Editors’ note: Every day we are becoming either more like Jesus or less like him. Spiritual formation is the name for that process by which Christians, in union with Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, become conformed both internally and externally to the character of Christ for the purpose of communion with God.
The closing of the year and the beginning of a new one is an opportune time to reflect on our spiritual formation and to develop habits to help us become more like Jesus. In this weekly series of articles we’ll consider eight spiritual habits to develop for 2017.
Habit 3: Speaking to God — Prayer
Habit 4: Engaging with God’s Word — Engaging Scripture
Habit 5: Communion with God — Worship
Habit 6: Conforming internally — Developing Wisdom
Habit 7: Conforming externally — Stewardship
Habit 8: Responding in obedience — Faithfulness
Each article will contain a brief explanation of why that habit is important, a practical application to incorporate it into your life, and a self-assessment that can be used throughout the year to gauge your progress.
What Prayer Is
What is prayer? Most people might say it’s talking to God, mostly to ask for what we need. This is partially true, but there is a missing piece. In Jeremiah, God tells the Israelites, “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jer. 33:3). As F. B. Huey Jr., says, this verse links revelation with prayer: “The invitation suggests that divine revelation becomes reality when it is sought” (see Matt. 7:7; cf. James 4:2–3).
Tim Keller further explains how prayer is connected to God’s revelation:
What is prayer, then, in the fullest sense? Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him. . . . The power of our prayers, then, lies not primarily in our effort and striving, or in any technique, but rather in our knowledge of God.
This is why, as Donald Whitney says, “of all the Spiritual Disciplines, prayer is second only to the intake of God’s Word importance.” Prayer is second in importance because it relies on our knowledge of God, which comes from reading his Word. Without engagement with Scripture, our prayers are lacking. It’s like having a phone conversation in which the other person can hear us, but we can’t hear them.
Hearing from God by engaging Scripture changes us. But does prayer change God? The Bible doesn’t explicitly say how our prayers influence God. But it does say we can be confident he hears us if we pray according to his will (1 John 5:1). Our concerns about whether prayer changes God are lessened when we consider we would not want him to answer a prayer that was not according to his will.
With these missing pieces we can craft a more comprehensive definition of prayer:
Prayer is an encounter with God that is initiated by him through his Word and that changes our hearts as we humbly communicate and worship the Lord, confess our sins and transgressions, and ask him to fulfill both our needs and also the desires of our heart.
Why Prayer Is a Spiritual Discipline
The Westminster Catechism begins its answer to the question “What is prayer?” by stating, “Prayer is an offering up of our desires unto God . . .” The biblical basis for this claim is found in Jesus’s promise to us in Matthew 7:7-8: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” God is a generous giver and delights in answering the prayers of the upright (Prov. 15:8).
Sounds amazing, right? Well, there is a catch: When we ask God for things, the desires of our heart must be, as the Westminster Catechism adds, “for things agreeable to his will.”
If prayer is asking God for things agreeable to his will, and the purpose of the disciplines is to train us to be godly (1 Tim. 4:7), then the primary purpose of prayer as a spiritual discipline is to help us conform our will to God’s. The goal of this spiritual discipline is to conform our prayer life so that whatever we are asking God for is rooted in the same seven words: Not my will, but yours be done (Luke 22:42).
Pray With A.C.T.S.
Sometimes our prayers flow like the music of jazz, improvisational and spontaneous. Other times they are more like classical musical, with repeated motifs and phrases forming a recurring melody. In both types, our prayers tend to be full of themes and patterns that reoccur throughout our prayer life.
Patterns can serve a variety of functions, such as reminders to focus on what is important or to prevent our prayers from becoming rambling and repetitious.
One particular pattern for prayer that many Christians have found helpful is expressed by the acronym “A.C.T.S.”, representing adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication (which includes intercession).
Here are suggestions for praying these four areas:
Adoration — Adoration is an attitude of worship characterized by love and reverence towards God.
Praising God ought to be the first element of our prayer—and an area of increasing focus. As R. C. Sproul notes, “I’ve noticed over many years that as we grow in the discipline and in the delight of prayer, it seems that we naturally spend more and more of our time on this first element.”
Confession — Confession, in this pattern, refers to the admission or acknowledgment of our sins. Be both general and specific, asking God to forgive your sinful patterns of behavior as well as individual sins. Think about the past 24-hour period and identify and name particular instances of sin that you need to confess. Also, during the confession stage, make it a regular habit of asking the Holy Spirit to convict you of the sin in your life.
Thanksgiving — Thanksgiving, in this pattern, refers to the offering of thanks to God, especially for the daily blessings he has given us. Choose at least three things to express your thanksgiving. Consider including: thanks for a life-changing blessing (e.g., eternal salvation), thanks for daily provision (e.g., for the blessing of food and clothing), and thanks for a specific reason you feel grateful today (e.g., for a particular blessing you’ve recently experienced).
Supplication (and Intercession)— Supplication in prayer is when we come to God and ask him for something, usually for ourselves. Intercession is when we pray for something on behalf of others. In some cases we are praying for both others and ourselves. In every prayer try to include at least one request both for yourself and also for someone else.
Self-Assessment on Prayer
Quote for reflection — “Prayer, as the unconscious heart cry in times of distress, is the currency of all humanity; but prayer, as the deep and committed soul-bond in communion with almighty God, is an exceptionally rare and precious jewel.” — George Grant
Definition — Prayer is an encounter with God in which we humbly communicate and worship the Lord, confess our sins and transgressions, and ask him to fulfill both our needs and the desires of our heart.
Meditate on the following passage: “The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught’” (Isaiah 29:13).
Evaluation — Talking to God is second only in hearing from him (through engagement with Scripture) in the disciplines necessary for our spiritual formation. Make a list of what you believe about prayer. Now examine that list and consider how often you pray. Is there an experiential gap between what you believe about prayer and how often you engage in communion with God?
Drill-down questions —
What do I want God to deliver me from (i.e., suffering, a trial, temptation)?
How often do I praise God in my prayers? Do I frequently praise his attributes?
How often do I use Scripture in my prayers?
Have I been praying the type of prayer that God refuses to answer?
Do I have a list of people to pray for? Whom should I add to the list?
Do I ever feel that God is distant and not hearing my prayers?
How often do I pray for my enemies?
How should I be praying for my neighbors, family, and friends?
What do I consider the primary purpose of prayer?
Do I know what types of prayer requests I should refuse?
How often do I confess specific sins?
Key Takeaway: Prayer is both a privilege and a duty, a gift that allows us to fulfill a requirement of the Christian life.
Note: This article is adapted from Joe Carter’s new work, NIV Lifehacks Bible: Practical Tools for Successful Spiritual Habits (Zondervan, 2016).