Prayer is the life-blood of successful Christian living, and something with which we all (myself included!) struggle.
As we consider prayer, let's start by discussing how to prepare, and then the actual activity of prayer itself.
Mentally Preparing to Pray: The Two H's--Humility and Hope
Jesus’ longest sermon on prayer focused greatly on the concept of humility (Matt 5:5-15), and in Luke 18:9-14, Jesus told a parable in which humility seems to be the primary decider on whether a prayer is heard or not. So it is important that we understand exactly what this foundation is, so that our work on prayer might be successful.
What does it mean to be humble? We must avoid the way that our society has twisted this perfectly good word; now for some reason, “humility” means having low self-esteem, as though confidence and humility are opposites. That is not at all true—humility is not that you think badly about yourself, it is that you do not think much about yourself at all. The opposite of humility is pride, not confidence. According to every great theologian in history—from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to Luther—pride is the central sin from which all other sins flow.
In perhaps no other way are Christians more different than the world than this: that we value humility rather than pride. Humility is honestly knowing who the center of the universe REALLY is, who the Creator really is, and what our task here really is. Humility is not valuing yourself based on how the world views you, but how God views you. I believe CS Lewis has the perfect description of a humble life:
“[Learning who God is makes you] delightfully humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots that we are.”
So the first foundation of prayer is an attitude of humility. The second, shown in such passages as Mark 11:24, James 1:6-7, and Matthew 21:22, is that you must believe God will come through—hopefulness.
So what does this mean? Is this, as some televangelists would twist it, meaning that your positive attitude determines whether God gives you what you want? Does God determine the future based on our positive thinking? If our prayers are not answered, is this because we are not really believers?
No, the Bible says hope (elpis in Greek) is a joyful and confident expectation that God will follow through on His promises. We see this well demonstrated by Paul, who often found himself on trial for his faith and exhibited the virtue of hope in those situations. In Acts 23, Paul is on trial and tells the Sanhedrin of his hope in the resurrection of the dead; in Acts 24 before the governor Felix, he refers to his hope of the afterlife; in Acts 26 before King Agrippa he refers to his hope that God will deliver on His promises; and in Acts 28 in Rome he says that he has hope for Israel’s salvation. In each case, “hope” refers to an expectation that God fulfills promises.
Hope is the unwavering belief that God will Restore creation, and that if it is His will and good for us, He will answer our prayers now and let a bit of that future Restoration seep in to our daily life and our prayer request.
So as we enter into prayer, we are to be humble (not focused on ourselves, but on God), and hopeful (believing that God will restore things the right way, and if it is good to do so, will answer our prayer).
Physically Preparing to Pray: Meditation and Fasting
Prior to the actual praying, many Christians throughout history have found physical actions also helpful to preparing for prayer. I personally use meditation on a daily basis for my prayer life.
Christian meditation, very simply, is purposefully creating a space of quietness to listen to God’s voice. It is not about hidden mysteries or secret chants or strange visions; it is about quieting everything around us so that, like Elijah, we can hear from God’s “still, small voice.”
It is such an important part of Christian practice that when martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was asked why he took meditation seriously he replied, “Because I am a Christian.”
As believers, we all have the Holy Spirit inside us to guide us and shape us. Meditation is the process by which we create emotional and spiritual space to listen to His words.
What Christian meditation is not, however, is the same as the trances and practices of Eastern mystics, such as you might see in Buddhism or Hinduism. In those religions the meditation is focused on detaching from reality, clearing your thoughts of anything. But it is clear from Scripture that this is the opposite of Christian meditation. Christian meditation is not about detaching but attaching one’s thoughts—you shut out everything else except for one particular passage of Scripture or your relationship with God.
You focus entirely upon that until the distractions of the world fade away. So to us, meditation is not about “zoning out” and relaxing; it is about “tuning in” to God’s channel and ignoring all of the other static. The idea is not to empty your mind, but to fill it—with God. Some people call this “quiet time” to distinguish from Eastern mysticism, but Scripturally the proper word is “meditation.”
The goal of meditation, then, is to create a space of calm and quiet, so that we have the opportunity to hear God’s voice. You are very unlikely to have a healthy prayer life without a regular time of blocking out what the world has to say. This is what Jesus has in mind when He suggests going to an inner room and closing the door in Matthew 6:6—to purposefully and intentionally block out the distractions of the world.
You cannot learn to meditate from words, you must learn it by meditating. There is no proper time nor even one proper method. If your focus is on Christ, you cannot “get it wrong.” It is simply to create a physical environment which makes it easier to focus on God. One Elder at our church has a cup of coffee and a lazy boy first thing in the morning, before looking at his schedule; the smell of coffee and routine of fixing it all creates a physical process of getting ready for prayer. Another Elder wakes up and devotionally studies his Scripture and then is quiet and meditates on that. I usually do meditation at night, with my children, before bedtime prayer. Some use candles, some use imaginations, some use just a dark room, some use music. Whatever fills your mind only with God and allows you to remove yourself from this world, is valuable as meditation.
For much of Jewish and Christian history, fasting was considered one of the key, cornerstone and regular disciplines of a spiritual life. The Bible is filled with examples of people fasting, and in Matthew 6 when Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount, He speaks of prayer, fasting, and giving as all natural outpourings of a spiritual life: He does not say if you fast, but when you fast: fasting was just assumed to be part of a healthy spiritual life. In Matthew 9:15, Jesus again assumes that fasting will be a regular part of our daily lives to keep us focused on Him.
Fasting is the denial of food and drink in order to focus one’s attention on God and matters of spiritual importance. If meditation creates the space for God, and prayer is our way of communicating with God, then the hunger we feel during fasting is like a lens of a telescope, focusing our thoughts toward Him and reminding us dozens of times throughout the day to seek His presence.
In most cases, fasting is a private matter between a person and God; however on occasion group fasts have been held for serious, corporate issues and can be very powerful. For example, the Didache (an ancient Christian ‘how-to’ manual) encouraged the entire church to fast together for several days prior to a new convert’s baptism.
When it comes to fasting, there are many different methods. This week we are going to present a few common methods of fasting.
Types: First you must decide which type of fast you are going to perform. An absolute fast is where you eat no food and drink no water; however, this is dangerous if done for more than a short period of time and extremely rare. A partial fast is where you give up a certain type of food, or certain meals each day; for example, Daniel abstained from certain types of food but not a typical fast.
Neither of these was the typical Biblical fast, however. A typical fast is where you eat nothing after the sun raises, and drink only water. Typically only a very small amount of food was eaten before dawn (“breaking your fast” is where the term ‘breakfast’ originates). Therefore one goes 24 hours (dawn to dawn) with no food and only water to drink.
Frequency and Duration: Next, one must decide for how long he or she will fast. While Moses, Jesus, and others at times did typical fasts for 40 days or more, this was the exception. It seems from some early texts common that the first Christians fasted two days a week. However it is strongly recommended that, like all disciplines, Christians build up to this practice. If fasting is not a normal part of your spiritual practice, it should be undertaken wisely…don’t go from five meals a day to a 40 day fast all in one jump! And depending on your medical situation, a typical fast might not be appropriate for you at all; in such a case perhaps fasting from something you crave (like coffee) is a better option. As long as it will frequently remind you that you are missing it during the day, it will work.
Motivation: When Jesus teaches about fasting in Matt 6:16-18, the most important consideration is the motive. Fasting is not a diet plan. Fasting is not a hunger strike to point out injustice. Jesus says that if you fast for those reasons, those are your only reward…there is no spiritual payoff. A fast is only a Biblical fast if its intention is purely spiritual in nature, to focus your eyes on God. If you find yourself saying (as I have myself, frequently), “Hey I’ll fast during Lent and hopefully lose some weight too!”, and then every day I’m weighing in and looking at the scales…then be honest: this is a diet, not a fast. Dieting is fine; but fasting is a spiritual discipline. Dieting is not. Be sure your motives are pure—this is actually the point about fasting that Jesus made most firmly.
This post has been leading us up to this point: prayer is where we are ushered into communion with God. Scripture study told us God’s story and helped us see our place in it; humility and hope made us ready to accept what God would say; meditation created a space to listen; fasting focused our minds. It all led to this: through prayer we hear from, and speak with, the Father who created us.
As we begin to practice prayer, you may be surprised, as it may not be what you had in mind. For most Americans, we think “prayer” and what we really mean is “asking”—but that is not the Biblical sense of prayer. Prayer is about communing with your Father. If you have children, think of all the ways that you communicate. Yes it is true that sometimes they ask things of you; but more often, when my kids come up to me it is to hug me or tell me they missed me or to cuddle or tell me stories or ask my advice (and of course, sometimes I seek them out to correct or discipline them for things which are harmful to them). So asking for things is only one tiny part of prayer.
No, the Bible has many words it can use for “ask” or “beseech” or “beg.” The phrase “to pray” (lehitpallel) means “to judge yourself.” In other words, it is when we speak to God in prayer that we reflect on our burdens and share them with Him. Sometimes it is to seek forgiveness, sometimes to thank Him for caring for us, sometimes (yes) to ask for His provision or advice, and sometimes simply to spend time with Him. Prayer then is the central avenue God uses to transform us and give us the ultimate joy which only He can offer.
James 4:3 says that “you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly”—which some misunderstand, thinking that it means you must adhere to a particular formula to get God’s response. That is not the case at all; notice the second half of the verse: “you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” James says that when your prayers go unanswered it is because you were viewing prayer as a chance to simply get things from Daddy that you can spend on your passions, instead of to commune with Him and bask in His relationship.
One thing is certain: just as our children benefit from engaged parents, so too does our future maturity as believers require that we spend a lot of time with our heavenly Father. David did it (Ps 63:1); Jesus did it (Mk 1:35); the apostles did it (Acts 6:4). Martin Luther once said that he was so busy in his life that he found no possible way to get all his work done unless he spent at least three hours a day praying.
Let us be frank. If your prayer life is anemic or non-existent today, nothing we discuss this week will magically fix it. Prayer is a skill and a discipline and a relationship. It takes time to develop, and we are all still growing in this area.
We’ve all felt the awkwardness of meeting someone for the first time and trying to carry on a conversation. We also all realize that just because you have jogged a couple times in your life doesn’t mean you should go run the marathon. Whether you are building a relationship or a skillset, it takes time and patience. Prayer is no different. Real prayer is something we learn—in fact, the disciples who had watched Jesus and walked with Jesus for years still had to ask Him to teach them how to pray (Lk 11:1).
I hope that is a liberating fact to read. It is okay to try, to experiment, and to fail at prayer…because you each time are learning how best to communicate to the Father. My kids learned long ago that running up to me and screaming was not a good method of communicating with me; in the same way, we must learn the ways that help us commune with the Father in the most effective manner. If you turn on the TV and get a bad signal, you don’t assume that TV doesn’t exist; you assume that it needs to be tuned better—such it is with prayer.
It is easy to make prayer too complicated, and we don’t want to do that here. Furthermore, what works best in prayer will always be slightly different for all of us. But below are five methods of praying that have been useful for many Christians, for you to try and consider.
- Read a Psalm or Proverb each day, as a devotional study. Pray about whatever you find in it.
- Pray by using the acrostic ACTS: ACTS: A-adore God for who He is; C-confess today's sins; T-thank God for the great things He has done today; and S-supplicate/ask God for your needs today. (This is what I do with my kids each night.)
- From Martin Luther: Say the Lord's Prayer but after each line, pray it in your words and apply it to today's routine. For example: "thy kingdom come, thy will be done...Lord, today I have five meetings, may I help your kingdom be present in my actions and decisions, and may I represent you well in them." (I find this personally quite powerful.)
- Do prayer walks or flash prayers, saying a quick prayer in your mind any time you see a person.
- Use the Book of Common Prayer or a similar prayer-book, sharing in stating the same prayer as millions of other believers.