When You Pray

Five ways to integrate prayer into every part of life

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If only I could praise in myself the lack of prayer—if only I could somehow justify my avoidance of God ...

Truth be told, we feel plenty of guilt with thoughts like these playing on repeat in our heads. Next to reading the Bible too seldom, many of us quietly grieve a failed prayer life, perhaps more than anything else in our efforts as a disciple. We dutifully resolve—fueled onward by yet another sermon or benediction or pastoral letter—to be more deliberate in talking with God. But when the inspiration has faded and there’s no discernible growth to point to, we give up once again and wait for the next wave of trying.

What gives? What are we missing in this essential part of following Jesus Christ? Why do we need to fully embrace a life of prayer?

After all the sermons and seminars have ended, when all of the books on prayer have collected their dust, what we ultimately need is to recover an understanding of prayer as an actual experience of God. It’s wonderful to receive counsel from godly, seasoned pray-ers, yet the lessons we learn from such people will never teach us what we really need to know. Only prayer—conversation with God Himself—can do that.

The focus of this guide is to help you establish a daily practice of talking to, listening to, and simply being with the Lord—a practice that integrates naturally into the rhythms of daily life.

In other words, the goal here is not information but formation. To that end, we’ve put together the following to help you begin to see prayer as not only something you do but also an essential part of who you are.

A Definition

In the 4th century, theologian and celebrated preacher John Chrysostom said, “Prayer is the light of the soul, giving us true knowledge of God.” The kind of knowledge he spoke of was not the sort learned in books, but that borne of a true encounter with the living Christ.

Fundamentally, prayer is communion with God. Yes, we come to Him with our needs and wants, as Scripture encourages. Yes, prayer involves conversation with the Lord, speaking and listening. But neither our conversing nor our petitions are really what prayer is all about—they are the means, not the end. Rather, what we’re after is an ever-deepening oneness with the Savior that each of these parts facilitates. What we long for is God Himself.

 

Make It Physical: Embodied Prayer

While there is no “correct” or “proper” position for prayer, what we do with our bodies should not be discounted. Why? Because we are embodied creations who have been promised resurrection bodies. As temples of the Holy Spirit who are meant for God’s glory, we worship Him by presenting our physical selves as living and holy sacrifices (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Rom. 12:1). Oftentimes, we think of prayer in purely cerebral terms—as an act of the mind—but it should be something the whole person experiences—mind, soul, and yes, the body as well.

Throughout the Bible, many postures of prayer are mentioned. Abraham fell upon his face before God (Gen. 17:3; Gen. 17:17). Moses interceded with arms outstretched (Exodus 9:27–29). King Solomon knelt (1 Kings 8:54). The tax collector beat his breast and lowered his eyes (Luke 18:13). Hannah tearfully pleaded with silent lips (1 Samuel 1:9-18). And Jesus turned His eyes to heaven (John 11:41).

Though it may feel uncomfortable at first, speaking to the Lord with your body by means of various postures is a wonderful way to enrich your prayer life. You can begin in the privacy of your own home and go from there.

TRY THIS

In moments of confession, try kneeling. Or when speaking words of adoration, bow from the waist, as if the Lord is standing physically before you. By humbling the body in these ways, your prayers may become more honest as your heart and words are shaped by this physical position.

When interceding for others, lie prostrate—allow your entire body to express your dependence on God.

Accept blessings with your hands open and your head lowered.

Pronounce blessings on others with your arms outstretched or by laying hands on them.

Pray outdoors with your face tilted toward the sun.

Sit in a peaceful spot and allow your body to relax as you speak to God.

 

Ask Boldly: Intercessory Prayer

In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Intercession means no more than to bring our brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being … His need and his sin become so heavy and oppressive that we feel them as our own, and we can do nothing else but pray.” In the Old Testament, the high priest would go before God’s presence in the Holy of Holies to intercede for the people. But Jesus, through His death on the cross, became our Great High Priest, interceding for us with the Father.

Prayer itself is overwhelming, and praying for others even more so. It’s not uncommon to think, What if I say it wrong? What if I leave something out? How specific do I need to be? Yet God commands us to pray. And we should remember He does not leave us to our own devices—Jesus sits at God’s right hand, advocating for us, and the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf with “groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). We don’t have to pray perfectly; God is not grading our prayers. But as we pray with a sincere heart bent towards His will, He teaches us. The best way to learn intercession is simply to begin.

Intercessory prayer in a corporate worship context is simply intercession with others for others. Yet praying in public can feel intimidating, and if we’re not careful, it can turn into a show. (See Luke 18:9-14.) The early church prayed together. Unity in pouring out their hearts as one—needing and depending on God to do what only He can do—resulted in fellowship, discipleship, and spiritual power. As we pray together, we find courage to be real and transparent, and we learn from one another.

TRY THIS

The simplest way to learn to pray for others is to imitate how those in the Bible interceded. Paul prayed for the Colossians to have knowledge, wisdom, and understanding (Col. 1:9). Jesus prayed for us in John 17, asking God to keep believers in His name so that we may be unified (John 17:11). He also prayed for us to have joy, protection, and sanctification.

Pray the promises of God. For example, you can turn Ephesians 5 into a prayer for others to imitate God and walk in love, or for God to teach and instruct them (Psalm 32:8).

Pray for a person, simply asking God to grant healing or favor. For instance, Matthew 6:8 says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”

There may still be times when language fails you—in those moments, simply pray the person’s name. As noted above, God knows what each of us needs better than we do. By calling individuals to mind in the presence of God, we’re effectively bringing them before Him, in a way similar to how the young man in Luke 5:17-26 was lowered through a roof by his friends. Praying in this manner allows us to faithfully remember a greater number of people from day to day, asking God to show each one His customary love and mercy.

 

Take Your Time: Meditation

The average read-the-Bible-in-a-year plan is a sprint, a manic race to absorb roughly 775,000 words in 365 days. Basically, it’s the literary equivalent of riding a Segway through the Louvre and saying you’ve taken in the beauty of each of the 380,000 pieces of art on display.

Reading quickly, while valuable in its way, leaves little room to contemplate lilies clothed in their finery (Matt. 6:28-30) or the way unity is like oil in Aaron’s beard (Psalm 133:1-3). When we slow down to really look, however, we’ll remember that the moon and stars aren’t cold astronomical bodies but the very work of God’s fingers (Psalm 8:3-4).

By moving too rapidly, we miss not only the beauty of language but also the very grandeur of God.

By moving too rapidly, we miss not only the beauty of language but also the very grandeur of God. And that’s why we must intentionally slow down when reading and take time to contemplate the words, images, and stories in Scripture. They are the things that stick. Puritan pastor Thomas Watson put it like this: “Without meditation, the truths of God will not stay with us. The heart is hard, and the memory slippery—and without meditation all is lost!”

Meditation is often defined as imagination and contemplation on God’s words and goodness. By intentionally engaging with Scripture in this way, we slow down—pondering each word and allowing scenes and images to come alive in our imagination. Meditation allows us to have a conversation with the Bible. It helps us to wonder.

This can be done with a lengthy passage or just a verse or two. And meditation doesn’t have to be limited to a moment—we can continue it while we’re driving or going for a walk.

Other options, when you don’t have a verse in mind, would be to meditate on a phrase such as “Lord, have mercy,” to read (or memorize) a benediction like the one found in Ephesians 3:14-21, or to recite the names of God and what they mean.

TRY THIS

Find a verse or passage that depicts a scene, and use your imagination to visualize and experience it in your mind. Start with something like “He leads me beside quiet waters” (Psalm 23:2). Picture the scene, inhabit it fully, and let it fill your senses.

Read a passage such as Psalm 19 and let the beauty of the words rush over you; speak them aloud, savoring the sounds. Examine the passage for examples of figurative language such as symbolism, metaphor, or simile and allow them to enrich the experience.

Before praying, let yourself sit quietly for a few minutes. Breathe deeply and focus your mind.

 

Take a Breath: Unceasing Prayer

The apostle Paul, in a letter to the church in Thessalonica, wrote these words—not only as exhortation, but also as a pastoral command: “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). And to the Ephesians, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18). As people who hold faithfully to Scripture’s teaching, we have to believe that Paul genuinely thought ceaseless prayer is possible. But for those of us who are contending with the accelerated pace of modern life, the question is a poignant one: How?

There’s no formula for overcoming the mind’s difficulty at achieving a life of ceaseless prayer. But there’s a proven method, centuries old, to help us persevere and find the way—regardless of what we’re doing or who’s around.

Ceaseless prayer will help you discover the Lord to be the constant companion He already is.

For hundreds of years, Christians have quietly repeated short prayers or fragments of Scripture through the day to remain present to God. Having a simple refrain to call upon repeatedly helps us maintain connection to Christ and tunes the heart to hear Him knocking at its door.

Doing so also helps us to dislodge unwanted thoughts. Rather than engage such thoughts head on, we can—through our discipline of prayer—let them pass like a bird flying by a window, and then turn attention back to God through our prayerful refrain.

But what about the scripture that says, “When you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7 NKJV)? Not all repetition is “vain” or “meaningless,” as the NASB reads. A well-chosen verse of prayer is anything but. Then, reciting with devotion and attention to God yields a habit of the heart that brings us closer to the Savior, and further into His likeness.

There’s no magic in this method. Practicing the discipline of ceaseless prayer doesn’t replace the time you set aside to meditate upon Scripture and to fellowship with God. It’s an extension of that devotion—a way to continue communing as you mow the lawn, do the dishes, serve at church, or work at your job. Learning to call out to Him in this way won’t detract from your daily responsibilities. It’ll simply help you discover the Lord to be the constant companion He already is.

TRY THIS

The Lord’s Prayer. Memorize the prayer lesson Jesus gave His disciples (Matt. 6:9-13). If you find it hard to repeat through the day, let certain events—like meals or your daily commute—serve as reminders to stop and commune with God.

The Publican’s Prayer. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the first man thanks God that he’s not as sinful as others, while the second honestly assesses his sinfulness: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Jesus said, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14 NKJV). Note two things about this prayer: Though the word mercy often evokes the idea of a pardon, here it refers to God’s lovingkindess and is a request for Him to pour His healing love upon us. Also, the word sinner shouldn’t make us feel bad. Rather, it’s a statement of humility and our neediness before the Lord. You can also try an adapted version of the prayer, which is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”

The Psalms. Praying spontaneously is a good practice, but many people find written prayers helpful when they don’t know what to say. Consider turning to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the Bible’s prayerbook”—the Psalms—and using Psalm 51:10, Psalm 70:1, or Psalm 139:23.

 

Find the Words: Scripted Prayer

I don’t know what to say. It’s the most common reason people avoid prayer. They want to praise God, intercede for others, or confess their sins, but when they try, the words vanish into thin air. But there’s no law stating that each prayer we offer has to be a perfect one-of-a-kind creation or a tailor-made collection of flawless phrases.

When we struggle to speak, we can use the thoughts of others. Doing so has a way of removing us from the equation, for rather than us forming the words, we allow the words to shape us. As we repeat these prayers and commit them to memory, they become a part of our daily worship and allow us to have richer, deeper communication with God.

TRY THIS

St. Patrick’s Breastplate. This prayer can be prayed in part or in its entirety. The most commonly used section is the 15 lines that begin with “Christ with me, Christ before me.”

The Prayer of St. Francis. The well-known prayer that begins with the line “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” has a way of reorienting our focus on the One who will guide us through every challenge. Praying to be a source of love, faith, light, and reconciliation is a wonderful way to begin the day and set our minds on things above (Col. 3:2).

The Book of Common Prayer. This rich book is filled with many types of prayers to be used throughout the year. Select one or two to incorporate into your daily routine—perhaps at mealtimes, before beginning the work day, or at bedtime.

 

For more Whole Church content, click here.

 

Dallas Hazelrig, Jamie A. Hughes, Cameron Lawrence, and Aline Mello contributed to this article.
Photo-illustrations by Joe Cavazos

Related Topics:  Prayer

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What happens to my notes

19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and that you are not your own?

20 For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body.

1 Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.

3 Abram fell on his face, and God talked with him, saying,

17 Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child? "

27 Then Pharaoh sent for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, I have sinned this time; the LORD is the righteous one, and I and my people are the wicked ones.

28 Make supplication to the LORD, for there has been enough of God's thunder and hail; and I will let you go, and you shall stay no longer."

29 Moses said to him, As soon as I go out of the city, I will spread out my hands to the LORD; the thunder will cease and there will be hail no longer, that you may know that the earth is the LORD'S.

54 When Solomon had finished praying this entire prayer and supplication to the LORD, he arose from before the altar of the LORD, from kneeling on his knees with his hands spread toward heaven.

13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'

9 Then Hannah rose after eating and drinking in Shiloh. Now Eli the priest was sitting on the seat by the doorpost of the temple of the LORD.

10 She, greatly distressed, prayed to the LORD and wept bitterly.

11 She made a vow and said, O LORD of hosts, if You will indeed look on the affliction of Your maidservant and remember me, and not forget Your maidservant, but will give Your maidservant a son, then I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life, and a razor shall never come on his head."

12 Now it came about, as she continued praying before the LORD, that Eli was watching her mouth.

13 As for Hannah, she was speaking in her heart, only her lips were moving, but her voice was not heard. So Eli thought she was drunk.

14 Then Eli said to her, How long will you make yourself drunk? Put away your wine from you."

15 But Hannah replied, No, my lord, I am a woman oppressed in spirit; I have drunk neither wine nor strong drink, but I have poured out my soul before the LORD.

16 Do not consider your maidservant as a worthless woman, for I have spoken until now out of my great concern and provocation."

17 Then Eli answered and said, Go in peace; and may the God of Israel grant your petition that you have asked of Him."

18 She said, Let your maidservant find favor in your sight." So the woman went her way and ate, and her face was no longer sad.

41 So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, Father, I thank You that You have heard Me.

26 In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words;

9 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

11 The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: `God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.'

13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'

14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

9 For this reason also, since the day we heard of it, we have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,

11 I am no longer in the world; and yet they themselves are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep them in Your name, the name which You have given Me, that they may be one even as We are.

8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you.

8 So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.

17 One day He was teaching; and there were some Pharisees and teachers of the law sitting there, who had come from every village of Galilee and Judea and from Jerusalem; and the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing.

18 And some men were carrying on a bed a man who was paralyzed; and they were trying to bring him in and to set him down in front of Him.

19 But not finding any way to bring him in because of the crowd, they went up on the roof and let him down through the tiles with his stretcher, into the middle of the crowd, in front of Jesus.

20 Seeing their faith, He said, Friend, your sins are forgiven you."

21 The scribes and the Pharisees began to reason, saying, Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?"

22 But Jesus, aware of their reasonings, answered and said to them, Why are you reasoning in your hearts?

23 Which is easier, to say, `Your sins have been forgiven you,' or to say, `Get up and walk'?

24 But, so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins,"--He said to the paralytic-- I say to you, get up, and pick up your stretcher and go home."

25 Immediately he got up before them, and picked up what he had been lying on, and went home glorifying God.

26 They were all struck with astonishment and began glorifying God; and they were filled with fear, saying, We have seen remarkable things today."

28 And why are you worried about clothing? Observe how the lilies of the field grow; they do not toil nor do they spin,

29 yet I say to you that not even Solomon in all his glory clothed himself like one of these.

30 But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not much more clothe you? You of little faith!

1 Behold, how good and how pleasant it is For brothers to dwell together in unity!

2 It is like the precious oil upon the head, Coming down upon the beard, Even Aaron's beard, Coming down upon the edge of his robes.

3 It is like the dew of Hermon Coming down upon the mountains of Zion; For there the LORD commanded the blessing--life forever.

3 When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained;

4 What is man that You take thought of him, And the son of man that You care for him?

14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father,

15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name,

16 that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man,

17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love,

18 may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth,

19 and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fullness of God.

20 Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us,

21 to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen.

2 He makes me lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside quiet waters.

16 Rejoice always;

17 pray without ceasing;

18 in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.

18 With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints,

7 And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words.

9 Pray, then, in this way: `Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name.

10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, On earth as it is in heaven.

11 Give us this day our daily bread.

12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.

13 And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil. [ For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.']

9 And He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:

10 Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.

11 The Pharisee stood and was praying this to himself: `God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.

12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.'

13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'

14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, `God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'

14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted."

10 Create in me a clean heart, O God, And renew a steadfast spirit within me.

1 O God, hasten to deliver me; O LORD, hasten to my help!

23 Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts;

2 Set your mind on the things above, not on the things that are on earth.

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