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As we wrap up our discussion on personal devotions, let’s look at the second part of them: prayer.   

If we were to ask ourselves how we truly felt about prayer, I fear many of us would answer that we merely feel an obligation to pray. We are afraid to neglect it because, as the Heidelberg Catechism reminds us, it is the chief part of thankfulness. But prayer is more of an arduous task and doesn’t seem to refresh us as it ought. Prayer is difficult, and it should be. But successful prayer is also refreshing and strengthening.   

Prayer is (and should be) difficult because it is a great privilege. What a great privilege to be able to come before our great God and speak to him! Who is he? He is Creator and Sustainer. Read about the latest scientific discoveries on earth and in space—from black holes, stars, and galaxies to amazing creatures that live in the deepest parts of the ocean—and stand in awe of the powerful God that made and controls them. He is Judge. Learn about the confusion the current courts struggle with and stand in awe of the wisdom of God in his perfect justice in all things. He is THE King. All nations will bow to him. Now contrast that image of God with tiny man, and the magnitude of his greatness multiplies. And remember that this privilege to come before the throne of the Almighty God was purchased with the highest price, the blood of his dear and only begotten Son (Heb. 10:19).  

These are all very good things to keep in mind as we prepare to pray. These thoughts will cause us to pause and keep a reverent heart as we go through our petitions. This takes effort and care. But being reverent in prayer does not require us to borrow pious-sounding phrases that cause us to stumble over our words and churn out empty petitions. Use your own words to bring your requests to him, and trust the Spirit to make our sincere and humble prayers right (Rom. 8:26).    

Thoughts on the privilege and cost of prayer might cause us to be afraid to bring him any petition that is too personal, fearing it isn’t worthy to be brought into this high court. But remember that it is the throne of GRACE we come to and that the God to whom we pray is compassionate. God loves to hear our prayers (Prov. 15:8) and encourages us to make every request known to him (Phil. 4:6–7). He calls us to pour out our hearts to him (Ps. 62:8). He is a God that understands (Ps. 147:5) and cares. In Psalm 56:8 God is said to have a book in which he keeps account of each wandering and a bottle for every tear. God loves to give good gifts to his children (Ps. 84:11). He owns all things and is ready to use all things for our good. Bring every petition to him with a submissive heart, trusting him to give or withhold as it seems good to him for you. Asking for some great need often becomes a wrestling match. We wrestle with whether what we are asking for is good and struggle to trust that God knows whether he should grant our request. As we bring our need to God day after day, he will give us our desire in his time, or the peace to accept that he has chosen to withhold it for our good.  

Do we hesitate to pray because we believe so strongly in the sovereign will of God in all things that we feel our prayer is powerless? God himself tells us he uses prayer as the means both to fulfill his decrees and to pour out his heavenly blessings upon us (Matt. 7:7–8). God himself has told us that our prayers “avail much” (James 5:16). Daniel 10 teaches that God uses prayer as a means to fulfill his decrees. Here the angel that was sent to Daniel tells him, “[T]hy words were heard, and I am come for thy words” (v. 12). Genesis 32:28 says Jacob had power with God. And James 4:2 argues the point further by saying negatively, “ye have not, because ye ask not.”  

What comes to mind when we think of petitionary prayer? We think of the “sick and afflicted” and try to pray specifically for those we’ve heard of. We think of the mission fields and try to pray specifically for God’s blessing upon missions that have been on our minds lately. We think of our schools and denomination. We think of our physical needs.  We pray for the grieving. That is where the list ends for most of us. I would like to encourage you to think more about your own spiritual needs and the spiritual needs of those close to you. We all have a very important job to do every day: “Be ye holy” (I Pet. 1:16). Are we spiritually mature enough to realize what a battle this is? Do we have the determination of David to make it through one day and be able to say (to some degree) to God at night that we have done well (Ps. 17:3)? 

As we fight for holiness, we need daily to root out our sin. Prayer is also difficult because it should include confession of sins. Confessing sins takes the hard and unpleasant work of self-examination. But we don’t want to remain day after day in the filth of our sins. Find cleansing and experience forgiveness and sanctification by confessing specific sins in prayer! This work also gives us a renewed resolve to fight that sin harder in each new day. 

The benefits of prayer are not limited to receiving our needs met by a loving hand.  Jeremiah 33:3 tells us that through prayer, God will give us more than we ask. You will experience a stronger tie with the body of Christ as you pray for others and the kingdom causes; a softening of your own heart as you bring him conflicts and ask for his help and guidance; a confidence that stays with you throughout the day as you experience more and more that he is always with you—how else does he know your needs before you even bring them to him?; a growth in humility as you realize your own weaknesses by constantly examining yourself; a heart that is content in all things as you think about what needs you want to bring to him and watch how he lovingly responds and supplies each of those needs; and a deepening of your sense of peace as you are assured again and again of forgiveness. When we consider all of these gifts (and there are more), surely the struggles we encounter in prayer are worth the rewards!   

A few tips:  Staying focused in prayer is always a struggle. Our minds move faster than we want them to. We are in the midst of a prayer and suddenly, instead of praying, we are thinking about what the plan is for dinner that night. I find it helps to whisper my prayers and to keep a prayer journal. Not only does a prayer journal help with staying focused, but it also helps you to have a good plan for your prayer. You want to come into the court of the King with a purpose. You don’t wander aimlessly; know your needs, the needs of others, and the needs of his kingdom. Plan also to respond to what you read and to praise him for specific things. I have sometimes found it helpful to use the acronym ACTS—adorations, confessions, thanksgivings, and supplications.   

My final suggestion would be to start with small prayers and ask God to help them grow. When you ask God to teach you to pray, trust that he will. He will teach you how to pray and even what to pray for. Our Father is patient. We need only to be children, willing to be taught and led. As your prayers grow, you will more and more leave the throne of grace with that special peace and renewed strength because you have succeeded in bringing him your desires and he answered you before you spoke. You will come to love prayer as a cherished treasure to be taken out and enjoyed again and again. 

I would like to end with Psalm 91. You can read the entire beautiful psalm; I will just give you verse 1. “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty.” That secret place is your “closet” where you spend that needful time with him in personal devotions. Start your day there, and so many blessings will be yours as he keeps you in his shadow. Think of the God we described earlier. Who doesn’t want to stay in his shadow every moment of life here below? 

In the last issue, we talked about the need for personal devotions. Let’s examine now the first part of those personal devotions—reading the scriptures.
Our personal devotions should include a focus and meditation on God’s Word. Devotional books can be good but let us never forget the importance of reading the Bible itself. Only God’s word is the pure and eternal truth. His word is and always will be more complete and accurate than any other. It is his own revelation of himself. It is written to you by the one who created you and planned your life. Through Christ, you are a prophet, and God through his Spirit has given you the ability to understand his word (1 Cor. 2:10–16). Of course, we benefit from what other faithful saints have learned to guide us in our study of his word, but we should also believe and trust that God speaks to each one of us personally.
It is God’s word (not someone else’s thoughts on his word) that is more powerful than any other. It creates (Gen. 1). It gives life (Ezek. 37). It sustains all things (Heb. 1:3). It causes us to be born again (1 Pet. 1:23). It sanctifies (John 15:3). It is the conductor of faith (Rom. 10:17). It will accomplish whatever he purposes (Isa. 55:11). Trust the great power of his word to work in you.
Psalm 19:10 tells us the Bible is more precious than gold and sweeter than honey. If God’s word is more important than wealth and food, let us schedule time for reading it before we schedule everything else in our busy lives. When you do, I think you will find that everything else you do in your busy life will be done out of the fruit of what you have read. More and more, you will do your work out of joyful obedience to him. The burdens of life that made you weary will be lightened. You will become more and more familiar with God’s will and what he expects of you. More and more, you will live according to his laws that are now more familiar to you. More and more, you will know his way for you in the different parts of your life. This is wisdom. And we all know the book of Proverbs is full of verses that speak of the importance and the value of wisdom. Wisdom is different than knowledge because it is applying knowledge. If you need knowledge to be wise, and Proverbs tells us that “wisdom is the principal thing” (Prov. 4:7), you must read to gain knowledge so that you can be wise through the power of his word.
How much of his word should you read each day? The answer to this question will be different for each individual. Each individual is unique in level of comprehension, skill of reading, and measure of curiosity. Determine a starting point for yourself, and experiment to find what works best for you. Be ready to increase or decrease the amount you read as you grow and change.
How much time should you spend studying his word? In answering this question, consider the other ways God calls you to spend your time and energy. The Bible calls us to labor, to help others, and to raise a family, among other things. These things not only take a large portion of our time and energy, but we may also want to read and study about those things, in order to be most efficient. The Bible even tells us to see what his creation reveals about him. We are told to “go to the ant” and “consider the lily.” In studying the creation, we may also want to read books to learn more about the world God created. When we read other books, we should remember that we will need God’s word to recognize lies and distortions. We live in a time where there is so much information that is literally at our fingertips or our request (“Hey Siri”). All of that information must come through the screen of God’s word so that we can avoid being led to adopt worldviews that are not in line with scripture or to sin. Be so familiar with his word that you have that screen of discernment—a fine one that does not allow any of the filth of the devil’s lies to reach your mind and heart.
There are a few things I would recommend to help encourage you in this regular reading of the Bible. Surround yourself with others who read Scripture regularly and often share thoughts about what they’ve read. When you have friends who are bubbling over with a zeal for God’s word, you will be inspired to take the time to read so that you may catch that same spirit. Memorize portions of the Bible. That work will cause you to ruminate well on what you’re learning. At the same time, if you are not working on memorizing something, don’t stress about remembering exactly what you have read. Trust that God’s word will find its place in your heart and that you will grow, sometimes even without realizing exactly how. And finally, before you read, pray for eyes to see and ears to hear (Ps. 119:18).
In closing, let’s look at Jesus’ beautiful prayer for his people in John 17. In his prayer, he shows us what we will miss when we let our days fly by without taking the time to read his word. JOY: “these things I speak in the world, that they might have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (v. 13). SANCTIFICATION: “sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (v. 17). ETERNAL LIFE: “And this is life eternal, that they might know thee the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom thou hast sent” (v. 3).

Are personal devotions really necessary? The Bible is full of passages that call us to seek God regularly (1 Chron. 16:11), to meditate on him continually (Ps. 119:97), and to pray often (1 Thess. 5:17). The regular practice of personal devotions is one of the best ways to do these things. Jesus teaches the importance of communing with him in the familiar story of Mary and Martha where Martha complains to Jesus that Mary is not helping her. Here is his response in Luke 10:41 and 42: “Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: but one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her.” The good part that Mary had chosen was to sit and commune with her Lord. Jesus calls this the one thing needful. He goes on to say that this “good part” would stay with her, meaning that her soul would be nourished and grow because of this time spent with him.
Let’s look at Jesus’ teaching on prayer in the Sermon on the Mount. Here he speaks of prayer, but I believe we can apply it to scripture reading as well. In Matthew 6:6 Jesus says, “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret, and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.” Notice that Jesus says when not if. Notice also that Jesus instructs the believer to “enter into thy closet.” This implies personal prayer; not just corporate or family prayer. These words are written with the assumption that the reader prays personally. The phrase “shut the door” calls us to put away every distraction and give all our attention to communing with him. And finally, see that Jesus promises here too that this time spent with him will be rewarded. These rewards are said to be public. Others will know that you have been with God.
Recently, I made a list of the rewards we can experience through regular personal devotions. The list was long. I will share a few. Holiness. The psalmist tells us the best way to keep sin out is to fill our hearts with his word. Knowledge of God. To know God is to have life. How alive do you want to be? Confidence. Not the loud and proud kind foolishly found in ourselves, but the quiet confidence that comes from constantly being reminded that the King of kings loves you. Strength. Just as physical strength wanes when we lack food, so spiritual strength wanes when we neglect to feed our souls. Beauty. Have you noticed the effect the state of the soul has on the face? Psalm 43:5 calls God the “health of my countenance.”
Most of the list of rewards was about spiritual growth. Others will notice these attributes in us because we have spent time with God. This glorifies God. But because God’s glory should be the first aim in everything we do, our first and main purpose for having personal devotions has to be his glory. Simply the fact that we make time to commune with him each day brings glory to his name, regardless of whether or not we gain spiritually. To clarify my point, let me quote one of John Piper’s favorite sayings. “God is most glorified when we are most satisfied in Him.” How many of us can sincerely say with the psalmist “The Lord is my portion,” meaning the Lord is all I need or want? Spending time listening to God speak to us in his word and speaking to him alone in prayer develops and proves a satisfaction and a delight in him.
C.S. Lewis writes about this delight in God that overflows into praise in his book Reflections on the Psalms. He tells of how he was first repulsed by a God that was continually calling his people to praise him. He saw God as vain and puffed up. But one day he realized that he was always hearing people praise things (flowers, food, books, etc.) and this was because they enjoyed the things they praised. Suddenly he understood why God’s people were often being called to praise him and that being called to praise him was actually an act of love because he was calling his people to share in the greatest joy in the universe—his glory. God gives and reveals himself to us to be enjoyed, compelling us to praise him. When you come to know God through your personal devotions, you will see that he truly is the one highest and supreme good! Your delight in him grows, and you are thankful that you are called to glorify him in all things because you are brought to the greatest pleasure of knowing him! How much I need this “closet” of communing with him!
By God’s grace, from my experience in personal devotions, I have found that the “closet” has become not only increasingly needful but increasingly delightful. It wasn’t that way at first—I had to fight to remain diligent, and I didn’t always (and sometimes still don’t) feel “magically” transformed. I continue to fight laziness and distractions at times. But I think you will find, as you make time to commune with God, your appetite for him will grow, and you will desire that time with him more. In your prayers, ask God to help you remain diligent, to teach you how to pray, and to open your heart to what you are reading. Then trust God to reward that time as he has promised. In time, I think you will find that when you look back on the days past, you will see a correlation between the days you began with that needful time in your closet and the state of your soul that day.
In the next two articles, we will look at the two parts of personal devotions: scripture reading and prayer.

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