I want to pray more this year. More than ever before.
God promises that he hears and actively responds to prayers as we come to him in the name of Jesus. We have not, because we ask not. I’m resolved to pray biblical prayers for myself and others. I’m responsible to pray for the members of my church family because I’m a member of the family and James commands us to “pray for one another” (James 5:16). As a pastor, I’m to be devoted to not only the ministry of the Word, but also the ministry of prayer (Acts 6:4). As a friend, I want those I love to experience the joy of the Lord.
But there’s the problem: My praying through a list of names and needs often feels more like reading a shopping list than meaningfully communing with the Father in heaven.
As a Christian who cares a lot about theological accuracy, I’ve found that if I pray a biblically grounded prayer request then I’m content with that even if I’m not really meaningfully pleading or connecting with God. There has to be a better way.
As I finished up Tim Keller’s book, Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, I realized the problem, and discovered two antidotes. Tim Keller writes, distilling the insight of J. I. Packer,
. . . Packer is concerned about how many Christians tend to pray from long “prayer lists.” The theological thinking and self-reflection that should accompany supplication takes time. Prayer lists and other such methods may lead us to very speedily move through names and needs with a cursory statement “if it is your will” without the discipline of backing up our requests with thoughtful reasoning.
Packer writes that “if we are going to take time to think our way into the situations and personal lives on which our intercessions focus,” we may not be able to pray for as many items and issues. “Our amplifyings and argumentation will [then] lift our intercessions from the shopping list, prayer-wheel level to the apostolic category of what Paul called ‘struggle’’’ (Colossians 2:1–3). (229–230, see also 250)
I see at least three tips for transforming our praying from grocery-list-praying to wrestling with God.
1. Reason with God from his word.
First, when praying for names and needs, do not only ask God your specific request, but tell him why you’re asking for it. Undergirding all of our requests is the spirit of “not my will, but yours be done.” This does not mean that we just tag an “if-you-will” mantra at the end of each request. Every specific answer God gives to each prayer prayed is already according to the counsel of his will (Ephesians 1:11).
It does mean that when we pray our desires and reasons to God, we listen afresh to what his word teaches us about his character, mission, and desires — his will. It’s okay if we don’t know the Bible as well as a pastor or theologian. God knows that. We submit our request and our reasoning to our Father, knowing he cares for us and is drawing us near to him. And we ask him to continually be shaping and aligning our will with his.
For example, instead of praying, “God, please heal John of his sickness,” you might pray, “God, please heal John from his sickness so that he might glorify you at his job (1 Corinthians 10:31), working as unto you and not unto men (Colossians 3:23). Heal him so that as he goes back to work, he’ll accomplish the good works you’ve prepared for him (Ephesians 2:10). Heal him in order that he might earn money as your means of supplying his needs (Philippians 4:19) and giving him the resources he stewards to generously support the Great Commission work in his local church and elsewhere (2 Corinthians 9:6–8). And while he’s sick, draw him near to you and help him examine his soul for sin (Psalm 139:23–24). If there is any, may he confess it to you and others as you lead him (James 5:14–16).”
2. Reflect on how God might use you to answer your prayer.
Second, reflect on what God is leading you by his Spirit to do in light of your request. He may be telling you to follow up with the person or contact him. Perhaps he’s telling you to write him a note or ask him a question when you see him on Sunday. Maybe he’s telling you to repent of your negligence in the way you relate to that person. It’s possible he’s leading you to start a conversation where you can begin to share the gospel with him. You’ve asked God to move. What do you think he might be leading you to do? Pray those self-reflective thoughts to God as you pray about the specific name or need.
Instead of praying, “God, please heal John of his sickness,” you might pray, “God, please heal John of his sickness. Help me to encourage him to draw near to you in the time of sickness. Should I ask him if he’s examined his soul for sin? If I should, can you please help me to ask him in a way that is not misunderstood or offensive? Help me ask in a way that is edifying and in which he feels loved. As I send him a text message, I pray that it lifts up his soul toward joy in you.” Practice self-reflection. Then make sure you do what you believe God is leading you to do as you participate in God’s sovereign response to your prayers.
3. Resist the urge to cram and rush.
Third, wrestling with God in prayer takes time. As you intercede for others, God is drawing you near to himself. You can’t microwave meaningful moments with the Father. Moments like these are marinated. As Keller puts it, “We may not be able to pray for as many items and issues.” I confess that I often pray for 11–13 church members a day like I’m reading a grocery list with a quick helpful thought between names. We should consider extending our prayer time or choosing to pray through fewer names, taking our time while drawing near to him. As we meet with God in prayer, may we continually learn to wrestle with our Refuge and struggle with our Stronghold, that we may receive strength in the inner man for those we love and serve. As you slow down, reason with God, and reflect for yourself, “May [God] grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith — that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:16–19).