Six GROWTH practices: Go, Read, Obey, Witness, Trust, Humble Yourself
Go to God in Prayer and Worship
Believers tend to admire those who spend a long time in prayer. They must be especially devout. The rest of us usually feel guilty in comparison.
Yet highly admired Christian leaders taught otherwise. Augustine of Hippo (5th century) preferred “very brief, quickly dispatched prayers.” Thomas Aquinas (13th century) held that frequency, not length, is the important issue in prayer. Frequent short prayers are of more worth than a few lengthy prayers.
Martin Luther (16th century) recommended prayers be numerous but short in duration. The fewer the words the better the prayer. Few words and much meaning is Christian. Many words and little meaning is pagan. Jacob Boehme (17th century) advised that “many words are not needed, but only a believing, repentant soul.
Dwight Moody (19th century) carried this view over to public prayer. “A man who prays much in private will make short prayers in public.” He regarded lengthy public prayers as something akin to religious pretension.
Donald Bloesch (20th century) concluded that what characterized the great saints was not so much involvement in one single protracted or endless repetition of prayer formulas but rather the practice of constantly waiting on the Lord, of praying inwardly even when outwardly occupied in daily tasks.
Many years ago I did a major research project on the prayer practices of a randomized sample that brought 500 responses from Lutherans. While one-quarter of them read from a book of prayers, almost all (85%) talked to God in their own words. Call this conversational prayer. One respondent explained that while he does have time set aside for prayer, he enjoys spontaneity. “I try to talk with God when the thought or feeling strikes me. Some days I pray quite a bit, others not such much. I have some special times with God but usually, prayer and contemplation come at random.”
What do these ordinary believers pray about? The most frequent themes (four out of five) are thanking God for his blessings, asking for forgiveness, and asking for guidance. Surprisingly, the least frequent theme was asking God for material things. For this sample, less than a third usually asked for healing of physical ailments. One woman explained that her husband was an invalid and caring for him was a burden. She used to ask God to change him. Then she learned to pray that God would change her. They have gotten along much better since.
What are the benefits of personal prayer? In short, peace and power. About half reported a deep sense of peace and a strong presence of God in their prayers. One young woman reported that “I am often moved to tears during prayer, either with joy or fear, I guess.” A young mother related that “Sometimes I am able to set aside time to play the piano and sing my prayers to God. I think I feel closest to God in prayer when it is through a song.” A recovering alcoholic wrote, “If I stop just moments to pray and make amends, I can enjoy a ‘peace of mind that is mind boggling.”
Receiving answers to prayer is a form of experiencing power. A young mother’s personal experience was that prayers can make a difference, not just in her life but also in the life of other brothers and sisters. A woman reported, “I really believe in the power of prayer. I have had the experience of being freed instantly from unbearable pain—after whispering, ”Jesus, help me!” After major surgery for cancer, a woman reported, “I know the only reason the Lord spared my life was through the prayers of my family, relatives, friends, and my pastor.”
The biggest surprise in the data was that fully half of these ordinary believers declared that prayer is the most satisfying experience in their life!! Who would have guessed? Another surprise is that four out of five wanted to improve their prayer life. In business, this felt need is basic marketing information. It should be valuable information for pastors and church leaders. Address the real needs of those who gather. They want a closer personal relationship with God. Don’t offer just theory and duty. Help them learn personal conversational prayer.
What is the path to a better prayer life? For many, better is a greater frequency of long prayer out of a vague sense of duty. But a preferred starting point is experiencing the benefits of personal prayer, like peace and power. This conversational prayer relationship can result in the most satisfying experience in life.
Prayer is a two-way relationship. Start with what we do. But realize that real prayer happens when the Holy Spirit takes over and directs and guides your thoughts. So, say your formal prayers. Something good may come out of it.