Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer
Teach Us to Pray
When I was in graduate school I took a class on Trinitarian theology. My entire grade would rest on one paper and so the professor met with each student individually to discuss what topic we wanted to focus on and help us get started down the right path. I was fascinated by the topic of the Trinity and so had at least seven or eight different ideas for my paper to which my professor commented, “Well, we need to narrow that down a bit as it is just a 5,000 word paper.” Sitting down to write this week’s post focusing on prayer feels much the same way if did to sit down with my professor.
The topic of prayer is huge. Countless books have been written focusing on this single topic for centuries. It is so much a key part of our Christian faith that is hard to find a page in Scripture which doesn’t have some reference to prayer. It is a practice which we talk about much and yet most of us struggle to feel like we are consistent and effective when it comes to actually putting it into practice. So, to that end, this won’t be another “how-to” post, but an invitation to consider the question, “Why pray?”
Ultimately, we pray to be in relationship with God. It is simple and yet mind-blowing at the same time. I mean, of course the One who created us would want to be in relationship with His creation. And yet, at the same time, the God of gods, all-powerful Creator of the universe wants to, deeply desires to spend time talking with me, to spend time talking with you. One on one. If you stop and really let that start to sink in, it should be an overwhelming, humbling, and nearly unbelievable realization which hits you anew on a regular basis.
However, one of the greatest challenges for many of us is that we have lost sight of just how significant this relationship with God truly is and how amazingly blessed we are to be able to speak directly to Him. It becomes routine, common place, even mundane to spend time talking with God in prayer. It can become an obligation we don’t really have time for in our busy lives which are humming along just fine without divine intervention. Sure, every once in a while we might look at the book we picked up about prayer and think about reading a chapter or two, we might even make the effort to meet with a Bible study or prayer group a couple of times a month where we pray for specific concerns, but it is something we invest in almost like a hobby instead of a lifestyle.
To seek to make prayer a defining characteristic of our lives, we must be open to and willing to allow God to change us, often in the deepest levels of our hearts. Why is this? Well, the closer you are to God, the more aware you become of your need for God and the more you grow in your desire to be conformed to Christ. Left to our own devices, we will not be able to truly free ourselves from sin and so we will not ever be able to fully see the world through God’s eyes. In honestly, authentically seeking God’s heart through prayer, we must be willing to let go of our own, personal, limited points of view, judgements, and even desires. At its core, “To pray is to change… If we are unwilling to change, we will abandon prayer as a noticeable characteristic of our lives.” (Richard J. Foster)
The good news in this call to change and allow ourselves to be transformed through prayer is that God always meets us exactly where we are at. He doesn’t require us to first prove ourselves smart enough, worthy enough, or holy enough to pray. All He requires is our willingness. Prayer isn’t about speaking eloquently or with certain, “correct” understanding of scripture or theology. It is about having a conversation with someone who loves you more than you can possible comprehend and who accepts you for who you are regardless of your past mistakes.
Prayer is also about learning. God doesn’t expect us to know how to best communicate with him right from the start. The disciples set before us a great example of this reality when the ask Jesus to teach them how to pray (Luke 11:1). Personally, I love that prayer involves learning. It means that there is room for me to experiment and figure out what works for me. God created each of us to be unique and so how we pray will be unique to each of us. That prayer is a learning process has the power to save us from dismissing it as false or unreal if we don’t see the results we desire on our first, second, third, or even 100th try.
One of my greatest hesitations when it comes to praying, especially in praying for others, is that God isn’t interested in hearing from me. I fear, for lack of a better way to say it, that I don’t have enough or the right kind of faith for my prayers to be heard. In talking about this topic in the last couple of weeks others, I have begun to wonder if that fear is more common than most of us would care to admit. Thus, to end, I want to share a quote from Richard J. Foster’s book “Celebration of Discipline” I found particularly encouraging as I consider my own relationship with prayer:
“Sometimes we are afraid that we do not have enough faith to pray for this child or that marriage. Our fears should be put to rest, for the Bible tells us that great miracles are possible through faith the size of a tiny mustard seed. Usually, the courage actually to go and pray for a person is a sign of sufficient faith. Frequently our lack is not faith but compassion. It seems that genuine empathy between the pray-er and the pray-ee often makes a difference. We are told Jesus was ‘moved with compassion’ for people. Compassion was an evident feature of every healing in the New Testament. We do not pray for people as ‘things,’ but as ‘persons’ whom we love. If we have God-give compassion and concern for others, our faith will grow and strengthen as we pray.”
- How is your prayer life? What is the primary motivation behind your prayers? Do you see evidence of your time in prayer changing you to be more Christ-like?
- If you really want to dive into different ways of praying, I strongly recommend Richard J. Foster’s book “Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home.” Each chapter is dedicated to a different style of prayer. Be patient with yourself and give yourself some real time to immerse yourself in each style of prayer as you go through the book.
- When you pray for someone, do you truly feel compassion for them? How can you remind yourself to pray for people as people instead of praying for them as an item on prayer list or obligation?
Helpful Resources Used
- From the book “Celebration of Discipline: The Path to Spiritual Growth” by Richard J. Foster, chapter three titled, “The Discipline of Prayer”
- ‘Understanding Prayer” by Richard J. Foster