”, “have mercy on us”, “look after my needs”) it will be difficult for us to tell if and how these prayers have been answered, and sometimes this way of praying can betray our lack of faith.
As pastor Tony Evans said, by praying for general things, we give God the opportunity to come out clean handed, in case He doesn’t help us solve the specific problems we are faced with. Praying for specific things helps us clarify our wants and needs, keeps us connected to God and His power in any area of our lives (Jesus taught his disciples to pray for their daily bread), and it helps us experience His faith in us and gives new impetus to our life of prayer.
Praying for others and personal growth
“You can love more people through prayer than any other way,” said missionary Wesley Duewel. By analysing the way in which we practice love through prayer, pastor Dwight Nelson writes about the lists of prayers he keeps in his journal, lists which become ever longer and to which he adds the members of his family, friends, colleagues, strangers he meets on a plane or famous preachers he has never met.
Such a list can ultimately include any person for whom we would like to petition through prayer, following the encouragement put forward by apostle Paul that “…petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people… This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:1-4).
Our spiritual vitality and the depth of our prayers depend on the choice to pray for others, notes Christian writer Ellen White, highlighting the fact that the effects of these prayers will be felt, first and foremost, by those who pray. They will notice that their spiritual life becomes “more of a reality, more earnest, more prayerful.”
In the end, the best way to discover how to pray in a consistent, efficient and enthusiastic way is to exercise daily prayer even during monotonous and barren times. We receive Help that answers to us every time our desire is to pray more, more passionately, with more faith and with more strength. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, they did not receive a talk on prayer, but a practical model of prayer (following the example of their Teacher, who sometimes spent entire nights in prayer), notes Max Lucado.
“Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1) is one of the requests that never goes unanswered. Prayer is the door we open so that God may enter our lives, and He has never turned down anyone who wanted to have Him as a companion.
Carmen Lăiu is an editor of Signs of the Times Romania and ST Network.