I have never much liked the phrase ‘saying your prayers’.
It seems to me to presuppose a degree of detachment which is spiritually both unhealthy and unreal. It’s as though your prayers exist ‘out there’ somewhere provided for you, already fixed in form and merely requiring you to repeat them. There is value, of course, in using already written prayers, not least in a corporate worship context. We have only to think of the Lord’s Prayer to realise that. But our personal praying needs to be grounded in relationship, not in repetition.
Praying squeezed out
Most churches find it difficult to gather more than a small fraction of their Sunday congregations to corporate prayer times. Many house groups are much stronger in Bible study, discussion and socialising then in praying together. Indeed, praying often seems to get squeezed out altogether. And even when we do meet to pray, we all know how much easier it is to spend time in sharing news and requests than actually speaking together to God in prayer.
Why is this? I wonder if it is because we do not get beyond religion (we ought to pray) to the reality of relationship (we speak to God).
It is striking that the Bible does not pile up the reasons for praying, any more than it does for the existence of God. Rather, it seems to be a basic fact in Scripture that people who are in relationship with God are often speaking to him. It can be both public and private, structured and informal, submissive and bold. What is common to all biblical praying is that its foundation is in what God has already revealed of himself, through his living and enduring Word. Prayer is our part in the conversation which is initiated by God. It is answering speech.
The way to richer prayer
As with any conversation, we are not going to get very far if we have not been listening to the person speaking to us. Our personal prayer times are much richer and deeper when we are responding to what God has been saying to us in his Word. This delivers us from the idea that prayer is persuading God to see things from our point of view and give us what we want.
Making our requests known to our loving Father is certainly central to our praying, but this is on the basis of his promises and the revelation of his character. Thanksgiving and praise are equally essential ingredients of our praying, but they depend upon a recognition of God’s purposes and his provision. True repentance for our sin is generated by the understanding of the true nature of God’s unfathomable mercy revealed in the cross of Jesus. If we are feeding on God’s Word, we shall be praying people.
Prayer, then, is a response which is shaped by faith. The more faith is generated and strengthened by the Word of God, the more it will shape our response, as we pray. The more we pray in faith – not with many words, necessarily, but as our reflex reaction in every circumstance of life – the more our believing will be shaped by our praying.
Prayer is talking to God about God, in the context of our everyday living. It’s about our relationship with him before it’s about him doing things for us. They are not mutually exclusive of course, but it is a matter of priorities.
Truths we receive which are not reflected on and prayed in to our lives are unlikely to make much difference to us. Whereas everything we turn into prayer and praise will be integrated into our spiritual character and experience and worked into the fabric of our Christian lives. This is how the Holy Spirit energises and assists us in our praying.
Prayers for the holiday
Many of us have opportunity for holidays at this time of the year. Stepping off the daily carousel, for a time of rest and change, refreshment and stimulus, is much needed and rightly valued. But what about determining to use a portion of time each day to deepen my relationship with God? Not just to catch up on the Bible study I’ve missed, but to take time to listen to God in his Word, to meditate and chew on it. Not just to go through the backlog of prayer requests I ought to have been making, but to relax enough to talk through everything with God, to deepen and express my gratitude and renew my dependence on him.
‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you’ (James 4.8). That is why none of us has any less of God in our lives than we really desire.
David Jackman is the past President of the Proclamation Trust and writes the ‘Notes to growing Christians’ column for EN.