I recently re-read this book after having read it when it first came out about ten years ago. I decided to re-read it because lately my prayer life hasn’t been what it should be. Reading it was both encouraging and very sobering; encouraging because of what God can accomplish through prayer and sobering because it showed how far afield I’ve fallen in some areas of my life.
The book is so good that instead of a review (which I’ve already done) I think it’s more useful to reprint excerpts of what were to me some of the most profound statements and ideas:
One of the subtlest hindrances to prayer is probably the most pervasive. In the broader culture and in our churches, we prize intellect, competency, and wealth. Because we can do life without God, praying seems nice but unnecessary. Money can do what prayer does, and it is quicker and less time-consuming. Our trust in ourselves and in our talents makes us structurally independent of God. As a result, exhortations to pray don’t stick.
Oddly enough, many people struggle to learn how to pray because they are focusing on praying, not on God. Making prayer the center is like making conversation the center of a family mealtime. In prayer, focusing on the conversation is like trying to drive while looking at the windshield instead of through it. It freezes us, making us unsure of where to go. Conversation is only the vehicle through which we experience one another. Consequently, prayer is not the center of this book. Getting to know a person, God, is the center.
Don’t hunt for a feeling in prayer. Deep in our psyches we want an experience with God or an experience in prayer. Once we make that our quest, we lose God. You don’t experience God; you get to know him. You submit to him. You enjoy him. He is, after all, a person.
If God is sovereign, then he is in control of all the details of my life. If he is loving, then he is going to be shaping the details of my life for my good. If he is all-wise, then he’s not going to do everything I want because I don’t know what I need. If he is patient, then he is going to take time to do all this. When we put all these things together – God’s sovereignty, love, wisdom, and patience – we have a divine story.
A needy heart is a praying heart. Dependency is the heartbeat of prayer.
Jesus does not say, “Come to me, all you who have learned how to concentrate in prayer, whose minds no longer wander, and I will give you rest.” No, Jesus opens his arms to his needy children and says, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28, NASB). The criterion for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.
When your mind starts wandering in prayer, be like a little child. Don’t worry about being organized or staying on task. Paul certainly wasn’t! Remember you are in conversation with a person. Instead of beating yourself up, learn to play again. Pray about what your mind is wandering to. Maybe it is something that is important to you. Maybe the Spirit is nudging you to think about something else.
When Jesus tells us to become like little children, he isn’t telling us to do anything he isn’t already doing. Jesus is, without question, the most dependent human being who ever lived. Because he can’t do life on his own, he prays. And he prays. And he prays. Luke tells us that Jesus “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (5:16).
When Jesus tells us that “apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5), he is inviting us into his life of a living dependence on his heavenly Father. When Jesus tells us to believe, he isn’t asking us to work up some spiritual energy. He is telling us to realize that, like him, we don’t have the resources to do life. When you know that you (like Jesus) can’t do life on your own, then prayer makes complete sense.
But it goes even deeper than that. Jesus defines himself only in relationship with his heavenly Father. Adam and Eve began their quest for self-identity after the Fall. Only after they acted independently of God did they have a sense of a separate self. Because Jesus has no separate sense of self, he has no identity crisis, no angst. Consequently, he doesn’t’ try to “find himself.” He knows himself only in relationship with his Father. He can’t conceive of himself outside of that relationship.
If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life. You’ll always be a little too tired, a little too busy. But if, like Jesus, you realize you can’t do life on your own, then no matter how busy, no matter how tired you are, you will find the time to pray.
It took me seventeen years to realize I couldn’t parent on my own. It was not a great spiritual insight, just a realistic observation. If I didn’t pray deliberately and reflectively for members of my family by name every morning, they’d kill one another. I was incapable of getting inside their hearts. I was desperate. But even more, I couldn’t change my self-confident heart. My prayer journal reflects both my inability to change my kids and my inability to change my self-confidence. That’s why I need grace even to pray.
We don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; we just need to be poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit makes room for his Spirit. It creates a God-shaped hole in our hearts and offers us a new way to relate to others.
When you stop trying to control your life and instead allow your anxieties and problems to bring you to God in prayer, you shift from worry to watching. You watch God weave his patterns in the story of your life. Instead of trying to be out front, designing your life, you realize you are inside God’s drama. As you wait, you begin to see him work, and your life begins to sparkle with wonder. You are learning to trust again.
Learned desperation is at the heart of a praying life.
If you are going to enter this divine dance we call prayer you have to surrender your desire to be in control, to figure out how prayer works. You’ve got to let God take the lead. You have to trust. Then God will delight you, not only with the gift of himself but also with parking places, pajamas, poured milk, and Pathfinders. No one works like him!
The name of Jesus gives my prayers royal access. They get through. Jesus isn’t just the Savior of my soul. He’s also the Savior of my prayers. My prayers come before the throne of God as the prayers of Jesus. “Asking in Jesus name” isn’t another thing I have to get right so my prayers are perfect. It is one more gift of God because my prayers are so imperfect.
I find that the closer my prayers are to the heart of God, the more powerfully and quickly they are answered.
We shy away from prayers that invite God to rule our lives. They make us vulnerable.
Seldom do we pray seriously and thoughtfully for those we love as they deal with their besetting sins. I’m going to pick on husbands for a minute because most men don’t pray thoughtfully for their wives; they just whine or withdraw. When they do pray, they often simply want their own lives to be pain free. Men will work at making money, keeping the yard neat, or helping the kids in sports, but many don’t work at or think about things that last.
I do not understand prayer. Prayer is deeply personal and deeply mysterious. Adults try to figure out causation. Little children don’t. They just ask.
If you slow down and reflect, you’ll begin to see whole areas of your life where you’ve been prayerless.
The great struggle of my life is not trying to discern God’s will; it is trying to discern and then disown my own. Once I see that, then prayer flows. I have to be praying because I’m no longer in charge. Either I see all of life as a gift, or I demand that life have a certain look to it.
Prayer is the positive side of the surrendered will. As you stop doing your own will and wait for God, you enter into his mind. You begin to remain in him…to abide. This is the praying life.
We can’t pray effectively until we get in touch with our inner brat. When we see our own self-will, it opens the door to doing things through God. Instead of singing Frank Sinatra’s song “My Way,” we enter into God’s story and watch him do it his way. No one works like him.
I often find that when God doesn’t answer a prayer, he wants to expose something in me. Our prayers don’t exist in a world of their own. We are in dialogue with a personal, divine Spirit who wants to shape us as much as he wants to hear us. For God to act unthinkingly with our prayers would be paganism, which says the gods do our will in response to our prayers.
Until we become convinced we can’t change our child’s heart, we will not take prayer seriously. Consequently, repentance is often missing. When we see, for example, our son’s self-will, we usually don’t ask, How am I self-willed? or How am I angry? We want God’s help so we can dominate our son. We forget that God is not a genie but a person who wants to shape us in the image of his Son as much as he wants to answer our prayers.
When we don’t receive what we pray for or desire, it doesn’t mean that God isn’t acting on our behalf. Rather, he’s weaving his story. Paul tells us to “continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving” (Colossians 4:2). Thanksgiving helps us to be grace-centered, seeing all of life as a gift. It looks at how God’s past blessings impact our lives. Watchfulness alerts us to the unfolding drama in the present. It looks for God’s present working as it unfolds into future grace.
The waiting that is the essence of faith provides the context for relationship. Faith and relationship are interwoven in dance. Everyone talks now about how prayer is relationship, but often what people mean is having warm fuzzies with God. Nothing wrong with warm fuzzies, but relationships are far richer and more complex.
When God seems silent and our prayers go unanswered, the overwhelming temptation is to leave the story – to walk out of the desert and attempt to create a normal life. But when we persist in a spiritual vacuum, when we hang in there during ambiguity, we get to know God. In fact, that is how intimacy grows in all close relationships.
Many of us wish God were more visible. We think that if we could see him better or know what is going on, then faith would come more easily. But if Jesus dominated the space and overwhelmed our vision, we would not be able to relate to him. Everyone who had a clear-eyed vision of God in the Bible fell down as if he were dead. It’s hard to relate to pure light.
In the gospel, Jesus took my sin, and I got his righteousness. That is how gospel stories work. Consequently, gospel stories always have suffering in them. American Christianity has an allergic reaction to this part of the gospel. We’d love to hear about God’s love for us, but suffering doesn’t mesh with our right to “the pursuit of happiness.” So we pray to escape a gospel story, when that is the best gift the Father can give us.
Living in a gospel story exposes our idols, our false sources of love. When our idols are exposed, we often give up in despair – overwhelmed by both the other person’s sin and our own. But by simply staying in the story, continuing to show up for life, even if it seems pointless, the kingdom comes. Poverty of spirit is no longer a belief. We own it. It describes us.
“I’ll keep you in my prayers” is the easiest way to back away politely. Roughly translated it means, “I have every intention of praying for you, but because I’ve not written it down, it is likely I will never pray for it. But I say it because as this moment I do care, and it feels awkward to say nothing.” It is the twenty-first-century version of “Be warmed and filled” (James 2:16).
Prayer is asking God to incarnate, to get dirty in your life. Yes, the eternal God scrubs floors. For sure we know he washes feet. So take Jesus at his word. Ask him. Tell him what you want. Get dirty. Write out your prayer requests; don’t mindlessly drift through life on the American narcotic of busyness. If you try to seize the day, the day will eventually break you. Seize the corner of his garment and don’t let go until he blesses you. He will reshape the day.
If Satan’s basic game plan is pride, seeking to draw us into his life of arrogance, then God’s basic game plan is humility, drawing us into the life of his Son. Suffering invites us to join his Son’s life, death, and resurrection. Once you see that, suffering is no longer strange. Peter writes, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings” (I Peter 4:12-13).
Our “prayer doesn’t work” often means “you didn’t do my will, in my way, in my time.”
There is nothing secret about communion with God. If we live a holy life before God, broken of our pride and self-will, crying out for grace, then we will be in communion with God. It is really that simple.
A praying life is both being and doing. I’m with God. I sense his presence. He is speaking into my life. But our relationship doesn’t float. I’m not hunting for an experience with God; I’m inviting God into my life experience. He is in me, and I am in him. As I bring to him my real life with my real needs, he acts in amazing ways. He is at work touching my life, doing what I can’t do. The result? Thanksgiving. You don’t have to work at worship when God is so alive.
We don’t need a praying life because that is our duty. That would wear thin quickly. We need time to be with our Father every day because every day our hearts and the hearts of those around us are overgrown with weeds. We need to reflect on our lives and engage God with the condition of our souls and the souls he has entrusted to our care or put in our paths. In a fallen world, these things do not come automatically.