Series: Learning to Pray Effectively (Part 1 of 5)
“Practical Suggestions for Your Prayer Life”
Today we’re beginning a new series on prayer. I want to begin with some practical suggestions for developing an effective life of prayer. The most important thing we can say about prayer is stated succinctly in the old Nike advertisements: “Just do it!”
Once there was a man who was hired by a rural county down south to paint the white lines along a highway. The first day he painted ten miles; the boss was so impressed that he promised a raise if he could keep up the pace. But the next day he only did five miles, and the third day only one mile and was fired. As he walked away he muttered, “It wasn’t my fault.I kept getting farther away from the paint can.”
Lots of folks do that in their Christian life: they start out with lots of power, but as time goes on they keep getting farther from the power source. That’s why prayer is so essential. Faithful, sincere prayer keeps us in touch with the God of all grace and thesource of all power! If we want to experience the fullness of His power for abundant living the first thing we must do is …
I. ESTABLISH A DAILY APPOINTMENT TO MEET WITH GOD.
Some call this their quiet time, some call it their devotional time - but whatever you call it - it needs to be your and God’s time together.
When you make an appointment with someone you do at least four things: you check your schedule; you find a time that is mutually convenient; you decide on a suitable place; and, you allow enough time in your schedule for the business at hand. This is exactly what you must do with God, with one notable exception: with Him we avoid one of the greatest hassles - finding a time and place mutually agreeable. God is always available to us - anytime and any place - so that makes it easy for us. Let’s think about this appointment we need to make.
First, we must set …
A. A DEFINITE TIME …
to meet with the Lord each day. If we don’t make time for God, we won’t take time to be with Him. It needs to be a time that we can faithfully commit ourselves to keep. No one else knows your schedule, so no one else can tell you when to meet with God. It needs to be a time when distractions are at a minimum, a time that is both good for you and for those around you.
I’m reminded of a Charlie Brown comic strip. They’re playing baseball. Lucy is in the outfield when a high fly ball is hit right to her. It drops to the ground untouched. She makes no move to catch it. Her manager, Charlie Brown, angrily rushes out to demand an explanation. Why didn’t she catch the ball?
He points out that she didn’t even have to take a step - just hold out her glove. Lucy calmly tells him that she was having her quiet time. Undoubtedly, Charlie Brown approved of a daily quiet time, but not during a ball game when you’re playing outfielder. Her timing was all wrong.
With 24 hours in our day we can surely find a time that is suitable for our schedule. Someone has said: “Let prayer be the key of the day - and the bolt of the night.” In the morning, prayer is the key that opens to us all the rich treasures of God’s grace and blessing. In the evening, it is the bolt that shuts us up under His protection and safeguard. When our day is thus hemmed with prayer it is not likely to unravel.
While it is true that we must go through the day with God, we also need an extended time with Him during our day. What time is best for this appointment with God? Both Jesus and the Psalmist chose the early morning hour. (Mk 1:35; Lk 4:42; Ps 57:8; 108:2; 119:147) This is the time I prefer - before the phone begins to ring, before the TV or radio goes on, before business beckons. In the morning my mind is fresh and at its best; that absolute concentration upon God which is essential to the most effective prayer is most easily possible in the early morning hours.
Furthermore, when the early hours are spent in prayer, it sets the tone for the whole day - and power is obtained for dealing with those issues we will face.
Late at night is a problem for me because I get drowsy. When I used to pray before bed I’d find myself drifting off and saying crazy, nonsensical things. I sometimes still pray as I fall asleep, but now it’s intentional and I reserve the early morning hours for my quiet time appointment.
We do read in the gospels that Christ sometimes chose to pray during the late evening, occasionally spending the entire night in prayer, but these appear to be special occasions of distress or exceptional need. (Lk 6:12; Mt 14:22-23; Mk 6:46-47; Mt 26:26-44) The Psalmist also mentions: “My eyes anticipate the night watches, that I may meditate on Your word.”(Ps 119:148) If you are a night person, this may be the best time for you.
Mothers of young children may find their children’s naptime to be best. Others may use their lunch break to go to a private place and spend time alone with God. But it is essentialthat you SET A TIME - and keep it set apart - a time that is so sacred to you that you allow few things to interrupt or keep you from it. Yet, be careful that you don’t become so legalistic about it that you suffer extended guilt if you miss it.
B. THE PLACE.
Jesus chose “lonely” places, “quiet” places, “secluded” places - away from the crowds - to retreat for prayer. (Mt 14:13; Mk 1:35; Lk 4:42; 5:16; 6:12-13; 9:28-36) He taught us: “When you pray, go into your inner room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” (Mt 6:6) Jesus’ own “inner room” was often the great outdoors.
Ours may simply be any place where we can be ALONE with God - away from phones, people, noise, and other distractions - a place where we can “shut the door” of our heart. We need a quiet place for our quiet time.
Whoever would hear the sound of God’s voice must first shut out the distracting noises of the less important, the less meaningful, the less eternal activities that continually and persistently crowd in and dominate our lives every day. We cannot always have as much quiet and solitude as we might want and the choice of a proper place can go a long way in helping us. Jesus is concerned that we learn how to isolate our spirit in the midst of thehurry, the confusion, and the lure of the world. He wants us to learn to talk with God in perfect intimacy. Prayer is communion with the holiest; it is conversation with our Father, a heart to heart visit with our dearest friend.
In this isolated place, with our minds insulated from distractions, we pour out our hearts to Him. This place becomes your and God’s place.
Then, we must …
C. SCHEDULE SUFFICIENT TIME …
to not feel rushed or hurried in our time with Him. Georgia Harkness writes: “To keep God at the center of one’s life requires frequent renewal of power through prayer. But such renewal is not measured by the amount of time it takes, rather by the degree to which one is able even for a short time to have relaxed and unhurried communion with God. … To avoid neglecting to pray, it is best to have a time-habit and a place-habit. This is so important that it is worth great effort, in spite of the hurry of life and our lack of privacy.”
Many Christians expect to know Christ intimately without even spending much time with Him. They fail to realize our relationship with God is much like our relationship with people around us. A husband will not really know his wife if he never talks to her. It takes time to know a person intimately. The more time you spend with a person, the better you know them. Certainly this is true of knowing God. Our level of intimacy is determined by the time we spend in His presence. Your life will be much more enjoyable and meaningful.
You may want to start with 20 or 30 minutes - the important thing is that you begin. You’ll find the desire to extend the time as you grow in your relationship with Him, as your spirit hungers for His word, as your petitions and thanksgivings increase. Above all, we must allow sufficient time that we don’t feel rushed.
When we know that we’ve set aside a sufficient period our minds are less distracted by thoughts of all the other things we need to do during the day. With this time already set aside and built into our schedule we know that we’ll have enough time for everything else needing our attention. This quiet time can even be a time when we spread our schedule before God to prioritize it and seek His wisdom and help for our daily tasks.
Having set the appointment - chosen the time, the place, and the duration of our quiet time, let’s now consider …
D. WHAT WE DO IN OUR MEETING WITH GOD.
Often it’s best to begin by being still, settling your heart and mind, and simply thinking for awhile on God: Who He is, what He has done, what He has said. This helps you focus and makes your mind spiritually receptive.
Our time with Him needs to be well-rounded and balanced in its scope. Don Dewelt used this “Circle of Prayer” diagram that many have found helpful.
You’ll notice that it includes both speaking to God in prayer and listening to Godspeak to us in His word. The word of God and prayer are inseparable.
In our time with God we need to take time to …
1. READ, MEDITATE ON, MEMORIZE, AND PRAY OVER SCRIPTURE.
Like any appointment or conversation, our meeting with God is a two-way street of both speaking and listening. You will also notice that praise, adoration, and thanksgiving are balanced with our confession, petitions, and intercession. I’ll leave the singing up to you, though many of the songs and great hymns of the church are wonderful prayers.
The length of our time alone with the Lord will depend upon how much Scripture we want to work with and how much time we decide to spend in prayer. Some choose to read or study a chapter of the Bible. Others prefer to meditate on only a few verses. I personally read through the Bible each year during my quiet time, reading about six chapters (two from the New Testament and four from the Old) each morning. I developed a Bible Reading Chart for this that takes you chronologically through the Scriptures. You can download it from our website if you’d like to try it.
But whatever you choose, the essential thing is to seek to understand how God’s word is to be lived out in your daily life.
In your time alone with God, you may want to …
2. PRAY ALOUD.
This will help you think through what you are praying as you articulate it. It also encourages you to treat Christ as an actual person, someone who is right there with you. There is NO special language for prayer. Jesus prefers simplicity. He even warns us against pious-sounding phrases, flowery language, and meaningless repetition. (Mt 6:7-8)
3. USE SIMPLE WORDS …
speaking to Him in the language you use everyday, telling Him anything that is on your mind. Talk to God about all your weakness, your wants, even of the frustrations you feel in serving Him. You cannot speak too freely or truthfully to Him. Be direct and honest with God in your prayers. The Psalmist was often brutally honest with the Lord about what he was thinking and feeling: “You are God, my only safe haven. Why have You tossed me aside? Why must I wander around in darkness, oppressed by my enemies? (Ps 43:2)
“I envied the proud when I saw them prosper despite their wickedness. They seem to live such a painless life; their bodies are so healthy and strong. They aren’t troubled like other people or plagued with problems like everyone else…
Was it for nothing that I kept my heart pure and kept myself from doing wrong?” (Ps 73:3, 4, 5, 13; cf Ps 22:1)
We may as well be honest with God because He already knows exactly what’s going on in our hearts and minds. (Jn 2:24-25) Perhaps we hesitate to be direct with God and really say what’s on our hearts because we usually aren’t that way with people – we’re afraid of hurting them. But God wants us to be direct and honest with Him, telling Him all we feel and think. St. Theresa, the great prayer warrior and reformer of the 16th century, found her carriage mired in the mud on one of her journeys and she cried out to God, “If this is the way You treat Your friends, no wonder You don’t have many.” A bolt of lightning didn’t strike her. In fact, God used her greatly. He can handle our honesty and He encourages us to sincerely open our hearts to Him.
The final thing that is important in our time of prayer is that we …
4. BE DEFINITE AND SPECIFIC …
when speaking to Him. Study the prayers of godly people in Scripture. They were alwaysdirect – they spoke to God informally, just like they were talking to their best friend - and they were always very specific in what they asked.
Rather than asking God to merely “Bless” others or themselves, the Biblical petitioners always sought a specific blessing - asking God for wisdom, for help with a particularproblem, for healing of body or spirit, for growth in grace, for a specific need. That’s what God wants of us - to make specific requests.
My boys came to me often with requests - but they never said, “Dad, I want a blessingfrom you.” It was always new skis or a new bike, or a baseball bat, or clothes, or money. They were specific in their petitions, though I’ll admit - a “Blessing” would have beencheaper!
In Christ’s model prayer there were six specific petitions. Jesus didn’t teach us to pray, “Our Father who art in heaven, You are wonderful. Help everybody down here. Bless us too, Lord. Bless everybody real good.” Instead, He taught us to pray specifically - forGod’s name and person to be honored, for God’s kingdom to expand, for people to do God’s will, for our daily physical needs, for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the strength necessary to triumph over temptation.
Instead of requesting, “Help me with all my needs,” why not express exact help fordefinite needs: “Give me wisdom as I talk with Jim today.” Instead of thanking God for all your blessings, try listing your blessings and thanking Him for them one by one.
In the same way we should detail our sins, literally and grievously confessing each one to Him. Too often our prayers are vague and general, void of any specific spiritual focus. We need to be praying for definite people and specific needs.
To be the prayer warriors God wants us to be, and to be developing and growing in our faith and in our personal relationship with Christ, this daily quiet time is absolutely essential - the single most important thing we can do to share in the life of God. But the spirit of prayer should not end with our daily appointment to meet with God. The Apostle encourages us to “Pray without ceasing;” (1 Thes 5:17) to maintain a continually “open line” to our Father; to be in touch with Him throughout the course of our day. We should not think that, because we’ve spent an hour or two in the presence of God, our prayer time isfinished - in fact, that time alone with Him merely invigorates us to continue our contactduring the day.
We too need to learn to carry an attitude of prayer into all we do. We should learn to …
II. PRACTICE THE PRESENCE OF GOD.
As you go about your business - in the car, in the hallway, at your desk, wherever you are - utilize the free moments to shut out the world and concentrate on God’s presence and people’s needs.
During the course of the day we waste many moments we could be using to refresh and renew our spirits by snatching up those opportunities to focus on His presence with us – counting our blessings, thinking of His love, His protection - or simply lifting our cares to Him.
In 1666, a French soldier named Nicholas Herman joined a Carmelite monastery, became known as Brother Lawrence, and wrote a book called “The Practice of the Presence of God.” He was assigned to the monastery kitchen, which became his cathedral. He writes: “The time of business does not with me differ from the time of prayer; and in the noise and clatter of my kitchen, while several persons are at the same time calling for different things, I possess God in as great a tranquility as if I were upon my knees at the altar.”
Our lives can be flat and lifeless or they can be rich and alive with significance. We can live as though unaware of the nearness of God or, like Brother Lawrence, we can be alert to His coming to us, again and again, in every situation. I would encourage you to read this little book. It can be read in a couple of hours and will greatly enhance your conscious awareness of God’s presence in so many ways, enabling you to revel in His love throughout the day.
There are many practical things we can do to maintain the spirit of prayer amidst our busyness. Let me share a few.
A. LEARN TO ACKNOWLEDGE GOD IMMEDIATELY UPON RISING.
Every Christian should develop the habit of thinking about God as soon as he awakens in the morning, even before he gets out of bed. We recall the Psalmist’s words, “When I awake, I shall be satisfied with beholding Your form.” (Ps 17:15) The Psalmist awoke with the song: “This is the day which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” (Ps 118:24)Certainly such a positive and enthusiastic response to the beginning of the day will beneficially temper the remainder of the day.
B. DEVELOP THE USE OF ARROW PRAYERS.
An arrow prayer is a simple and direct petition or word of thanksgiving sent heavenward at any time or place. A typical arrow prayer might be, “Father I love You. Help me to love others,” or, “Thank You, Lord, for being with me; keep me near You this day.” We all run into various problems in the midst of our day - something we can’t find, missing an ingredient for a recipe, an oil filter that just won’t budge - such minor inconveniences are perfect times to shoot these brief, one-sentence, specific prayers arrow prayers to God. It helps us continue in that “spirit of prayer” begun in the morning.
C. LET YOUR WORRIES PROMPT YOUR PRAYERS.
We all experience those times when an anxious thought comes into our mind.
When that happens, instead of dwelling on it, immediately lift it to God in prayer. Commit it to Him. As Peter encourages us: “Cast all your anxiety upon Him, because He cares for you.” (1 Pet 5:7)
One other idea that can assist you in developing a more effective prayer life is to agree with someone to be your …
The Lord promised a special measure of His presence when two or three have gathered for prayer. “I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about something and pray for it, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. This is true because if two or three people come together in My name, I am there with them.” (Mat 18:19-20 NCV)
Find someone and agree to occasionally meet together for prayer, to pray for each other daily, and to phone each other for any special needs or requests between your meetings. There are several benefits of having a prayer partner: you are praying in agreement – in concert - together for various needs; you are aware that a brother or sister is praying daily for you; you are building a relationship; you enjoy Christian fellowship; and, most importantly, it provides someone to whom we are accountable - generating a greater faithfulness in our own prayer life.
In fact, you’ll notice that Jesus says there is something very special in praying in agreement with others.
Throughout history every revival and spiritual awakening that has taken place in the world has been preceded by believers praying in concert – in agreement – for the saturation of God’s presence in their culture. I’ve been a part of a group of pastors called Pastors for Revival – some of you have been praying for the meetings we’ve been having with pastors in the metro area. We want to see a mighty movement of God like the Great Awakenings that took place in America in the 18th and 19th centuries.
We want to see Christians in our churches filled with Spirit of God and saturated with the presence of God. We want to see our culture changed and our nation transformed. And the only way that is going to happen is by Christians calling out to God for His power and His presence to saturate us and our culture. I want to challenge you to join this Concert of Prayer – with Christians all over Colorado agreeing together in prayer.
Here is what we are praying for – I’m praying every day for this. My challenge is that you would commit to pray in concert with hundreds and we hope eventually thousands of other followers at least once a week these ten petitions:
1. That the churches of Colorado would become Saturated with Your Presence
2. That at least 1,000 pastors would be “on fire for God” because they are Saturated with God’s presence, consumed with His purposes, and engaging His power in their ministries
3. That 200,000 existing Christians would become Saturated with the Presence of God and be consumed with sharing His love with others
4. That 500,000 new believers would fall in love with Jesus and be filled with His presence and power
5. That we would see supernatural transformation taking place in the people, churches and their cities – just as in Acts and the Great Awakenings
6. That we see deep repentance and turning to the Lord like never before
7. That we see & experience the beauty of united hearts in the Church and between Churches
8. That we would seek to love the Lord with all of our hearts, at all cost and so glorify Him
9. That God’s power would be recognized by the world as God works to change our culture
10. That each church would consider itself a “House of Prayer”, with 50% of its people praying this Concert of Prayer.
If you’d be willing to do that would you let me know?
Would you make a note on your Connection Card or would you sign your name on the Concert of Prayer insert? I’ll have a nice one page Concert of Prayer Sheet available next Sunday for all that would agree to agree together in prayer on this.
The bottom line on becoming more effective in prayer goes back to what I said in the introduction: “Just Do It!”
There is no greater school of prayer than your own personal time alone with God in His word and before His throne. You can learn more about prayer firsthand from praying and listening to the word of His Spirit than you can from any other source. He alone is our best teacher! LET’S PRAY