The Habit of Prayer

In the 80’s, the rapper M.C. Hammer sang 'You got to pray just to make it today'. The habit of prayer is about more than surviving a day, its about building a rich life in and with God.
There is a sense in which you are your habits; you are those things that you do repeatedly. A habit is an automated behaviour that we repeat over and over again in the same context or environment and that run in our subconscious mind. If you change your habits you can change your life.

God loves enough to invite us into a lifestyle of life-giving habits. There are patterns of thinking, doing, being, that when these are built into our lives as automated behaviours, they accrue to spiritual vitality. And one of those habits is prayer.

It may be that you are a prayer warrior – you pray consistently, boldly, strongly, and have a very consistent prayer life. Others might struggle with the content or the routine of prayer; this blog is aimed at those who want to develop a better prayer life.

At its most basic level, to pray means to entreat or implore; to make an earnest request. But when we turn to the teachings of Jesus on prayer, he both expanded the understanding of prayer and made it very simple. But before we unpack the teaching of Jesus on prayer, we want to look at the priority he put on prayer.

1. The Pattern of Prayer: Early and Often.

Notice how prayer emerges over and over again as a regular part of the life of Jesus.
  • Mark 1.35: And rising very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he departed and went out to a desolate place, and there he prayed.
  • Luke 5.16: But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.
  • Mark 6.46: And after he had taken leave of them, he went up on the mountain to pray.
  • Luke 9.18: Now it happened that as he was praying alone,
  • Luke 9.29: And as he was praying, …
  • Luke 11.1: Now Jesus was praying in a certain place …
  • Luke 22.41: And he withdrew from them about a stone's throw, and knelt down and prayed,

The apostles asked Jesus how to pray, and he taught them. And he taught them so well that this same pattern got built into their lives:

  • Acts 1.14: All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
  • Acts 1.24: And they prayed …
  • Acts 2.42: And they devoted themselves to … the prayers.
  • Acts 3.1: Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour.
  • Acts 4.31: And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit
  • Acts 6.4: But we will devote ourselves to prayer

And the list goes on. The point is that prayer was not just an occasional resource in time of need, it was a perpetual pattern in the life of Jesus and the early church. This is the big idea I want you to understand:

Moments of prayer are refreshing; the pattern of prayer is life changing.

2. The Purpose of Prayer: Possession and Peace

The Bible says much about prayer, and there are many dimensions of prayer, and many benefits it provides to its practitioners. To help us understand this, I’ve boiled this down to two key benefits: possession and peace.

By possession, I meant that it is through prayer that we come to possess the promises God offers. Jesus said this, ‘your Father knows what you need before you ask him’. We don’t ask God to inform him of something he didn’t’ know; he already knows what we need. We don’t ask to convince God to give us things; he already wants to bless us. Rather, God wants us to ask so that we can connect his provision with our asking, thereby growing in our appreciation of and gratitude towards him. God displays his fatherly affection towards his children by answering those prayers prayed in accordance with his will so that we might grow in devotion to our Father.

But more than brining us to possess his promises, it is through prayer that the Lord floods our soul with peace. This is the key point of Philippians 4.6-7:

In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Fully unpacking this rich text would fill a blog by itself, but note these two points: first, it is in everything that we are meant to pray. Every human situation is an arena for God’s intervention, and it is through prayer that we invite God into those places. The fruit of this praying is that the peace of God … will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Our struggle is that we often don’t bring to the Lord those things that are troubling our soul. This is not the place to explore why we are sometimes hesitant to bring things to the Lord, but we are. However, God’s promise is that when we do, his peace will guard our hearts. That peace, the overwhelming sense of well being rooted in the goodness and care of God – this is our inheritance. But rather than running to God and receiving this peace, we allow ourselves to get caught in the whirlpool of dark thoughts, ruminations, worrying. We take an issue and look at it from every perspective, worrying about possible outcomes, rather than bringing it to God. Here’s a handy quote to help you remember to pray:

Rumination is an Indication for Supplication.

That means, whenever you find yourself in a whirl of darkness and doubt, this is an indicator to bring this to the Lord in prayer.

3. The Posture of Prayer: Faith

Faith is the fundamental posture for successfully approaching God. Not only do we have to believe that he is, but that ‘He is a rewarder of those who seek him’. This, in many ways, is the motivation for seeking him: we seek, we approach, we pray – not only because its right, but because it has benefits. God rewards those who seek him with faith.

Jesus himself is the most ardent, radical faith teacher ever; look at how he taught prayer: Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours (Mark 11.24).

First, we have to ask; second, we have to believe that we have received it before we receive it. If we received it first, that wouldn’t be faith, but thanksgiving. Faith is daring to believe that God is going to answer our prayers. This is the posture by which we approach God.
Let me summarise the posture of faith in prayer: ask BIG, ask BEAUTIFUL, ask BOLD(ly). By ask big, I mean, ask in the context of God’s greatness, his magnificence, his providential power. God is able to do what he determines to do. Second, by ask beautiful, I mean, ask with a view to God’s goodness: He is a good good Father who delights to meet the needs of his children. Third, ask boldly: dare to pray the prayers we find in scripture with the confidence that God listens and is inclined towards us.

4. The Practice of Prayer: Do what Jesus said

Finally, we come to the main point, the practice of prayer. Jesus is both insightful and practical in his teaching on prayer. Many people are familiar with ‘the Lord’s Prayer’, and I incorporate this prayer into my daily praying. I view these words both as things to be prayed and categories to be prayed. This means that the Lord’s Prayer is like an accordion; it can be contracted or expanded to fit as much or little time as you have. So let’s look at these key categories:

Our Father in heaven
We begin by remembering that we have been adopted in the family of God, saved by grace, through faith, cleansed by the blood of Jesus, so that we can now call God Father. We thank God for our salvation in Christ, for his adoption, his grace and mercy. If you have trouble remembering what God has done for you in Christ and why we can call him Father, read Ephesians 1.3-7.

Hallowed Be Your Name
The word hallowed simply means holy, set apart, special. We remember God through the names by which He has revealed himself … He is Jehovah Tsidkenu – our righteousness, Jehovah M’kaddesh, the God who sanctifies; Jehovah Shalom – God, our peace; Jehovah Shammah – the God who is there; Jehovah Rophe – the God who heals; Jehovah Jireh, the Lord who provides; Jehovah Nissi – our Banner who goes before us; Jehovah Rohi, our Shepherd. The names of God remind of his benefits, and our standing with him. Take time to thank him for who He is.

Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.  
God’s kingdom is his rule and reign; it is that dimension of reality lined up with his character and intention. God is bringing his kingdom, and we pray for the will of God to be done. I daily pray this in four zones:

  • Personally: I pray for the will of God to be done in my own heart and mind, for the Lordship of Christ to be established, for my affections to be aligned with God’s, to be led by the Spirit, to step into the fulness of God’s intentions for this day.
  • Family: I pray for my wife and children by name, asking God to break into their lives, for his purpose to be established, for his will to be done, for spiritual refreshing to come … and more.
  • Church: Jesus is building his church, and I pray for God’s will to break into our church, giving him thanks for all he has done, but believing there is more, I pray for the fulness of God’s intention to come to pass that we might be light in the midst of darkness, faithful bearers of the gospel, a place of refuge for those in need, a temple filled with God’s Spirit that we might experience his life.
  • Nation(s): I pray for God’s kingdom to come and his will to be done in our nation.

Give us this day our daily bread
I take this statement both literally and categorically. Literally, Jesus teaches us to pray for God to meet our physical needs – food, shelter, clothing. Even in the wealthy west, we shouldn’t take these for granted, and praying for them reminds us of God’s benevolent care. But I also pray for God to meet other needs – spiritual, emotional, relational, vocational. As the apostle Paul wrote: And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Philippians 4.19).

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
Jesus teaches a lot about forgiveness – both receiving forgiveness from God and extending forgiveness to others. First, following Jesus means that we learn walk in the forgiveness God gives us in Christ: ‘In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace’. But just because we have been forgiven legally doesn’t mean we don’t have to ask for forgiveness relationally when we sin.

As a matter of fact, Jesus assumes that we will sin, even as his followers. That’s why he told us to ask for forgiveness. The apostle John teaches the same thing: first, ‘If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us’ (1 John 1.10). Remember he is writing to Christians and including himself in the ‘we’. Christians sin. Not in the same way or extent as in their pre-Christian life, but we sin. That’s why John tells us that ‘If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness’ (1 John 1.9). Through God’s forgivenss, we are relationally restored; through his cleansing, we are transformed.

But receiving God’s forgiveness is only half of the picture; we are told in Ephesians 4.32 that we should be ‘forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’. In the same way that God has forgiven us, we should share that forgiveness with those who have sinned against us. Our sin against God is like a debt of a trillion pounds; others sins against us are like a few quid. Freely we have received, so freely we give.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
First, I want to clarify what this is not teaching. Some people reason, erroneously, that if Jesus is teaching us to ask God not to lead us into temptation, that it means He does that sometimes. But that’s wrong. He doesn’t.  James teaches specifically ‘God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one’ (James 1.15).

What, then, is Jesus asking us to pray? Simply that that the Lord will protect us from evil, that he will not allow us to fall into temptation, that he will protect us from the traps of the devil, that he will keep us from the evil our hearts long for.

Being honest about our propensity to sin and asking for God’s help is a much surer pathway to victory than pretending we’ve got it all together and we’re doing fine.

Yours is the kingdom, the power, and the glory forever. Amen.
This phrase isn’t in all the original manuscripts, but it’s a great way to end our prayer time. We make faith declarations about who God is and what he’s doing in our lives. We return to praise and worship and adoration. And then we get on with our day!

5. Why we don't pray

The purpose of this series is to help us build habits that accrue to spiritual vitality. This means facing into the reasons we struggle to pray habitually. Here are three possible contenders:
  • We lack motivation because we don’t know why we should pray, or we are unaware of the benefits.
  • We are frustrated becaue we know we should pray but we don’t know how
  • We know why and how, but for some reason, we still don’t pray regularly. 
So if you’ve this far in the blog, numbers 1 and 2 are no longer relevant – you know why you should pray, and you know how. But I think number 3 is the big one – we struggle to make prayer a consistent routine in our lives.

6. Building a 3D Prayer Life

There are three key steps to building a prayer habit: desire, discipline, and delight. First, you use the desire to pray as a launch pad to make a start. You desire to know God better, or to receive what he has on offer, or to be obedient to Jesus. It doesn’t matter to me … just pick a motivation, a desire, a reason, and get on with it.

Second, build the habit of praying by making it a discipline. Now I know some Christians who don’t like the idea of habits because they think ‘I’m under grace, not law!’. This is what you have to understand: freedom is found in the structure of life-giving routines. These habits reduce questions and anxiety by making our time with God regular.

Remember the beginning of this blog? Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer. There was a regular, appointed time and place when they met with God.

So make a start: even if its just ten minutes a day, use the Lord’s Prayer like an according to spend time every day praying with God. Your life will be transformed.

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