The Christian Life: Prayer
How Important Is Prayer?
Imagine you walk into my office. I close the door behind you and ask you to sit down. I sit down across from you with a serious look and then say, "I asked you to come today because I want to talk to you about something serious—your prayer life."
If you're like me, you would probably feel a bit offended. The quality of our prayer life doesn't seem like a big enough issue to warrant a talk from the pastor. It's not some extravagant public sin, like adultery, or even a "lesser" sin, like angry words spoken to a spouse or parent. I suspect you would think I was meddling.
But wouldn't you also, deep down, feel a twinge of guilt? Maybe I'm assuming too much. Maybe your devotion and faithfulness in prayer is exceptional. But I know that if someone were to ask me about the quality of my prayers, I would have to admit that I fall far short of my own expectations, especially as someone who is supposed to be devoted to prayer (Acts 6:4).
A Praying People
Even if you're not an officer in your local church, it's plain from Scripture that all Christians are supposed to be people who pray. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray in Matt 6, he introduced the discussion by saying, "When you pray..." (Matt 6:5), implying that prayer was to be their regular habit. Similarly, Paul told the Thessalonians to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thes 5:17). Paul also told the Philippian church, "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God" (Phil 4:6). Prayer is to characterize the people of God.
On top of that, the Old Testament is full of saints who are marked by lives spent in prayer: for example, Moses (many places, but see Num 14:13-19; 16:22; 21:7), Elijah (Jas 5:16-18), Daniel (Dan 9:3-19), and Nehemiah (Neh 1:4-11). The Psalms are, at their heart, 150 prayers to God expressing every kind of emotion under the sun.
Prayer is such an important part of the Christian life that the Westminster Assembly realized it belonged in a special category, along with the Word of God, the Lord's Supper, and baptism. They called this category the "ordinary means of grace" and said that these simple, unspectactular actions were the normal ways through which Christ "communicates to his church the benefits of his mediation" (Westminster Larger Catechism Q&A 154). In other words, Jesus changes the hearts and lives of his people through prayer.
So What Do We Do?
How can we grow in our prayer lives (and by "we," I really mean "me")? Here are a few thoughts:
First, we have to run to Jesus—the chief "Pray-er" in the Bible—and ask him for help.
Luke's Gospel is interesting in its emphasis on Jesus' personal prayer life (Luke 5:16; 6:12; 9:28). Jesus especially modeled the life of prayer to his disciples. In fact, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray in the context of seeing Jesus pray (Luke 11:1). Seeing Jesus pray in an intimate, passionate way to the Father made them want the same thing and ask him for help.
We too get a glimpse of Jesus' prayer life in his "high-priestly prayer" to the Father in John 17, and the result is a spine-tingling experience. It's like reading someone else's journal—it's so personal that it's almost embarrassing. Yet these are the very words of our Lord for us. There's such a tangible relationship between Jesus and his Father that it practically leaps off the page and beckons us to draw closer, showing us what true fellowship with God looks like. It's meant to foster in us the same attitude David had in Psalm 63:1, "O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water."
If you are spiritually dry and struggle with prayerlessness, the only recourse is to ask Jesus for help. Know for certain that he will teach you to pray.
Secondly, we have to pray in Jesus' name.
This might seem like an unusual thing to include, but it's actually key. In his Upper Room Discourse (John 13-16), Jesus tells his disciples six times to pray in his name. Why? What does it mean to "pray in Jesus' name"?
The context of this phrase gives us a clue. Up to this point in John's Gospel, the disciples have been mostly spectators on Jesus' relationship with his Father. But now he tells them that he is "the Way, the Truth, and the Life" and that they have access to the Father through him (Jn 14:6). By telling his disciples to pray in his name, Jesus is urging them, on the basis of his own relationship with the Father, to approach the Father too.
The best explanation in Scripture on what this unusual phrase means is found in Hebrews 4:14-16, "Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need."
This is the power behind prayer. We are accepted by the Father because we are hidden in Christ, our great High Priest. By virtue of his sinless life, Jesus is worthy to enter the Holy of Holies and to usher us into the very presence of God. That means our prayers will be heard and answered when they are asked according to God's will.
Third, take advantage of prayer tools.
One helpful tool for growing in your prayer life is to follow the acronym ACTS:
- A - adoration (praising God for who he is and what he has done)
- C - confession (admitting our specific sins and asking God's forgiveness and help in turning away from them to obedience)
- T - thanksgiving (thanking God for his grace and for all his blessings)
- S - supplication (asking God for our daily needs and the needs of others)
There are other prayer tools as well that are helpful. One idea is keeping a list of prayer requests tucked in your Bible or on your night stand so that you can pray for the specific needs of others. Another is to start a prayer journal (a very old practice with an excellent pedigree) in which you write out your prayers. This practice helps you think more intentionally about your prayers, as well as allows you to see progress in your spiritual maturity. It also enables you to see how God answers your prayers!
Fourth, depend on the Holy Spirit and don't give up!
When you're tempted to give up because you've missed a few days or because you're not sure what to pray about, let these comforting words from Romans 8 sink deep into your soul:
"Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Rom 8:26).