A Praying Life
Connecting with God in a Distracting World
by Paul E. Miller
NavPress, Colorado Springs
A praying life feels like our family mealtimes because prayer is all about relationship. It's intimate and hints at eternity. We don't think about communication or words but about whom we are talking with. Prayer is simply the medium through which we experience and connect to God.
Oddly enough, many people struggle to learn how to pray because they are focusing on praying, not on God. Making prayer the center is like making conversation the center of a family mealtime. In prayer, focusing on the conversation is like trying to drive while looking at the windshield instead of through it. It freezes us, making us unsure of where to go. Conversation is only the vehicle through which we experience one another. Consequently, prayer is not the center of this book. Getting to know a person, God, is the center.
Consequently, a praying life isn't something you accomplish in a year. It is a journey of a lifetime. The same is true of learning how to love your spouse or a good friend. You never stop learning this side of heaven. There is far too much depth in people to be able to capture love easily. Likewise, there is far too much depth in God to capture prayer easily.
Private, personal prayer is one of the last great bastions of legalism. In order to pray like a child, you might need to unlearn the nonpersonal, nonreal praying that you've been taught.
When Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, he describes both men as praying aloud. Jesus goes on to encourage us to pray in the privacy of our rooms so our out-loud praying doesn't become a verbal show.
Praying out loud can be helpful because it keeps you from getting lost in your head. it makes your thoughts concrete. But it is more than technique; it is also a statement of faith. You are audibly declaring your belief in a God who is alive.
Praying aloud is not a New Testament rule; it is just another way of being real in prayer. Everyone is different. Personally, I've found it hard to pray out loud because I'm so in the habit of praying silently. Still, when I confess a sin aloud, it feels more real. When I hear my own voice admitting that I've done something wrong, I'm surprised by how concrete the sin feels, I've even thought, Oh, I guess that really was wrong. On my way to a social event, I will sometimes pray aloud in the car that I won't fall into sexual lust or people pleasing. This helps me become much more aware of my need. My prayers become more serious.
As I began to pray regularly for the children, he began to work in their hearts. For example, I began to pray for more humility in my eldest son, John. (As Jill says, "The apple didn't fall far from the tree.") About six months later he came to me and said, "Dad, I've been thinking a lot about humility lately and my lack of it." It didn't take me long to realize I did my best parenting by prayer. I began to speak less to the kids and more to God. It was actually quite relaxing.
I'm at my worst when I'm passionate about a new idea. I can drift into selling instead of listening and can easily become dominating. My heart is a dry and weary land. But when I begin to pray, the energy of my life is directed into the life of God and not into changing people's minds...and I shut up!
When someone shares an idea that was originally mine, I want to mention that I first thought of it. I feel unsettled, as if the universe is out of balance. In short, I want to boast. the only way to quiet my soul's desire for prominence is to begin to pray: Apart from you I can do nothing.
I didn't learn continuous prayer; I discovered I was already doing it. I found myself in difficult situations I could not control. All I could do was cry out to my heavenly Father. It happened often enough that it became a habit, creating a rut between my soul and God.
This one-word prayer, Father, is uniquely Jesus' prayer. His first recorded sentence at age twelve is about his father: "Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2:49). Abba is the first word the prodigal son utters when he returned home. It is the first word of the Lord's Prayer, and it is the first word Jesus prays in Gethsemane. It is his first word on the cross--"Father, forgive them" (Luke 23:34)--and one of his last--"Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!" (Luke 23:46). Father was my first prayer as I began praying continuously, and I find that it is still my most frequent prayer.
We don't need self-discipline to pray continuously; we just need to be poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit makes room for his Spirit. It creates a God-shaped hole in our hearts and offers us a new way to relate to others.
A praying spirit transforms how we look at people. As we walk through the mall, our hearts can tempt us to judge, despise, or lust. We see overweight people, skinny people, teenagers with piercings and tattoos, well-dressed women, security guards, and older people shuffling along. If we are tempted to judge an overweight person, we might pray that he or she loses weight. When we see a teenage girl with a nose ring, we can pray that she would find her community in Christ. When we see a security guard, we might pray for his career. When we pass an older couple shuffling along, we can pray for grace as they age.
PAUL'S EXAMPLE AND TEACHING
"Unceasing prayer" is Paul's most frequent description of how he prayed and of how he wanted the church to pray. This was a real experience for Paul and not a formula. In the twelve times he mentions continuous praying, he seldom says it the same way twice (emphasis added).
- Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers. (Romans 1:9-10)
- I give thanks to my God always for you. (I Corinthians 1:4)
- I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. (Ephesians 1:16)
- Praying at all times in the Spirit. (Ephesians 6:18)
- We have not ceased to pray for you. (Colossians 1:9)
- Continue steadfastly in prayer. (Colossians 4:2)
- Always struggling on your behalf in his prayers. (Colossians 4:12)
- Constantly mentioning you in our prayers. (I Thessalonians 1:2)
- We also thank God constantly for this. (I Thessalonians 2:13)
- As we pray most earnestly night and day. (I thessalonians 3:10)
- We always pray for you. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
- I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. (2 Timothy 1:3)
When Paul tells the young churches to pray, he encourages them in this same pattern of "constant in prayer" (emphasis added):
- Be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
- Pray without ceasing. (I Thessalonians 5:17)
Given Paul's emphasis, it is not surprising to see examples of continual prayer in the early church.
A praying life isn't simply a morning prayer time; it is about slipping into prayer at odd hours of the day, not because we are disciplined but because we are in touch with our own poverty of spirit, realizing that we can't even walk through a mall or our neighborhood without the help of the Spirit of Jesus.
When you pray continuously, moments when you are prone to anxiety can become invitations to drift into prayer. A traffic jam, a slight from a friend, or a pressured deadline can serve as a door to God. You'll find yourself turning off the car radio to be with your Father. You'll wake up at night and discover yourself praying. It will be like breathing.
When you stop trying to control your life and instead allow your anxieties and problems to bring you to God in prayer, you shift from worry to watching. You watch God weave his patterns in the story of your life. Instead of trying to be out front, designing your life, your realize you are inside God's drama. As you wait, you begin to see him work, and your life begins to sparkle with wonder. You are learning to trust again.
To become thankful is to be drawn into the fellowship of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit, into their enjoyment of one another, of life, and of people.
The only way to know how prayer works is to have complete knowledge and control of the past, present, and future. In other words you can figure out how prayer works if you are God.
If you are going to enter this divine dance we call prayer, you have to surrender your desire to be in control, to figure out how prayer works. You've got to let God take the lead. You have to trust.
The name of Jesus gives my prayers royal access. They get through. Jesus isn't just the Savior of my soul. He's also the Savior of my prayers. My prayers come before the throne of God as the prayers of Jesus. "Asking in Jesus' name" isn't another thing I have to get right so my prayers are perfect. It is one more gift of God because my prayers are so imperfect.
Jesus' seal not only guarantees that my package gets through, but it also transforms the package. Paul says in Romans 8:26, "The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words."
I do not understand prayer. Prayer is deeply personal and deeply mysterious. Adults try to figure out causation. Little children don't. They just ask.
I often find that when God doesn't answer a prayer, he wants to expose something in me. Our prayers don't exist in a world of their own. We are in dialogue with a personal, divine Spirit who wants to shape us as much as he wants to hear us. For God to act unthinkingly with our prayers would be paganism, which says the gods do our will in response to our prayers.
When someone's prayers aren't answered, I want to know the back-story. How long did that individual pray? What did God do in that person's heart when he or she prayed? What was Good doing in the situation? Most of us isolate prayer from the rest of what God is doing in our lives, but God doesn't work that way. Prayer doesn't exist in some rarified spiritual world; it is part of the warp and woof of our lives. Praying itself becomes a story.
To correctly discern when God is speaking to us, we need to keep the Word and Spirit together.
Spirit Only people can separate the activity of listening to God from obedience to God's Word. Under the cover of "being led by the Spirit," they can easily do what they want. What they "hear" from God might be masking their self-will. This is emotionalism (a form of Romanticism), which makes feelings absolute.
Word Only people can also separate hearing and obedience by focusing on obedience and ignoring a life fo listening and repentance. Listening to and obeying God are so intertwined iin biblical thought that in the Hebrew they are one word. shamar. Under the cover of being obedient to the Word, Word Only folks can be rigid. we need to guard against rationalism as much as we need to guard against emotionalism.
We need the sharp-edged, absolute character of the Word and the intuitive, personal leading of the Spirit. The Word provids the structure, the vocabulary. The Spirit personalizes it to our life. Keeping the Word and the Spirit together guards us from the danger of God-talk becoming a cover for our own desires and the danger of lives isolated from God.
I woke up in the middle of the night recently with this rather odd question on my mind; How would you love someone without prayer?
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