This week, we continue our series Ask Mission Central, where we tackle real questions on spiritual life from emerging Christian leaders. Subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
Ask Mission Central: Question Twelve
“I find that I barely make time for prayer in my life, and don’t even get me started on Bible reading. I regularly attend church and Bible study, but my personal life is missing that routine practice of coming before God. What are some ways that I can make time to come before God during my busy day?”
Highland Park, MI
This is such a good question that we are going to take two blog posts to answer it. I’ll try to keep things practical, recommending ways to squeeze prayer into a busy schedule. But this is also a great opportunity to talk about what prayer is, how it works, and how it can work differently in our lives.
I was once part of a program at my home church that required praying for an hour a day. That’s a lot of prayer to commit to! Another young person going through the program described her experience of deciding to do it: “When I first heard it was going to be praying for an hour a day, I thought, ‘That’s not not for me.’ I was imagining sitting in silence in my room trying to think of people and things to pray for over an entire hour. That would be miserable! But then as I heard more about the program, I realized that’s not what it was. We were learning about different ways to pray, using our imagination and our emotions, and incorporating prayer into our everyday experience. That I could get on board with.”
I’m so glad that she went through the program, and that it wasn’t the cardboard, boring version of prayer that she had feared. For many Christians, prayer is hard because they’ve only experienced flat and frankly uninteresting versions of prayer. At the same time, there is a dynamic of working hard in prayer; it requires effort. Even a healthy discipline is a little boring at times. How do we embrace a three-dimensional and living vision of prayer rather than a cardboard cutout, while still being honest about how hard it is? In an attempt to wrap my head around this question, I’ve broken prayer out into four different, but overlapping ideas:
1. Prayer is a discipline.
2. Prayer is a fight.
3. Prayer is a friendship.
4. Prayer is worship.
In today’s post, we’ll talk about prayer as a discipline and a fight. Then we’ll tackle friendship and worship in Part 2 in a couple of weeks.
Prayer Is a Discipline
I recently finished watching the Netflix series The Last Dance, covering the riveting story of the 1990s Chicago Bulls and how Michael Jordan led the team to six championship victories in eight years. Although there are plenty of amazing shots of game time, with MJ floating in mid-air on the way to the basket, what struck me was how dedicated the players were to practice. Even as the world’s best superstars, they still put in their gym time, day in and day out, to get ready for the contest they would face on the court.
None of us can be Michael Jordan. But even Michael Jordan could only become Michael Jordan through discipline. Nothing about his performance was automatic; it was the result of habits he had developed over time through hard work. Philosopher and theologian Dallas Willard defined disciplines (plural) as “Activities we engage in that are within our power and enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.” His rookie year, MJ could not float through the air over the heads of his opponents by direct effort. But it was within his power to go to the gym every day, work hard, and take his coach’s feedback. Over time, that discipline enabled him to become Air Jordan.
As a spiritual discipline, prayer works in much the same way. There are things that the Bible teaches about prayer that we cannot do by direct effort right now. I think of Paul’s injunction to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17 ESV). But rather than despairing that these things are just beyond us, we can embrace the things we can do now, and trust that we’ll gain more power for new kinds of prayer over time.
The basketball analogy is helpful for another reason, too: think about all the different kinds of things that an athlete might do at the gym. They might practice free throws or passing or defense. They might work with their teammates on a specific formation. They might do muscle workouts that don’t directly involve the game at all. With prayer, variety is our friend. So here are a few varied ideas on things you can fit into a busy day. They’re disciplines you can experiment with, seeing what helps you over time.
- Use an alarm to pray once an hour. I use a desktop app for task reminders and have a different Bible verse in there for each hour of the workday. Sometimes, I’m in the middle of the meeting when a reminder goes off and I can’t really stop and think about it. But at other times, it gives me a prompt to take a five-second break and fix my mind on God.
- Commute with a prayer podcast. Pray as You Go has been in and out of my prayer life for about five years. Crafted by Irish Jesuits, each episode is about ten to fifteen minutes and includes music, Scripture, and prayer prompts to help you respond to the passage. My friend Rachel created ReCollect, which goes through the “collects” (weekly prayers) of the Anglican tradition, providing a brief meditation and a way to bring the prayer into your week. If these liturgical approaches to meditation aren’t your speed, other options abound.
- Sing your favorite worship songs or hymns in the shower. Science shows singing is good for our emotional and physical health, and it’s one of the spiritual disciplines frequently given the spotlight in Scripture: “Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:19 NIV). Your decision on putting this one into practice may depend on the cooperation of your family’s or roommates’ sleeping schedules. If you’re self-conscious about your voice, a drive by yourself provides a judgment-free zone for singing.
- Go for short and consistent instead of long and infrequent. One of my most successful prayer practices ever is reading one psalm during breakfast. I do it consistently because it makes no additional demands on my time. It’s better to do five minutes a day every day than to wish you were doing an hour a day, and never get around to it.
- Find a prayer buddy. Although we genuinely love the Lord, the fact that he is “always available” somehow makes it easier to blow off a time we had planned to spend with him. The great Dutch saint Corrie ten Boom is often credited with saying “have an appointment with the Lord and keep it.” It’s sound counsel! But I have also found that I’m better at keeping the appointment when I make it with the Lord and with someone else, too. Is there someone at your church or a friend from school you could ask to pray with once a week for half an hour?
- Get quiet and listen. Scripture reminds us that God speaks to us first. Eugene Peterson aptly describes prayer as “answering God.” But how can we answer unless we listen? Sometimes on my lunch break, I’ll duck out to my car for a few minutes, away from the buzz of the office, and just sit there in quiet. If you can find a similar opportunity for stillness, slow down your breathing and turn your attention to God. You might be surprised what he says to you!
Pick just one or two of these ideas, and see how working it into your routines over a few weeks affects things. Don’t give up if it doesn’t seem to do much after a day or two; basketball practice doesn’t either. It’s sustained effort that produces change. The effort will also shape your motivation itself. Many saints have found that as they pray more, they find a self-reinforcing desire for more and deeper connection with God.
Prayer Is a Fight
Pressing into deeper connection with God means pressing into the hard things, too. An older married friend once told me that I should anticipate getting into at least one fight with my wife in the first few days of any vacation. “It’s better to get it over with right off the bat,” he said. “Something about finally having time off together lets things rise to the surface.” In the almost eight years that I have been married, I have found this pattern prove true! There’s always more going on under the surface of our everyday routines than we are consciously aware of. Hidden tensions or unstated disagreements can come out into the open when we have the breathing room to pay attention to them.
We need time for fights in our relationship with God, too. Sometimes, especially when we experience doubts, fears, or dark emotions, we may feel that we need to hedge what we say to God. Have you ever had a conversation with another Christian who says something like, “I know that God is good, but I just don’t feel like . . .” They want to express a doubt or a difficult feeling, but they want to preface it by saying “I know that God is good,” just to make sure the other person doesn’t write them off. They’re afraid they’ll be seen as being theologically wrong for saying something negative. Well-meaning Christian friends may reinforce such hedging by theologically “correcting” someone when they’re just trying to express their emotions clearly. (I know I’ve been guilty of such overzealous language policing.)
In contrast, the Bible itself is full of prayers that say negative and even apparently “incorrect” things about God without qualification. God cares more about our honesty with him in prayer than about careful caveats. We don’t have to walk on eggshells around him. Consider the conclusion of Psalm 44:
Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?
Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever.
Why do you hide your face
and forget our misery and oppression?
We are brought down to the dust;
our bodies cling to the ground.
Rise up and help us;
rescue us because of your unfailing love. (vv. 23-26 NIV)
The writer implies that God has forgotten his people. They even suggest that the one who “neither slumbers nor sleeps” is asleep on the job (Psalm 121:4)! Remember, these words were inspired by the Holy Spirit. In passages like this, the psalmists show us what emotional honesty with God looks like. It’s not that they’ve forgotten their theology of God’s faithfulness. It’s that their lived experience has left them in a dark place, and God feels distant, and they need to tell him that. We can do the same. We can fight with God, praying prayers like these:
- Why aren’t you here?
- Are you even listening?
- Things aren’t like they used to be.
- Why is this passage even in the Bible?
- What am I supposed to do? These expectations feel impossible.
A faithful walk with God will still include doubts, disappointments, and dark emotions. We may even feel fear toward God—not the biblical “fear of the Lord,” but a fear that he won’t listen or doesn’t care about our needs. When we feel this way, we may be tempted to distance ourselves from God. A penchant for conflict avoidance can characterize our relationship with him, not just with other people, and for many of the same reasons. We might wonder whether we can really trust God enough to be vulnerable with him about our experiences. We might question whether the emotional energy required to have honest conversations with God is worth it. Or, we might be willing to have these conversations, but find ourselves busy and distracted.
Regardless of where we’re at, making time for emotionally honest conversations with God, including fights, is an exercise of the virtue of faith. When we take time to be emotionally present to ourselves and to God, we’re acting in confidence that God is real, even if we feel anything but confident. Here are a couple of practical ways to exercise that faith:
- Identify a time in your day or week when emotionally loaded things happen. Are there interactions at work that stress you out pretty regularly? Or maybe spiritual angst comes up whenever you’re at church? If you have trouble identifying such moments, your bodily reactions might be a clue: conversations that make you feel tense or experiences where your heart starts beating faster probably carry emotional weight for you.
Once you’ve identified that routine event, find the next “break” time in your day after that. Put a journal wherever you will be at that break time, whether it’s your car, your backpack on the train, your living room, or even your bathroom! Then, start taking just a few minutes on a regular basis to write about what you experienced and how you felt. After you write, share what you wrote with God. (The journal already being there will serve as a cue to help you form a new “habit loop,” to use an idea from journalist Charles Duhigg.)
- Pick a time in your week when you won’t have the gumption for structured prayer, but you could muster the energy to go for a walk. Start going on a walk at that time, but open it with the prayer, “Jesus, walk with me.” It may or may not turn into a big emotional conversation with God, but it will give space for things to rise to the surface if they need to.
Keeping time for emotionally open prayer helps us stay honest in our walk with God. That walk can be full of unexpected adventures in intimacy, many of which we only discover in prayer. More on that in Part 2, when we’ll talk about prayer as a friendship and prayer as worship.
Photo from Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash