Prayers Like Arrows

[Read part one HERE (and a shorter version originally published HERE at www.desiringgod.com)]

My struggles with prayer run deep. The spiritual deserts in my life have always been accompanied by a parched prayer life. Eventually, I came to realize this was not only a symptom, but a cause. I was neglecting the very thing that would satisfy my weary, thirsty soul. I was ignoring the path that would not only lead me out of the desert, but keep me out of the wilderness in the first place.

I often fall short of my good intentions when I fail to view prayer as a discipline that needs to be learned and practiced and developed. We speak frequently of the importance of prayer, but often don’t know (or forget) the “hows” of prayer. Even Jesus’s own disciples had to ask Jesus how to pray (Luke 11:1). They saw something in the way he prayed so fervently and intimately to his Father that made them long to do the same. Lord, teach us to pray!

While it won’t be the same for everyone, here are specific actions that have really helped me in my battle against a weak prayer life.

Set prayer apart. The more we pray, the more we want to pray. To do this, you need to build it into the rhythm of your day any way you can: set alarms, leave notes, put it in your day planner. Prayer is a practice that requires discipline and perseverance, and we should own the cost. Prayer is the greatest act of our day, and we must fight for it. And not just in times of need. It matters how we train and prepare for the battle.

Learn to withdraw. Pull away from distractions — the phone, the computer, the TV, the constant noise of modern life — and find a way to separate yourself so you can be and feel “shut in with God.” It can be a challenge when you work away from home for long hours or are sharing your house from dawn-to-dusk with a bunch of loud and energetic children, but make it a priority. Your car on lunch break, a quiet corner in the office, a closet in between meals or feedings or naptimes, or simply the quiet of your heart if that’s all you can muster. But find solitude, and pray (Luke 4:425:1622:41).

Prepare for prayer. This one has really helped me. Just because I can pray anytime and anywhere I failed to realize the amazing benefits of truly preparing myself for prayer in advance and turning my soul towards God in anticipation of communion with my Creator. I’ve found that it helps me focus. I get excited as I seek the Spirit and think about what I’d like to pray for. I search my heart and repent of sins. *I have a purpose.* Don’t come thoughtlessly into His presence—remove your shoes before drawing near to the burning bush.

Have a posture of prayer. Do what you need to help you focus on what it is that you’re doing. Kneel, stand, close your eyes, look to the heavens — when your body is focused, it’s often easier for your soul to follow. If able, pray out loud. I’ve found that just softly whispering during my private prayer time is quiet enough that it doesn’t inhibit the flow of my praying, but loud enough that it keeps my mind from wandering. As C.S. Lewis observes, “The body ought to pray as well as the soul. Body and soul are both better for it.”

Pray Scripture. This is a great way to start. What joy it brings to a father to know his children hear his words, cherish them, believe them to be true, and then speak them back to him. So much of my prayers are “plagiarized” Scripture. Without even realizing it, they become the vocabulary of my prayers, sometimes because the beautiful promises make my heart sing, and sometimes because all I can do is desperately cling to his words.

Pray fervently. Praying should be active. We cannot truly come into contact with God and not be a different person, at least in some small degree, by the time we say, “Amen.” Struggle in prayer, wrestle with it, and let the Spirit move. Answers to prayer are a blessing, but prayer in and of itself is meant to be a blessing. Sometimes it feels like the moaning of parched lips in the desert, and we should still persevere because prayer is not just the fruit of spiritual life, but the means of attaining it. When words fail, try pausing to think about who God is, worship, then pick back up when words come. Let the Holy Spirit help you. He kindles our aspirations and does not let us rise from our knees until we have said something worth saying to God.

Pray specifically. Vagueness can be the death of prayer. Not that we can never be general, just not at the expense of praising God’s specific attributes, confessing specific sins, or thanking him and asking him for specific things. We must learn to pray specifically and boldly due to the status we have through Christ, while simultaneously being completely submissive to God’s will. Bold and expectant faith coupled with humble submission is a powerful thing.

Pray for and with others. Prayer is meant to knit together the children of God, oftentimes, people we have never even met. We share a Father, we are family, and we should bear each other’s burdens in prayer. We become invested in each other’s struggles and triumphs. We start to care more about the people we pray for and less about ourselves. What a beautiful thing to come before our Father of one accord with the same appeals out of love and care for each other. Prayer binds the church together.

Some friends and I started praying for each others’ children about a year ago. We spend a week praying for each child (usually a specific verse or trait that we want God to grow and develop in them), with an automated reminder every morning—separate, but together. It gives us accountability as we share the burdens of parenting and even better, the joys of watching God change the hearts of our children. Find people you can pray with.

 Talking about prayer. I worry we think of our prayer lives as something too personal to talk about, which is ironic in a culture where not much else is. Learn from the prayer warriors who have gone before us, talk about our struggles with prayer, ask for help, develop and teach others, teach our children—but with truth and transparency and *action.* Sometimes Christian language is filled with far more talk of prayer than actual prayer. “Asking for prayer” can become our means of venting or gossiping and we throw around “oh I’ll pray for you,” so readily without following through.

One thing that helps me is to set an alarm on my phone when someone asks me to pray for something. If their birthday or anniversary is December 31, I set a daily alarm for 12:31 and pray every time it goes off. Let prayer be a continual discussion among the church but always in ways that lead to fruit and action.

Prayers Like Arrows

Prayer is not a formula or something that only “works” if we do it perfectly, in just the right way. But it should never be careless. Careless prayers are like arrows that fall haphazardly at our feet. Prayers that we offer with little care or effort typically will do little after leaving our mouths (but be careful about underestimating God). On the other hand, when shot with strength and desire and fervor, our prayers fly swiftly toward heaven to the throne of God himself (Revelation 8:4):

It is not the arithmetic of our prayers — how many they be; nor the rhetoric of our prayers — how eloquent they be; nor their geometry — how long they be; nor their music — how sweet their voice may be; nor their logic — how argumentative they be; nor yet their method — how orderly they be; nor even their divinity — how good their doctrine may be, which God cares for: but it is the fervency of spirit which availeth much.
(Bishop Joseph Hall, 1808)

The fruit that God has graciously gifted my baby steps gives me hope. While it revealed how much I had been missing, it makes me excited to even just scratch the surface of the depth and the beauty and the nearness to God that prayer is meant to be for all of God’s people. May each and every one of us become like skilled archers in the discipline of prayer, with prayers like arrows — fervent and strong ones that change lives, bring healing, impact our nations, alter history, unite the church, and above all display God’s glory.

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From Slum to Shining Sea

c.s. lewis holiday at sea

Originally published HERE at www.desiringgod.com 

Memories of my past often hit at unexpected times. Memories that are ironically vivid when compared to the haze of waking up with a splitting headache and no recollection of the night before. I also remember nodding off at the wheel and careening into an embankment on the way from the night shift of my second or third job, as I desperately tried to make ends meet.

I remember sitting on the hard, cold floor of a local jail cell, and I remember having no clue what to do, and no one to call. I am haunted by memories of missing out on countless birthdays and holidays, and watching my siblings grow up because home came with too many strings attached. And I remember the many times I leaned over a toilet because the meal sitting in my stomach felt like an unbearable rock, and my stomach felt like the only thing in my life I could control.

The Price of Freedom

Growing up in a solid, Christian, God-fearing home, at some indefinable point between child-like faith and adolescent angst, my two-dimensional version of God had become synonymous with rules, broken rules, and never-ending failure. So I left.

I was 17, and while I don’t remember ever questioning the truth I grew up hearing and believing, I was weary of the conflict and the guilt. I sought the pleasures and acceptance that seemed so much easier to attain on the other side. Why keep masochistically trying so hard at something I seemed destined to fail? So I stuck religion in my back pocket to pull out and use at a later date when I could keep all the rules and really knock it out of the park.

And I liked knocking things out of the park. I was a surprisingly ambitious black sheep. I worked hard, got good grades, homecoming court, the college acceptance letters. I longed for control and stability, but lurking in the shadows as I bounced from house to house for the remainder of high school were the bad relationships, eating disorders, deception, arrests, binge-drinking — the collateral damage of “freedom.”

I left for college excited for new beginnings and greater space from the prying eyes that I felt measured my failure as the distance from that child-like faith of old to the Friday-night frivolities of new, while seemingly ignoring my successes. The world’s measuring stick was much kinder to me.

The battle between my flesh and my faith raged on, but thanks to the faithful prayers of a persistent mother (among others), I was never able to get wholly comfortable with my wandering. God was quietly pursuing his black sheep. My successes felt shallower, the valleys felt deeper, and my sins less satisfying. Though as my list of things to fix and stop doing grew, I kept telling God I wasn’t quite ready for him. I had fought too long and too hard for my freedom to give it up without a fight. And I was too weak to fight.

Girl Meets Boy

Then like so many good stories begin, I met a guy — certainly not the guy my dad would have chosen — a partying, loud mouth atheist. By then I was returning home on special occasions, and before long found myself bringing him to meet “my crazy religious family.” Oddly enough, this guy actually liked them. He even dusted off his church pants to prove to his girlfriend’s family he could clean up his language for an hour just as well as the next guy. Fast-forward through some intellectually compelling sermons, a lot of C.S. Lewis, the New Testament Gospels, a few sovereignly placed Christians, and the silent prayer of a still faithful mom that he’d “get saved or get lost.” Before I knew it, he was completely changing before my eyes.

My stereotypes about God and my family were being strategically shattered. Here was a guy who had been doing everything wrong — the kind of guy whose opposition to faith once made a Christian girl in his religious studies class cry. And God took him right where he was.

I had always pictured myself walking parallel to God’s path, and as soon as I was ready, I would jump on board. But I was slowly realizing you’re either walking with him or you’re running away. And after years of running away to fulfill my own desires, I yearned to return to the fold. I was weary of reaping what I was sowing. The allure was gone and I longed for home and rest.

This showed me that God has a sense of humor. My ex-atheist boyfriend helped show me my need for the God I confessed to believe and bring me home to the family I had been running from for so long. So I married him.

Heart Change

It’s beautiful how God draws his chosen to him in such different ways. My husband describes his transformation to Christianity as “post tenebras lux” or “from darkness to light,” and at times I’ve envied his Paul-like conversion. My sanctification road has been a bit more meandering. C.S. Lewis’s words always jumped out at me, when he said,

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.

I’d read it many times, always focusing on how thankful I was to be out of the slums and done making mud pies, forgetting about the journey to the beach.

No doubt, I enjoyed the sweet natural blessings of obedience. I was learning and growing and no longer oblivious to the thread of God’s providence being woven in my life. But I remember sitting at home as the dust settled on my new little Christian life of marriage and a baby, and all the trimmings of a subdued and domesticated prodigal daughter, wondering if things were really that different from before. Had my heart changed as much as my actions or did my obedience just boil down to a bunch of circumstances?

  • A marriage certificate, making it okay to have sex
  • A grown-up job coupled with tiny humans to keep alive, making it more difficult to stay out all night and make stupid choices
  • A legitimate driver’s license not printed and laminated by my roommate, making it legal to drink

Had I only quit playing in the mud because I happened to be at the beach with nothing but sand? I was justified once and for all by the blood of Christ, but the gravity of how this gospel I trusted in for my eternity was also meant to intersect my life here and now and every hour was somewhat lost on me.

Somewhere around the time I started suspecting the babies we were making had been woven together in my womb with the hardest and most exhausting parts of each of us, I found myself running short of my standard mothering/parenting how-to books and picked up J.I. Packer’s Knowing God from my husband’s stack of books.

Barely into the first chapter it became painfully evident I had no business claiming to really, honestly know the God I kind of thought I knew everything about. And I was missing out on the utter joy of really experiencing him. Even in my obedience I hadn’t fully shaken those strong chains of self-sufficiency and functional deism — more collateral damage from those idols of freedom and independence I had long worshiped.

Saved for True Pleasure

Then somewhere among the pages of John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life, the picture of that God and the story he has written for all his children started becoming clear. God is meant to be not only glorified, but enjoyed. Not doing this is wasting God and wasting our life. “God created me — and you — to live with a single, all-embracing, all-transforming passion — namely, a passion to glorify God by enjoying and displaying his supreme excellence in all the spheres of life.” And that “enjoying and displaying are both crucial.” The legalism I claimed to hate had rooted deeply and left me as the type of person Piper described as having no trouble emphasizing the glory of God in their thinking, but did not seem to enjoy God much in their life. And God “is most glorified is us when we are most satisfied in him.”

We were created for so much more than simply avoiding bad behavior. Did I really think that God desired to pluck me away from the pleasures of this world only to replace them with something less pleasurable or satisfying? If I didn’t believe the God I gave my life to wanted me to have less than what he saved me from, why was I living as if that were so? God created us to run towards pleasure with reckless abandon. Those intricately woven babies of mine made that abundantly clear. No, my problem wasn’t pleasure-seeking (which as C.S. Lewis described, was far too weak). My problem was that what I was seeking as the object of my pleasure or worth could never satisfy my soul.

Grasping this profound reality was like making it past the beach and finally dipping my toes in the sea. And without the sea, the beach can feel a bit like a desert. I came to see that the infinite joys God intended for me did not come simply by moving out from the ghettos of my rebellion but by feeling, and seeing, and tasting, and hearing, and delighting in the ocean, the ocean of Christ’s all-satisfying grace with its vastness and closeness, power and stability, ability to both exhilarate and refresh — the true freedom I had always been searching for.

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