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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
We started answering this question in Part 1, talking about prayer as a discipline and a fight. Today, we continue our response by talking about prayer as a friendship and prayer as worship.
Prayer Is a Friendship
In our last post, we proposed the idea that fighting with God in prayer is both helpful and biblical, because it’s a way to engage God with emotional honesty when we’re facing doubts, pains, or disappointments. Emotional honesty covers the brighter side of our lives, too. The Bible encourages us to come before God with the full range of our experiences: “Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise” (James 5:13 NIV). This is part of our intimacy with God—to share both the ups and downs of our days and weeks with him. It’s appropriate to call that kind of relationship a friendship!
This way of framing prayer can help us overcome one of the obstacles to making time for prayer: the demotivating sense of prayer as a stale duty. There are things we all do just because we have to, like the laundry and filing our taxes. (Okay, there are people who genuinely enjoy these things, but for the rest of us chores are still chores.) Let’s be honest. For all of us, there are times when prayer feels like a chore, no matter how relational we know God is. But for some of us, the vision of prayer as friendship is surprising. Some people have been taught to pray as a ritual duty, empty of any idea that God might respond or that we might enjoy his presence. Every Christian tradition has pitfalls when it comes to prayer. Some Catholic believers learn to mouth the words of the Our Father quickly in order to get in multiple repetitions, rather than saying the words with meaning. Some Bible school kids learn to tick off their intercessions like bullet points in an email to a benevolent but distant deity. If something like this has been your experience of prayer, it’s no surprise you haven’t been inspired to make loads of time for it.
What Scripture invites us into in prayer is far richer. Think about how energizing a genuine friendship can be. You look forward to spending time with the other person. You enjoy conversation with them. You feel close to them. Although we all will face times when prayer doesn’t feel like this, it’s also possible to experience times when it does. We see this kind of close, companionable prayer frequently in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. The psalm-writing Sons of Korah can say, “By day the Lord directs his love, at night his song is with me—a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalms 42:8 NIV). The prophet Jeremiah writes, “But the Lord is with me like a mighty warrior; so my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. . . . let me see your vengeance on them, for to you I have committed my cause” (Jeremiah 20:11-12 NIV). These saints were not phoning in their prayers; they had a sense of God’s active presence in their lives as they spoke with him, expressing his love both in the beauty of quiet togetherness (“at night his song is with me”) and full-blooded defense against harm (“with me like a mighty warrior”).
In the New Testament, Paul tells the believers at Philippi, “I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy . . . . God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:3-4, 8 NIV). You get the sense of the emotional tenor of Paul’s intercessions; he is speaking with God earnestly about people he cares about. And because of those prayers, he knows that God knows his heart; he’s telling the Philippians, “Want to know how much I love you? Ask God. We talk about you all the time.” Paul and God share the intimacy of affectionate conversation about the people they both love.
We also see prayer as friendship in the lives of our spiritual mothers and fathers throughout church history. Saint Teresa of Avila writes about friendship with Jesus as the goal of contemplative prayer: “Unlike our friends in the world, he will never abandon us when we are troubled or distressed. Blessed is the one who truly loves him and always keeps him near. . . . If God should desire to raise us to the position of one who is an intimate and shares his secrets, we ought to accept this gladly.” Saint Teresa is writing from her own experience as well as her study of the lives of other believers. What a vision of prayer: sharing the secrets of God.
If that’s a different vision of prayer than what you’ve known before, you can ask God to help you build such a friendship with him. That’s not to say we should only pray if we’re feeling a positive emotional buzz toward God. The reality of prayer as a discipline is that we won’t make much progress if we only do it when we feel like it. But it’s a discipline that yields intimacy.
Prayer Is Worship
The difference between our friendship with God and any other friendship is that with other people, we share an equality of human life and limitation. But God is God, with an experience, wonder, and power far beyond ours. God is infinite and unknowable, but he makes himself knowable and available, even befriendable, to creatures like us. The technical theological language for this tension is that God is immanent (close and accessible), but he is also transcendent (far beyond us and independent from us). So while it’s true that God can be our friend, he’s a rather unusual friend. He’s the friend that we worship.
The word “worship” can make us think of worship services or of activities like singing or dancing or praising him out loud. These things are all helpful! But another form of worship which we discover in prayer is to simply inhabit the same space as God, using our imaginations to reverently recognize his presence.
I love that your question used the phrase, “come before God,” because it’s a biblical metaphor that points us to this aspect of worship as being in God’s presence. It’s a callback to the rituals of worship of ancient Israel. The commandments of God for his people included festivals where the people would “come before” God at the tabernacle: “Celebrate the Festival of Weeks with the firstfruits of the wheat harvest, and the Festival of Ingathering at the turn of the year. Three times a year all your men are to appear before the Sovereign Lord, the God of Israel” (Exodus 34:22-23 NIV). This language of appearing before God implies an attitude of reverence. We come before him to acknowledge that he is God and to reaffirm our life in him as people of his covenant.
And, as your question implies, this is something we can do at any time of day in prayer. Although this feels intuitive for us, we shouldn’t take it for granted. It’s because of Jesus’ sacrifice and his sending of the Spirit that we can “appear before God” without going to a tabernacle or temple. The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that because Jesus is our priest, we can come before God with confidence: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. . . . Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14, 16 NIV). When we pray, we’re coming into the throne room of God in worship.
These descriptions of Jesus also encourage another aspect of worship and prayer: using our imaginations. I have never seen “God’s throne of grace.” But the writer to the Hebrews says that I can approach it, because Jesus is standing right there. So, when I pray, I sometimes try to imagine that throne room. Passages like Isaiah 6 or Revelation 4 supply concrete images: angels, music, smoke, thunder. What would it be like to stand there and see the wonders of God? I’m sure that the pictures that come to my mind are only a hint of that beauty. But Scripture, by describing the beauty, invites us to imagine it, even though we can only do so partially and imperfectly.
Another way to engage our imaginations in prayer is the reverse: Instead of imagining yourself standing in heaven, imagine heaven coming into the space where you are. In other words, imagine Jesus, with you. This approach can be especially helpful when reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life. You can put yourself into the scene, or imagine it happening somewhere familiar to you. What would it be like if the paralytic man’s friends broke through the ceiling of your home to get to Jesus?
Scripture bridges the gap between God’s immanence and transcendence by encouraging us to use our imaginations in this way. We worship God, the almighty, far beyond us in power and glory. And we can welcome him into our own mind and experience at any moment. That contrast can be one more motivation to make time for prayer in the middle of the day. We don’t have to make travel plans to worship God; we can reach him right now.
Making It Practical
It can be helpful to have set times to come before God in reverent prayer. Set times of prayer for the whole community was a beautiful aspect of the culture of “Christendom” (for all its problems) that is for the most part now lost in the secular West. Church bells would be rung several times a day, calling everyone within earshot to pause and pray at that moment. At times, specific prayers that were easy to memorize were recommended for specific hours, as with the Angelus prayer in parts of medieval Catholic Europe.
Although you may not live and work within earshot of a church bell, you could add a set rhythm of brief prayer to your day, with a short memorized verse or two. Use the cues in your schedule that are already there:
- When waking up
- When brushing your teeth
- Before eating a meal
- When you start your commute
- When you arrive at your desk
- When you finish your work
- Before going to sleep
Pick three or four of these times, and add a prayer you know by heart. If you’re not sure where to start, try Psalm 23. While you pray, imagine that Jesus is right there with you: sitting at the table with you or on the same route for your commute. Talk with him openly, as with a friend.
As you come before God during your day, even for a short time, you’ll make a foothold in which to stand, and then take the next step in prayer. May you reach new heights in both your friendship with him and your worship of him.
Photo from Miguel Á. Padriñán on Pexels