If you were to ask most Christians about the health of their prayer life, you would probably hear something like, “I know I should pray more” or “I don’t pray as much as I would like to”, or “I have tried to have a prayer life, but my mind always wanders”, or something to that effect.
Even Christians who attend church regularly, read their Bibles, and share their faith openly sometimes have real difficulty cultivating a healthy prayer life. By “healthy prayer life” I mean having a time set aside each day to talk to the Lord and to hear from Him. I am not talking about “saying a prayer”. I mean really communicating with God; pouring out our heart to Him; having a conversation with your heavenly Father; letting your requests be made known to Him, worshiping Him, and contemplating Him.
We know from the gospels that Jesus got up early in the morning to go somewhere secluded to pray (Mark 1:35). He would often slip away from the crowd to pray (Mark 6:46). King David rose up early to pray (Psalm. 5:3). I could list many other examples of, reasons for, and commandments to, pray. And I believe God has put within all believers a desire to pray. So why is this so difficult for us?
I have struggled with all of the above problems as much as anyone. And what I would like to share are some things that I have learned over the years in seeking to know God more intimately through prayer. I hope these will encourage you in your prayer life!
#1 We have to make a firm commitment to have a prayer life.
When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai, he found that Israel had reverted to idolatry by worshiping a golden calf. He broke the tablets with the ten commandments inscribed on them (Ex. 32). When God called Moses to return to the mountain, he told him the day before to prepare himself, climb the mountain, and present himself there to God (Ex. 34). There are two very important points we can learn from this account:
1. Moses had to make up his mind the day before to go up to meet with God on the mountain. We too must resolve the day before to get up and meet God in prayer. We can’t wait until morning to decide; it’s just too easy to back out. It’s true we could resolve to have a prayer time in the evening. If this works for you–that’s fine. But I think the examples we have in scripture clearly point to having a prayer time in the morning. It sets the course of our day and gives God the best part–the first fruits–of our day.
2. Going up on the mountain to meet with God is a recurring theme in Scripture. Abraham climbed mount Moriah to offer Isaac (Gen. 22:2); Moses went up Mt. Sinai to meet with God (Ex. 19:3), to hear from God (Ex. ch. 19 & 20); Jesus went up on a mountain to pray (Mt. 14:23), to choose His Apostles (Mark 3:13-19). Jesus gave the greatest sermon ever recorded at the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. ch. 5-7). Jesus revealed Himself to three of his disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration (Mark 9:1-9); He met His disciples after His resurrection on a mountain and gave them “the Great Commission” (Matt. 28:16-20). These are just a few examples. Why did these events take place upon a mountain? What is God trying to tell us?
It takes effort climb a mountain. And we don’t normally spend time and effort for things that we don’t value. I think God is telling us that we must value spending time with Him in prayer enough to make the effort required to do it.
I am not suggesting that we earn our way into God’s presence, or that we come to Him based on our own merits. We have access to God the Father only through the unmerited favor given to us through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. We have “confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19). But as anyone who has tried to have a regular prayer time knows, it does take effort and determination.
#2 God has already equipped us to have a healthy prayer life.
If you have been born of the Spirit–repented of your sins and put your faith in Christ as your Lord and Saviour–you have been given all that you need to have a healthy prayer life. The Spirit of Christ dwells within the believer and can enable us to pray. The Apostle Paul wrote to the Roman church, “…the Spirit helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words…” (Rom. 8:26). Sometimes the trouble we have is that we try to have a prayer life through our own efforts. We must realize that we are unable by our own strength to have a healthy prayer life, but that God has provided His Spirit to enable us to pray, and that it is God’s desire that we get to know Him through prayer. So we put our trust in His enabling us to pray, not in our ability to pray.
#3 Find a secluded spot to pray.
The only thing I have found that works in our house is for me to get up before anyone else does, so that I can devote my attention to prayer without distractions. I also think it helps to pray audibly. Speaking my prayers helps to keep my mind from wandering. I whisper my prayers because I don’t want someone else in the next room to hear my prayers. Sometimes the things I want to pray about are intimate; things I want to share with God alone.
#4 Start with the Bible.
I like to start by reading a Psalm or praying the Lord’s prayer (Matt. 6:7-13). Praying the Lord’s prayer helps my faith and gives me direction in prayer. It helps me to realize that God wants me to spend time with Him in prayer, and that He is really listening. Some christians object to praying wrote prayers and believe that all prayer must be spontaneous in order to be authentic, “from the heart”. I don’t think this is necessarily true. There are many wonderful prayers in the Psalms, in the English Book of Common Prayer, and recorded for us down through the church’s history. Many of these prayers are well thought out and rich in content. As with anything we do in service to the Lord, we need to be on guard against the danger of doing it as a meaningless ritual. In teaching His disciples to pray, Jesus warned against “meaningless repetition”. On the other side of that coin, it is important to communicate to God what is really on our heart, and not just say to God what we think He wants to hear. What I have written in this section may seem like a contradiction, but it is not. We learn how to pray from Scripture. Prayers in Scripture can give us direction, and we can pray those prayers if we agree with their content and if what they say reflects what we want to communicate to God. If we pray wrote prayers because we have been told to do so, or we think that is how we are supposed to pray, but would really like to talk to God about something else, then we may veering off course from meaningful prayer into “meaningless repetition”.
#5 Confess sin.
The prophet Isaiah wrote: “Behold the Lord’s hand is not so short that He cannot save; nor is His ear so dull that He cannot hear. But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you.” (Is. 59:1-2). It’s very important that we open our hearts to let the Holy Spirit reveal to us any unconfessed sin, resentment, unforgiveness, or jealousy we might have in our hearts. If we are willingly, habitually sinning, this will prevent us from having real fellowship with God. However, “If we confess our sins He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9). And if we are struggling with sin, we should still come to God in our prayer time to confess it, and let God deal with it in our lives. In other words, don’t let failure in your walk with the Lord keep you from having your prayer time. We all fail at times.
#6 Help against distracting thoughts.
I think we all are plagued with distracting thoughts when we try to pray–anxious thoughts, things we have to do that day. I heard a tip that I have found very helpful. When I am praying and start to think of things that I have to do on that day, rather than be worried that I may forget these things, I just jot them down and then forget about them until the end of my prayer time. I actually use what Satan wants to distract me with to my own advantage. In the end, I have a “to do” list, and I am not distracted from prayer.
#7 Pray with confidence according to God’s will.
Cultivating a prayer life is a learning process. The Bible tells us to pray according to God’s will. But how can we know God’s will? We learn God’s will through His word, the Bible, and by the direction of the Holy Spirit. It’s very important that we spend time reading and studying God’s word as we spend time in prayer. And as you read the Bible, notice how people in the Bible pray. Notice how and for what the Apostle Paul prays for. When we can discern God’s will, we can pray with confidence. Most of the time that I have lacked confidence in prayer was when I just wasn’t sure that what I was asking God to do was really God’s will in a given situation. There are times when we don’t know what the will of God is. If you study the apostle Paul’s intercessory prayers, you will find that they were not that specific. I have heard people pray for others and they were so specific about what they were asking God to do that it seemed more like they were directing God in what to do rather than making requests from our omniscient Father. God doesn’t need our direction. He invites us to pray to Him and participate in what He wants to do in the lives of others. And if we are students of the word, we can have a much better idea what the mind of God is, and pray in a way that is pleasing to Him.
#8 Be steadfast in prayer
“Devote yourselves to prayer…” (Col. 4:2). We learn how to pray by praying. There are all kinds of books out there to read about prayer, but the best way to learn how to pray is to pray. Set aside a certain amount of time each day for prayer and Bible reading. Start small, but stick to it, and I think you will soon find yourself wanting more time to pray.
May God bless you and keep you as you meet with Him!