My friend Joe seldom prays out loud in our prayer group—yet he comes faithfully. While others bounce in and out with short prayers four or more times during the forty-five minute prayer time, if he prays at all, Joe will only pray once. I have heard him pray publicly, in a church service, and he prayed eloquently, thoughtfully. He had been asked ahead of time, so he was able to mentally prepare. I don’t know why Joe doesn’t pray more freely. Perhaps he is like many people who want to pray, but are somehow intimidated. It takes a lot to get them to venture out comfortably and freely in prayer.
Most of us take pride in doing things correctly. But some of us take it a step further. If we can’t do something well from the start, we won’t try it or do it at all. If the thing we are attempting doesn’t come easily, we quickly give up. We don’t like to struggle.
Many of us are like that when it comes to prayer. We feel we don’t do it well, or perhaps we never learned how, so we don’t pray. We are confused that we have to struggle to grow our prayer lives, so we give up trying. We hear eloquent pray-ers in church and think, That will never be me.
For me, prayer has always been a struggle. My mind wanders when I attempt to pray; I can’t think of “meaningful” things to pray for; I am bugged that I use the same phrases each time I pray. I was embarrassed that as the editor of a magazine on prayer I seldom could pray more than a few minutes at a time. All of these factors usually make prayer more a chore than a delight. And because it seemed a chore, for many years I neglected doing it—unless I was in a crisis or had a real need.
But thankfully, I have grown over the years; I have learned to pray despite the struggle, to pray even when it seems a chore.
One thing I have learned over the past five years is that there is little I can do wrong in regard to prayer. I should not let my struggle and my impressions that I might be praying poorly deter me from praying at all. If you are letting your struggle with prayer keep you from praying, here are some truths that should encourage you.
Talking to God
Remember that prayer is simply talking to God and listening for His response. You can talk to Him just as you would talk to someone sitting right next to you. You do not have to use ornate language to talk to Him. You do not even need to worry if your prayer makes sense. God knows the heart, He knows your thoughts; you do not need to explain everything clearly for Him to understand. Coming to God is the important thing. He says, “Call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:12-13).
Sincerity and honesty are the most important issues when coming before God. While teaching His disciples about prayer, Jesus used a parable that showcased two different pray-ers.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)
Earlier, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had taught some other principles regarding how we should pray. He taught simplicity over ornateness:
“When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. . . . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. . . . When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:5-8)
While these verses certainly focus on humility in prayer, they also speak to the language we use. God simply wants us to humbly come to Him and share our hearts. We do not need to worry about how we phrase something—in fact, when we do worry about such matters, pride is taking over.
Remember, the simple prayer of the thief on the cross, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42), was enough to change the man for all eternity!
Don’t Forget to Listen
Remember too that a major part of prayer is listening for God to speak. We need not stress out about filling time with words when we pray (“I want to pray for thirty minutes so I’d better have enough things to talk about”). Reserve space for listening. Perhaps God will speak as you meditate on a verse of Scripture or as you wrestle over what to do in a particular situation. Maybe a thought will come to you while pausing in your prayers, and you will feel peace settling over you.
That’s hearing God. I pause often when I pray—to leave space for God to speak. Because my longest time of prayer is early in the morning, I have even started to drift off to sleep as I paused. At first I stressed out about that and chided myself for being so weak. But then I realized I shouldn’t sweat it. Early Christian fathers described that as “spiritual drowsiness” and felt it was a good thing.
The Holy Spirit Prays for Us
Another principle about prayer that frees us from struggling: We can’t get it wrong, because the Holy Spirit prays what we should be praying for. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will” (Romans 8:26-27).
I don’t believe this verse teaches that we need never pray because the Holy Spirit is praying for us. Rather, I believe it means that the Holy Spirit takes our feeble attempts to pray, our bumbling words, our incoherent and wandering thoughts, and turns them into powerful prayer. We still need to pray.
Prayers Can Be Short
If you are just starting out on the journey into prayer, don’t be bothered by the length of your prayers. Remember what Jesus said about “babbling” (Matthew 6:7). A sincere, three-sentence prayer, “Father, Amy [my daughter] needs to see Jesus in her struggle with being picked on by her classmates. I hurt because she hurts, and I know You hurt too. Please show her Your love at this time. In Jesus’ name, amen,” can have as much or even more impact than twenty minutes of rambling.
To begin to grow in prayer, start by picking two or three areas of your life in which you want to see God’s hand at work. Maybe it’s your kids, your relationship with your spouse, a work situation, a character flaw. As you seek to develop your prayer life, simply focus on these things. Don’t worry about how long you pray—just talk to God about what’s on your heart.
Read some Scripture, looking for God to speak to you out of His Word. As you pray, pause to listen from time to time. If a thought on the issue enters your mind, pray about that thought. Ask God to give you a promise from His Word regarding your situation. Then pray over that verse.
You will be surprised how your prayer time grows. Eventually, you will feel confident to add other prayer items to your list, including ones beyond family or personal issues. Perhaps you will begin praying significantly for your pastor or your church, or maybe a neighbor who needs to meet Jesus.
The point is, don’t chide yourself on how little you pray. Just try to develop some consistency with the fact that you do pray. God will do the rest.
Getting comfortable will also help you pray. While I am a proponent of a morning “quiet time” (a set time each day to read Scripture and pray), I encourage struggling and beginning pray-ers to find what works for them. Don’t force yourself into a pattern that might not fit who you are. Do you walk each day?
Pray while you walk. Do you have a significant commute each day (fifteen minutes or more)? Pray while you drive. You do not have to sit in the same chair in your living room for prayer to be effective.
But my mind will wander if I pray when I walk or drive, you might be thinking. So what?! When you walk with a friend and are deep in conversation, plenty of things might interrupt your conversation—another person coming toward you, a squirrel darting across your path, a siren in the distance. You pick your conversation up again. The same can happen if you’re praying.
In a real sense, Jesus is walking with you. If something interrupts your conversation, simply start talking again.
This prayer stuff is not as difficult as we often make it out to be. Just talk about what’s on your mind—and listen. No special words, no props needed. Just you and God.
Jonathan Graf is the president of the Church Prayer Leaders Network, the parent ministry of Love2Pray. He is also the author of 6 books on prayer including The Power of Personal Prayer, from which this article is taken. (If purchasing at prayershop.org, use code love2pray at checkout and save $2.00)
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