DA Carson, who has written several, remarkable, theological works, wrote a book on prayer in the early 1990’s titled, Praying with Paul. In that book, he suggested the following practical steps to praying effectively. It is, arguably, the greatest need in the church as well as in every Christian’s life. I offer an adaptation to his suggestions here:
- Plan to pray. We know we should. We agree that we should. And yet, much does not happen in prayer because we have not planned to do it. Schedule it. Prioritize it. We don’t pray much because we don’t actually plan to do it, choosing instead to “find” some time in our day if it works out. It probably won’t.
Avoid mental distraction. Now that seems to be an impossible task for some. All of us are “wired” with different temperaments, and prayer is incredibly flexible. Some prefer to find a place of solitude and quiet to shut out distractions. Others would rather pray “on the fly” as they drive to work or walk or pace as they pray. Some prefer silence and reflection, while others need praise music and the opportunity to pray out loud. It doesn’t matter. But praying without distraction is a necessity for a growing prayer experience. Our minds are wired to be distracted, and our culture obliges with hundreds of ways to distract. Focus your attention by reading Scripture first. Others benefit from journaling prayers and requests. What works best for you is the best approach… but intentionally work to avoid mental “drift.”
Develop prayer relationships. Have a prayer partner if at all possible. This needs to be a person of the same sex, since true intimacy in prayer can unintentionally lead to intimacy in other areas. This person needs to be an individual you can trust not to be a gossip. If you are married seek to develop a prayer relationship with your spouse as one aspect of this. If you have children, schedules can conflict and complicate. But planning even an evening a week to meet as a family to read Scripture, pray, and sing together can deeply impact everyone involved.
Find good models. We learn to pray in the same way we learn to talk… by imitation. If you are a consistent prayer, you can no doubt look back and find someone who influenced you to do that. Every prayer model is not a good model, so when you choose to imitate the prayers and prayer lives of others make sure they are good models. If you are a parent, you need to be aware that you will most likely be the first model of the importance of prayer. Even if you are not meeting regularly with the children to pray, be aware they are watching even when you think they aren’t. Be a good model, and find a model living or dead, to follow.
Mingle intercession with praise and confession. As much as possible, learn to tie your requests and intercession to Scripture. Paul models this for us in numerous places in the New Testament. We acknowledge the Sovereignty of God in prayer, but that does not dismiss us from the responsibility of interceding for others, even believing, “The Lord is God; He does whatever He will.” Neither should we shoulder a burden that says that “it’s all up to me and my prayer life.” One of the hardest lessons I learned in passing through our trial with Pam’s cancer was that “prayer does not change things.” And we cannot beat down the doors of Heaven by bombarding Him with what we want. We stand somewhere between those two extremes in our prayer lives, but it is God’s desire for us to intercede. “The Spirit gives us utterance…” and that means that the God who prompts you to prayer will help you to know how to pray according to His will. And we continue praying, whether it accomplishes our will or not.
Pray until you pray. The old Quaker movement and Puritan groups used to cite this often. How long should we pray? Until we have prayed. When do we know we’re done? When we’ve prayed! When we’ve moved past the unreality and formalism that characterizes much of our prayers. No wonder we tire so easily… sometimes we quit before we have even entered into the Presence of God! When you have tasted of the Father’s Presence, even for a moment, you will long for more and more. This becomes the driving force of our prayer life. We need to think of prayer less like a 140-word Twitter post and more like singing a love song to our Beloved.
I will add one more thing to Dr. Carson’s excellent list. We need to pray as a means of achieving a relationship more than receiving an answer. When my daughter or son call me “just to talk,” it is my delight as a father. They called just because they like me, or enjoy a few moments in my presence. I am no less delighted when they call needing something, and it thrills me to be allowed to give what they ask. However, the joy in my heart when they just want to “hang out” with me for a few moments far outweighs them coming to me because they need something.
Just pray. Your Father will be delighted… I assure you