Catalyst: living weak in prayer
On July 28 at 9:00 AM I sat in a coffee shop translating, meditating, and trying to pray Jonah 2. I’d successfully translated it. I’d meditated on it and seen implications for my life I otherwise wouldn’t have. But my prayers were pathetic. My mind wandered every which way. I couldn’t stay on track.
This has been a theme in my prayers for many years that has led to a life in prayer that is lacking:
- 5–10 minutes of prayer time set aside.
- Unconscious of God much of the day.
- Pray with my family as we finish family devotions.
I’m not satisfied with that. Especially when I read about some of the saints of bygone eras who spent hours and hours in prayer. No wonder they had so much spiritual affection and power.
So, when I got to my office, I picked up “A Praying Life” by Paul Miller and began to read.
Miller’s opening chapter struck a chord with me. He’s diagnosing America’s prayer problem. It hurt to have my heart in prayer spoken so bluntly. But, I was encouraged. “Maybe he can help,” I thought.
Crash-landing: living weak in Jesus
There was no doubt in my mind after I read.
Do you see how devasting this analysis is? It means that my prayer life is dysfunctional because my relationship with Jesus is dysfunctional. Miller won’t separate the two.
I know more than I’ve seen. I express more than I’ve experienced. I confess more than I’ve encountered.
I can preach, “Jesus—knowing Jesus—must be the supreme treasure of your life.” I was excited the first time someone showed me that glorious truth from Scripture. I love when authors show me the richness of relationship with God that is possible.
But when I sit down to spend time with God, it feels like I have two modes:
- Research: rigorously discovering everything I can in the text of Scripture. Here my mind gets stuck on the text and has trouble moving to the reality the text points to. Paul Miller says it’s like driving look at the windshield instead of through it.
- Frustrated: guilty for a wandering mind and finding distractions. When my prayer timer goes off I stand up wishing it was different.
If you’re reading this and your head isn’t nodding with grim agreement, you’re probably wondering why I didn’t ask for help sooner. This seems like a serious spiritual problem. It is. But my perception is that it’s most Christian’s norm. So I’d ask for prayer about my prayer life, and admit it was less-than-stellar, but I thought vibrant prayer would be years in the future for a version of myself much more mentally disciplined. I’m so glad I was wrong. Paul Miller was the prayer therapist I needed.
Charting: discovering what prayer (and relationship) could be
Miller’s vision of prayer helped me imagine a different future for my prayers. Two truths run intertwined through the rest of the book:
- A praying life is all about a relationship with God. He says “The praying life feels like dinner with good friends” (7). He compares prayer to family meal-time. He reminded me that prayer is a means—it’s communication. Knowing God is the goal.
- A needy, messy, dependent, hurting heart is required for a vibrant prayer life. Dependency and authenticity are the bedrock of prayer. No need to ask for what you can get yourself. No way to improve a relationship if you won’t be yourself.
These are simple. They aren’t hard to understand—they’re gloriously ground-level. Keep these front and center on the stage of your mind as you keep reading.
Construction: building a praying life means
In what follows, I’m going to summarize “A Praying Life” for the benefit of those who haven’t read it yet. I hope that you’ll read it too. Most of us need some time in the office with a prayer therapist.
Prayer could be…childlike
Often, we come to Jesus pretending that we are something that we aren’t. We get on our knees with a “spiritual mask” firmly affixed to our faces. We try to be our most disciplined, “spiritual” self. But Jesus told us to pray like children.
How can I be like a child? If there’s anything I’ve learned from being a dad in the last two years, it’s that kids have no pretense. They come running to be messy and weak. They come overwhelmed and whiny. They come just like they are. My two-year-old has never washed up before running to me for help. I shouldn’t “wash up” before coming before God.
After we learn to be like children—entirely authentic—we need to ask like children. Like kids, we ask for “everything and anything…repeatedly” (25). Then we need to believe like a child. If we ask dad he can do it. If we come to prayer cynical, not believing God could do it, then it’s no surprise we can’t pray for it (even if we’re cynical our prayer lives could change).
And when we learn to be like children and ask like children, we need to learn to play (in prayer) like children.
When our mind wanders, our prayers should wander. That’s okay! That’s going with God into the messy-ness of our lives—right where we want him.
It’s in these times in prayer, with mind wandering and lives messy, that we grow in a relationship. Miller reminds me repeatedly that God is a person, so my relationship with him is more than, not less than, relationships with other people I know. I need to give me and God space alone without an agenda if I expect an intimate relationship,
All that is supernatural. It’s when we see how helpless we are to live as we ought that our prayer kicks in. It’s this poverty of spirit that pushes us to constant prayer. It’s not self-discipline (54).
Prayer could be…natural
In the context of this relationship with God, we often forget that helplessness is how the Christian life works (43). It’s when we see our weakness that we grasp for more grace—that’s prayer! Strong Christians pray more because they see themselves as weak, helpless, overcome. They see life’s challenges clearly enough to know they can’t really do them unless God helps.
- Parents can’t get inside the hearts of their kids.
- Pastors can’t get inside the hearts of their members.
- Employees can’t do everything unto the Lord.
- Spouses can’t repent in humility
In my moment in America, prayer seems unreal. The cultural air says that prayer can’t change anything. I’ve been infected too. Secularism says that prayer is relegated to the list of things that might help some people but doesn’t change the physical world. Faith says otherwise. Faith believes in a God who is intensely (even uncomfortably) personal. God being personal means that he’s showing up in your daily life and is active in your world every day.
If God shows up in my day-to-day living, then it makes sense that I’d acknowledge him, and talk with him, and be aware that he’s with me. It’s in this normal everyday part of life then that a sense of relationship sets in. Its quiet moments alone my Father forges a relationship with me as I respond to him in his Word. It’s in everyday moments of life that I start to wake up to God’s grace in keeping me aware of his presence.
Concrete: prayer in real life
Miller gives three concrete pieces of advice that have already renewed my prayers substantially.
Breath prayers are prayers so short that you can say them in a single breath.
- In the fifth century, some Christian monks started praying this short prayer over and over again: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
- Miller advocates praying: “Father, father, father…”
- Or using short passages of Scripture: “The Lord is my shepherd…” —Ps. 23:1
Breath prayers like these have brought my mind back to the presence of God many times this week.
Miller advocates using a prayer journal to figure out what you want. Like journaling for any reason, journaling in prayer clarifies what we are asking for and what’s on our hearts so that we can bring those messy hearts to God’s throne to talk.
So, bring your diary into your prayer closet.
Prayer cards are just simple index cards with a title and a few bullets or scriptures to pray. You could make a card for your church, for each member of your family, for those who are in the hospital at church. Then, when you spend time alone with God, use these cards to focus your prayers.
Miller says that cards as opposed to a list because cards bring you to one request instead of many. He also says (and catch this) that he only spends a few seconds, maybe a minute, per card.
Conclusion: toward a praying life
Paul Miller was the spiritual jolt I needed this week. My prayer life is more alive than ever, especially through the day. The strength of this book is that it connects prayer to faith, to know God, to relationships. When prayer gets pulled out of this context and becomes a discipline, it dies.
Lord, teach us to pray…
Nathan Colestock is an alumni of Emmaus Bible College and current MDIV student at Bethlehem College and Seminary. He also enjoys serving on staff at Meadow Creek Church in Andover, MN pastoring youth and families. He is the lucky husband of Maddie and a father to his two adorable daughters.