Friday, November 20, 2009

When I Don't Desire God - chapters 9 & 10 - weapon 3: prayer

How do you feel about prayer? Do you enjoy it (this miraculous opportunity to talk to your heavenly Father!) or do you find it hard (staring into space, speaking into silence)? Do the words "prayer" and "joy" go together?

What are your temptations when it comes to prayer? Here are mine:
- I'm tempted to treat prayer as a time to work myself into a state of trust and joy, instead of asking God
- I'm tempted to be lazy about the bread-and-butter of prayer: intercession for my family, community and world
- I'm tempted to pour my heart out to others and not to God
- I'm tempted to get it all together before I pray

One thing I'm learning is to come to God as I am. Not to put it off until I haven't been quite so sinful. Not to avoid God because I've been avoiding him recently and I feel guilty. Not to wait until my thoughts and emotions are together enough to frame a clear request. To come to God confused, unhappy, doubting or angry. To come to God with the guilt and the mistakes and the pain and the questions. To come to God because of his grace, not my goodness. To come to God messy.

Until I do this, I deprive myself of a great weapon in the fight for joy. Joy becomes something I achieve (or don't achieve!) through my Bible reading, my sought-out encouragement, my biblical counselling techniques. Joy shifts sideways into smaller goals: a happy family, an organised life, a friendship. Joy turns into something I try to feel before I pray. Instead of going to God, crying out my emptiness to him, and seeking his fullness, I fill myself with the fruit of my own efforts.

Which is pretty stupid. Try as I might, I can't fill myself with joy. I can't make myself desire God: only God can do that.

How then do we fight for joy when our desires languish... ? ... The key to joy in God is God's omnipotent, transforming grace ... [T]he great purpose of prayer is to ask that - in and through all his gifts - God would be our joy. (p.138)

So how do we pray? What will keep us real and keep us praying? Here are the things that Piper said which I found most helpful.

Prayer and the Bible

Pray before you read the Bible. I pray Piper's IOUS most times I read the Bible. I love to be reminded that God is the one who Inclines my heart to read his Word, who Opens my eyes to see wonderful things in his Word, who Unites my heart to fear him, and who Satisfies my soul with his love.

Read then meditate then pray. This is a fantastic Puritan method of structuring a quiet time which we've forgotten. It's so simple that anyone can follow it, in 5 minutes or 30, and so profound that it will transform Bible reading and prayer. As I "meditate on the word of God ... turning all, as I go, into prayer" (p.165) I'm no longer just scanning words on a page, but gaining a vision for God's great purposes, so I can pray meaningfully for others and myself.*

Continual prayer

"Pray continually" (1 Thess 5:17) - in other words, have an attitude of prayerful dependence, persevere in prayer, and pray often during the day (p.157). Use cues as reminders: pray for women in your Bible study as you drive there, pray for your day as you plan it, pray the moment you feel guilty or angry or anxious, pray as soon as you get a prayer letter (then throw it away!). For other ideas, see Meredith's post Prayer - quantity, and the comments on how I organise my prayer life.

Planned prayer

Make a plan. Just like in a marriage, communication won't happen if we don't make regular and special times for it. "We are told to pray "without ceasing". We may do it anywhere, anytime. It is the air we breathe. But that will cease to be the case if there are no disciplined times set aside for prayer and a plan to keep them." (p.158) Be disciplined but flexible and not legalistic, and don't aim too high.

Plan how. There are lots of ways to structure prayer. You may be familiar with ACTS - Adoration Confession Thanksgiving Supplication (or Love Sorry Thanks Please). I include two extra points: praying about my anxieties and discouragements, and praying for the day to come.

It's hard to know who to pray for! I like to work through 7 categories day by day, starting with my extended family and ending with missionaries - see how I organise my prayer life, and check the comments for other ideas.

Another idea is to keep a prayer diary, and every day write down things in 4 categories: people to pray for daily, something to thank God for, other people to pray for (one category or person a day), and something to pray for yourself.

Plan when. If you choose mornings - which I like because it shapes my attitude for the day, and stops prayer getting squeezed out - you'll have to get to bed on time! "The discipline to rise early is not as difficult as the discipline of going to bed. ... Today the strongest allurements to stay up and be entertained are against us." (p. 161). Piper suggests having other regular times to pray briefly during the day - morning, lunch, dinner, bedtime. Have a look at Meredith's posts on praying in the morning and at bedtime.

Plan where. I have a rock where I go - or a quiet couch in the early morning - or a park to walk through. Nicole has a room and a shut door. Susannah Wesley famously put an apron over her head. Piper built a prayer bench. Private is best, but somewhere you can concentrate will do. Even better, forget the "quiet time" - choose somewhere you can pray, sing and read out loud!

I'd love to hear about how you pray! Please encourage us by adding your ideas and suggestions to the comments.

Questions for discussion and reflection:
Why is prayer so necessary to joy? How do you feel about prayer? How might God be answering your prayers despite your feelings? Have you planned how, when and where to pray? What suggestions in this post would you like to try (choose one or two)?

* If you want to think more about this, there's an excellent section in Donald Whitney's Spiritual Disciplines in the Christian Life (pp.71-76) where he includes lots of quotes, including many from the Puritans - they were great ones for read - meditate - pray!

images are from abcdz2000 and whatmegsaid at flickr; middle image is from stock.xchng

1 comment:

Meredith said...

I seem to have a lot to say on this subject! Which is sadly ironic because I don't feel like I am especially good at praying. But may I add one more thought?

The thing I have learned about prayer this year is to pray in belief - to pray believing that it is to the sovereign Creator and sustainer of the universe to whom I am directing my prayers. Pray TRULY KNOWING that God loves to hear our prayers and that He answers every one in perfect wisdom. Seems pretty obvious really!

This has been especially helpful for me in the domain of those prayers we pray repetitively. I was especially moved one day when I was reading passages from the gospels about Jesus ministry of healing. He healed this person and that person and I thought, "Well why can't you heal a [certain person] in my life" and instead of praying my vague, dutiful (I ought to pray for this person again) type of prayer I cried out to God, believing Him able to make a change. After all, He created the universe. And do you know, while this person was not healed outright, there was were discernable, lasting changes in the situation before the sun set that day and they have continued on.

My praying (at least on my own) is now much more filled with passion - deeper thankfulness to our sovereign Father, tearful as I fall before Him helpless - as I approach God fearfully and thankfully and in belief. That belief feels very small. But I think it is growing little by little. And that has made a big difference to my prayer life, puny as it is.

"I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief." Mark 9:24