Prayer is more than simple communication between the Creator and the created. God designed Christian prayer as an intimate exchange of love. The closest I can come to describing what I mean is to compare prayer to a mother nursing her baby on her lap. I remember watching Nancy nursing our children. Her eyes overflowing with love and warmth and wonder, her hand gently caressing their faces, and their eyes gazing into hers as they suckled.
That memory reminds me of the message God gave to Israel through Isaiah: “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast, and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands . . . ” (49:15-16, NIV)
That’s the intimacy God designed for prayer – communion with Him as close as skin to skin. Picture that in your mind! The Creator designed a means for us to enter such closeness with Himself as a mother with her suckling child.
St. Alphonsus Liguori (d. 1787) said this of prayer: Acquire the habit of speaking to God as if you were alone with Him, familiarly and with confidence and love, as to the dearest and most loving of friends. Speak to Him often of your business, your plans, your troubles, your fears — of everything that concerns you. Converse with Him confidently and frankly.”
But every follower of Christ knows prayer is a battle. We battle distractions, dryness, discouragements, disappointments, disillusionments about prayer. And the most common reason prayer is a battle is because Satan understands prayer’s potential power better than any of us know its power. That’s why he does all he can to keep us away from prayer. And if he cannot keep us away from prayer, then he tries to keep it anemic and lifeless.
But there are things we can do to mitigate the distractions, the dryness, the discouragements and disillusionments that often plague our prayers. Here are some ideas I’ve excerpted from my book of twelve prayer strategies. (Find it at this link).
Strategy one: Fall more deeply in love with God. The deeper we love Him, the more our intimate communication with Him grows.
Fr. Pedro Arupe (d. 1991) said this about falling in love with God: Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in Love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in Love [with God]. Stay in love, and it will decide everything.
How do we fall in love with anyone? By spending time with the person. By reading what our beloved sends to us. Sometimes it’s simply sitting silently with our beloved, resisting the temptation to keep jabbering away.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta wisely noted: We too are called to withdraw at certain intervals into deeper silence and aloneness with God . . . .to be alone with Him — not with our books, thoughts, and memories but completely stripped of everything — to dwell lovingly in His presence, silent, empty, expectant, and motionless. We cannot find God in noise or agitation.
Strategy two: Confession
Confession of sins is a prerequisite for effective prayer. The Scripture links prayer and confession so often that even with a cursory reading of the Bible it is impossible to miss to connection. For example: He who conceals his sins prospers not, but he who confesses and forsakes them obtains mercy (Proverbs 28:13). And, I called to the Lord with my mouth; praise was upon my tongue. [But] had I cherished evil in my heart, the Lord would not have heard (Psalm 66:17-18).
Our prayers are utterly useless if we are aware of our sins – even what we might call small sins – our prayers are useless if we delay our repentance. That is why the examination of conscience is important for every Christian to practice.
What do I mean by the examination of conscience? Get alone with God and ask Him to reveal your heart to yourself. Ask Him to show you things for which you must repent – the mean-spirited words you spoke to others, resentment you carry, an unforgiving spirit you nurse, and so forth. When He unveils those sins to your mind, ask His forgiveness and His divine help to not do it again.
Strategy Three: Forgiveness
Forgiveness toward others is an essential attitude we must nurture if we hope our prayers will be effective. The Lord Jesus made it clear that God’s forgiveness of us is inextricably linked to our forgiveness of others. Perhaps the clearest example of this principle is found in the Lord’s Prayer in which Jesus warns, “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions (Matthew 6:14-15).
Forgiveness is a choice. It is an act of the will, independent of our ‘feelings’ of forgiveness. It’s the choice Jesus made when He prayed for the Father to forgive those who mocked and crucified Him – even though they had not asked for forgiveness. It’s the same choice St. Stephen made when, as he was dying at the hands of the mob stoning him, he asked the Father to not hold that sin against them – even though they had not asked for forgiveness.
Do we really think we can live close to Christ if we are unwilling to live as Christ? Do we really think we can receive His forgiveness if we remain unwilling to forgive others – even those who don’t ask for forgiveness?
Of all the prayer strategies we could ever put into practice, if confession and forgiveness are not at their core, we might as well stop jabbering at God. Forgiveness is a choice. And by exercising the right choice, we permit the Holy Spirit to supernaturally turn injury into compassion and hurt into honest intercession.
Strategy Four – The environment of Prayer
The Lord Jesus said, “When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret” (Matthew 6:6). Find a quiet place, away from others, if possible, where you can close the door and close yourself in with your Creator. Try to meet with Him at the same time or times each day. Mornings are best for many people, before the activities and the distractions of the day nudge the Lord further from their central focus. Keep a notepad at your side so when thoughts about what you need to do later that day interrupt your communion with God, you can quickly jot them down, so you won't forget them – and then return to prayer.
Strategy Five: The Prayer List
Prayer lists help keep your intercessory prayers organized. But after a while your list will likely become so long as to make it unwieldy. When that happened to me, I devised a prayer calendar. I divided my list into nine columns. I labeled the first, “Daily” and the succeeding seven Monday, Tuesday, and so forth. I labeled the ninth column “Others.”
In the Daily column I write the names of those that I commit myself to pray for every day. I place others into the columns labeled by the days of the week. Sometimes I put people into more than one column, so I remember to pray for them more often during the week. In the last column (column nine) I add people as they come to my attention during the week, either when the Holy Spirit drops their name into my heart, or the person asks me for prayer. Those names often get added later to either my daily list, or a weekday list, depending on the need.
Strategy five: Acrostics
This strategy uses acrostics to keep me centered on prayer. One of my acrostics is the word CROSS.
For example, on the letter C, I meditate on the Crucifixion of Jesus. I let my imagination wander to what it might have been like for Him to hang on that cross. Then I let my thoughts take me to Gethsemane, the courtyard where He was whipped, the soldiers hammering the spikes into His flesh. This kind of prayer is called ‘Imaginative Prayer.’
On the letter R, I meditate on the Resurrection. For example, what might it have been like for the women to arrive at the empty tomb? What was Mary wearing? What did she do when she saw the open tomb?
My imaginative prayer takes me step by step through the rest of the acrostic.
Strategy six: Scripted prayer.
I once thought scripted prayers, like those in prayer books, are less meaningful (AKA: less spiritual) than spontaneous ones. How foolish of me. Men and women of God have prayed scripted prayers – such as the Psalms – for millennia.
But what of those offered to God by the many spiritual giants of church history, such as John Wesley or St. Augustine?
For example, doesn't John Wesley’s prayer carry a sweet savor to the Father? I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will; put me to doing, put me to suffering; let me be employed for You or laid aside for You, exalted for You or brought low for You; let me be full, let me be empty; let me have all things, let me have nothing; I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal.
Or St. Augustine: Narrow is the mansion of my soul; [please] enlarge it, that You may enter in. It is ruinous; [please] repair it. It has that within which must offend Your eyes; I confess and know it. But who shall cleanse it? Or to whom should I cry, [except to] Thee? Lord, cleanse me from my secret faults, and spare Thy servant from the power of the enemy.
Prayer is a battle because the enemy of our souls knows how powerful prayer can be in the life of the believer. When the Christian adds effective and fervent prayer to the armor, Hell itself trembles.
Christian – do battle. Your soul, and the souls of those you love need you to enter boldly into the fray. Remember, you are not in this battle alone. The Holy Spirit and God’s surrounding angels are ever with you in the fight.
So, get in there. Fight the good fight of faith.
As the Psalmist wrote: “For by You I can run upon a troop; And by my God I can leap over a wall . . . . He trains my hands for battle, so that my arms can bend a bow of bronze. You have also given me the shield of Your salvation, and Your right hand upholds me; And Your gentleness makes me great. You enlarge my steps under me, and my feet have not slipped.” (Psalm 18:31-36)