George Müller (a pastor who who cared for thousands of orphans and funded hundreds of missionaries) is reported to have said: “We have to pray like its all up to God and work like its all up to us.” In part 1, I sought to explore why we should “draw near” and “hold fast.” The most important reason being that we are changed as we practice the discipline of praying “without ceasing.” To that end, I wish to suggest some ideas that, when practiced, will allow us to walk toward a life of praying without ceasing.
Reading to Pray
First of all, let’s think about a focused reading and remembering of Scripture that begins by reading the Bible. (May I assume that we agree that regular time needs to be set aside for this? I’ve also found that having a certain place is also conducive to this practice.) Begin your time with prayer, ask God to speak through the words, then work hard to pay attention. Have some page flags nearby, a notebook and a pencil or a pen and maybe a highlighter. As you read the Scripture, verses will stand out to you, mark them and flag the page and keep going. When the time you have allotted to read is over and it is time to pray, go back to the verse or verses you marked and ask God to speak to you again. Read the verse slowly, see if it jumps out at you again. If it does, move the flag to the top of the page, if not just leave the flag on the side and keep going. (Where the flags are is not so important as being able to tell which ones are speaking to you at a certain point in life.)
When a text really jumps out at you, take your notebook and copy the verse word for word thoughtfully. Pray this verse word by word as you copy it. Remember who wrote the verse? The Holy Spirit. Remember who indwells you? The Holy Spirit. He will be happy for you to read it back to Him. Imagine a small child sitting in a parent’s lap singing, this is you and God, you praying the verse is like you singing to your Heavenly Father.
To help you have direction in what to read, you can use any number of reading plans that are available. But for the sake of this study, the reading plan is not essential, that you read is the key. If you have a particular struggle that you are dealing with (like fear), you could do a specific word study. As time goes by, you will build up a lot of flags in your Bible. From time to time, sit quietly with your Bible, re-praying through these verses. I have found that identifying the verses through which God speaks loudest to you is important as we engage in the struggles of life.
Ongoing change in me is a result of using the Bible in my discipline of prayer as I am engaged in, as Dallas Willard calls it, “training the heart and mind” (see his excellent book Renovation of the Heart). This is because of the power of the Bible as it is actively “discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb. 4:12 ESV). I’ve found that as I draw near to him through prayer using Scripture, the Holy Spirit pulls me nearer to Him, into that place that Calvin referred to as “God’s lap.” But, you can’t sit with God and read and pray the Bible all day long. We have families and jobs; there is a world that places demands on us. So, how can we “pray without ceasing?”
A few years ago, a good friend told me about the book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality by Peter Scazzero. This book was a big help to my growth in following Jesus. In it I was reminded about practicing the “divine offices” (these “offices” are the 5 or 7 times a day when life in a monastery is divided into segments of work and worship and rest). I wasn’t sure how to put it to use. And then one day I found a way – my smartphone.
I realized that I could set hourly reminders that nudge me to pray. In these reminders I pray for specific groups of people, needs or I set Scriptures that I need reminding about or want to pray at that time of the day. Honestly, sometimes I ignore it, or look at the clock and know what I am being reminded of. As time goes by, issues and needs change, so I update the list. As I continue to study the Scripture, when I discover a text that is meaningful to me in a new way, I rotate it in. This rotation of Scripture texts into my regular readings is good for me because it keeps me growing in the Bible and prayer. So I am praying scripture and praying for people through the day.
Praying into Problems and Relationships
I’ve seen prayer change me and others. Years back, when I served in a pastoral role in a Christian high school, a colleague came to my office. When they closed the door, I knew a serious conversation was about to take place. After some brief chit chat my colleague got to the point. “I really can’t stand my boss. I can’t even look at them without an emotional reaction.” After learning that this was more about management decisions and not a matter that needed a personal confrontation, I told my colleague that I had a simple idea for them: pray. I suggested that my colleague begin a pretty hefty regimen of prayer for their boss. Pray for them whenever they saw the boss, saw or read a email from them or even heard them mentioned. In essence, pray for them without ceasing. A couple of months later I was visited in my office again. The news was that nothing about the management of the department had changed, neither the policies nor the boss, but my colleague no longer looked at the boss the same, their heart had changed. Prayer changes us.
Recently, a mother was telling me how she felt resentment toward her family because she received little help after dinner. I shared some ideas with her husband about ways to help but then turned my focus on her and her heart. She had set a goal to not feel resentment. I asked, how do you plan to do that? I suggested that while washing the dishes, rather than allow her mind to stew about the task, that she begin to pray. Pray for the people who ate on these plates, thank God and praise Him for the provision of the food on the plates. It’s a decision. So, the question for us is this: will we hold fast through drawing near to the throne of Grace? Will we use the resources available to remind us?
Husbands and Wives and prayer and Scripture
My favorite marriage writer suggests that we turn to one another. A long time ago I was taught that if husband and wife both seek to grow closer to God, they can’t help but grow closer to one another. Let me suggest that each day (I prefer morning before a lot of interaction has begun with others) you and your spouse read one verse of Scripture, talk briefly about it as you are led and then pray for your family and each other. Don’t turn it into a church service, keep it sweet and simple and short. You are knitting your hearts together with the Lord as you begin your day. If it grows into something bigger, great, if not, be faithful to this. It is hard to do sometimes for a lot of reasons, but it is worth the effort in your relationship with one another and with God.
Extended, Deeper Prayers
Not long ago a friend and I were talking and he read me a quote he attributed to C. H. Spurgeon: “we need to write our own hymn book.” Let me make a suggestion for extending our conversation with God. Many tell me that it is hard for them to pray for longer than just a few minutes. I certainly understand this. Recently, I was planning for a retreat and consulting a friend who provides me with helpful spiritual direction. He told me about some brain research that shows that when we are moving, a part of our brain gets “freed up” to pray. When I heard this I understood why writing my prayers helped me to extend the time I can focus on praying. The simple action, the writing of my prayers in a notebook, seems to be enough to help me extending of the time I pray. If I understand the premise of physical action facilitating prayer, then many kinds of action, like walking could help extend prayer time. For my purpose here, I suggest that writing my prayers helps me focus on the praying. It slows me down to focus. Let me be clear, this is not to create a record of prayer or my development, I do not look back, the point is to help me pray longer with more focus, for me, it has worked for well over a decade. You might find that this works for you as well. Writing my prayers, when I began the practice over a decade ago, changed the way I was able to focus on prayer. I now understood why.
Our calling is to glorify God. That is our purpose. Recently, the Lord guided me to Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:4-7 ESV)” In order to do this we have to approach the tough times with a heart full of faith that is stronger than our doubts and fears.
In part 1, I began with two propositions: (1) Life is hard; God doesn’t always answer prayers the way we want and (2) Life is distracting and we are easily swayed and tend to drift away. Hebrews tells us to “draw near” so we can “hold fast.” I believe the way to do that is to pray without ceasing. I have offered some ideas to help you on the journey of being a follower of Jesus.
We have a natural tendency to “drift away,” what I have tried to lay out in these two articles is a biblical basis for, and practical ideas to climb up into the lap of God where he will change us. In God’s lap, he’ll enable us to hold fast when there are tigers beside us, sharks beneath us and, especially, sin within us – all of which are trying to loose us from our mooring and set us adrift.