Of all the ingredients of discipleship, the area many of us struggle with most is prayer.
According to one recently published estimate, a typical Christian layman spends about three and a half minutes each day in prayer. Full-time Christian workers average about seven minutes per day. This pitiful situation must amaze even the Lord himself, for Isaiah 59:16 records that when no one was found to intercede for his people, God was appalled.
Why do we fail to take full advantage of the privilege of prayer? Is it a lack of discipline? Are we too busy? Are we unmotivated?
Perhaps the basic cause of our weakness in prayer relates to how we view God. We may have no genuine awe for the one “who stretched out the heavens and laid the foundations of the earth” (Isaiah 51:13). God seems more like a superhero from a child’s cartoon, whittled down to human size.
If we aren’t captivated by God, prayer is a tedious task. It becomes a discipline that only those with wills of steel can master.
I once regarded prayer as “gutting it out” before God. It meant trying to bring reams and reams of petitions before the Lord. The more requests I could bring, the more spiritual I was.
I also misinterpreted statements from godly men about the importance of prayer. Martin Luther’s statement that “I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer” implied to me that prayer was a guaranteed formula for success.
Rather than being dynamic communion with the sovereign Lord of the universe, prayer was an exercise meant to wrestle effects into the lives of people and to manipulate God’s hand. Prayer became lifeless and tedious. It was like castor oil: tasting terrible, but good for me.
Yet God reminded me of the truth I was neglecting: He wanted to commune with me. What does this mean? Communion is defined as the intimate sharing of thoughts and emotions, and as intimate fellowship or rapport or communication. This is the kind of relationship God wants between him and me.
I saw I had become hardened to the excitement of walking in this continual awareness of God’s presence. I realized afresh that he desires open access to communion with me. He has little interest in the petition gymnastics I was trying to perfect in prayer. He wants me to be preoccupied with himself.
Seeing God this way enables us to stand in awe of him. It stimulates our heart to vital communion and conversation with him. Seeing God as he is requires faith on our part, but whoever is enamored and thrilled with God is then rightly motivated to pray.
Discipline will still be necessary, but prayer won’t be drudgery. I believe that’s what John 4:24 is hinting at: “God is spirit and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.”
To grow in communion with God requires appreciation of his awesomeness and wonder. This may seem an intangible objective, but there are practical steps we can take. When undertaken in a spirit of faith, these actions can bring new life and vitality to our relationship with God.
What then can we do? God has graciously given us two major resources to enable us to see him as he is: his works and his word. Both are avenues for deepening heartfelt communion with the Father of glory.
What are the works of God, and how can they help us appreciate God? Most of us think of the works of God as being his spiritual work in people’s lives. It is good to rejoice and express our praise to God as we see this. But another work of God, neglected by many of us, is his creation. The universe has been marred by sin, but it still declares God’s glory. In our modern secularization many of us have lost our sense of wonder at the ordinary miracles God performs all around us each day.
God wants us to experience awe and wonder when we see the return of spring, or the variety in the animal world, or the impressive powers of wind, rain, and sea.
All of these are God’s handiwork. Failing to return praise to him as we observe them is just like failing to return the glory to God as we see him work in someone’s life. Isaiah wrote, “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all these?” (Isaiah 40:26). We, too, should consider the one who made it all, and we can ask God to help us see him in his creation.
The second resource available to us is God’s word. The Bible is a vast reservoir of riches designed to remind us of the greatness of the God we serve. Many passages throughout Scripture focus on what God is like. When you read them, think of the implications these attributes of God have for our lives, and talk with God about them.
The life of Jesus Christ as told in the gospels also draws our attention to God’s character. Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:6 mentioned how God’s glory was “in the face of Christ.” As we read about Jesus talking with and living among people, we see vivid examples of God’s character in action.
One aspect, you’ll remember, in our definition of communion was that of sharing. Communion means sharing the same thoughts as we communicate. Therefore we need to respond to God about the specific things he has spoken to us about.
We often fail to do this when we read the Bible. In a particular passage, God may speak to us about his holiness. But our mind is preoccupied with how we can come up with enough money to pay next month’s rent. So when we put down our Bible and pray, what do we talk to God about? Not his holiness, but the rent money!
It is not wrong to pray about our needs, but God wants us to listen to him and give him a proper response. Imagine telling someone, “I love you very much,” only to hear him respond, “I sure hope I get a pay raise soon at work.” Such conversations don’t do much to build intimacy in a relationship. So listen to God and respond specifically to what he has said.
Another way to appreciate God and commune with him is to read and meditate on the great prayers of the Bible. Solomon’s prayer of dedication for the temple (1 Kings 8:23-53) began with lavish praise for God. When the early Christians prayed for boldness (Acts 4:24-30) most of their words recounted what God had already done. No wonder their prayer for boldness was clearly answered. Many of the psalms of David and the prayers of Paul also focus on who God is and what he has done, rather than on their requests.
Growing in reverent communion with God isn’t another burden to add to your already busy schedule. It is not an activity, but far more an attitude of heart that should especially influence your Bible study, Scripture memory, and quiet times, as well as prayer.
William Carey said that “secret, fervent, believing prayer lies at the root of all personal godliness.” We could add that an exciting sense of reverence and worship—an increasing appreciation of God’s presence—lies at the root of all secret, fervent, believing prayer.
Your Only Hope for Obedience
The secret of true obedience—let me say at once what I believe it to be—is the clear and close personal relationship to God. All our attempts after full obedience will be failures until we get access to his abiding fellowship. It is God’s holy presence, consciously abiding with us, that keeps us from disobeying him….
Our Lord spoke of his relation to the Father as the type and the promise of our relation to him, and to the Father through him. With us as with him, the life of continual obedience is impossible without continual fellowship and continual teaching. It is only when God comes into our lives, in a degree and a power which many never consider possible, when his presence as the Eternal and Ever-present One is believed and received, even as the Son believed and received it, that there can be any hope of a life in which every thought is brought into captivity to the obedience of Christ.