Thursday of this week, May 4, is the National Day of Prayer. It’s as good a week as any to begin the discussion of why prayer is such an essential part of an intentional life. This is a three-part post. You may find part two here and part three here.
Why cover the subject of prayer? It’s personal. My relationship with God is the most important thing in my life, and prayer is the most important aspect of that. It’s is the most powerful tool God has given us. Best of all, it’s freely available to all mankind.
Prayer, more than anything else, has helped me to live a better and more purposeful life. I don’t know how I’d get by without it.
For a long, long time, I missed out on the joy of knowing God through prayer. Yet like the prodigal son, when I found my way back home, He welcomed me with open arms.
My Own Prayer Journey
For much of my early childhood, I had a simple but active prayer life. My grandmother, who in many ways mentored me in faith (though I didn’t know it at the time), taught me how to pray. When I stayed with her, each night before going to sleep, we would pray together:
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take. Amen.
This simple prayer with my grandmother constitutes some of my earliest memories. It’s such a wonderful little prayer because of its humility. A child who prays that prayer is putting his or her fate in God’s hands.
Yet as I grew older, my own prayers became more and more self-seeking. I was beginning to ask God for the things I wanted, instead of seeking a relationship with Him. When I reached high school, not just my prayer but my whole spiritual life seemed to dwindle to nothing.
For years it remained that way. I didn’t realize, of course, that He was always waiting for me to come home.
Although I’d turned my back on God, He never stopped shining His light on me. “For our God is a consuming fire,” Paul writes in Hebrews 12:29. Indeed, God loves us even when we forget He is there. When we turn from Him, His love is experienced by us as pain and misery, for what else is separation from God but misery? When we return to Him, His love is a wellspring of life that sustains and nourishes us through anything.
My wife, who at the time was my girlfriend, began inviting me to go to church with her each week, and this sparked a fire in my mind. I began reading the Bible again. Most important of all, I began praying again. I’m so thankful God used her strong faith to help restore my own relationship with Him.
Here are a few lessons I’ve derived from Scripture about how to pray that have been meaningful in my own life. Perhaps they will be of use to you also.
Pray Without Ceasing
Why does the Apostle Paul urge the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing?” (1 Thess 5:17) Doesn’t he expect them to ever sleep?
Paul was aware that keeping one’s mind and heart focused on God is no small difficulty. By teaching this, he was exhorting us to be always mindful of Christ.
The early church leader Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch puts it this way in his early first century letter to Polycarp, Bishop of Smyrna:
“Give thyself to unceasing prayers. Ask for larger wisdom than thou hast. Be watchful, and keep thy spirit from slumbering.”
Praying without ceasing, per Ignatius’ understanding, has to do with this concept of spiritual watchfulness. I understand all too well how he says our spirit can slumber if we’re not careful – anyone who has ever sidelined God on the shelf knows what he means. Unceasing prayer, then, is an antidote. We can be in constant communication with God.
It’s also worth noting, as pointed out by the 14th century Christian monk Gregory Palamas, that even King David speaks of such a notion of unceasing prayer in Psalms 16:8: “I have set the Lord always before me.” Palamas thus believed that “it is the duty of all us Christians to remain always in prayer.”
Short Prayers For the Whole Day
How can we pray without ceasing? One simple way is by praying short prayers throughout the day. An example is the Jesus Prayer, also known as the Prayer of the Heart, which is:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
This is easy to remember and, in a sense, contains the entirety of the Christian confession of faith within its 12 words.
It reminds us of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, where the Pharisee’s prayer was filled with sinful pride, but “the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’” (Lk 18:13)
I have also seen that some Christians will pray as did the blind man Bartimaeus, whom Jesus healed (Mk 10:47):
“Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”
This, too, is a wonderful short prayer, and straight from the Scriptures.
Another short prayer, given to us by Christ Himself, is the Lord’s prayer (Mt 6:9-13):
“Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name. Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
A little longer, but many Christians are familiar with it. The Lord’s Prayer is a wonderful refuge for our soul, a prayer for all occasions.
These are just a few of the many short prayers contained in God’s Word. How wonderful that He gave us so many great ways to pray to Him!
One more thing must be mentioned here. A lot of folks include in their prayer life spontaneous prayer that isn’t written down, doesn’t have any form, and doesn’t have regularity. That is wonderful. This series is not intended to put down spontaneous prayer. I use it plenty in my own life!
The purpose of focusing on specific prayers is to show you how and why I’ve become more purposeful in my own personal prayer life. That doesn’t mean that spontaneous prayer isn’t a part of it. I’ll talk more about this in the next post, also.
I thank God that we can turn to Him any time in a variety of ways. Some of these specific prayers help me to do that in addition to the moments when I just cry out to Him with whatever is on my heart in the moment, which I still do.
Turn to God Always
The most important thing about the concept of unceasing prayer is to turn to God as often as we can so that He can be a constant presence in our lives.
Perhaps we are like Daniel, about to be cast into the den of lions, and fall down on our knees at a critical time. Or maybe we’re just sitting in traffic, frustrated. Whatever the occasion or moment, God is there with us, and we have only to call upon His name.
Tomorrow, we’ll continue this post by looking at how and where to pray.
This is part one of a three-part series on prayer. You may find part two here and part three here.
Question: What short prayers do you use in your own life? Leave a comment below!