The Practice of Prayer
Prayer as Communion with God
Prayer refers to all the ways we practice God’s presence. Its primary purpose is to help us grow in intimacy with Him. Wittingly or not, we sometimes reduce our prayer lives to giving God lists about how we would like the world to be. While supplication is a vital part of a balanced prayer life, the heart of prayer is about fulfilling the deepest longing of the human soul, which is for communion with God Himself. The good news is that we can commune with God in concentrated moments of solitude, and also call upon His presence as we go about our daily activities (cf. 1 Thess. 5:17).
When we practice the presence of God through prayer we are increasingly conformed to the image of Christ. As we offer up adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication we enter into His heart and purposes for us and for the world. We receive strength as we cry out to God in our weakness, and our anxieties scatter like leaves in the wind (see Phil. 4:6). In short, prayer transforms us. It facilitates the God-with-us for which we long, attunes us to the Spirit that dwells within us, and allows us to abide in Him in our times of plenty and of need. Through prayer, God offers Himself as the formative agent in our lives.
A Balanced Prayer Life
The diversity of our prayer lives should reflect the wonderful complexity of our relationship with God. Just as our bonds with family and close friends are strengthened by intimacy and stifled by superficiality, so our union with God demands more than repetitious cliché. Rather, our prayer life should exhibit balance, which we learn by reflecting on who God is and His call upon our lives.
God is the Creator and Sustainer, the source of all that is good. He is perfectly righteous, expects moral goodness, and conforms those who love Him into the blessed image of His Son. He is merciful and loving and can be approached with confidence in our hour of need. Because of who God is and His plans for us, prayers of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication are vital components of a flourishing relationship with Him.
The book of Psalms reveals a portrait of this sort of prayer life. The psalmists grace us with songs and prayers of praise (Ps. 97), affirmations of God’s character (Ps. 24), themes of comfort (Ps. 23), joyful expressions of thanksgiving (Ps. 136), cries for mercy (Ps. 6), statements of confession (Ps. 51), and promises of forgiveness (Ps. 103). In the Psalms, the reader enters the heart of the psalmist, and learns to pray along with him.
Likewise, the Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) is a model for us to imitate. From Jesus’ words we learn to praise the name of God (v. 9), align our hearts with His will (v. 10), express our need for daily provisions (v. 11), confess and ask for forgiveness (v. 12), and plead for God’s protection from temptation and evil (v. 13).
Our prayer life should incorporate these things. The point is not to make prayer into a formula to be followed each and every time we pray. In fact, if prayer is to become a moment-by-moment way of life, many of our prayers will be brief touches that redirect us to the transformative presence of God as we go about our daily activities. There are times when our deepest prayer is heartfelt praise from the mountaintop, and there other times when it is a sincere cry for help from the valley. And, oftentimes what we need most is simply to rest in God’s presence, in times of silent communion with Him. As we mature in Christ, our prayer lives become living, breathing interactions of praise, confession, thanksgiving, supplication, and, indeed, resting with God.
Intercession and the Holy Spirit
God uses intercessory prayer to change lives and circumstances. Dallas Willard writes, “Asking is indeed the great law of the spiritual world through which things are accomplished in cooperation with God, and yet in harmony with the freedom and worth of every individual.” Intercession is born of a command and a promise. We are commanded to present our concerns, worries, and requests to God (see Eph. 6:18; Phil. 4:6; and Heb. 4:16). Furthermore, God promises to attend to our needs and cries for help (Matt. 18:19; 21:22; and Heb. 4:16).
Yet we must admit that we do not always know what is good for us or for others. But, God does, and our practice of His presence through prayer is foundational to intercession according to His will. As we increase in our intimacy with God through prayer, our will comes to align with His, and we pray with growing sincerity of heart, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done” (Matt. 6:10). And the Holy Spirit, the One who knows our deepest needs and the needs of those around us, teaches and guides us in our prayers as we increasingly learn to “pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18).
Living a life of prayer and attuning ourselves to the Spirit that dwells within us are essential to intercession according to God’s will. The Spirit reveals to us the heart and purposes of God for our lives, those around us, and our world. He guides us as we begin our intercession in the place where God is already at work.
Here are some practices that help us to live a life of prayer. It is important that we bear in mind that, while prayer is a command, it is a command infused with God’s love for us. God commands communion with Him out of His desire to enter into a growing relationship with us. Adele Calhoun sums it up nicely when she says, “Prayer is sustained less by duty than by a desire to connect and grow in intimacy with the Holy Three.”
So, we hope these suggestions are not burdensome, but help you to flourish in a life that practices God’s presence (recall Matt. 11:28-30). Use the ones that aid in filling your life up with prayer.
1. ACTS prayer. This is a mnemonic to help you remember the key components of a balanced prayer life, i.e., Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. This should serve as a guide, rather than a formula for each and every prayer. For instance, sometimes you may want to spend concentrated times of prayer incorporating each component, while making use of select Psalms. Other times you may want to focus on one aspect of prayer, such as adoration, during the day which you could do by reciting prayers of praise as you go about your daily activities. Again, the goal is a life of prayer that naturally incorporates these aspects.
2. Resting in God’s Presence. It is also useful to rest silently in God’s presence, as His nearness alone heals and forms your spirit. Psalm 131 gives us a portrait of rest in God. The psalmist says, “But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content.” Meditation on biblical images such as this one (or, for instance, the image of God as Shepherd in Psalm 23) can help facilitate rest in God’s presence. There is no other purpose of this practice than to quietly find peace in the reality of God, His character, and His love.
3. Prayer and Other Practices. Prayer naturally works in concert with other spiritual practices as the Holy Spirit conforms us to the image of Christ. For instance, the English Puritans who lived from 1550 to 1700 emphasized the importance of employing study, meditation, and prayer as one continuous practice. William Bates, an influential Puritan author, explains:
As [meditation] is the sister of reading, so it is the mother of prayer. Though a man’s heart be much indisposed to prayer, yet, if he can but fall into a meditation of God, and the things of God, his heart will soon come off to prayer. … Begin with reading or hearing. Go on to meditation; end in prayer. … Reading without meditation is unfruitful; meditation without reading is hurtful; to meditate and to read without prayer upon both, is without blessing.
Reading the scriptures teaches us profound truths about God, creation, and ourselves. For these truths to form our spirits, we must internalize them, contemplate them, and allow them to develop from our heart and minds into a state of prayer. The spiritual practices are rarely practiced in isolation from one another. Rather, God uses them in concert to work His will in our lives.
4. Breath Prayers. These are brief prayers that are said quietly to oneself throughout the day. These might be spontaneous, or memorized prayers to which one returns often. For instance, Johann Von Staupitz, a mentor to Martin Luther, recommended that Luther pray Psalm 119:94, “I am Yours, save me,” throughout his day as a reminder that he must cling to Christ. Christians throughout the centuries have also prayed the prayer of the tax collector in Luke 18:13, “Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.” Breath prayers can also be practiced using spontaneous prayers. The goal is to turn one’s attention back to God and to rest confidently in His presence and provision in all of life’s tasks.
5. Fixed Hour Prayers. Jesus and the apostles practiced prayer at fixed times throughout the day. It was a Jew’s practice to go to the temple at the sixth and ninth hour. His apostles continued the practice after His death (see, for instance, Acts 3:1) Fixed hour prayers are not an unfamiliar concept to us. In fact, most of us have these, at breakfast, lunch, dinner, and, possibly, bedtime. You might find it helpful to introduce an additional fixed hour prayer, perhaps on a break at work. This is a chance to offer a brief prayer of adoration, confession, thanksgiving, or supplication to God in the midst of a busy schedule. It is a way of intentionally returning our attention to Him, and acknowledging our dependence on Him in all we do.
6. Conversational Prayer. Most of this discussion has focused on our individual prayer life. However, corporate prayer is also essential, and was practiced in the early church (see, for instance, Acts 4:24-31). Conversational prayer is simply a group practice that invites everyone to pray, including both children and adults. Topics are brought forward for prayer as the Holy Spirit leads, and the prayer takes on a conversational tone between participants, as they pray simple and uninhibited prayers in turn. Silence is not an awkward occurrence, but is to be welcomed as a time for listening to the Holy Spirit in silent prayer. Faith Group can be an excellent place to practice conversational prayer.
Calhoun, Adele, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us.
Whitney, Donald, “Prayer,” in Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life.
Willard, Dallas, Renovation of the Heart