I’m not an expert on prayer. I attended a conference last year that really inspired me to learn more about prayer, and led to me share the results of that learning in a spiritual disciplines class at our church. Confession: since doing all that learning, I’ve done little doing. I’m really starting to feel how desperately I need to be about the work of prayer, and at just the right time (ahem… God moved and) I came across a set of notes that I prepared for that spiritual disciplines class on prayer. They’re pretty good notes with some challenging and inspiring information, but I had completely forgotten about all of it. Apparently I knew this stuff about prayer. I didn’t do it. This information is hitting me fresh, so I’m sharing it with you in a series of five posts. (You can read more about all of that here.) This information and inspiration about prayer is aggregated from several people and sources that I consider to be credible within this topic. This is not my own knowledge or information. Again, I’m not an expert, really just a curator. Check back over the next several days for the rest of my notes on prayer. (See part 1 of this series here. Oh, and part 2 is here.)
Prayer is Learned Behavior
The disciples had been praying their entire lives, but they also got to spend several years hearing Jesus, the Son of God, pray. They often get a bad rap for not really understanding what Jesus was teaching, but let’s give them some credit for knowing that they had much to learn from Jesus about prayer. In Luke 11, we read that after Jesus had finished praying, a disciple approached Him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Praying is learned behavior. Here are some ways we can learn:
- Learn from God: “Ask God to teach you to pray and teach you how to pray” (Simon Mbevi, Breakout Session – “The Power of a Praying Church,” Pray. Reach. Challenge. Conference 2013, Southeast Christian Church, October 25, 2013).
- Learn from Jesus: In Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster writes of going through the Gospels and compiling one document containing every reference to prayer. He writes, “When I could read Jesus’ teaching on prayer at one sitting, I was shocked. Either the excuses and rationalizations for unanswered prayer I had been taught were wrong, or Jesus’ words were wrong. I determined to learn to pray so that my experience conformed to the words of Jesus rather than try to make his words conform to my impoverished experience” (p. 37)
- Learn from Others: Study pray-ers in the Bible (Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Hannah, and Daniel, to name a few). Talk to the “prayer warriors” in your life. Read books on prayer. (Foster recommends Andrew Murray’s With Christ in the School of Prayer and Foster also has a book titled Prayer. I also recommend visiting teachustopray.org and listening to lessons from Simon Mbevi.) Learn from the wisdom and experiences of others.
- Change your expectations (or, have expectations): Foster writes that as he was studying about and with people more experienced and deep in prayer than he, he “began praying for others with an expectation that a change should and would occur. I am so grateful I did not wait until I was perfect or had everything straight before praying for others, otherwise I would never have begun” (p. 38). We pray with hope. Not hope like cross-your-fingers-and-hope-for-the-best kind of hope, but real hope – confident expectation.
- Correct your view of God: Jesus approached God in prayer full of confidence about who the Father is. “When we come to the place of talking with God, our Father, it is important we have an accurate and restored view of who He is, what He’s like, and how He feels about us. Otherwise, we might come up against obstacles such as lies and unbelief as we meet with Him. First and foremost, God wants our hearts to be free to love Him and trust Him” (teachustopray.org).
- Do it: Just start. God has invited you to pray. “God gets to guide us in the place of prayer” (Mbevi). He wants to guide us so that our wills, desires, and interests grow and stretch to be His will, desires, and interests. One thing He desires is for you to come near to Him in prayer. He wants to work through your prayers so that you to have prayer stories to tell, testimonies about His powerful and mighty love and works. “If you want prayer stories, prayer testimonies, to tell, pray” (Mbevi).
- Keep doing it: “[W]e should remember that God always meets us where we are and slowly moves us along into deeper things. Occasional joggers do not suddenly enter an Olympic marathon. They prepare and train themselves over a period of time, and so should we. When such a progression is followed, we can expect to pray a year from now with greater authority and spiritual success than at present” (Foster, 35).
- Reflect on your prayers: In The Life You’ve Always Wanted: Spiritual Disciplines for Ordinary People, John Ortberg writes, “Sometimes people fail to learn more about prayer because they don’t reflect on what actually happens when they pray” (103). Write down your thoughts on your prayer: How it start? Were you aware of God’s presence? Did you feel especially convicted or alive during certain parts of your prayer? Did you have difficulties? Do you have a sense of being called to respond with a particular action? What was the tone of your prayer?
- Pray others’ prayers: First, start with the Lord’s Prayer. Pray it over and over and let the prayer, its tone, its flow, sink in. (Side note: teachustopray.org/how-we-pray/ is a great resource for looking at the different parts of the Lord’s prayer: praise, intercession, petition, confession, and guidance.) Then, pray other prayers in scripture (for example, the Magnificat, the Psalms, etc.). Pray promises in scripture. Pray liturgical prayers and feel united to the untold numbers of Christians through the ages who have prayed those very words.
- Come before God as yourself, not a sanitized version of yourself: We read in John 15:7, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you will, and it shall be done for you.” In the past (although I wouldn’t have described it this way), I’d see that verse as evidence that I couldn’t really pray until I felt that I was aligned with the will of God more completely. In other words, that I needed to pull myself up by the bootstraps to a place of holier will and desires before I could pray prayers that “got results.” But that’s really backwards and giving myself an illusion of control or power that no person has. Through prayer, God changes me. I don’t change myself so that I can pray. Ortberg writes:
…my mind has a steady stream of thoughts… but none of these things seem spiritual. So I force myself to pray for things that seem nobler… But there is a gap between what I am supposed to pray for and what I am really thinking about.
Removing this gap is what simple prayer is about. In simple prayer, I pray about what is really on my heart, not what I wish was on my heart. As Foster put it, “We bring ourselves before God just as we are, warts and all. Like children before a loving father, we open our hearts and make our requests. We do not try to sort out the good from the bad. We tell God, for example, how frustrated we are with the co-worker at the office or the neighbor down the street. We ask for food, favorable weather, and good health.”…[N]othing kills prayer faster than when I pretend in prayer to be more noble than I really am. Dallas Willard sees this:
Prayer simply dies from efforts to pray about “good things” that honestly do not matter to us. The way to get to meaningful prayer for those good things is to start by praying for what we are truly interested in. The circles of our interests will inevitably grow in the largeness of God’s love… Many people have found prayer impossible because they thought they should only pray for wonderful but remote needs they actually had little or no interest in or even knowledge of.
… Of course, I’d like to grow so that my concerns become increasingly less selfish. But prayer – like any other relationship – must begin in honesty if it is to grow. C. S. Lewis wrote that in prayer we must “lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us” (100-101).
Seriously. I am really ashamed that I spent the time praying and reading and compiling this information about prayer and then failed to put it in to action in my life. I think it’s a good example of what I was talking about regarding my (genuine, not-for-show) public walk with God being separated from my personal walk from God. I really, genuinely believed that this was sound information about prayer. I was excited to grow in this area and share it with others. Personally, though, I dropped the ball. Not cool. Not OK.
What about you? Do you agree that prayer is learned behavior? Why or why not? Who or what have been your greatest teachers about prayer?
Grace and peace,