How many of you believe that prayer changes things?” Just about every hand in the room went up with confidence. “So how many of you believe that something that would not have otherwise happened, will happen because you pray?” Less than half the people were daring enough to raise their hands this time. The pastor responded by saying they are the same thing. And as I sat in that home surrounded by adults- some older and some younger- my heart was immediately chastened. I had not raised my hand. I knew I had an incorrect view of God or of prayer or something.
What follows is just a few things I have learned or observed through prayer in the years after that night. Maybe something will stick out and encourage you as you pursue a deeper prayer life.
Keep your prayer list updated often. Otherwise it can become dull or boring praying the same things (Even as I was in the middle of writing this post I had to stop to make some updates in my prayer app). This includes adding new requests, praising God for prayers answered and even re-organizing the method I pray sometimes.
Praying has increased my affection for people, especially those who are not in the daily part of my life. Let me illustrate this with a specific night that sticks out in my mind. It was late in the Spring semester and college group was beginning with the usual worship in music. Everyone was singing and across the room a girl slipped in a few minutes late- she was “home” from college for the Summer. I’ll never forget how my heart bubbled over with joy when I saw her. Even though I had not seen her in months my heart was knit to her because I spent time going to the Lord on her behalf. I never knew that prayer could have that effect on my relationships with people, but it made Paul’s greeting to the Philippians make so much more sense to me: “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all…for it is only right for me to feel this way about you all for I have you in my heart…and God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1).
Devote specific time to prayer. A few years ago I was leading a small group of young ladies and there was a question presented which asked, “Which spiritual discipline is harder for you, Bible reading or prayer?” Almost unanimously the gals answered Bible reading was more difficult. But as I probed deeper, they revealed that their concept of prayer was shallow. They thought they had a prayerful attitude throughout a given day, but almost none of them set aside particular time for prayer. For me, my “closet” prayer time bleeds directly into the rest of my day to deepen my “pray without ceasing,” mentality. When I set aside time in the morning to lay open my heart to the Lord, I am more inclined to come back to Him throughout the day.
Speaking of coming back to Him later in the day, when I am consistent in prayer, I am more readily prepared to offer praise and thanks to God for answers. When I have a gospel opportunity with a non-believing co-worker I’ve been praying for, I have cause to acknowledge God’s Providence, rather than pat myself on the back.
Pray Scripture. This is one I am still learning. Paul’s prayers for the churches are great models of how to pray for people (Ephesians 1:15-23; 3:14-21; Philippians 1:9-11). The Psalms show me how to be honest before the Lord, especially in light of my emotions. And the Lord’s Prayer lays out how to exalt God, to remember the gospel, to submit my will to Him, and to thank Him. Plus, it’s harder to pray wrong when praying the Bible.
Tell people you’re praying for them and what you are praying for them. This is something I have been the recipient of and it encourages me and stirs me up to keep pressing on.
Praying challenges my heart at its very core- do I actually believe God listens and cares to hear me.
Praying tunes my heart to His. What I mean is that it helps to align my desires more with the Lord’s. I’ve been in the middle of praying for a friend to relocate to a better church (a good thing), but the Lord turned my heart to pray more specifically that this friend would love Christ above all. The church she attended was an external issue that I hoped would fix the real problem- that she was not living a Christ-exalting life. And so my prayer for that friend changed that day. I remember being in the process of praying for a family member to be saved, and God exposing the shallowness of my heart. I wanted it to be easy, to check it off and say I had prayed for them and therefore had done my part, so God could do whatever He wanted. But the Lord was gracious to show me my heartlessness and lack of belief; He wanted to hear my wants. And so I was broken because it was hard. I have also learned to search out God’s heart even in those good desires that go unmet. As I’ve begged the Lord on behalf of friends who wanted so badly to be married or to be pregnant, I cried tears for them that He would grant them their desire. But along with asking God to be merciful and change their circumstances, I also learn to pray for their hearts to change. I pray that through the trial of receiving a “no,” or “not now” answer, their faith would be strengthened.
Remember that both the Holy Spirit and the Son are interceding on your behalf. Romans 8 says, “…the Spirit also helps our weaknesses for we do not know how to pray as we should; but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words, and He who searches the hearts know what the mind of the Spirit is because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God,” and “Christ Jesus is He who died, yes, rather who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who also intercedes for us” (Romans 8:26-27, 34). Is there anything sweeter than to know that God is praying for us when we don’t know how to pray?
I think everyone I have ever read on prayer says that nobody is satisfied with their prayer life. I think the question is what will we do with that? Do we lay down in defeat knowing that we will probably never reach a level which we feel is adequate? Or do we come boldly to the throne of grace, believing that we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with us, but One who was tempted in every way…
Don’t ever stop learning to pray. Ask people about their prayer life- you will likely either learn from them or spur them on to get back to the business of praying.
A couple of great resources on prayer:
A Praying Life (Paul Miller)
The Secret Key to Heaven (Thomas Brooks)
Praying the Bible (Donald Whitney)