My month-long focus on prayer was not what I expected.
What I expected: That I’d need to do an in-depth study on the history, purpose and inner-workings of prayer. That I’d need to reconcile all my mismatched beliefs and confusion about faith and declaration and agreement and petitions, once and for all, before I could do the actual work of prayer. That I’d need to sit each morning with books and commentaries and bibles open, highlighter in hand, so God could help me figure out how in the world prayer works and why in the world God tells us to do it.
What actually happened: God said, “Just pray.”
To clarify, I do pray. I did pray. Prior to March (my designated month of prayer focus, that actually morphed into three months), I prayed daily. At least I think I did. I mean, in the mornings I’d read the Word or work on my Bible study where a scripture would jump off the page and I’d think, “I love that verse.”
Is thinking a scripture is awesome prayer?
Often the scripture would make its way into my journal so I could remember it and apply it.
Is writing a scripture prayer?
When friends or family asked me to pray, I’d say, “Yes.” Then utter a quick mental, “Jesus, touch my friend.”
Is a quick mental utterance prayer?
Good things made me say, “Thank you, Jesus.” Bad things made me say, “Help me, Jesus.” All day long, I’d be thinking about the day, my family, our struggles, our needs.
Is constant inner monologue prayer?
Probably. Kind of. I guess.
But my purpose in the whole Depth Through Discipline thing was the “depth” part. I knew if I wanted to go deeper—to grow, gain insight, make progress—I needed to discipline myself to focus and establish these habits in a more meaningful, deliberate way.
I talk to a lot of people about fitness and nutrition. One of the most common conversations goes like this: “I’m doing everything right. I eat clean most of the time. I exercise. I don’t understand why I can’t lose weight.” Some people know they eat crap and lounge around all day, but most others are convinced they do everything right, and it’s their metabolism that is broken. I’ve said the exact same thing, so I get it.
But when that person (me) starts to keep a food log or an exercise journal, the story changes. The discipline of following a detailed exercise and diet program reveals just how sloppy the habits were prior to that. They see how many times they finish off their child’s mac n’ cheese at the sink or shove the handful of chips into their mouths while packing lunches. How “all things in moderation” actually translates into “Oreos every night before bed” and “Three baskets of chips and queso at the Mexican restaurant.” When the soreness of a new, challenging and unfamiliar workout routine settles into the muscles, they realize how very little they push themselves on the treadmill.
We tend to grossly underestimate our food intake and grossly overestimate our activity level, and then wonder why we don’t see desired results.
It was like that with me and prayer.
A few months ago, if you would have asked me if I prayed, I would have given you a resounding, “Yes, of course. I pray constantly. I’m ALWAYS praying. All that reading/journaling/inner monologue—it’s all prayer, all the time. Me and Jesus, we’re just like this.” (Then I’d do some awkward white-girl hand gesture.)
But what if, like the one who says, “I eat clean and exercise CONSTANTLY. I promise you. It’s my metabolism that’s broken,” I was mistaken? What if I grossly underestimated my rambling thoughts and good intentions and grossly overestimated my actual prayer?
I suspected that to be true. I didn’t know how much I didn’t pray, but I was about to find out.
Much like a well-balanced and structured diet and exercise routine, I decided to implement more structured, disciplined prayer habits: Namely, to pray pre-written prayers for myself and my family, and to pray every morning for a set time.
To Western Evangelicals who want to be “relevant” and “authentic,” this is downright “religious.” The bad kind of religious. The stuffy, ritualistic, ceremonial kind of religious that separates people from God and makes us like Pharisees and is so 1950. After all, if Jesus is my Friend, I should be able to approach Him like a Friend. Kick off my shoes. Let down my hair. Put on my jeans and sit criss-cross-applesauce and just talk about whatever, right?
Sure. Absolutely. God created criss-cross-applesauce for this very purpose.
But, for me, it was this casual approach that caused my prayer life to become all blended in with my thought life, and blinded me to its ineffectiveness. It was a lot of reading/journaling/monologue. But very little actual prayer.
Turns out, thinking about problems is not the same thing as praying about problems. Worrying about my kids is not the same as praying for my kids. And telling a friend I will pray is not the same as actually praying for my friend.
So, with nary a bible commentary in sight, I began my month of structured, disciplined prayer.
I dug out every prayer book I owned and purposed to pray for myself, for my husband and for each of my children every single morning. As urgent needs arose with my family and friends, I prayed for them, too. If it was appropriate, I prayed immediately. Otherwise, I prayed for everyone at my designated prayer time.
Again with the fitness analogy (I promise, this is the last one!), but the thing I love about following a designated program is that I do exercises that are good for me, but that I wouldn’t normally choose. I would never choose to do Mixed Martial Arts, for example, but when MMX pops up on the P90X3 calendar, I do Mixed Martial Arts. It feels awkward and painful and I hate it, every single time. But it kicks my butt, every single time—in the best possible way.
Similarly, the great thing about praying through a prayer book is that I pray for things I would not consider otherwise, agreeing with scriptures I would not necessarily come across in my daily reading. Rather than reactively praying for things I see, I’m covering issues in my marriage or in my children’s lives before they become issues. It reveals how self-centered and limited my prayers tend to become.
Establishing new habits is always uncomfortable and deliberate (that’s why we call them spiritual DISCIPLINES, right?). The month of March was a lot like that for me. It felt mechanical and forced and painful and awkward, but it stretched me and my prayer habits—in the best possible way.
When March ended, we were at the climax of the house-selling/house-building/meltdown chaos. I needed prayer like never before, and I was in no position to take on any additional ANYTHING, let alone spiritual disciplines. I decided to stick with my prayer focus for another month, so I did. Another month of praying daily, structured, timed prayers.
April’s prayer time felt less mechanical more refreshing. In the midst of unpacking boxes and unpredictability in our new home, it was one of the few things that remained consistent. I clung to it like a tattered and worn blankie. I was making my way through the prayer books for a second and third time, so the prayers felt familiar and comfortable. I looked forward to early, dark mornings alone, in my new kitchen. I didn’t feel like I was doing much right at that time (so frazzled and stressed and disjointed), but I I felt like I was accomplishing something holy in prayer. It was one thing I knew I was doing right.
I loved it so much, I set my alarm for ten minutes earlier, even though I was so tired and it just about killed me. (I exaggerate only slightly.)
As April came to a close, things were starting to settle down in my actual life and I wondered if I should move on to another discipline. But I felt a gentle nudge to stay the course and go a little deeper. So, I decided May would be, yet, another month of focused prayer. I prayed a little longer. I prayed with a little more faith. I began praying scriptures as I read them, rather than simply reading them. When people came to my mind throughout the day, instead of just thinking about them, I prayed. I decided to TELL people when I prayed for them. (People are always so appreciative when we tell them. Why didn’t I do this sooner?) I started asking people, “How can I pray for you?” It felt good to know I would actually pray, and not forget.
By the end of May, I found myself running out of time (again) and wanting to pray longer (again). There are so many needs! So much more room to grow! How I long to establish better prayer habits, not just FOR my children and my husband, but WITH them.
“I have so much business I cannot get on without spending three hours daily in prayer.” Martin Luther
Many times throughout the last three months, I’ve thought how great it would be to know someone was covering me in prayer the way I’m covering others. I know my husband and children pray for me when I ask them to. But I also know what my sloppy habits looked like prior to March, and I suspect their habits look similar. I wanted someone to PRAY-PRAY for me, you know what I mean?
I asked God to show me someone who would become a daily prayer partner. Someone who already prays daily, and who wouldn’t mind praying for specific requests if I asked. Not long after, my sis-in-law sat across the table from me. And, as always, we shared what God was doing in us and through us and to us, and all-at-once, it was clear that she would totally pray-pray for me, and I was all, “Hey, do you want to be my prayer partner? Would you pray for me everyday and I’ll pray for you everyday?” She said, “I already do pray for you every day, but sure!” (I had no idea she prayed for me daily.)
So, this month, we’ve started that. Just daily, short texts in the morning stating a few specific things we can pray for. More growth. More depth. Morning by morning, prayer by prayer, I feel like I’m participating in something huge and eternal.
What I expected from my month-long focus on prayer and what actually happened are not the same, but I am not disappointed. I’ve established a vital spiritual discipline that was severely deficient. I was hesitant, but relieved, to know I did not need to figure it all out before I dove in.
And neither do you.
While I can honestly say, I still don’t understand HOW prayer works, I know it does. And while I still don’t understand WHY God wants us to pray when He is perfectly capable of doing everything without me, I know He tells us to pray.
And I believe for the first time in a long time that my prayers, feeble and flawed, are also powerful and effective.
Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The earnest prayer of a righteous person has great power and produces wonderful results. (James 5:16)