“Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.” (Philippians 4:6 NASB)
How’s your prayer life? Yeah, I know. That’s a question most Christians find both convicting and frustrating. Convicting because we know our grades in this area aren’t as high as they should be and frustrating because our attempts to raise those grades have often created a track record of failure. We’ve read books which promise to open the mystery of prayer; we’ve listened to sermons; we’ve gone to seminars; and we’ve had a few mountaintop experiences that we hoped would make our prayers profound, fulfilling, and successful forevermore…only to find ourselves disappointed.
So we tend to surrender to mediocrity and accept an inconsistent, vague, and unrewarding prayer life as the norm. Must we settle for this? No. You see, the constant examples and exhortations regarding prayer in the Bible are not put there to scold us or keep us humble by emphasizing how poorly we’re doing compared to Bible heroes. Rather, they are there as inspirations and challenges – encouraging rather than condemning challenges, by the way. And they are there to teach us how we can succeed in regularly taking our prayers before our heavenly Father.
The verse I opened with is a wonderful example. Set in the context of what should be the hallmarks of a devout Christian’s life (joy, gentleness, expectation of the Lord’s return, peace of heart, an ongoing dedication to purity), the apostle Paul explains that confident, grateful prayers are yet another indispensable part of Christian maturity. The devout Christian will reflect all of these things and at the same time. You can’t pick and choose from the list. This alone is a crucial corrective to a dismal prayer experience; namely, a believer’s prayer life will never be successful if he is not living in the Spirit, being a doer of the Word in all its teaching.
You get the idea? The first secret to an effective prayer life is actually an open secret indeed. It is simply this – live a sanctified life.
However, there’s another thing I’d like to point out from this Philippians passage that is crucial to understand. And that is the role that learning represents in one’s sanctification. Growth in Christ is not automatic. Nor does it come easy or overnight. All areas of godliness, including the practice of prayer, must be learned over time. Remember, Jesus needed to teach His disciples to pray. He did so both by precept and personal example. As we see here in Philippians, the apostle Paul and his ministry colleagues did the same with those in their spheres of influence. So, let’s not be surprised that we too must learn how to pray well and that the educational process requires humility, study, practice over time, and a willingness to confess mediocrity or even outright failure and start fresh. God is forever our Friend Who desires us to succeed in prayer. His mercies to help us improve are always available.
Note also that, after faithfully learning these things, the disciples were then faithful in teaching others. They preached, they modeled, they mentored, and they encouraged one another to love and good deeds for the Master’s sake. The iron-sharpening of authentic Christian fellowship provides tremendous motivation and help for a believer’s growth in Christ. And, yes, that includes improving one’s prayer life. Certainly I have greatly benefitted from the teaching, example, and counsel from friends. And I have a few suggestions to pass on as well. I do so in honest humility for, of course, I am merely a “prayer pilgrim” like you. But I also share them with no small degree of excitement, for I have seen substantial improvement in my prayer life in the last few years and I sincerely hope you will find something in my advice that will prove useful.
As I’ve suggested already, you will never move forward in your prayers if, in other areas of Christian growth, you are moving backwards or, as it might seem, going round in dull circles. Reading and studying the Bible is of first priority for without a firm theological foundation, you will not succeed in building godly character or living out the Word. And, as it regards prayer, a comprehensive theology provides the motivation (as well as the specific means) to confess sin and weakness, to adore and sing praise, to give thanks, and to make requests of the Father. In the same way, living for God purifies your heart. It frees your mind from the things that compete for attention to Him. It clears your agenda and purifies your motives. Prayer isn’t such a difficult thing to do when your relationship with your Savior is open and existential.
Now I know someone might interject here and say, “Wait up, Denny. I have enough of a problem already with improving my prayers. But now you’re complicating things by suggesting that my prayers won’t get much better unless I also make progress on reading my Bible, curbing my anger and lusts, trying to be more patient and forgiving, and so on. The next thing you’ll say is that I need to reduce my TV addiction and maybe even stop screaming at other drivers when they cut me off in traffic.”
The answer is yes; that’s exactly what I’m saying. Remember the exhortation of James 5:16 -- “The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” What is emphasized in that verse is not simply the passion of prayer but the spiritual character of the one praying. True prayer is an expression of sanctification, an application of abiding in Christ whereby the believer acknowledges His Lordship in all areas of life.
Yes, I have a few practical tips on improving one’s prayer life and I’m certainly hoping that you’ll find them helpful. But let’s be clear; the Christian who isn’t growing in Christ, who isn’t ready to present body and soul to God will discover that no amount of hints or tweaks or tips will make much of a difference.
Now however, with all that said, what are my tips to make one’s prayers more frequent and full? Let’s take a look…
1) Get organized. Because we tend to relate prayer to some kind of ethereal, higher-plane activity, we too often fail to apply common sense to the matter. And just as you try and organize things at work, cleaning the house, or planning a picnic, you must organize your methodology of prayer. For me, this requires a prayer list. Sure, I often go “free style” in my prayers and talk to the Lord about things off the top of my head, things related to immediate needs or situations. Even then, however, I usually adopt some kind of method. I might use specific Scriptures as a springboard and guide. Or I might follow the Lord’s Prayer as a pattern. I sometimes utilize notes from a book I’m reading or from last Sunday’s sermon.
But often when I’m praying, I use categorical lists that I’ve printed on 3x5 cards. My categories? People who are sick or who are facing other grave trials. Missionaries and Christian ministries we support. Vital Signs Board members. Doctors I know and others working in caregiving occupations. Widows. Political office holders. (Your prayer categories would undoubtedly be different.) Each weekday I also use the “3 for 5” prayer campaign against Planned Parenthood. And finally, we regularly pray for God’s Spirit to overwhelm the enemy strongholds from which the devil launches his most sinister attacks on our culture. Those strongholds we pray for are the media, Hollywood, education, labor and big business, government bureaucracy, false religions, and medicine. And yes, we pray a lot for the church. An ambitious agenda? Not really. Not if you spread out the categories during the week. And not if you are making adequate time for prayer…which introduces the next item.
2) Time. This may be the most common excuse, as in “I wish I had more time to pray but I just don’t.” But here too the key is effective organization of your time. (Well, that and simply making prayer a priority.) For instance, you’ll be surprised how much time you could find for prayer if you were to say…cut out some TV time. Or maybe go to bed 15 minutes earlier at night in order to get up 15 minutes earlier in the morning for prayers. Time can be found…when you want to. But, even before thinking about finding extra time, why not consider re-purposing some of the time you already have available. Do you walk the dog? Cool. Take your prayer list along. What about the time you spend in the car? Could you not turn off the radio for at least part of your trip and pray? Your coffee break? When you’re submerged in the bubble bath? Vacuuming the carpet? Let’s face it. The excuse breaks down. We do have time to pray after all.
3) Praying together. This is particularly applicable to couples but all the rest of you can certainly adapt some of the lessons. For the Scripture promises special blessings not only to couples who pray together, but to all groups of two or more who are gathered in Jesus’ Name. Don’t be intimidated by embarrassment or guilt or past failures. Don’t be deterred by hindrances in your relationship. If that is the case, confess and forgive one another and make new efforts to improve your prayers together. A prayer list can be very helpful here too. So too can re-purposing the time in the car. Some couples have found success in after-meal prayers instead of the perfunctory grace habitually used before. Make that last cup of coffee the occasion for a prayer together before the evening agenda. Pray for the kids, grandkids, church matters, politics, friends…you name it.
Claire and I have found immense help in praying together by using all of the things mentioned above. But, most recently, we have been blessed by our participation in the Thanksgiving Jar project I’ve outlined to you in previous letters. We have also added to our read-through-the-Bible in a year regimen the listening to CDs of Alexander Scourby reading the Scriptures. It’s been really neat. And it’s created a natural bridge to conversation and prayer about the section we’re reading that night. We recommend these things very highly too.
4) Praying aloud. The last couple of years I’ve experienced a greater advance in my prayers than at any time since my conversion. And all of the things I’ve listed so far have helped create that improvement. But here’s a fourth. Because a great deal of my prayers are occurring during my 2 hours of walking (almost every day), I am praying out loud. Now, there’s no magic in this. And God certainly doesn’t need me to pray out loud in order for Him to hear me. But it’s made a huge difference to me! I’m more concentrated. I stay on-point much more instead of drifting and losing my way. And, as I experienced greater freedom and significance in my prayer during these walks, I also found other venues where I can pray aloud: the car, the deck, and the guest room downstairs where we have created a cozy little place for devotions.
As you might guess, there’s a few more hints about prayer I could list. There’s the reading of quality books (C.S. Lewis’ Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, Randy Alcorn’s Happiness, and Tony Evans’ Kingdom Man are prime examples from my recent reading.) There’s spending quality time with Christians who are also serious about sanctification. (My weekly meetings at Panera with close friends are invaluable in this.) And there’s the recognition that the path to progress requires practice. You won’t, for instance, move that C minus to an A plus overnight. But I can guarantee that if you never make any moves to change things, you’ll never get above that dismal, disappointing C minus.