In an attempt to motivate us to pray more, some Christians emphasize how easy prayer should be. Talking to God, they say, should be as natural as a child calling out to his or her father. Which, at some level, is true. Yet we know from experience that the day-to-day spiritual discipline of prayer can be a challenge.
Based off my interactions, it would appear that many Christians struggle to pray for concentrated periods of time on a daily basis. I know the struggle myself. There are various reasons for this struggle—an inability to sit quietly for extended periods of time, a lack of desire for the Lord, a lack of faith in the effectiveness of prayer, etc.—and it’s critical that we address these underlying issues. However, for some Christians the struggle is at a more practical level. They know there are many things they should be praying about, but they can’t seem to move past the same few requests that come to mind each morning. They’re stuck in a mental rut.
For those in this latter category, I’d like to make three practical suggestions for the daily routine of prayer. To be clear, these suggestions are not about a technique or a program or a spiritual formula. They’re simply suggestions for how you might structure your prayer time so that it is a more fruitful (and enjoyable) experience. How you put these into practice will vary depending on how you’re wired, what your schedule looks like, and a variety of other factors.
Make a Plan
Unfortunately, we have this idea that the more spontaneous prayer is, the more “spiritual” it is, whatever that means. While there should be times of spontaneous and unplanned prayer throughout the day—thanking the Lord, confessing sin, asking for strength and wisdom—it helps to have some sort of plan for the daily routine of prayer.
You might begin by writing down the various categories you want to pray about. For example, praise and thanks to God; confession of sin; intercession for fellow church members; salvation for unbelieving friends and neighbors; encouragement for your church’s missions partners, etc., etc. How often do we neglect important aspects of prayer simply because we forget them or because our minds tend to drift toward the same few requests each day? By making a plan, you are intentionally directing your mind and your heart to the things you know you should be praying about.
Making a plan can also help free you from the mental burden of thinking that you haven’t prayed about everything (or enough) each morning. Spread out your requests over weeks and months so that you can focus on certain requests each day. For example, rather than attempting to mentally scroll through every unbelieving friend or neighbor each day, you can spend concentrated time praying for specific people on specific days.
Closely related to a lack of planning and intentionality is a lack of specificity in our prayers. We are typically less focused and less motivated to pray when we only think in generalities. But when our minds and hearts seize on specific people and specific requests, we are typically more fervent in prayer. Instead of praying for “non-Christians” at a general level, pray for Steve, the single guy at your office who claims to be a Christian but who changes the subject whenever the conversation turns to the things of the Lord. Instead of praying for “my church,” pray for Karen, the mother who wants to grow in the Lord but feels overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring for three young children.
We should also be specific in other areas of prayer—our praise, our confession, our requests for wisdom, etc. Instead of simply thanking God for His “many blessings,” thank Him for specific ways His grace has been shown to you. Thank Him for securing the forgiveness of your sins by sending His Son to die on the cross; thank Him for overcoming a sinful habit in your life by the power of His Spirit; thank Him for the gift of your wife or husband and her/his faithfulness to you; thank Him for the pastors at your church who faithfully proclaim the gospel to you and your family. Getting specific often draws out greater thanksgiving and affection in our prayers.
Respond to the Word
One final suggestion relates to the disconnect we often feel between our daily prayer time and our daily reading of Scripture. These disciplines can seem like two separate, unrelated activities. But this doesn’t need to be the case, nor should it be. Our prayers need to be fueled by something other than the thoughts that rush into our minds at any given moment.
Saturate your prayers with the truths and promises of Scripture, and don’t overlook the role your daily reading can have in this. Of course, not everything you pray about will flow seamlessly out of the day’s reading. Nevertheless, as a general rule, what you read in God’s Word should inform the way you pray and what you pray about. What we say to God in prayer should be based on what He has said to us in His Word.
This practice of praying according to God’s Word does not negate the first point above, namely, making a plan for your daily prayer time. Simply plan to carve out time in which you pray based on your reading for the day. You might make a category titled “Responding to the Word” in which you intentionally set aside time to respond in prayer to a passage each day. For example, if your reading for the day is about Cain’s murder of his brother, Abel, in Genesis 4, then let this story remind you of the evil of sin. Let it motivate you to thank God for freeing you from the power and penalty of sin through the gospel of His Son. Ask Him to strengthen you by His Spirit against the temptations you will face that day. There are a variety of ways the Spirit might lead you to respond to the Word that He inspired (2 Timothy 3:16).
These are just a few practical suggestions for those who want to grow in the spiritual discipline of prayer. You could probably add more, and maybe even better ones. Regardless of how you approach this time, don’t lose sight of the end goal—communion with God and conformity to His will.