Prayer Discipline -- How Prayer is Nurtured
Prayer discipline is hard work. C.S. Lewis wrote that the difficulty of disciplined prayer is that “by the very constitution of our minds as they now are . . . it is difficult for us to concentrate on anything which is neither sensible (like potatoes) nor abstract (like numbers). What is concrete but immaterial can be kept in view only by painful effort.”1
Prayer Discipline – A Difficult Undertaking
C.S. Lewis calls prayer discipline irksome, a word I doubt I have ever used in conjunction with prayer, but which adds a refreshingly honest assessment of our painful effort:
Prayer Discipline -- Thinking Prayer Makes No Difference
When first approaching prayer discipline, we must address the issue of belief. David Wells called us on this when he wrote that the reason we don’t pray as we should is that we don’t believe prayer will make any difference.3 This is a significant indictment, yet it appears there are many who have come to that prayer-arresting conclusion. I think of my mother. Her husband, my father, was sent home from the hospital to die of cancer at a fairly early age. She told me some years later that she had not really prayed in years. She recalled that she had prayed and fasted and fasted and prayed and that her husband died anyway. She said she had been unable to pray since his death because she didn’t believe it would make any difference.
She is not alone in this crisis of faith; she and those like her need to see that God’s goodness and faithfulness cannot be evaluated in terms of one unanswered prayer, however easy it is to arrive at such a conclusion. Paradoxically, it seems that God is most distant at times of crisis, calling on us to the principle of walking by faith and not by sight.
Prayer Discipline -- Thinking I am Self Sufficient
A second key to prayer discipline is overcoming the inertia of pride and the accompanying attitude of self-sufficiency. Jesus said resolutely, “I am the vine. You are the branches. Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). We could live with that more easily if he had said, “Apart from me you can do some things, but connected to me you can do more things.” It is humbling each day to ask for daily bread. It is humbling to have to pray each day for wisdom, guidance, grace, mercy, and peace. Isn’t there some way we could “pray up for a week” and then coast? I find it humbling every day to acknowledge, “Father, I am a sinner in need of mercy. I am a created being, and you are the Creator. I am utterly dependent on your grace today for every breath I take, every beat of my heart, and every material need.”
Well, I prayed that yesterday, I argue in my own proud self-sufficient heart. Do I really need to pray that again today? The humbling answer is yes! Although ritual prayers can be offered in advance with a Pharisee-like self-sufficiency, real prayer discipline begins each day with a crucified pride.
Prayer Discipline -- Not Understanding Our New-Birth Right
Third in our prayer discipline exercises, we need to overcome our guilt and shame. God loves us with a perfect and unchanging love, and longs for us to come to him, to ask of him, to test and affirm his great and precious promises. He knows us intimately—our thoughts, our motives, our guilt, our shame; and he has made provision in Christ so that we can approach him regardless of our perceived condition. Hebrews 4:9-15 reveals a God who invites to abandon our efforts of self- righteousness and sin management—and enter into his rest. He will search us with his word (not always comfortable process as we know) and reveal to us our true spiritual condition. He reminds us that regardless of our spiritual condition that we have a sympathetic High Priest eternally lives to intercede for those he redeemed. He invites into his presence, into an environment of grace and mercy. His invitation to come boldly confirms that there is nothing that need keep us from prayer except our lack of understanding our spiritual new-birth right.
Prayer Discipline – Now is the Time to Learn
In the end, there is no single pathway of nurture for us to learn prayer discipline. But learn we must. Otherwise we risk encountering a crisis without having developed an adequate capacity for prayer and an intimacy with God. Of course we cannot exclude the possibility that God would allow or even bring a crisis to teach us how to pray if we have not learned earlier (a truth not easily processed by any of us). And it might well be that God will allow a crisis to teach us to pray as preparation for an even bigger crisis later. So the time to check the gauge or practice using a fire extinguisher is before the pan boils over and the kitchen starts to burn. The time to learn prayer discipline is before we find ourselves in a major spiritual conflict.