How To Pray Effectively: 5 Practical Reminders
If we are honest, many of us find prayer difficult, mysterious, and vexing. Rather than being a balm to sufferers, guidance for the lost, and consolation for the ashamed and guilty, it can feel like a millstone around your neck. It can become just one more thing you fail to measure up to, just one more thing that you are relieved to set aside.
If those sentences describe you, remember these five things the next time you pray:
- Prayer is for weak, distracted, burdened people.
- In prayer, you discover God’s treasures.
- God wants to give you good gifts.
- Prayer can cultivate the inner life.
- When you pray, first wait, then act.
Prayer is for weak, distracted, burdened people
Prayer is the plague on the conscience of the tidy-minded religious person. Paul’s advice to “pray continually” is a hard box to feel like you have ever fully checked off the religious to-do list. So it remains there, perpetually unchecked.
But the doorway to true prayer isn’t to keep checking the box; it is to embrace that prayer is a thing for weak, distracted, burdened people. It is for people with perpetually unchecked spiritual boxes.
Prayer can be short. It can be bad. It doesn’t have to be “put together.” It can be more of a “prayerful thought” raised in passing than a well-thought-out message to God—more of a text than a handwritten letter. Prayer can be urgent, frantic, lethargic, afraid, slapdash, slipshod, half-hearted, faint-hearted, or broken-hearted because humans are all of those things and prayer is nothing if it is not human.
When you start to pray, you don’t even have to know what is going to come out of your mouth. You can watch your thoughts tumble up to God and trust him to sort them out. Isn’t this exactly what Paul said in the below excerpt?
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.” (Romans 8:26, 27)
If prayer has become a burden, it might be because we have forgotten who God is. God is the one who “searches hearts and minds.” (Psalm 139) He wants good things for us and can articulate our needs better than we can, even when they go too deep for words. He is the one who spoke first to us before we ever began to muster ourselves to respond to him. His articulation preceded ours and helps us in the process of finding what we have to say and saying it.
We tend to try to bring our best to God in prayer, but if 2 Corinthians 12 is a true description of the spiritual life, that is nearly the opposite of the real goal of prayer. When Paul prayed three times that God would take away his “thorn” and was denied three times, God told him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” God’s words to Paul apply not only to Paul’s unique situation but to the entirety of the Christian life. We aren’t supposed to be strong. We aren’t supposed to have it all together or live a life that moves from triumph to triumph. We are supposed to be weak. Our need for the sufficiency of his grace and power is supposed to be on display.
When we begin to pray, let’s admit to God how much of a scramble our lives are. Let’s laugh at ourselves, and, again and again, accept His grace, which covers, heals, and effaces our frantic self-salvation projects once again and forever.
Why? Because his power works best in our weakness and, in his grace, we have already been given enough. The trick then is to come to God in prayer in order to unearth more of his grace—the very thing we already have.
Which leads us to the next point.
In Prayer, You Discover God’s Treasures
Here is a quote from John Calvin’s masterpiece The Institutes of the Christian Religion. It is long and wordy but it is worth reading several times. In fact, it is worth memorizing.
“It is by the benefit of prayer that we reach those riches which are laid up for us with the Heavenly Father. For there is a communion of men with God by which, having entered the heavenly sanctuary, they appeal to him in person concerning his promises in order to experience, where necessity so demands, that what they believed was not vain, although he had promised it in word alone. There is nothing that we have been promised from the Lord which we are not also bidden to ask of him in prayer. So we dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon…”
John Calvin (1509–1564) came of age just as the Protestant Reformation was igniting the cultural and political landscape of Europe and grew into one of its foremost thinkers. He exploded onto the theological scene in 1536 with his first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion (a book about as long as the New Testament), and by the fifth edition (about as long as the whole Bible) in 1559, his work had made Geneva into a major center of the Reformation.
In this quote, Calvin is saying that the riches of God are all already ours, but that doesn’t mean we have them yet.
Prayer is the shovel you use to dig out those pearls of great price. In prayer, we stride into the heavenly throne room on the merit of the promises that God has given his people and we ask for God to deliver on them. To what end? In order to experience what God had only promised in word alone.
And God wanted it that way. He could have made things in such a way that we don’t need to pray—he already knows what we need, after all. But he did not. Prayer was one of his good ideas. There is nothing that he promised us that he does not also want us to come before him and request. He wants us to ask for things because the asking is also part of our transformation into people that rely on him for everything. It is not enough to believe the promises with our heads only. We have to experience God giving us the things we need again and again.
So when we pray, we go digging. We enter into prayer full of concerns, worries, needs, insecurities, gratitude, requests, fear, and joy. We meet with God and return with treasures in our hands: the consolation that we are seen and heard by the Almighty; that he knows us and cares for us.
But, in order to do that, we have to believe that he wants good things for us in the first place.
God Wants to Give You Good Gifts
Sometimes the hardest thing to believe about prayer isn’t that God hears you but that he wants to give you good things.
It is easy to imagine that God feels about us the same way we feel about ourselves. When we begin to pray, a chorus of voices can wash toward us like a wave. The day’s worries. The voice of self-recrimination. Regrets from the past. Fears for the future. We project onto him our guilt about things we’ve done, shame about the things we’ve left undone, and disappointment that we aren’t further along. We imagine that he feels disappointed too, ashamed of us, condemning us. Our prayers become a performance of self-flagellation and penitence.
But Jesus tried to teach us to imagine something different when he talked about prayer.
"What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:11-13)
We are like the prodigal son on his way back home, murmuring to himself how this time he’ll be a good son, he’ll make it all up to his father. But the shocking thing about the parable of the prodigal son isn’t that the son comes to his senses and goes home. That is entirely understandable. Anyone who has come to the end of themselves, who has hit their rock-bottom instinctively knows the movements of that dance. The fear. The determination to change. The inner deals you make that this time, things will be different. The recrimination. It is easy to identify with the wayward son on his way home.
No, the strange character in the story is the father. He is the one whose choices don’t make sense. The father who sees his son coming from far off (because he was watching for him every day) and runs to him (because his son is alive again), and gives him his ring and his robe (because he was full of the desire not to punish his son but enfold him in his embrace) is the baffling one in the story.
What if, when you turn your attention to prayer, the father sees you coming from a long distance and runs to you? What if, when you ask him for help in your paltry repentance, the father sweeps you up in arms and holds you close to him? What if, when you are rehearsing all the ways you are going to pay God back for what you’ve done, he takes your hands and puts them in his hands? You see the scars there, and what those scars mean sinks in yet again.
Prayer should be a place where you feel again the welcoming embrace of the father. If you begin to pray and feel only the doubt and fear and shame, think about the father who gives good gifts. Think about how, with all the possible stories Jesus could have told, he told ones about lost sheep getting found, fathers rushing out to hold their children.
And fish sought and given.
Prayer Can Cultivate the Inner Life
The reason we don’t pray is often simple: We are too busy. The outward world is too full of bustle. We have a long to-do list that only seems to get longer.
Pastor and author Tim Keller put it this way:
“If we give priority to the outer life, our inner life will be dark and scary. We will not know what to do with solitude. We will be deeply uncomfortable with self-examination, and we will have an increasingly short attention span for any kind of reflection. Even more seriously, our lives will lack integrity. Outwardly, we will need to project confidence, spiritual and emotional health and wholeness, while inwardly we may be filled with self-doubts, anxieties, self-pity, and old grudges.”
It isn’t easy to make space for the seemingly fruitless and unproductive (and often painful) work of prayer. It is easier to crunch through that to-do list before it starts growing again. Task leads to task, hour leads to hour and you are swept into the fast current of your day and all its demands. Our “outer life” is full of clamor and demands and urgency. We live in a Martha world and we think we can get our "Mary time” in the form of a podcast on the commute to work. That is a good way to get informed, but not a good way to hear from the Lord.
The inner life can be just as urgent as the outer life, but it is more easily put off. However, if its needs are put off too long, a pressure can build behind them. When, as Keller said, our inner world fills with “self-doubts, anxieties, self-pity, and old grudges,” they preclude a lot of other important, subtler things. Awe. Wonder. The voice of God. Difficult revelations. Courage to oppose things that should be opposed. Repentance that requires you to go back to those you’ve hurt and humble yourself. Joy that grows as slowly as the dawn creeping into the sky.
The Holy Spirit is subtle. He is the quiet, unobtrusive stranger in the corner of the house who waits for you to come to sit with him. He won’t bother you if you don’t, even though he has plenty he would say to you. Isn’t that one of the lessons of Elijah’s experience in the cave (1 Kings 19)? God brings Elijah to the holy mountain, and a windstorm, an earthquake, and a raging fire pass by, but “the Lord was not in them.” Then the prophet hears a still, small voice, which in Hebrew is better translated as a “thin silence.” The Lord is in the silence.
It is a passage for the modern world. We live for the clamor and notifications and the urgent beepings that grab and hold our attention, but all too often, “the Lord is not in them.” To hear the still, small voice first, you must have the thin silence. Then, you go to the mouth of the cave and listen.
When You Pray, First Wait, Then Act
A friend of mine once told a story of the time she was late for an important meeting in the company of Edith Schaeffer. The important meeting was a lecture Mrs. Schaeffer had scheduled for a group of hundreds of people. It was my friend’s job to get her there on time. When their car broke down on the way to the lecture, my friend took out her phone to call a taxi. Mrs. Schaeffer put out her hand to stop her and said, “No. Let’s pray instead.”
Edith Schaeffer founded L’Abri Fellowship with her husband Francis Schaeffer in the 1950s as a community designed to demonstrate the reality of God through reliance on him. That reliance was built into the way the organization worked. They didn’t fundraise but prayed that God would send the resources they needed in order to continue their work. They did not advertise but prayed that God would bring the people of his choosing to come live and study with them. They didn’t recruit help but prayed that God would send people to join them in the work. In a sense, they broke the “rules” of how to make organizations stable and successful in the modern world. Instead, they made themselves vulnerable in order to learn to rely on God more fully. With such limitations, prayer was not an accessory to their lives—they depended upon it.
So when Mrs. Schaeffer stopped my friend from calling for a taxi, it was only an extension of the kind of dependence on prayer with which she always lived her life. Her life had become a rhythm of first praying, then waiting, then acting, and that rhythm applied to events both big and small—everything from paying the rent to praying for food to calling a taxi.
The first time I heard that story, it struck me as odd.
Mrs. Schaeffer was on her way to give a lecture, to share the gospel, to do the Lord’s work. There were hundreds of people sitting in an auditorium somewhere waiting for her to take the stage. What could be the point of not doing the easiest thing to overcome a simple obstacle in the way of the Lord’s work? From a human perspective, not calling a taxi doesn’t make sense.
But now I can see there is also a wonderful humility to it. When Edith put her hand on my friend’s hand and stopped her from automatically calling a taxi, she was saying, “I am God’s creature and I do not know his plan for me today.” She was saying, “I will leave a gap in the naturalistic chain of cause and effect because that is what it means to be a human before the living God.”
Francis and Edith Schaeffer did not discover some secret formula for living a life of dependence on God, but they did practice a certain sequence: pray, wait, then act. That sequence is an important part of the life of prayer.
The move from the second step in the sequence to the third step, from waiting to acting, may never need to happen. God may have orchestrated events that day when the car broke down in such a way that just the right car came to help them at just the right time for his own reasons and meanings. When we pray and wait, God may use the waiting to change the circumstances according to his own ends.
The waiting also allows time for your own attitudes to change. It may not be only the circumstances that are to be changed in the waiting, but the perspective. You may need to learn something. Or you may need to simply be denied something. Sometimes the sequence ends in the waiting. Something comes, or nothing comes, and it leads you away from further action, just as sometimes the answer to a prayer is “No.”
This is what it means to be human, to be a creature who is not independent, but who is dependent on God at all points in all ways.
However, the story doesn’t end with Mrs. Schaeffer praying instead of calling a taxi. The first time I heard that story, I asked my friend, “So what happened after you prayed?” She said, “Oh, we waited, and then we called a taxi.” And that is an important part of the story too. The sequence has three steps, not two. Pray, wait, then act.
Remembering to pray and wait before simply acting is hard enough, but how do you know when to stop waiting and start acting? If praying and waiting for God is part of living into God’s spiritual reality, then is acting unspiritual? When do you just call the taxi?
Waiting is not the final step in the sequence for a reason. To embrace a kind of spirituality that relinquishes your power to act is dehumanizing and is dishonoring to God, who may have brought you to this very time and place in order to act. Sometimes the time to wait ends and the time to act begins. Sometimes this happens before you have achieved a feeling of certainty or confidence, and yet you must walk forward in faith.
The third step in the sequence is not less spiritual than the other two because God has made us agents, actors with the ability to cause things to happen. God created a good but unfinished creation and then created humanity to expand it, to make things, to use his creation to create more. He picks up where we leave off and vice versa.
Knowing when to move between the steps of the sequence is a matter of maturity, and it is a maturity that can only be imparted by God, gained through repeated encounters with his faithfulness throughout the circumstances of your life. Anyone who would pursue that mature discernment would do well to remember Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians that we “walk by faith, not by sight.” This discernment comes through a lifetime and it is God who is the teacher, God who grows us into the maturity we need to know what to pray, how long to wait, and when to act.
That means we will make plenty of mistakes as we try to live in dependence on God. We must pray, wait, and act even in our learning of how to pray, wait, and act. God wanted it that way. And it is that way because God made the human creature to need to learn to depend on its maker, not only in theory, but in lived memory over and over again.
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Andy Patton is a former staff member at L'Abri Fellowship in England and holds an M. A. in theology from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Read more from Andy on The Darking Psalter (translations of the Psalms with new poetry), Three Things (a monthly digest of resources to help people connect with culture, neighbor, and God), and Still Point (reflections on deconstruction and why people leave Christianity).
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