As a pastor I know first-hand how people talk more about prayer than actually praying. The act of praying takes energy and intentionality. It’s hard and you have to learn how to do it. Many of us prefer instead to discuss it--prayer's importance, the way we should pray, how people don’t pray enough, how prayer works, the consequences of not praying… the list goes on and on. And all the while we’re simply not praying.
The irony in all this is that we really do need to pray. We long for a meaningful prayer life. Something inside us yearns for it. Especially when our lives jump off the rails, we try to turn to God only to discover we don’t really know how to pray. Someone came to see me recently who was struggling with a major family issue and the first thing they said was, “I want to pray but don’t know the right words.”
The Bible is relentless in portraying the importance of prayer. In only one of literally hundreds of similar passages, Philippians 4:6-7 combines an exhortation to prayer, a promise about prayer and the consequences of praying: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
Who wouldn’t want some of that?
So after years of pastoring God’s people, and a lifetime of trying to serve Jesus I’ve come to understand there are several simple steps all of us can take to improve our prayer lives right away. Seriously, you can put some or all of these into action today, and you’ll see a difference in your prayers.
1. Get out of your head and into your heart. Prayer isn’t a head game, where we analyze problems and come up with rational solutions. It’s a matter of the heart and the first order of prayer is to get outside of all the thinking/worrying/problem-solving that so dominates our everyday life and connect with God in the quiet place inside. God speaks to us in our hearts.
2. Don’t be too spiritual. Prayer is about all of you—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. Modern American Christianity has become Gnostic in many ways, adopting the belief that what we do with our spirits doesn’t really affect our bodies, and vice versa. That’s not true. We’re all of a single piece. So when you pray, bring your body and your emotions in on the experience: raise your hands, kneel, walk, move, cover your face, take your shoes off, run, jump, sing, cry, laugh, and do whatever else is congruent with what you’re dealing with at the moment. By the way, all those physical expressions are spoken of in the Bible as parts of prayer.
3. Start where you are. Quit feeling guilty about what you’re not doing or what you think you ought to be doing and instead simply begin where you are. If you have only five minutes in your day to pray, then take the five minutes. There’s no official template to prayer: pray as you pray. The important thing is that whatever you do needs to be sustainable. Those who find a way to regular, persistent praying will experience a radical difference in their lives.
4. Aim for honesty more than religiosity. God wants you to be honest. He doesn’t need for you to use fancy, theological language or hear you remind him how religious you are. What he’s looking for is a transparent heart.
5. Remember that prayer is more about God than about you. Despite what the celebrity pastors tell you, God doesn’t exist to serve your needs. Instead, you exist to bring glory to God. Real prayer always re-calibrates your concerns to God's will.
6. Make use of the Psalms, the greatest treasury for praying. The Psalms have always served as the basic resource for praying, at least until the last hundred years. A few minutes focused on a single psalm, or even a single verse from a Psalm, can do wonders for your prayer life. Almost everyone I’ve ever known, for instance, returns time and again to Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God.” Learn to pray the Psalms. You’ll be glad you did.
Try one or two of these simple steps, and see if they don’t help you in your praying.