As I’ve thought over what I wrote over the weekend about prayer, I’ve returned to the idea that prayer needs a context to make sense in our life with God. Prayer is not only about getting answers, or fixing problems, or changing the course of history, though God is certainly free to give us answers, or address our issues, or change our present reality. Prayer is a part of something bigger. It is not an isolated activity, but is part of a larger whole.
What is that larger whole?
Dallas Willard explains:
Hearing God’s word will never make sense except when it is set within a larger life of a certain kind.
To try to locate divine communication within human existence alienated from God is to return to idolatry, where God is there for our use. To try to solve life’s problems by getting a word from the Lord is to hide from life and from the dignity of the role God intended us to have in creation. As John Boykin remarks, “God does not exist to solve our problems.” We exist to stand up with God and count for something in this world.
We must ultimately move beyond the question of hearing God and into a life greater than our own–that of the kingdom of God. Our concern for discerning God’s voice must be overwhelmed by and lost in our worship and adoration of him and in our delight with his creation and his provision for our whole life. Our aim in such a life is to identify all that we are and all that we do with God’s purposes in creating us and our world. Thus, we learn how to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). That is, we come in all things to think and act so that his goodness, greatness and beauty will be as obvious as possible–not just to ourselves, but to those around us.
That’s the greater context. We pray, not so that we can fulfill a religious duty (one that can be undertaken either happily or unhappily), nor to get God to do what we want, but instead to be in relationship to God and to live according to God’s greater purposes, to learn how best to fulfill the purposes for which we have been made and the vocation to which we have been called.
Anglican priest and poet George Herbert said, “Prayer should be the key of the day and the lock of the night.” Martin Luther once remarked, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
But I’ve concluded that though people try to pray, want to pray, and desire to pray, they still wonder if they are doing it right, enough, or correctly. Countless times I have heard people say that they want something more. Friends have also shared they wish to be more disciplined. The longing, the hope itself, is a gift from God, a sign of God’s work, and a wonderful beginning.
If you want to develop a prayer habit, firstly take heart. The evidence of God’s activity and grace is found in the desire itself. God is drawing nigh to you. Draw near, then, to God.
Where Do I Begin?
In Luke 11:1-13, we are told Jesus was praying, and when he finished his disciples made a request, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus then offered his friend a set of words. In Luke’s account, it is a version of the Lord’s Prayer, the more familiar form of which is given in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus tells his disciples to address God, to ask that God’s kingdom come, to provide for us, forgive us, to help us forgive, to free us from temptation, and deliver us from evil. If this was all we had to go on when it comes to prayer, this alone would be a mighty foundation.
But again in Luke, Jesus follows the words of a prayer with instruction on the character of God. Jesus tells stories to illustrate. Read the passage. Jesus says that when we pray, we should be persistent and audacious, and that God will honor the bonds of friendship. He is even more faithful than the neighbor we might disturb in the middle of the night. Jesus encourages us to ask, seek, and knock.
Finally, he illustrates God’s way of relating to us like a parent by making a comparison to earthly parents. People give good gifts to their children, even though they are inclined toward evil. God, being good, certainly exceeds us in the capacity to provide good things, in a good manner. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask, not only for things, but for the Holy Spirit, who indwells those who trust in Christ. God not only provides what we need when we ask, but gives us God’s very self, which is, in fact, our greatest need.
If you wish to begin a prayer habit, be like the disciples. First, ask Jesus to teach you to pray. Then, pay attention to his teachings. Memorize his words. They can help you tremendously. Truly think and meditate on the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray. And as you do so, consider the character of God. Is God someone that you really want to know?
Generally speaking, we enjoy being with those we long to know better. We soak up the moments. We cherish common experiences. We tell stories. We share. It can be likewise with God, if only you give thought to who God is, and how among all beings who have ever existed or ever will exist, God is unsurpassed. God is the fullness of beauty and truth, the wellspring of grace, the font of wisdom and the source of all knowledge. God is always out for our good, and is the source of all love. We do not have to spend time with God, but God extends us the privilege. And God, being all-good, all-powerful, all-wise, and all patient, joins us in our concerns, whether large or small.
When, Where, and What Do I Pray, and How Do I Grow?
Prayer is presence and conversation, being with and talking with. It is a posture, an inclination, a disposition. Prayer is a way of speaking and listening. It is also a habit of heart and mind.
When, where, and what do you pray?
The answer: you are invited to pray always, in all places, and concerning all things.
God is concerned with your life. Not only your manner of religious devotion or even simply in your wants. But with you. God wants you to know him, and God desires to become an intimate friend to you. This means you are invited to pray throughout your day, wherever you are, and in whatever you are doing.
It is as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray continually.” In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul adds, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That’s the challenge, isn’t it? We’re invited to pray always, in all places, and concerning all things. But we find that we pray seldom, perhaps (hopefully!) in church, and concerning what we may consider small, self-focused matters–things we worry God might not care much about.
But God does care about those small things, and the things we ask in boldness–the “impossible” things. God cares, and is concerned, because we care and are concerned. God’s all surpassing goodness, power, mercy, and grace mean that it is well within God’s means to meet us exactly where we are and to provide for us in the exact manner that we most need.
In reading this you might feel guilty or overwhelmed. I understand. So let’s back up. The invitation to pray moves us toward an ongoing presence and conversation with God that concerns the totality of our lives. But in order to arrive there, we must start smaller, think incrementally, and, finally, act with consistency over time.
First, start small. If you want to develop a prayer habit, set aside one to five minutes a day to pray. Designate a place. I often pray at my desk with my morning cup of coffee. I keep a list of concerns, written in a notebook, that I have tabbed so that I can easily turn to the names and circumstances I want to remember before God. For many years, my prayer dwindled to, “Lord, teach me to pray.” Or, “Help.” Or, “I’m hurt.” Or, “Remember your promises!” Or, “Thanks.” God honored each prayer, I think, and my short prayers were a small enough act to keep me going, to keep me on the path.
Second, think incrementally. You may begin with a short prayer. You may begin with a short list of concerns. But that time you spend in prayer, and those concerns, may grow. You may want to begin memorizing Scripture, praying God’s words. You may want to routinely read one of these great prayers from the Bible:
Remember, you can make the words of Scripture your own. You do not have to pray “original” prayers. You can borrow words. There are other prayers in the Bible, and other passages. You may want to chose a verse that is meaningful to you and bring it to memory, like John 3:16 or Romans 8:37-39.
You may also want to buy a book of written prayers, those that either point you to daily Scripture readings or offer you other devotional material that can structure your time with God. I’ve used the following:
There are other helpful guides out there. Keep your eyes sharp, and your ears open. Another possibility is to download the Bible app from YouVersion and sign up for a reading plan.
Third and most critically, act with consistency over time. It has helped me to set daily reminders to review my prayer list, memorize Scripture, and to set a top priority. This is a list I consult at the beginning of each day. Doing each of these has become part of my morning routine, as has reading four chapters from Scripture and praying a selection from Psalms with my spouse.
Have I missed my appointment? Yes. Have I fallen behind? Yes. But then I start each day new. Don’t let guilt weigh you down. Remember God’s grace.
How Do I Remain Disciplined?
One of the greatest aids in remaining disciplined is to be extremely clear on the reason you began in the first place. One of the Desert Fathers, Abba Anthony said, “Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an ax. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain.”
In Luke 14:28-33, Jesus put it this way:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
In Luke 14:27, Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” To follow Jesus, you give up everything. But consider what you gain! You gain him, and the life that he has promised. Therefore, whatever it is you give, what you will receive from God will be immeasurably greater, and definitely worthwhile.
Why do you want to pray? To impress God? No. Hopefully not. But if you to become more like Jesus, grow in holiness, and walk the path of discipleship, if you want to open the possibility that you will transform and change and become more like the person God designed you to be, then you’re more likely to remain disciplined, to stick with it.
Moreover, if you want to know God, prayer will lead you into a space where this is possible. That relationship, above all, is a treasure beyond compare.
How Does Prayer Shape My Life?
Mother Teresa said, “For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” She also said, “God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer,” and observed, “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.”
Psalm 145:18 says, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” Call on the Lord. Live as God’s friend. Serve others in the name of Jesus.
Prayer will shape you, will conform you to the image of Christ, Christ in you.
So often we try to convey or communicate the character and work of God to others by stepping up the noise and the activity; and yet for God to communicate who and what God is, God needs our silence.
– Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, 98
The spiritual life involves speaking and not speaking.
In speaking, we issue invitations. We draw attention and take action. We converse, convince, and persuade. We do.
In not speaking, we stop. We become silent. We are still. We listen, contemplate, and consider. We be.
The church has always needed heralds. Romans 10:17 says, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” In Romans 10:13 we find, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Romans 10:14-15, Paul asks, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
The logic is easy to follow. The person who hears and responds in faith does so following a proclamation of the message of and about Jesus, brought by another person who has been called and sent forth for that task.
The best gospel ministry marries proclamation to demonstration. We are told what the kingdom of God is like, but then we see it, it is put on display. In Matthew 4:23, we read that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” There is not only speaking, but activity.
And yet to plumb the depths of God, to know who God is and what God is doing, there comes a time for silence. Psalm 46:10 says, ““Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” In Psalm 62:5, we read, “For God alone my soul waits in silence,for my hope is from him.” Lamentations 3:26 reads, “It is good that one should wait quietlyfor the salvation of the Lord.”
Even Jesus withdrew to lonely places to pray. Jesus surely spoke. But he also surely took time to listen, away from the noise, the activity, and the constant demands.
Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Observe each in its own time, do not neglect either. There is speaking and not speaking. There is action and stillness. There is doing and being.
On Christmas morning, when I got down to the kitchen, the men were just coming in from their morning chores–the horses and pigs always had their breakfast before we did. Jake and Otto shouted, ‘Merry Christmas!’ to me, and winked at each other when they saw the waffle-irons on the stove. Grandfather came down, wearing a white shirt and his Sunday coat. Morning prayers were longer than usual. He read the chapters from Saint Matthew about the birth of Christ, and as we listened, it all seemed like something that had happened lately, and near at hand. In his prayer he thanked the Lord for the first Christmas, and for all that it had meant to the world ever since. He gave thanks for our food and comfort, and prayed for the poor and destitute in great cities, where the struggle for life was harder than it was here with us. Grandfather’s prayers were often very interesting. He had the gift of simple and moving expression. Because he talked so little, his words had a peculiar force; they were not worn dull from constant use. His prayers reflected what he was thinking about at the time, and it was chiefly through them that we got to know his feelings and his views about things.
– From Willa Cather’s My ‘Antonia, 84-85, emphasis mine
Praying together and praying for one another is in Paul’s mind one of the most important ways Christians utilize the spiritual connections they have with one another in Christ. The language he uses to describe the activity of praying with and for suggests that in his mind it is a strenuous and vigorous effort. The synagonizo compound combines syn with agon, a Greek word that comprises a larger “agon motif” in Paul’s epistles. It is a motif or cluster of synonyms all built around the athletic imagery of ancient Greece and Rome. All of the terms that comprise the motif in Paul’s letters “suggest the thought of exertion and maximum endeavor.” Prayer for Paul was not a passive folding of the hands in a serene posture of worship but an active exertion of maximum effort in collaboration with other Christians. He viewed it as a legitimate engagement with him in ministry and often requested that his coworkers in ministry pray specifically for him as he prayed for them (2 Cor 13:9; Eph 1:16; Phil 1:4; Col 1:3, 9; 1 Thess 1:2; 5:25; 2 Thess 3:1-2). Paul’s prayer relationship with his churches and coworkers was a reciprocal exchange of ministry effort that produced mutual spiritual benefit for all involved. Paul prayed for his churches and coworkers and he asked them to pray for him.
– Stephen D. Lowe and Mary E. Lowe, Ecologies of Faith in a Digital Age: Spiritual Growth Through Online Education, 158. Emphasis mine.
One of the ways I have encouraged fellow Christians to support their ministers as well as their fellow congregants is to pray for them, and I have often asked friends in ministry to pray for me. The most meaningful gift I have received from those I have served with and alongside has been their prayers, for in the knowledge I am being prayed for I have found encouragement, a sense of shared commitment to God’s calling, and a deepening love. When someone tells me they are praying for me and then follows through, I experience incredible joy.
Lowe and Lowe write that prayer is an effort of “reciprocal exchange” that builds up all parties involved. It not only results in God strengthening and guiding the minister, but the strengthening and guiding of the whole body of Christ. Prayer unites the thoughts and actions of the body of Christ, heightens sensitivity to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and deepens commitment to Jesus, his calling, and his way.
Pray for those in your fellowship. Pray for your pastors and leaders. Invite others to pray for you. Through prayer, God builds you up and strengthens those around you. This is so not only for your benefit, but for the world’s sake, and, ultimately, for the glory of God.
In our examples of Christian leadership, we too often emphasize getting others merely to do as they are told. In this way the church largely conforms to the leadership structures of the world. Indeed, leadership is normally an empty euphemism when applied to our standard communal efforts, whether in a church or outside it.
To manipulate, drive or manage people is not the same thing as to lead them. The sheepdog forcibly maneuvers the sheep, whereas the biblical shepherd simply calls as he calmly walks ahead of the sheep. This distinction between sheepdog and the shepherd is profoundly significant for how leaders of Christ’s people think of their work. We must ask ourselves frequently which role we are fulfilling and constantly return ourselves, if necessary, to the practice of the shepherd.
– Dallas Willard, Hearing God, 107
This passage from Willard has long been one of my favorites because he captures the essential nature of the pastoral task, which is to lead others in the “manner and spirit” demonstrated by Jesus, described here as the practice of the shepherd.
Too often, pastors think they are responsible for enforcing behavioral conformity, minimizing conflict by correctly navigating congregational power dynamics, or for successfully executing a strategic plan or vision. And while faithful shepherding may involve correcting and rebuking those who err, protecting the flock from danger, creating an environment where all brothers and sisters in the fellowship relate peaceably with one another, and discerning God’s leading for the congregation and leading all to walk according to God’s prescribed path, the manner and spirit in which these things are done, when they are done in the way of Jesus, differs markedly from the ways of leadership we commonly find in the world.
Jesus claimed he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11). In doing so, Christ pulled together threads found across the Old Testament that speak of God as the true and loving shepherd of a people God has claimed as his own. Christ remains our Good Shepherd. Those who serve him, both men and women, are called to lead in a way that reflects his person and character. Willard writes, “When we lead as shepherds, our confidence is in only one thing: the word of the Great Shepherd, coming through us or, otherwise, to his sheep.”
How is this possible? We are reminded that Jesus knows his sheep, and they know him, and they know and listen to his voice (John 10:1-16). This is the way we should want it. Willard says, “We do not want them to follow another, even if we ourselves are that ‘other.'” We trust that God has called the congregation together, that the Spirit has been given to them, that we have limited responsibilities as servants and shepherds, and that Christ is the head of the church.
This understanding of the pastoral task, of course, is congregational. That is another reason I think it is so helpful, and so needed. It is a way of leading not only for pastors, but for the body, who respond together to the leading of Christ. Willard states, “Following the practice of the shepherd, we would never stoop to drive, manipulate or manage, relying only on the powers inherent in unassisted human nature (see 1 Peter 4:11). Not only that but the undershepherds (pastors of God) count on their flock to minister the word of God…to them. Ministry of the word is never a one-way street when it is functioning rightly in any group.”
Leading in this manner requires a quiet confidence in the power of God, a steady commitment to teaching the congregation the Scriptures, and demonstration of holiness in heart and life.
This also requires the rejection of all other ways of leadership and a form of servitude that can only be learned by putting aside oneself and putting on Jesus Christ. Paradoxically, that is both the hardest part, and, in the end, the easiest way, for while trusting in Jesus requires the abandonment of all that we are and all that we have, it brings to us the return of eternal and abundant life.
Let spiritual directors of this kind remember that the Holy Ghost is the principal agent here, and the real guide of souls; that he never ceases to take care of them and never neglects any means by which they may profit and draw near unto God as quickly as possible, and in the best way. Let them remember that they are not the agents, but instruments only to guide souls by the rule of faith and the law of God, according to the spirit which God gives to everyone. Their aim therefore should be not to guide souls by a way of their own suitable to themselves, but to ascertain, if they can, the way by which God himself is guiding them. If they cannot ascertain it, let them leave these souls alone and not disquiet them. Let them adapt their instruction to the direction of God, and endeavor to lead their penitents into greater solitude, liberty and tranquility, and not fetter them when God is leading them on.
– John of the Cross, The Living Flame of Love (1585)
God has called us to shepherd and care for others,
But God remains the principle and primary shepherd,
The one to whom those who mind flocks and fields must ultimately give account.
Therefore, remember to always point others to God and to listen with a discerning ear, Paying mind to ways God may be leading the other,
Redirecting attention hither and yon to the coming kingdom,
Setting aside preferences suitable to yourself,
And instead seeking the calling and guidance of the Holy Spirit,
Who knows the hearts of women and men and works out God’s ways
Which are higher than our own.