Focused, distraction-free consistent conversation with the living God remains one of the hardest things I’ve had to learn how to do. This isn’t because God makes it difficult. It’s not because I don’t love God or think God doesn’t love me. It’s because there are so many forces pushing and pulling me in directions away from him. Let’s be honest. If communication is the key, then I have some growing to do—just ask my wife.
Unfortunately, Christians (myself included) often make a handful of mistakes which cause prayer to be much more difficult than it needs to be. These old ways of thinking are pitfalls that suck the life out of prayer. We don’t even realize we are making the mistakes because they occur without notice, and we end up drifting from the most important growth-producing practice of our lives.
So, let’s get practical and swiftly tackle three of the most undermining mistakes we make when we try to pray. We will replace each old mistake with a new life-giving solution which will lead us to day-in-and-day-out connectedness to the living God.
Mistake #1: Neglect Your Non-Prayer Life
This sounds a bit counterintuitive, but here’s what I mean. Prayer takes effort; I know it’s about love and connection, but I also know communication with anyone, even a cherished spouse, can sometimes feel like work. There is no need to feel guilty about admitting prayer doesn’t come easily for you. Sure, there are those occasional times when prayer is effortless and free-flowing and matches our mood; there is space for us to focus; the air temperature is just right; the coffee is still hot; and we’ve already gone to the bathroom. We feel the Spirit of God shining on us, and prayer just flows from our lips or thoughts. We are emotionally connected with God and wholeheartedly centered. We have some of those perfect prayer moments, but then we think every time we pray is supposed to mimic those convergence experiences. Not exactly! Prayer is soul work.
And what’s required to accomplish work? Energy. We can’t accomplish a single task in life without some level of energy that we devote to it.
So, one of the greatest mistakes we make when it comes to prayer is to neglect to manage our energy in our non-prayer life.
How can I prove my point? I’m assuming you’ve attempted to pray at least a handful of times already. What most often gets in the way when you try to pray? Maybe you try to pray at night before bed or early in the morning. Or maybe you’re on a lunch break or between classes and put your head down on an armchair. Get cozy. Take a deep breath. Close your eyes. Start praying. The rhythm of your breathing takes over. Sounds disappear. Voila! You fall asleep! Prayer attempts often act like lullabies, don’t they?
What happened to our early church fathers—the pillar disciples Peter, James, and John who founded our faith and wrote part of our New Testament? At the moment of Christ’s greatest need just before his crucifixion, Jesus asked them to watch over him in the garden in prayer. What did they do? They fell asleep (Matthew 26:36–41)! The modern-day version might have had them drifting off into an hour of Instagram and Twitter feeds, then after that, falling asleep.
We need energy (and focus) to pray effectively. It is as simple as that. We can’t just add a thriving relationship with God into our already full lives and not restructure some aspects of our time. We will need to carve out the energy and space needed to invest in prayer. Call me crazy, but this even gets down to how we handle our physical bodies in order to have enough energy for our spiritual growth.
Do we get to bed early enough to have adequate energy for the next day? Maybe we’ll still get to class or to work on time if we watch one more episode of our latest binge show. But will we have enough extra energy for a vibrant prayer time with the God who loves us in the morning? If we want a rooted relationship with God, having energy available for prayer can’t be an afterthought.
In the Jewish tradition from the ancient days to the present, the Sabbath (a day of devotion) always begins at sundown the evening before. Similarly, how we manage the evening before will determine if we have enough energy for our lives with God the next day.
Also, are we building times of replenishment into our lives to “re-create” our souls? Recreate, get it? Choosing to occasionally unplug and refill so we have enough energy to give to prayer is a powerful tool for faith. Don’t feel guilty about the self-care you need in order to have energy for the work of spiritual growth.
I realize this is strange advice for prayer. However, when I’ve been sluggish in prayer at various seasons of my life, often the most helpful first step for me isn’t to put together an intense prayer regimen. Surprisingly, it’s to get more disciplined about my physical habits of sleeping, eating well, and exercising. As I adjust the sense of discipline over my body, it almost never fails—the spiritual practice of prayer becomes easier. I have more energy and more self-control to bring to every moment of prayer.
Remember, mistake number one is to neglect your non-prayer life. The solution is to develop an energy management discipline, so you have what you need for times of prayer.
Mistake #2: Pray Aimlessly
In my earlier years of faith—my late teens and early twenties—I had the innate passion and the natural time to pray. I would sit down to pray hoping for extended periods of deep spiritual breakthrough. Instead I generally wound up lost in thought (if not asleep), unable to think about what I would pray and probably more focused on what lunch I would choose from the university cafeteria.
Then a mentor asked me, “Craig, what do you notice about David’s prayers in the Bible?” (He was referring to the psalms of King David, the man made famous by Michelangelo’s statue and king of Israel circa 1010–970 BC.) I thought it might be a mind-trick question from Obi-Wan to his young Jedi.
“I don’t know. Umm, they are poetic?”
“Sometimes, but did you notice? They are written,” he said. “I’m sure there are many prayers that David muttered beneath his breath or said out loud to God throughout any given day. The apostle Paul, after all, does instruct us to ‘pray without ceasing.’ But if you are stuck in prayer or just new to prayer, give yourself a little more structure to get going. Why don’t you begin by writing out your prayers? Literally, write your own Psalms like King David did.”
I made great progress with this practice, but then I hit another major roadblock and lost my prayer steam. It’s as if I’d get stuck even though I was praying; my prayers were losing their sense of power and connection.
I’d have one season where my prayers treated God like a cosmic vending machine. I listed request after request after request and then said “Amen.” God does care for every little detail and hair on our heads. However, even when we pray daily, if vending-machine requests are our only form of communication with God, we have incomplete prayer lives and ultimately an empty relationship with God.
Or I would have some seasons where my prayers amounted to a long period of navel-gazing. These were sessions of constant, self-only introspection. Most of my prayers were about what I thought, what I felt, what I needed, how I needed to change, what was working in my life and what wasn’t, what my desires were, and so on.
You can clearly see the theme, right? Me, myself, and I! Again, it’s important to self-reflect in prayer up to a point. But at some moment, those prayers cross over into an excuse for narcissism and mirror staring, even if they are self-critical. Imagine a relationship with a friend in which all that friend does is talk about themselves. At some point, that friendship is going to start feeling a bit fragile and it probably won’t last.
Nothing we’ve ever accomplished in life grows properly without some patterned intention. This is true even with our prayers. Don’t worry though, I’m not about to burden you with a structure you can’t easily manage, and I won’t suggest something that will squeeze the mystery out of our time with the Divine. This prayer structure has breathed life into my conversations with God and kept me on a holistic track of prayer, growing in love for and with God over time. Though I pray in many different ways, I still use this method after twenty years. It is based on the acronym CHAT1 which is based around the Lord’s Prayer (see Matthew 6:9–13) that Jesus once taught to his disciples.
I literally sit down with a journal or piece of paper, draw three horizontal lines creating four equal sections on the paper and write C, H, A, T, one letter at the top of each section. Here’s what each letter stands for.
C = Confess
I start by bringing the truth about who I am to God. “God, this is who you are dealing with here (as if you don’t know already).” It’s my chance to be honest about who I’ve been or haven’t been the last day or so and ask for forgiveness for any ways I’ve gone offtrack. Sometimes for me this sounds like, “God I’m sorry I was so impatient with that sales clerk at lunch yesterday. That was rude, unkind, and I think I acted pretty entitled in that moment. Please forgive me and know that I’m committed to going back and apologizing to that person.”
This gives us the chance to have a candid and clean slate in our dialogue with God from the very beginning. It’s us saying, “I’m going to have a no-pretense time with you God.”
H = Honor
This is often the most refreshing time of prayer for me. I turn my eyes away from myself: away from my own mistakes, away from my worries, and certainly away from all the mess of this world. This is where I don’t use the first-person personal pronouns “I” or “me.” I only use “you,” meaning God. I start by honoring him for who he is, naming his characteristics that I’ve recently seen or experienced or reflected on. “God, you are patient. You never turn your back. You are good. God, you answer prayer. God, you never give up on people. You never deserved death, but you took our place.”
Reflect on God alone. You’ll be surprised how transformative these moments of honoring God for who he is can be. At this point, your heart and mind should be sinking more deeply into a prayer focus than you may have ever experienced before.
A = Ask
This is often what we think of when we consider prayer: the practice of asking God for something. Once, before traveling, my daughter asked me, “Daddy will you bring a gift home for me?” I spent the entire trip thinking, “What is the perfect gift I can bring home for my little girl?” I chose a simple, inexpensive, colorful scarf. When I gave it to her, she lit up with excitement. Fulfilling her request became a mission and even a fulfilling purpose for me. This is how God often views our requests. God is a good Father and wants to give good gifts. He wants to know what we want and need. It’s part of a relationship with him, not our entire relationship with him but a significant part.
God also wants us to ask him on behalf of others. To pray for others is one of the greatest ways we can show love to them. Sometimes, others don’t have the strength or faith to ask in prayer for themselves. Or the prayer need is so big, they need an extra boost. You can stand in the gap for them. So, make sure to build moments of asking for yourself and others into your balanced practice of prayer.
T = Thank
. . . in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.
Did you notice that? Right in the middle of presenting our requests, we are instructed to give thanks! There is nothing that pulls our hearts out of depression, entitlement, and even temptation quicker than gratitude. Name the things you are thankful for every day and you will find joy, centeredness, and strength like never before. End your prayer times with thankfulness and it will be difficult not to feel connected to Christ.
This time of thankfulness in prayer is also an opportunity to try out new levels of faith; thankfulness includes trusting. You and I can actually begin to thank God in advance for things we have been asking for, trusting that he hears us as we try on our “new clothes of faith” (concept from 1 Thessalonians 5:8) and believing that he will answer. We may thank God in advance for provision of a need or healing for a wound or sickness in our hearts or lives. When we approach God in advance with thankfulness in the present, it opens us up to see him acting on our behalf in the future.
Mistake number two is to pray aimlessly, but when instead I start my day with intentional patterned prayer, transformation takes hold. I feel as if a crusty layer of deadness crumbles off my soul and falls to the ground. I feel refreshed. I’m filled with the peace that passes understanding. I’m undoubtedly connected to God and ready to tackle the day. When the tough times come, which they will, life-giving prayer will be our natural response because we’ve been building prayer muscle each and every day. Nothing compares. This level of prayer is the secret to communication which grows our love for God and awareness of his love at work in our lives.
Mistake #3: We Pray Plastic Prayers
We default to praying what we think God wants to hear or what we think the pastor might want us to say. Or we pray what we’ve heard other, more “super spiritual” Christians pray. The problem is we often aren’t bringing our true selves to God in prayer. Instead, we bring a pre-packaged and polished version to him. Our prayers become plastic replicas.
And what is the result? Our true selves are not transformed by his presence. Instead of showing our hearts to God, we put on a mask and wonder why we feel distant from him.
Let’s consider again King David’s prayers. Here’s a guy with so much to lose if God or other people around him knew the full truth about what was in his heart. While writing some of these prayers, he had an entire kingdom, riches, and a reputation to uphold. Look at one of the courageously honest prayers he prayed.
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?
Look on me and answer, Lord my God.
Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death . . .
This is no plastic, polished prayer! This is a guy who gets real with his God and honest about his own heart.
Sometimes we are afraid to bring our anger, doubt, sin, or exasperation to God because we think God only wants our good. But that’s the mistake that causes us to miss the power of prayer. God wants all of us, not just the put-together parts. In fact, if you and I only bring God the portion of ourselves we think is acceptable, then we are withholding the parts of our hearts which most need him.
Imagine how difficult it will be to stay passionately motivated in a practice of prayer when all we are doing is propping up a shallow exchange. Who wants to put any energy into that? Not me!
We must be courageous with our prayers. We must be vulnerable, honest, and open with what is real and true about who we are. Be willing to share the mess with God.
Notice the conclusion of King David’s courageous prayer in Psalm 13. He has it out with his God and then ends up here:
But I trust in your unfailing love;
my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the Lord’s praise,
for he has been good to me.
Even if our hearts or our behavior are in the wrong place, if we pray courageous and honest prayers, we will begin the journey back to God. We bring what is in the darkness of our lives to the light of a good and loving God. Our behavior and our lives follow the words we utter in prayer. God’s presence transforms us as we pray courageous prayers.
Just as I did with the other two mistakes, I want to give you some practical advice for getting honest and courageous in your prayers. But it’s harder to give a prescription for fixing this sort of prayer, because being open and honest in prayer is largely just about making a choice, to show up with your whole heart.
That being said, a friend of mine recently shared that she finds it easier to tap into her emotions and honestly express them to God when she incorporates something physical into her prayer time. Go for a run and tap into your fear and anxiety, giving it all over to Jesus. Go somewhere deserted and throw rocks (or dishes, or watermelon) at a wall and tap into your anger, again giving it all to Jesus through prayer. Find some fabric and rip it with your bare hands as you pray about something you are grieving, something that feels beyond mending. Getting physical with our prayers can help us to feel and express the emotions we sometimes keep hidden below the surface.
What courageous prayer is it time for you to start praying? What is a step of new intention toward prayer that God is inviting you to take?
This is an excerpt from Craig Springer’s new book, How to Follow Jesus: A Practical Guide to Growing Your Faith (Zondervan + Seedbed). In How to Follow Jesus, Craig Springer, executive director of Alpha USA, one of America’s most effective evangelism movements, explodes numerous myths surrounding the Christian faith that create unnecessary obstacles to growth, including: illustrating that sin and temptation are not the greatest threat to a flourishing faith, forgiveness means going through rather than around our feelings, and how disappointment in the church may be the essential step in growing a foundation for life-changing community.
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