My Journey with Prayer
Exercise daily in God—no spiritual flabbiness, please! Workouts in the gymnasium are useful, but a disciplined life in God is far more so, making you fit both today and forever. You can count on this. Take it to heart. This is why we’ve thrown ourselves into this venture so totally.
1 Timothy 4:7-10 (MSG)
“Your assignment,” Professor Lee spoke softly and calmly, “is to spend one to two hours each day in separate, personal prayer.” Though his demeanor was tranquil, he stated this goal with firm conviction, as though two hours of prayer were as crucial for our existence as food and water. I wondered what the other twenty-nine students in this week-long class, The Practice of Prayer, were thinking now.
My thoughts turned to my own prayer life. Before I began taking this class, I found practicing personal daily prayer — especially for extended periods of time — quite difficult. My mind frequently wandered. Other matters jostled for attention in my head, declaring their importance. My prayers seemed long, but a glance at the clock would tell me otherwise. Only been a few minutes had passed, and I would become disillusioned with my superficial efforts.
There were times when I managed consistent, if somewhat short, personal prayer time — maybe ten minutes each morning for a few weeks — until, inevitably, my routine would get disrupted. During an especially busy week or school vacation, my personal prayer time would disappear altogether. Then the challenge would be getting back into my routine once things returned to normal. And so my personal prayer time would wax and wane like the moon.
Still, I wanted to pray better, to learn how to master my own practice of prayer. This was one of the reasons I chose The Practice of Prayer as part of my seminary degree, and why I now sat in the classroom listening intently to Professor Lee. I longed to establish a consistent and regular personal prayer time that would be forever woven into the fabric of my day. I yearned to stay focused. I wanted to be motivated, not frustrated. These desires stirred deep within me. If I worked diligently during the week-long class, then perhaps I could satisfy these needs. I hoped the result would be more than selfish gratification. Sincere prayer, I believed, would open the way to positive inner change which in turn would evidence itself in an outward constructive reality.
My week was filled with many hours in the practice of prayer. In the classroom we practiced silent, individual prayer in short five or ten-minute bursts, as directed by Dr. Lee. But our homework each evening was to spend one to two hours in continuous prayer. Some days, as soon as class finished, I drove to an isolated spot in the parking lot and spent an hour or more praying in my car. After spending six hours in the classroom, I would open the car windows and doors to enjoy the fresh summertime air. Other times I might shut myself up with a large mug of tea in the basement of our home, the commotion of family life going on above me. My family was patient with these new routines. They were already used to my disappearing for hours at a time to read books and write papers at odd times of the day.
At first, spending more than one hour in personal prayer seemed a daunting task. Nevertheless, I resolved to make the effort and apply myself to the work. Reading lengthy theological books for other courses had already required me to take a disciplined approach to my studies, including dividing reading assignments into precise numbers of pages to be read each day. For The Practice of Prayer, I simply transferred this method from reading to praying. If I was following a five-step prayer instruction from the classroom session of that day, I broke down my prayer time at home into five manageable chunks. For an hour of prayer, I devoted twelve minutes, precisely, to each step. After twelve minutes I would move on to the next step. This way, I didn’t lose concentration, and I began to experience success in reaching my goal.
Prayer, then, replaced the many hours of reading weighty books that had filled my time during other seminary courses. Praying, I found, was light compared to reading Kant or Nietzsche. Spending one to two hours in prayer each day became less difficult as time went on. I was gaining a taste and an appetite for prayer that I had not previously experienced.
I also sensed, as the week progressed, a greater spiritual dimension. Prayer no longer meant sterile, silently verbalized words, but instead became rich with meaning. It was heart talk. I was talking to God with my whole being—my mind, my emotions, and my spirit. The constant bombardment of “stuff” no longer distracted me. Instead, the stuff of my life spiraled up, like the smoke of incense, to God. I was listening to and hearing from God. I was getting his perspective on my heart talk, and learning more about who he is and how I should live. Finally, my prayers were deeper and longer conversations with God.
Previously I had barely considered the condition of my spiritual heart. But after reaching this new stage in my prayer life, I began to understand that my spiritual heart is the core of my being from which everything flows; the source of my thoughts, feelings, words and actions. Now, that spiritual heart took center stage. I sensed its beating, its rhythm, and I became aware of its condition. I started to disclose the contents of my heart to God, and I allowed it to be searched and illuminated by his Holy Spirit. This was like receiving a spiritual shower. I felt my heart being spiritually massaged to remove its muscle knots, becoming more pliable, softer, and healthier. Prayer was changing me on the inside.
But it did not stop there. The effects of this heart talk were also playing out in my daily life. Within a single week, the yearning I had for a consistent, motivating, and life-changing prayer experience was gaining momentum.
The difficulty, of course, came when that week ended and the course concluded. Could I continue this practice of transformative personal prayer on my own?
IN THE ZONE:
What do you find hard about the practice of prayer? Is it difficult to be consistent, to get motivated, and to stay focused? Does your life seem too busy to fit in a regular prayer time? Perhaps, you find prayer boring? In his book, Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? Philip Yancey points out that prayer often ranks high in theoretical importance but low in actual satisfaction. Is prayer unsatisfying for you? Maybe, it’s not productive—you don’t see the results you want. Or, as Richard Foster says, perhaps you think you “have to have everything ‘just right’ in order to pray.”
Write down the difficulties you have with prayer that you would like to overcome:
Is this your experience with physical exercise, too? You know its value, but you just don’t find it fulfilling; it’s hard to do.
Write down difficulties you have with physical exercise that you would like to overcome:
Don’t be satisfied with hard to practice. Practice hard to be satisfied.