Most of us are familiar with Scottish poet Robert Burns and his lament about a small mouse from his famous line: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an men/Gang aft agley…” Often “agley” or awry is the result of our intentions to make time for daily prayer. There always seems to be something instantly more pressing that needs completion before we feel comfortable enough to sit down and pray. It is because of these tasks and the need to be results oriented, usually by way of instant gratification, that we’ve forgotten the time it takes to fully cultivate anything meaningful, thus pushing our prayer life to the back burner. We have simply forgotten what it means to be obedient. HOWEVER, there is hope, and it is by faith in Christ and His unfailing grace and mercy that we can discipline ourselves to seek the relationship with our Lord and Savior, Jesus, for which so many of us are longing.
Jessica Hatch, who contributed much to this blog, and I became stay-at-home moms around the same time, and we quickly realized we could get lost in the sea of crayons, stickers, and fruit snacks. We needed accountability with each other to help reorient the focus of our lives and make prayer THE priority. As we started out on this journey together with a desire to deepen our prayer lives, it occurred to me early on that I did not find this crucial spiritual discipline enjoyable, mostly because I knew it was going to take away from the one thing I felt like I needed most: sleep. But I know that it is important to sacrifice things for those that we love. I knew God had afforded me an opportunity to pour into the lives of my children and I needed to be equipped with all the mercy, patience, love, kindness, wisdom, and energy that is only offered in Christ.
So where does one begin to pray? Yes, God’s word! I can only speak for myself, but I needed a little more help, so I turned to a faithful old friend, Timothy Keller. His book, Prayer, is where most of the following content derives and we are only scratching the surface of the insight he helped provide us. First, I must quote Cyndi Reina, who helps to lead our ladies’ Morning Break on Thursday mornings: “If I say anything that is good it is from God alone, but if anything is amiss it is from me.” Let that be said of this post.
Duty to Delight
One of the significant points Keller makes in the beginning is that nothing worth doing is easy. Running (if you’re into feeling like you’re dying), education, parenting, marriage all require copious amounts of effort that at times seem to get you nowhere, but I’m sure all of you can attest that it’s always worth it. The same is true for prayer. That “feeling of poverty” and “absence” of God is how it will begin but as you “endure and pray in a disciplined way, [you] get through duty to delight”(25). If we’re honest with ourselves, there have been times when we’ve felt the urging of the Holy Spirit to bow before the Lord in prayer, and, sadly, in that moment we simply didn’t feel like it so we ignored Him. Nonetheless, it is in those exact moments that we must obey and allow the Holy Spirit to work in us, to push through the feelings of anxiety of not knowing what to say or the fear of saying the wrong things because the beauty of grace is that God simply wants to know and be known by his children.
A Joyful Fear
Growing up in the 90’s gave me an inclination toward bad fashion sense, big hair, and a love for trendy acronyms. I remember a guy in our youth group had a guitar case with stickers such as “FROG” (fully rely on God), “ASAP” (always say a prayer), and my favorite “GAP” (God answers prayers). But there was always one non-acronym sticker that stuck out because it was simple yet difficult to understand—“Fear God.” I had thought God was supposed to be this awesome guy that I could just give a little “what’s up” to and he would answers all my requests, so why should I be afraid? It took me years to understand the concept of the fear of the Lord, but I finally found an articulate answer to what that means.
Keller defines prayer as “a personal, communicative response to the knowledge of God” (45). And it is by faith in Christ “whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood” that we are redeemed (Rom 3:24-25) and “have come to know God, or rather to be known by God” (Gal 4:9). It is because of this we must have a fear of God—to be in awe of His presence and “’so moved by [His] majesty’ that we are ‘freed from earthly cares and affections’”(97). Keller says:
Those of who believe the gospel— who believe that they are the recipients of undeserved but unshakable grace—grow in a paradoxically loving yet joyful fear. Because of unutterable love and joy in God, we tremble with the privilege of being in his presence and with an intense longing to honor him when we are there (99).
This is where prayer must begin. Being in awe of God. Christ’s death on the cross brings us to our knees with a dependence on God and “a readiness to recognize and repent of our own faults…” (99). Through our repentance we abandon any self-sufficiency and humble ourselves before The Almighty. We delightfully give in to a “submissive trust” because we know and understand that our confidence and hope rests in the truth of the gospel, and with that assurance we can boldly profess, “Thy will be done” (101). It’s here that our fear of God is no longer fear of punishment, but a joyful fear that reveres the One who “sits enthroned forever [and] has established his throne for justice…” (Psalm 9:7) and enables us to rest in His will.
There are many different approaches to prayer and Keller goes into an in-depth explanation of many different theologians and their methods and convictions about prayer. However, my goal is not to give you a summary of these--because you need to read it yourself--but rather to summarize some renewed personal convictions after reading Keller’s helpful guide.
- Prayer is a discipline but when practiced daily, it can yield the most precious fruit given by God to those who have placed their faith in Christ. Nothing worth having is easy to attain, and we will all fall short because there will always be something pressing to do, but knowing that prayer will lead to greater intimacy with God is our motivation. So we press on in our walk with the Lord through the spiritual discipline of prayer which leads to sacrificial obedience, stirring within us a joy unspeakable to the point that prayer becomes essential to our daily lives.
- Secondly, “if prayer is to be a true conversation with God, it must be regularly preceded by listening to God’s voice through meditation on the Scripture” (145). The first Psalm makes that very clear:
Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither.
Our prayer lives will also ebb and flow, bearing fruit one season but not the next, yet still very much alive. Mediation on the Scriptures brings hope and joy and inclines the heart to rest in its truths. Keller emphasizes the best way to meditate on God’s word day and night is through memorization of the Scriptures. This is another spiritual discipline for another day, but a convicting one. Meditation requires stamina, focused attention, and openness to the Holy Spirit to change you in light of God’s word, which brings me to my last conviction.
- As you begin to read God’s word and meditate on its truths, only to see how God’s love for his people continuously leads to the unfailing grace of Christ, the only response you can give as you stand in awe of your Creator is PRAISE. It is the things we love that make us who we are. Keller says. “[w]e must love God supremely, and that can be cultivated only through praise and adoration” (195). Praise for God’s love allows us to more naturally give thanks for all the goodness in our lives. Thanksgiving is the understanding that we are not self-sufficient and that God is the source of all good in our lives. Keller notes: “That’s the essence of sin—that we don’t ‘give thanks’? Is that such a big deal? Yes, it is” (196). Praise and thanksgiving humble us to understand that nothing we have or gain is by our own wisdom and knowledge; it is only by the grace of God.
For Promised Joy
If you are going to profess Christ and live a life unapologetic of the gospel, which I pray you do, then God has called you to pray. It is through the spiritual discipline of prayer that God leads us to delight in Him and gives us a joy only He can provide. Meditating and praying His word opens a line of communication to our Heavenly Father by which we are compelled to praise and worship Him! Oh what a day it will be when our obedience to prayer leads us to the promised joy that is only offered in an intimate relationship with the triune God. Thankfully, we can experience the promised joy of the Lord right now. We don’t have to wait. All we have to do is simply come to Him as we are.
Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is
the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 1 Thessalonians 5:16-17
Melissa Henson and Jessica Hatch