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 4:42; 5:16; 22:41).
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.
- Show me your glory (Exodus 33:18).
- Turn my eyes from worthless things (Psalm 119:37).
- Show me a sign of your goodness (Psalm 86:17).
- Let no sin rule over me (Psalm 119:133).
- You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing (Psalm 16:2).
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.