Developing A Meaningful Prayer Life

A few years ago, while reading, I was exposed to the idea of “panic prayers.” I cannot recall the article’s title or even the author’s name, but he described these panic prayers as organic, hasty supplications inspired by one’s immediate (usually dire) circumstances. Realize you haven’t studied for your Monday morning exam? —panic prayer. Find out your dad has been laid off from work? —panic prayer. When done to form, we rush these prayers, clawing at the doors of Heaven in a moment of spiritual panic.

Panic prayers aren’t necessarily wrong, but they can point to a subsurface issue. For me, there was an extended period of my life when panic prayers were all I knew. My life was a turbulent cycle of peace and trouble, between which I simply littered panic prayers like salt on a tasteless meal. My prayer life was marked more by the anxiety of life’s ups and downs than the steadfast, relational presence of God.

Eventually, the Lord offered me a glimpse into the prayer lives of more mature believers. There, the calm, consistent, relational prayer habits God desires for His children were on display, even amidst chaos. Like sure generals moving across the battlefield, these men and women were calculated and intentional in prayer, operating with a confidence which revealed they already knew the ends. There was no need for the brand of panic prayer I had embraced. And while I encourage all my readers to pray with whatever urgency necessary, I want to offer a vision for what prayer can look like when it is practiced faithfully.

Prayer, a Relational Boon
Our content today is in part a revisitation of Fellowship Denver’s Vision For Life Podcast series, Daily Life With God (Summer, 2021). During this series, our hosts emphasized the centrality of relationship to the Christian experience and prayer’s role within it.

The Bible’s authors frequently used relational terms to highlight the importance of intimacy and connectedness within the family of God. Our union with Christ establishes a fraternal (meaning brotherly) relationship between one another and Jesus Himself (Mk. 3:34-35); God calls us His “children.” So serious is this familial relationship we have with our Heavenly Father that it supersedes even our earthly family ties (Mt. 10:35).

How God interacts with His children makes up some of the most basic elements of relationship. First, He talks to us and invites us to talk with Him. In history, God has been diverse in His communication methods, employing angels, prophets, animals, and even His own strong, audible voice to deliver messages. Today, God speaks to us primarily through His Word, a fact no less indicative of the extremely personal way in which we are privileged to relate to Him.

A second relational element is burden-bearing. Troubled roads are more easily traveled with a friend, and our best friends are often the ones with whom we have overcome struggles, leaning on each other. In the gospel, Christ establishes Himself as chief burden-bearer, taking upon Himself the heaviest of our burdens—our sin—and granting us His weightless, liberating righteousness. He is more than a friend in His burden-bearing. He is perfect. The reason for the gospel is the failed relationship between God and man. In response to the brokenness between creation and its Creator, the gospel functions to make it whole again, to reconcile us to God. This reconciled relationship is central to what it means to be a Christian.

More to the point, Christ has united us to God forever, yet relationships still need watering. It is nearly impossible to maintain meaningful relationships without communication. Over time, if we cannot interact with our friends and family members, time erodes even the strongest of bonds. In our relationship with God, it isn’t He who needs the water, but us. This is why he gave us prayer.

Like many things, there are misunderstandings surrounding prayer’s function. God doesn’t need us to pray for Him to act, nor does He need our relational energy to keep Himself from becoming bored or lonely. Rather, God calls us into a prayerful relationship with Him because we need it and because He desires the faithful worship it involves. We are so needful for God that without Him we cannot live.

As God’s people, we are united with Him in spirit (1 Cor. 6:17); we abide in Him and He abides in us (1 Jn. 4:13). This unity is effected the moment of conversion, when the Holy Spirit fills us, giving us a new heart and chaining us to Christ and His glory forever. However, we are still called to continually feed this relationship, not because it is deficient or incomplete, but because we need God for our every breath. Our new relationship with God through Jesus is not a placeholder for the things that constitute a loving, nurturing relationship. Salvation doesn’t mean we’re on relational auto-pilot. Instead, unity with Christ actually inspires greater need for relational watering. As recipients of God’s grace, the Spirit has awakened us to our need for God’s presence in our life, and one of the primary ways in which God exposes us to His presence is through prayer.

If our relationship with God through Christ is the most important aspect of our faith, and prayer strengthens that relationship, then prayer should—like a nourishing meal—be something for which we crave and thirst. Unfortunately, acknowledgement of this fact doesn’t always translate to a fervent prayer life. At some point, our knowledge of our need for prayer and our practice of prayer do not connect.

Expectations and Reality
As our podcast hosts point out, expectations for what our daily prayer life should look like often fall well short of reality’s mark. For this, there are a host of reasons. But what I want you to focus on is shedding the expectation that your quiet time will be perfect, especially at the start. Consistency is part of what we’re aiming for, but we should anticipate challenges and setbacks along the way. That’s life. Further, we should never assume our prayer habits will skyrocket overnight. Growth takes time, and part of maturity is being prepared for the slow and steady climb. If not, we set ourselves up for discouragement.

So what should our expectations be?, you may be wondering. In response, our podcast hosts identified this simple hope: We should expect gradual, lasting growth. As we put one foot in front of the other, we should expect that God will firm us up in our routine of meeting with Him in prayer. Prayer, both its substance and the one praying, are God’s responsibility. So, as we grow in faithfully responding to the biblical call to prayer, God is faithful to provide us with the nourishing joy, peace, and satisfaction a growing relationship with Him provides. These heavenly provisions are multiplied when we persevere through inevitable setbacks and distractions. Like young athletes, practice and training are no match for the fiery trials of adversity. Once we’ve overcome the odds, the entire enterprise becomes more familiar, more doable. Prayer is very similar. Once we’ve experienced some serious hiccups yet continued pressing on, we sense the habits are real and that the relationship is strengthening.

Speaking of distractions, our podcast hosts offer us a type of prayer life-hack. Many of us, myself included, tend to view distractions as simply that, distracting. They pull us away from what is important. But what if we viewed our distractions differently? What if we experienced distractions, not as prayer disruptions or roadblocks, but as prayer fuel? Consider this: The distractions you experience might feel like hindrances, but they’re actually, as Pastor Hunter explains, “invitations to interact with God through those things (through those distractions).” Whatever your personal distractions are, they are things about which God cares and desires to shepherd you through directly. When we make our distractions part of the reason we pray, we invite God to connect with us amidst the grit of our daily lives, tying back into the relational element of our faith. God is a friend, father, and brother who cares deeply about the intricacies of our lives—so lean into that.

The How-to
How: Scheduling, committing, prioritizing, being flexible, having a backup plan, seasonal prayer themes, asking questions, “What are my passions? What are my burdens?” Working through the Lord’s prayer.

When we set our minds to prayer, a practical strategy is invaluable. We must ask, what does regular prayer and Bible reading really look like? The first step is commitment; we must determine we will engage in regular quiet time and then follow through. The Church does a solid job emphasizing the free gift of grace, but we should never let the freedom we have in Christ deter us from the difficult but rewarding work of discipleship. God calls us to this work. And although a healthy prayer habit requires more than a can-do attitude, it does not require less. If we want to experience an increasing relationship with God, we must be people of action.

The first thing to consider is scheduling. When we look at our day like a roadmap through time, we can more intentionally decide when we should make time to meet with the Lord. Often, we will be surprised by how much time we truly have. Otherwise, we will be forced to work within our limited schedules to make it fit. The idea is, once we have scheduled a time in our minds, on our calendars, and in our phones, we will feel more accountable to it. We’ve scheduled a meeting with God; do we really want to skip it? Scheduling your quiet time in advance is a helpful way to inject consistency into your prayer life.

Next is the discipline of prioritization. Hand-in-hand with scheduling is the work of prioritizing our appointments and daily events. There are only so many hours in a day, and often we cannot do all the things we would like. This means that some items will need to take priority over others. Prayer should be one of those items. Ultimately, it is up to you to decide how much you will prioritize your time alone with the Lord, but doing so sacrificially indicates genuine commitment and desire for growth.

These last two points of strategy, flexibility and having a backup plan, are connected. If you schedule your quiet time for the early mornings before work, like Hunter, or on the morning bus like me, you’re bound to experience mornings when your quiet time simply doesn’t happen. Unexpected events, important meetings, and other obstacles can force us off our rhythm. Whatever your circumstances, little is ever certain. When something disrupts our routine, the day doesn’t have to be lost. We can be flexible, seeking openings in our day to be present with the Lord. Lunch breaks, during a walk, or even right before bed, these all present opportunities for prayer. When Hunter cannot perform his normal morning quiet time, his backup plan is to go for a walk. Wherever he is, Hunter will try to escape for a stroll and work his way through the same meditations and prayers he would were he at his desk. By design, your backup plan will often be less structured than your first option. But since it is not a regular occurrence, it can be sufficient as a substitute.

A couple of summers ago, Pastor Dave Morlan taught me the simple practice of working through the Lord’s Prayer as a template for my daily prayers. According to Dave, we should take Jesus seriously when He says, “This is how you should pray" (Mt. 6:9).

The thought of using model prayers, or even writing our prayers down in advance, is somewhat controversial. For many throughout history, the idea of praying anything but extemporaneously (“from the hip”) is disconcerting. And while extemporaneous prayer is powerful, having a massive place in the health of the Church, there is nothing wrong with using other people’s prayers, Scripture, or any other godly source as a basis for our own prayer. The same goes for writing our prayers. We do not despise the careful builder who lays his blueprints before he moves his saw. Neither should we think less of the careful churchmen who prepare their prayers in advance. These practices are not “cheating,” they are wise.

Using the Lord’s Prayer as a guide, this is what yours might look like:

Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name: We come before the King of Kings and He rules over all the universe. Begin, as Jesus did, by addressing Him with reverence and honor.

“God in heaven, you are perfect in all your ways. May the world acknowledge you as King.”

Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven: We desire that God’s perfect will be done in our hearts, in our family, and in our communities. Ask for specific manifestations of God’s will you wish to see.

“Lead me in love-born obedience to your Word and give wisdom to the leaders of my city, state, and nation.”

Give us today our daily bread: God provides for our every need just as he provides for the flowers in the field and the birds of the air. Our needs are not trivial to God.

“Father, provide for me and my family as you always have. Help me to trust you for my needs and to be satisfied with your presence alone during seasons of want.”

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors: God has forgiven the sins of His people, past and present, yet He calls us to seek forgiveness continually as a way of confession, humility, and confidence in His saving mercy alone.

“Forgive me for how I have rebelled against you and help me to forgive others because you have forgiven me first.”

And lead us not into temptation: Or more plainly, “Lead us away from temptation.” Alone, we are charmed by temptation toward sin, but with God, we are led along the path of righteousness.

“And keep me from the temptations in which I am consistently trapped. Lead me towards things that inspire purity, goodness, and love.”

But deliver us from the evil one: Not only are our own hearts and the world’s temptations set against us, but Satan is actively seeking our ruin. Alone, we are weak, but God can protect us from the enemy’s power.

“Rescue me when the enemy is assailing me, protect me from his fiery darts of discouragement, doubt, and sin.”

This template has the threefold benefit of coming from Jesus, being easy to remember, and covering all of our prayer bases. If you try it and it feels repetitive, try slowing down and really meditating on each of the six pieces. Remember, prayer isn’t about saying the right words or checking a box, we are interacting with the transcendent God of creation who loves us as His own children. It’s okay to struggle through the intimacy.

Something I was grateful our podcast hosts mentioned was the nature of prayer and the posture of our hearts. Though prayer involves making requests of God, the nature of prayer is actually more centrally one of submission than of petition. Even in our asking, we acknowledge that God is the only one who can fulfill even our most basic needs. Meaning we must submit to His sovereign power and wisdom, not our own. As challenging as this can be, we have an exemplar in Jesus Christ who, the night He was betrayed, prayed that the Father would spare Him from the agony He would soon endure. However, even as He prayed this, Jesus acknowledged, “nevertheless, not my will, but yours [be done]” (Mt. 26:39).

It’s through this humble submission that we experience God’s presence and relationship properly. He is a wise and powerful Father-King, not a miracle vending machine. He is our bandage in heartbreak and our bread in hunger, not a bracelet for our wrists. Prayer is not an ornament to our spirituality—it isn’t religious filler with which we pad our faith, it’s worship, obedience, and the nourishing water we need. To this effect, our posture ought to be one of neediness. It is a privilege to have full access to God, and our attitudes should reflect that.

Earlier, we discussed what your prayer life can look like when it’s endlessly beholden to the unanticipated demands of life. It’s full of anxiety and desperation, lacking the steady confidence we desire.

The United States Federal Air Marshals (FAMS) are law enforcement agents who travel on airplanes to protect the plane, crew, and passengers from attack. As a group, the FAMS are some of the greatest marksmen in the world. And they must be, since any bullets they unleash on a tube of aluminum soaring thousands of feet in the air must land exactly where they intend. They cannot afford to miss. Now, imagine if these marshals never practiced, what would happen? If their services were required, would their responses be measured, confident, and precise? Doubtful. Their aim would be frantic and undisciplined, resulting in unpredictable consequences. Instead of being marked by the calm confidence that comes from training, we would know the FAMS for erratic, dangerous behavior. Similarly, if we never stretch our prayers muscles—if we never water that relationship with our Heavenly Father—we too will default to panic.

It won’t happen in a day, or even in a week, but the message of Scripture is that God desires to build our lives firmly in Him, and the mortar for those building blocks is prayer. If we respond to God’s invitation to prayer with faithfulness, He will reward us as He has rewarded so many before with an increasing, lasting experience of His presence. And, as wandering sheep in need of a shepherd, this gives us great hope.
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