How to grow in prayer
Every year I set myself some goals, and one of my goals for 2021 was to read 12 books on prayer. I had a real desire to go beyond the typical prayer list and grow in greater intimacy and depth with my relationship to the Father through prayer. Last week, I completed book 12 of 12, and I learned a huge amount in the process. Here are three big takeaways (I could write a dozen more smaller takeaways, but that will be for another time).
1. It’s okay to go through the motions
I had always believed prayer wasn’t “proper” or “good enough” if I wasn’t fully engaged in it. If I was just praying with my head, or mouth, and my heart wasn’t engaged, then I always felt like my prayer was somehow inferior. This really limited me in terms of my models for prayer, and my capacity for prayer.
It limited my models because I was only willing to engage in models of prayer that were not repetitive and rote-based, believing that repetitive models of prayer would not fully engage my heart. And it also limited my capacity, because I would give up praying when I felt I wasn’t fully engaged.
But this year of learning, study, and practice of prayer has emphasized for me that it’s okay to go through the motions. Yes, the ideal is to be fully engaged, but not being fully engaged doesn’t affect God’s willingness to hear our prayers, and it doesn’t affect prayer’s ability to transform us.
Throughout this year, I chose to practice Morning and Evening Prayer, which is a liturgical form of prayer that is most popular in the Anglican tradition stemming from Thomas Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer ( I used the contemporary Anglican form, which you can access online here or through their fantastic app for Apple or Android). By engaging in this daily rhythm of prayer, whether I felt like it, or not, whether I was fully engaged in it, or not, I began to discover that God was causing me to fall more in love with his Word, creating a greater sense of peace in my life, and forming in me a desire to pray more often.
2. The Lord’s Prayer is the model prayer
What we refer to as the Lord’s Prayer, which begins, “Our Father…” is not only a model of prayer, but, I believe, may be the model prayer. Throughout the year, I have read a number of expositions of the Lord’s prayer, ranging from 24-7 Prayer founder Pete Grieg’s excellent and accessible How to Pray, to John Calvin’s thick and meaty chapter on prayer from his Institutes of Christian Religion. And all these expositions have led me to believe that in the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus gave us a model of prayer which encompasses the full scope and range of prayer in several short and memorable phrases.
One week I left my Morning and Evening Prayer routine behind and decided to pray only using the Lord’s Prayer as my basis for prayer all week long. Each day I would take a walk and begin praying the Lord’s prayer one line at a time, taking several minutes following each line to personalize it into my own words. For example, “Our Father who art in heaven,” would be followed by a prayer like this:
Thank you that you are my true Father. Thank you that you love me as a son. Thank you that you are proud of me, that you accept me, that you have given me a share in the inheritance of Jesus. And thank you that you are also above all things in heaven; that you rule and reign over all, and all things are subject to you. Thank you that you are both near to me as a Father, and transcendent over all as the King of the Universe.
As I did this all week long, I discovered the richness and depth of the Lord’s prayer, and the realization that what I had been reading in these books was true: the Lord’s Prayer encompasses the full scope and range of prayer in a few short phrases. The Lord’s Prayer enabled me to express all that I desired to express to the Father, and so much more.
3. Prayer must be based on God’s Word (and when it is, you never run out of things to pray)
The first book I read this year, and my favorite book of all, was pastor and author Tim Keller’s book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. In it, he argues for a foundational belief that Christian prayer is only possible in response to God, and the way we find God revealing himself is through the Scriptures; if we want to know who we are praying to, how to address Him, and what prayers he accepts, we must get to know this God through his revelation of Himself in the Word of God—the Bible.
And not only is God’s Word foundational to prayer, but if we choose to pray God’s Word back to him, we never run out of things to say in prayer, as theologian Donald Whitney argues in his short yet potent book Praying the Bible. In the same way that I explained above how we can use the Lord’s Prayer as a model for prayer, Whitney demonstrates how we can use any section of the Bible, but particularly the Psalms as a launching point for prayer.
Whitney encourages his readers to pray through the Psalms, which has historically been the prayer book of God’s people, on a daily basis. Starting by finding the Psalms of the Day (take the day of the month, for example, today is the 20th, and then look at Psalm 20, and the four other Psalms you get if you add multiples of 30 to that number, i.e. 50, 80, 110, 140), then quickly glancing at all five and determining which one connects most with you that day, and then beginning to read that Psalm one verse at a time, pausing to pray after each verse on whatever the Lord calls to mind.
For example, today I might pick Psalm 80 from the Psalms of the Day, because I am in need of guidance and the Psalm begins, “Give ear, O Shepherd of Israel, you who lead Joseph like a flock.” And I might pray, in response to that verse, “God, I need your guidance. I need you to lead me. I’ve been trying to lead myself and it isn’t working. Lord, would you shepherd me this day?” And then I would continue by reading the next verse and praying in response to it.
In this way, not only does God’s revelation of himself in the Scripture form the basis of our prayer, but it is almost impossible to run out of things to pray. In fact, when I first tried this, I found myself praying for much longer periods of time than I thought possible, and I know this is the experience of others as well. Moreover, praying the Psalms puts us in touch with the most historic prayer book (and indeed, hymnal, with hymns being a controversial innovation in the last 500 years) of the people of God, including Jesus, who would have prayed and worshipped using the Psalms on a regular basis.
So, there’s three ways to grow in prayer, and I hope you might find them helpful in your own journey with the Lord.
This Sunday, we conclude our study in the book of Joshua by looking at that famous verse that I have on my wall at home: “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15).
See you this Sunday at 8:30, 10:00 or 11:30 am!
P.S. – If you have ever wondered why we pray if God knows everything anyway, watch Pastor Gunnar Tesdahl’s discussion with Jenna Arnold on our YouTube channel. If you like what you see, please be sure to give the video a thumbs up, comment, and if you aren’t subscribed to our channel, please do so (and tap the “bell” icon to receive notifications when we upload new content).
Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash