THE TENSION OF PRAYER
On one hand, prayer can seem simple. It’s just a conversation, right? On the other hand, it’s complicated. Why does God seem to answer some prayers and not others? The practice of prayer is a practice of grace, and as such, it’s a practice of formation. But we can’t meaningfully attempt to try on the practice of prayer without recognizing the various experiences and frustrations that have shaped our understanding and embrace of it.
Prayer is connected to story — our story and God’s story — and it’s in exploring both that we can more fully appreciate the practice of prayer. Regardless of how you’d describe your relationship with prayer today, my hope is that you’ll begin to more fully understand that relationship and be captured by a vision for what it could become.
There’s a reason why Christian prayer has been around since, well, forever. Something is happening through it. As a community, let’s step into trying to understand what’s going on with prayer, and potentially, even grow to robustly embrace the practice of it…
“Even bad prayer is better than no prayer.”— Richard Lovelace
WHAT IS PRAYER?
Recently I reunited with an old friend that I hadn’t seen in years. Something beautiful happens every time we see one another, no matter how many years have passed or how much we’ve each changed, we pick right up where we left off. There’s an ease, trust, and delight that neither of us question. This recent time, I felt a pang of longing as we said goodbye. I left wanting more of my friendships to be marked with a similar honesty, trust, and ease. Then I remembered that it’s taken 15 years for this friendship to grow into what it is today. Good things that are worth doing take time to grow. My friend and I have had mundane and glorious moments together, shared in sorrow and celebration, and experienced no shortage of petty arguments and silliness. Every time we see one another it’s as if we’re expectantly stepping into a conversation that has been going for a long time.
In a similar way, prayer is expectantly stepping into a conversation with God that’s been going for a long time. It’s not too different from a conversation with a friend that picks up where it left off. Invitation and expectation go before it; honesty and presence give it shape; frustration and disappointment mark it; and it can take years to develop an ease, confidence, and trust with it.
PRAYER IS A VEHICLE FOR KNOWING GOD
In the first few verses of 2 Peter, we’re told that God has given us the ability to know him. The prophet Isaiah describes this knowing as taking hold of God through prayer (Isaiah 64:7). Further, Paul models praying with the intention of knowing God (Ephesians 1).
PRAYER IS A CONVERSATION STARTED BY GOD
It can be daunting to start a new conversation with someone, not to mention with God. Thankfully, prayer is not the product of our desire or ability. God places his Spirit in those that call on him in faith, and in doing so, he’s starting a conversation with us (Galatians 4:5-6). That same Spirit is praying on our behalf (Romans 8:26), Even more, Jesus is continually praying for us (John 17).
PRAYER IS INVITATIONAL AND EXPECTANT
It can be easy to distort prayer into a means of self-discovery, or dismiss it as an appeal to a distant deity. Jesus describes it more aptly as a conversation between a child and a father, but not just any father, one that you can trust to give good gifts to his children (Luke 11:9-13). As such, Jesus invites us to pray/ask our Father in Heaven with expectation. As Jesus models how to pray, he’s teaching us to expect to be shaped by God through prayer in ways that allow us to know him more deeply (Matthew 6:5-15).
“Prayer is meant to be the conversation where your life and your God meet.”— David Powlison
TRYING ON PRAYER
For Christians, prayer is noted to be as essential as giving thanks, listening to God, and avoiding evil (1 Thessalonians 5:12-22), but that doesn’t make it easy to embrace. While some of us are eager to try on different practices of prayer, others of us are less convinced. Whether you’re disillusioned or desiring, the below pathways provide an opportunity for all of us to uniquely and honestly explore the practice of prayer. You might choose one pathway and then move to another, or perhaps you just need to settle into one for a few weeks. Either way, my encouragement is to try on one of them this month.
[PATHWAY 1] EMBRACING EXPECTATION
- Tell the truth about your relationship with prayer. Begin by writing out where you’re starting with prayer. What longings do you bring to it? Where has it been challenging?
- Step into a (below) practice that challenges you. Identify a practice and a frequency that you think you can accomplish and will challenge you to try on some new things.
- Move the prayers away from yourself. Our tendency is to mostly pray for ourselves and then tack on some comments about God and others at the end. Intentionally pray to God, for others, and about self.
- Explore bringing more expectation to your prayers. This is risky because we may find that what we want and what God wants are not aligned. But we may also be surprised by God’s response!
[PATHWAY 2] EMBRACING HESITATION
- Tell the truth about your relationship with prayer. Begin by writing out where you’re starting with prayer. Where has it been challenging and/or frustrating? What experiences speak loudest?
- Write out a one-sided conversation with God. Imagine you had God’s ear. Through writing or another creative outlet, capture what you would tell him or ask him.
- Invite God’s response. While it’s risky for some people to pray with expectation, it’s just as risky for others to bring an honest and vulnerable conversation to God.
- Invite a friend into the conversation. A trusted friend can help us make sense of experiences that we sometimes can’t see as clearly. They can also pray with us when all we can do is listen.
“The basic purpose of prayer is not to bend God’s will to mine, but to mold my will into his.”— Tim Keller
PRACTICES OF PRAYER
The Lord’s Prayer (+)
While your experiences with this prayer may be rote and unemotional, the prayer itself is Jesus’ model for praying with expectation as you step into a conversation with God. Find a translation of Matthew 6:9-13 or Luke 11:2-4 that you understand (The Message or ESV) and embrace this prayer one line at a time. For example: “Give us this day our daily bread…Please provide for all my needs today, the ones I can name and the ones I can’t see. And help me to recognize and receive the gifts you provide.”
These can be prayers that you write instead of speak. You may find it helpful to speak them after writing them.
These prayers have an outward facing focus, challenging us to ask God to provide for the needs of our neighbors and to bring his Kingdom realities into every sphere of life. Possible prayer focus points: neighbors, family, co-workers, church, schools, local officials; evangelism, hospitality, mercy, and justice.
Praying the Psalms
The psalms are prayers meant to be sung or read aloud in a community. Praying the psalms can be beautifully challenging and immensely practical. A good starting point is Psalm 4 & 5.
RESOURCES ON PRAYER
- A Praying Life by Paul Miller
- Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Tim Keller
- The Heart of Prayer: What Jesus Teaches Us by Jerram Barrs
- Praying: Finding Our Way Through Duty to Delight by J.I. Packer and Carolyn Nystrom
- Sabbath Rest: The Backwards Way to a Fuller Life (blog) by Paul Ranheim