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?