Prayer is something we talk a lot about as Christians. But how often do we start with the basics and teach people how to do it? The end result, as several studies have shown, is pews full of people who don’t pray very often or feel their prayers are effective, but are too embarrassed to ask for help because they think they should know this already. This was brought home to me in Confirmation class. This year, we begin each class by praying for one another … and the first thing I had to do was teach the kids how to do it.
The one part of prayer that each of them knew how to do was to ask for God’s help with a problem. Which is good! We should take our problems and concerns to God in prayer. But if that’s all that your prayers consist of, you are in danger of treating God like a vending machine. Prayer is not just about asking God for what we need. Prayer is about talking with God and building a relationship. You know that old hymn What a Friend We Have In Jesus? Prayer is how we build that relationship, that friendship. And any relationship in which one person does nothing but talk about what they want the other person to do for them isn’t a very healthy relationship, is it?
A very important part of prayer is thanking God for what God has done and is doing for us. Thanking God for being with us, for giving us the ability to get through the day, for helping us with our problems—that’s one reason I start of each worship service and class with “God moments.” If you don’t pay attention to where God is working in your life, you can’t thank him for what he does for you. Once you start looking for God in the world around you, and thanking God for what God does for you every day, it’s easier to open up to the desires God has for you.
Thanking God, asking for what we need, those are both very important. But there’s another key component to prayer that shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s asking God what God wants … and then taking the time to listen. We get so caught up in what we want, that it’s very hard to listen to what God wants. It takes practice and attention. If you’ve never done it before, you can start out like this: “God, I’ve told you what I want and what the problems are in my life. What do you want? Help me to know your will for me, and to follow it.” Then take time to sit quietly and listen. That’s hard—Americans are bad at sitting quietly and listening! We fill every second of our day with noise and activity. But to hear God, it helps if you leave space for God to speak. You might find that breathing slowly and evenly helps you to stay focused. If you can’t clear your mind—if thoughts keep coming—consider praying for those things that are on your mind, and lifting them up to God.
Prayer should be a time of peace and rest. It should be a relief from the cares of the world. If it isn’t, if bringing everything to God in prayer leaves you more tired and more stressed than ever, ask yourself this: are you leaving those cares at Jesus’ feet, or are you carrying them away with you afterwards? It is really, really hard to give your worries over to Jesus. (I struggle with anxiety, and let me tell you, “laying your burdens upon Jesus” sounds easy but it can be one of the hardest parts of a Christian life.) It is tempting to pick them up and take them with you—after all, we’re taught to be in control of our lives, have a plan, pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. But we can’t control everything, and there comes a point where you can only say “God, help me,” and leave it in God’s hands. If you can do that, trust that God will take care of you even if things are going badly, you will find a kind of peace that you just can’t get anywhere else. (It’s okay if you struggle with this. Being a Christian doesn’t mean getting everything right, it means walking with God even as we get things wrong.)
I encourage you to pray about more than just your own needs. Pray for family and friends, too, but also people across the country and across the world. And pray for your church! At both annual meetings last month, I asked people to pray for each congregation. Birka is wondering when and if they should close, and several members of Augustana have come to me and said it feels like the church is “drifting.” In both cases, our first step should be prayer. What is God calling us to do? Where is God calling us to go? What dreams and hopes is God giving us, and what fears that are getting in our way? We don’t gather as a congregation to be a social club, to reminisce about the good old days, or because it’s habit. We are God’s people, whom God has called and chosen to be his hands and feet in the world. So whatever we do, it should be focused on God’s will for us. But to know God’s will, we have to ask—and that means praying! I hope this helps you deepen your prayer life.