Is your church committed to prayer? Are you committed to prayer? These can be difficult questions, as Robert Murray McCheyne noted, “You wish to humble a man? Ask him about his prayer life.” I do not wish to humble you about your prayer life, but to encourage you in your prayer life.
As I have been preaching through Romans 8, I have been thinking and reflecting quite a bit on prayer. In Romans 8, one of the ways the Apostle Paul describes the Spirit-filled life is as a life of prayer. “Living by the Spirit,” “being led by the Spirit,” and having “the Spirit of adoption” are expressed in our Christian pilgrimage as we cry out “Abba! Father!” (13-15). The Spirit leads us to glory by uniting us to Christ so that we follow his path of suffering that leads to glory (17), a suffering that leads us to “groan inwardly” as we endure and wait for our redemption (23). Throughout the struggle of our pilgrimage, the Spirit helps us in our weakness by interceding for us when we are so confounded that we don’t even know how to pray for ourselves (26).
As Iraneaus once said, “We live in a veil of tears that is an engine of soul-making. In this life, we Christians are being made into saints, and it takes suffering to make saints.” The life of faith – the Spirit filled life- is a life of prayer. And a life of prayer is a Spirit empowered, persevering, patient, engagement with the world, the flesh and the devil, that is encouraged by the knowledge of God’s purposes for his people. If we are going to find any aid, if we are going to find any help, if we are going to find any comfort, we must look outside ourselves – we must look to Christ. And one way to do that is through prayer.
The early church understood this as they were devoted t0 prayer. Read through Acts and look at how many times the early church is meeting for prayer. In a helpful article “They Devoted Themselves to Prayer,” Edmund Clowney shows many of the different occasions where the early church, especially the apostles, were devoted to prayer. In it, he argues that their devotion in prayer was an expression of their devotion to Christ, “They devoted themselves to prayer because they had devoted themselves to the Lord Jesus. They wanted to reflect Him, and they desired to serve Him. His resurrection and ascension lifted their praise to the Father’s throne.” The whole of the early church’s existence was lived out of prayer – its worship and its work. This devotion and dependence on prayer and the Holy Spirit helps us to know what we need to devote ourselves to in our pilgrimage, as well – for we all share the pilgrimage of Christ together.
The church today, however, seems to struggle in displaying this same concern for and devotion to Spirit-filled, prayerful, worship and work. The degree to which a church values prayer is often reflected in the time devoted to prayer and the content of what is prayed. Derek Thomas writes,
Our prayers reveal much about us. Prayers with little or no worship and focusing on our needs (usually health) reveal a distorted, Adamic bent. What they reveal is self-centeredness, what Martin Luther labeled homo in se incurvatus: “man curved in on himself.” Listen to prayers at the church prayer meeting (if one still exists). You will discover that the majority of prayers are “organ recitals” — prayers for someone’s liver, kidney, or heart. Not that we shouldn’t pray for medical issues, but a preoccupation with health is itself a reflection of how little we understand why it is we desire good health.
Scotty Smith also believes that prayer says much about one’s relationship with God. He describes himself as “a recovering self-centered pragmatic pray-er,” and believes that this problem is the result of a man-centered perspective of God as “a sugar daddy” instead of a “sovereign Father.” When you read Thomas’ and Smith’s articles, you are provided a very clear sense that both of them believe the root of the church’s problem in prayer is self-centeredness instead of God-centeredness. Both of them believe that the church needs to be reoriented in her praying.
Thomas advocates that we reacquaint ourselves with the Lord’s Payer. The Lord’s Prayer is God-centered. It begins with acknowledging and praising God – “our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” It is a prayer that ends with acknowledging God by emphasizing his kingdom, power, and glory. And in between? Our requests. Prayer is to include requests, but in their proper place. We are to approach God as a person, not a genie. We are to approach him in praise, not as a sounding board. We are to approach him as one who is present with us, not a concept that is floating around somewhere out there. So often, we skip praise, we forget to speak to God as a person, and we do not sense his presence – no wonder we tend to drone on and on about ourselves instead of making much of him, listening to him, and waiting for him.
So how do we deal with this problem? How do we ensure that we are not self-centered pragmatic prayers? Well, Smith provides a theological answer, while Thomas suggests a more practical practice. Smith believes that we need a different paradigm through which we approach prayer – a paradigm that he refers to as the “doxological discipline of praying the scriptures,” or praying the scriptures through the lens of the gospel.
Thomas is more practical in his five step practice:
- Remind yourself that there is only one God in the universe, and that you are not Him.
- Adoration comes first, before confession, thanksgiving, or supplication. Worship the Lord in your praying.
- Read a psalm before you pray, and attempt to emulate what you find: a preoccupation with God in all His multifaceted nature. Find psalms of joy or grief, praise or lament, and note how the psalmist spends time with God, making Him the center of his thoughts and desires.
- Learn to love God’s names so that saying and repeating them fills you with an inexpressible joy, a reminder of who He is and His covenant faithfulness to you in the gospel of His grace.
- Learn to “wait” upon the Lord.
While I agree with both Thomas’ and Smith’s critiques and suggestions, I don’t believe that they are the only ways to explain current struggles with devotion to prayer. What if people desire to pray God-centered, Christ-exalting prayers, that go beyond Aunt Flossie’s ingrown toenail, but just don’t know how to do it? Adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (ACTS) is certainly a good approach, but maybe they need more help than that. I believe that many churches don’t meet to pray, because people are not confident in praying in groups. I believe that many individuals do not pray better prayers because they haven’t been taught how to do so.
So, to assist myself and my church with this struggle, I have begun writing prayer liturgies to be used with the normal prayer list that provide specific scriptures to be prayed as adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. We have always had a prayer list that consisted of requests brought by individuals in the church, but sometimes we need help knowing what to pray for, let alone how to pray for what is listed. So we have also been working on what we should be praying for. What I am attempting to do, then, is utilize the theological paradigm of Smith, while also filling out the practical suggestions of Thomas. In doing so, I hope to help my folks become confident in approaching prayer at our weekly prayer service, in family worship, and in private devotions, by praying the scripture. It is a work in progress, but a labor of love.
You can view the prayer liturgy from last night by clicking here. It is a prayer that is basically structured around Psalm 71. I have removed all the personal information from the prayer list section, but you can see the major headings we use for our prayers of supplications. The liturgy is structured to be prayed corporately at our weekly prayer service by having congregational prayer responses in bold, italicized font. However, it can also be used by families and individuals throughout the week.
Though many of us do struggle with prayer because we struggle with self-centeredness, I don’t think it is the only reason our commitment to prayer wanes. If you find that your prayer life needs a boost, maybe you just need a little more structure to help you get going. This liturgy is not the only way to pray God-centered, scriptural prayers, but it certainly is one way! Try it out and see what you think – at worst you might spend 30 minutes talking to God.