Throughout my spiritual pilgrimage, two sources have largely shaped, and continue to shape, my own prayer life: the Scriptures and more mature Christians.
The less authoritative of these two has been the advice, wisdom, and example of senior saints. I confess I am not a very good student in the school of prayer. Still, devoting [space] to their advice and values may be worthwhile before I turn to the more important and more authoritative of the two sources that have taught me to pray.
Among the lessons more mature Christians have taught me, then, are these.
1. Much praying is not done because we do not plan to pray.
We do not drift into spiritual life; we do not drift into disciplined prayer. We will not grow in prayer unless we plan to pray. That means we must self-consciously set aside time to do nothing but pray. What we actually do reflects our highest priorities. That means we can proclaim our commitment to prayer until the cows come home, but unless we actually pray, our actions disown our words.
2. Adopt practical ways to impede mental drift.
Anyone who has been on the Christian way for a while knows there are times when our private prayers run something like this: “Dear Lord, I thank you for the opportunity of coming into your presence by the merits of Jesus. It is a wonderful blessing to call you Father. . . . I wonder where I left my car keys? [No, no! Back to business.] Heavenly Father, I began by asking that you will watch over my family—not just in the physical sphere, but in the moral and spiritual dimensions of our lives. . . . Boy, last Sunday’s sermon was sure bad. I wonder if I’ll get that report written on time? [No, no!] Father, give real fruitfulness to that missionary couple we support, whatever their name is. . . . Oh, my! I had almost forgotten to fix my son’s bike today.” Or am I the only Christian who has ever had problems with mental drift? But you can do many things to stamp out daydreaming, to stifle reveries. One of the most useful things is to vocalize your prayers. . . . Another thing you can do is pray over the Scriptures. . . . It is entirely appropriate to tie your praying to your Bible reading.
3. At various periods in your life, develop, if possible, a prayer-partner relationship.
If you know how to pray, consider seeking out someone else and teaching him or her how to pray. By teaching I do not mean set lessons so much as personal example communicated in a prayer-partner relationship.
4. Choose models—but choose them well.
Most of us can improve our praying by carefully, thoughtfully listening to others pray. This does not mean copying everything we hear. . . . Not every good model provides us with exactly the same prescription for good praying, exactly the same balance. All of them pray with great seriousness; all of them use arguments and seek goals that are already portrayed in Scripture. Some of the seem to carry you with them into the very throne room of the Almighty; others are particularly faithful in intercession, despite the most difficult circumstances in life and ministry; still others are noteworthy because of the breadth of their vision. All are characterized by a wonderful mixture of contrition and boldness in prayer.
5. Develop a system for your prayer lists.
It is difficult to pray faithfully for a large spread of people and concerns without developing prayer lists that help you remember them. These lists come in a variety of forms. Many denominations and mission agencies and even some large local churches publish their own prayer lists. . . . Many Christians who give themselves to prayer find that, in addition to such published information, it is wise and fruitful to prepare their own lists. . . . Whatever the system, however, use prayer lists. All of us would be wiser if we would resolve never to put people down, except on our prayer lists.
6. Mingle praise, confession, and intercession, but when you intercede, try to tie as many requests as possible to Scripture.
Both theoretical and practical considerations underlie this advice. The theoretical considerations can best be set out by mentally conjuring up two extremes. The first judges it inappropriate to ask God for things. Surely he is sovereign; he does not need our counsel. If he is the one “who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11), surely it is a bit cheeky to badger him for things. He does not change the course of the universe because some finite, ignorant, and sinful human being asks him. The appropriate response to him is surely worship. . . . The second extreme begins with the slogan, “Prayer changes things.” Petitionary prayer is everything. This means that if people die and go to hell, it is because you or I or someone has neglected to pray. . . . On the face of it, neither of these extremes captures the balance of biblical prayers, and both of them are reductionistic in their treatment of God. . . . Even a little reflective acquaintance with the God of the Bible acknowledges that he is not less than utterly sovereign, and not less than personal and responsive. . . . Of the various models that usefully capture both of these poles, the model of personal relationship with a father is as helpful as any.
7. If you are in any form of spiritual leadership, work at your public prayers.
Public praying is a pedagogical opportunity. It provides the one who is praying with an opportunity to instruct or encourage or edify all who hear the prayer. . . . Many facets of Christian discipleship, not least prayer, are rather more effectively passed on by modeling than by formal teaching. Good praying is more easily taught than caught.
8. Pray until you pray.
This is Puritan advice. It does not simply mean that persistence should mark much of our praying—though admittedly that is a point the Scriptures repeatedly make. Even though he was praying in line with God’s promises, Elijah prayed for rain seven times before the first cloud appeared in the heavens. . . . That is not quite what the Puritans mean when they exhorted one another to “pray until you pray.” What they mean is that Christians should pray long enough and honestly enough, at a single session, to get past the feeling of formalism and unreality that attends not a little praying. We are especially prone to such feelings when we pray for only a few minutes, rushing to be done with a mere duty. To enter the spirit of prayer, we must stick to it for a while. If we “pray until we pray,” eventually we come to delight in God’s presence, to rest in his love, to cherish his will. Even in dark or agonized praying, we somehow know we are doing business with God. In short, we discover a little of what Jude means when he exhorts his readers to pray “in the Holy Spirit” (Jude 20)—which presumably means it is treacherously possible to pray not in the Spirit.