- Wednesday, June 11, 2008
Chapter One: Fail to Plan, Plan to Fail
I stopped by the home of a friend recently. He’s a relatively new believer who’s been coming to our church for only a short time. At the end of our visit, I volunteered to pray about some of the things we’d been talking about—the uncertainty of his job, his growing relationship with God, his concern for his teenage daughter. When I finished, he looked at me somewhat wistfully and said, “Some day I’d like to be able to do that.”
Not quite sure what he was referring to, I asked, “You’d like to be able to do what?”
“Pray!” was his emphatic response. He didn’t mean it as flattery. And I didn’t take it as such, because, after all, there is little skill involved in praying well. Praying is not a talent to be applauded, like piano playing or public speaking or golfing. It’s more like… well… mowing the lawn. It’s something we just do. I wouldn’t be flattered if my friend had said to me, “Someday I’d like to be able to mow the lawn just like you.”
One of my major objectives in writing this book is to convince you that praying is not just for the pros. You don’t have to be an apostle Paul or a John Wesley or a Billy Graham to pray well. There is no special skill involved. It is something, rather, that we become good at by just doing it.
And that’s the problem. Most Christ followers don’t do it. Often when I am speaking on the topic of prayer, I will ask my audience, “How many of you are satisfied with the amount of praying you do?” I have yet to see a single hand raised. We all wish we prayed more. We don’t need another pep talk on the importance of prayer. We believe it’s important. We just don’t do it!
Why not? Let me begin with some prayer busters, or obstacles, that keep us from praying. These roadblocks are common to all of us and must be removed in order for prayer to take off in our lives.
The solutions I propose are simple and practical. If you find anything super deep in these pages it probably got there by accident. I have read many profound books over the years on the topic of prayer. Unfortunately, most of what I learned didn’t translate into more praying on my part. The goal of this book, again, is to get you to actually do it.
That’s what Jesus’ example prompted the disciples to want for themselves. In the opening verse of Luke 11 we read: “One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’” There is a sense of urgency to this request. Bible scholars tell us that the verb is an aorist imperative. An aorist imperative is often used to convey a demand for immediate action.
Having observed Jesus at prayer, the disciples were now imploring him, “Teach us to pray… right now! Don’t put us off. This is something we need immediately. We’re tired of being prayer deficient.”
Interestingly, this is the only place in the four Gospels where Jesus’ followers ask him, directly, to teach them something. Not that such a request would have been unusual. It was common, in the culture of that day, for students to ask for instruction on specific topics from their rabbis. And yet this is the only time we find Jesus’ disciples making such a request of him. This is important. There is an urgency about it. Teach us to pray!
Please note, as well, that this is not, strictly speaking, a how-to request. The disciples are not asking for a lesson on prayer techniques (i.e., “Lord, teach us how to pray”). They are simply seeking help to get going. It’s the same as when I ask the Lord, “Teach me to love So-and-so.” Am I asking for ideas about how to do it? No, I just need a kick in the pants to start loving. Similarly, the disciples wanted a push to start praying. Teach us to pray!
If this is the cry of your heart, if you wish you prayed more than you do, if you’re ready to remove the obstacles that keep you from just doing it, consider the common prayer busters which can be overcome with God’s help.
Stop and think for a moment about something you meant to do—but haven’t gotten around to. Maybe it’s the oil in your car that should have been changed three thousand miles ago. Or the important phone call that should have been returned last week.
Or shouldn’t you have taken the dog to the vet for his annual shots by now?
Why haven’t you done these things yet? Chances are pretty good that your problem is as simple as not having a plan for getting the job done. You haven’t officially put it on your “to do” list or written it on your calendar. You’ve heard it before: when we fail to plan, we plan to fail.
This is why my heating bill was so high this past winter. We have trouble with the airflow in our home, which makes it necessary for me to close all the first-floor vents in the summer (to force the cool air upstairs) and close the second-floor vents in the winter (since the heated air will rise anyway). When temperatures started to drop in late fall, I kept telling myself, I’ve got to readjust all those vents. But I never got around to it.
All winter long I pumped hot air up to the bedrooms, which meant that the first floor thermostat never warmed up enough to turn off the furnace. It ran and ran and ran. On bitter cold January nights I found myself perspiring and kicking off blankets. Each morning I’d think, I’ve got to readjust all those vents. But the job never got done. Why? Because it didn’t make it to my chores list. I didn’t write it in my Day-Timer to be done on my day off.
The things we get done are typically the things that we schedule to do. No plan, no action. This is just as true when it comes to the practice of prayer. Do we have a set time and place for this spiritual discipline? (This is not to suggest that we shouldn’t be praying spontaneously throughout the day. But this sort of impromptu praying is more likely to happen if we have developed the habit of daily planned prayer.)
Jesus made plans to pray. He intentionally set aside time and had specific places he liked to go to talk with his heavenly Father. It is not surprising that his disciples observed him at prayer in Luke 11, because Jesus is frequently found praying in this Gospel. In fact, some have referred to Luke as “The Gospel of Prayer.” Here’s a quick survey:
3:21: When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened…
5:15–16: Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.
6:12–13: One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them…
9:18: Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say I am?”
9:28–29: About eight days after Jesus said this, he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning.
22:39, 41, 44: Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him. . . . He withdrew about a stone’s throw beyond them, knelt down and prayed… And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground.
Prayer was routinely on Jesus’ agenda. It was something he made plans to do. And if prayer is going to happen in our lives we will have to put it on our schedules. When and where will you pray each day? That’s what a plan comes down t time and location.
Start with the “when.” If you were to inject fifteen minutes of prayer into your day, when would be the best time to schedule it? How about setting your alarm clock a quarter of an hour earlier and using that time to pray (after you’ve shaved or had a cup of coffee or done whatever it takes to wake you up)? Or maybe you have drive time on the way to work that could be spent in prayer. If you want to include the rest of the family in the venture, perhaps you’ll want the fifteen minutes to be scheduled right after dinner.
Some people like to wrap up their day by kneeling for prayer at the side of their bed.
What time works best for you? As basic as this decision sounds, I believe it’s so critical that I would encourage you to stop reading for a moment and lock in a daily prayer time. Actually put it on your calendar or Day-Timer or PDA or wherever you schedule important activities.
Now that that’s settled, where will you pray? It needs to be a distraction-free environment. And it helps to develop the habit if the location is the same each day. At the desk in your study? In the park near your home? By the side of your bed? In the parking lot where you work?
I always make my way, first thing in the morning, to my reading chair in the living room. Just sitting down in that familiar spot, cup of chai tea in hand, reminds me what I’m there for. God and I have a regularly scheduled appointment. Prayer happens because I’ve planned for it to take place.
I like to think of praise as the spice of my prayers. Without praise my praying becomes bland. There is a sameness about it, which causes me to lose interest in it.
I recently made an appointment with an ENT specialist due to a problem with my throat. I was periodically losing my voice—not a good thing to happen to a preacher. The doctor numbed my sinuses and ran a scope through them in order to get a look at my larynx. (It gave new meaning to the old taunt, “up your nose with a rubber hose.”) The good news was that there were no nodules on my voice box. But the bad news was that my throat was scarred by acid reflux.
The doctor gave me four steps for correcting the situation. First, he asked me to start on a certain medication. “I can do that,” I told him. Next, he told me to put the head of my bed on wooden blocks so that I am slightly inclined at night. “I can do that,” I responded. (My wife just loves sleeping downhill!)
Third, he instructed me to eat my dinner earlier so that my food is digested before I go to bed. “I can do that,” I assured him. Finally, he asked me to stay away from spicy foods. “I can’t do that!” I objected. No way am I going to give up Mexican, Indian, Szechwan, and Thai food. Spice is what makes eating enjoyable.
And the spice of praise is what gives flavor to our praying. No wonder the psalmist encourages us to begin our prayers in this way. “Enter his [the Lord’s] gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise,” we are instructed in Psalm 100:4. This is how we’re to come before the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. With praise on our lips.
Interestingly, I regularly hear from believers that praise is the most stilted aspect of their prayer lives. Confession may be difficult for us to do, but at least we don’t have any trouble knowing what to say in this regard. Thanksgiving is often lacking from our prayers, but when we finally get around to it we can usually come up with a long list of things to express gratitude for. Petition (sometimes referred to as “gimme” prayers) flows quite easily from our lips.
But praise is a different matter. All it takes is a sentence or two before we run out of words. Why is that? Why do we find it so difficult to go on and on in praise of our awesome God? I believe that our biggest problem in this regard is our limited vocabulary. There are a handful of God’s attributes that immediately come to our minds (he is holy, gracious, faithful, powerful), but after we have exhausted this short list we are stuck.
Sometimes we try to get out of this bind by praying a generic, “Lord, I praise you for who you are!” That’s pretty lame, isn’t it? Try that with your spouse if you’re married: “Honey, I praise you for who you are.” You’ll probably get a strange look in response, or a “What’s that supposed to mean?”
If we want to praise God for who he is we must expand our knowledge of the attributes and titles by which he goes in Scripture. Over the years I have gradually compiled a list of almost 250 of these descriptions. This A to Z list includes attributes such as patient, wise, angry, just, radiant, generous, exalted, sovereign, unchanging, zealous, and righteous. The titles range from King to Rock, Shepherd, Shield, Way, Trap and Snare, Living Water, Refining Fire, Brother, Refuge, Warrior, Song, and Morning Star. There is a lot to meditate on here and much to stimulate our praise.
This topic deserves additional treatment, so I will return to it later and provide some practical suggestions for turning this list of God’s attributes and titles (see Appendix) into praise. But before we leave this prayer buster let me offer one final word of explanation as to why our neglect of praise tends to diminish our praying in general.
Imagine this. You have a neighbor to whom you are always appealing for help. Whenever you speak with him it’s always to ask for a favor—to lend you a tool, or to watch your kids, or to give you a hand with a household project.
One day it dawns on you that this is the nature of every conversation you have with him. You wonder if he notices this as well. You reason (and rightly so), “He must get tired of seeing me coming.” How do you remedy this situation? There are two ways to go about it. You could either correct the imbalance in your conversations (by talking to him about more than just your personal needs) or you could speak less frequently with your neighbor so that you don’t wear him out with your requests.
Many of us take the latter approach in our relationship with God. Aware of the fact that all our prayers seem to be appeals for help, our tendency is to scale back these conversations so as not to be a bother to God. (Even we get tired of our self-centeredness.)
How much better it would be, instead, if we introduced some balance to our praying. Beginning our prayers with praise acknowledges that, “This is not all about me—God, too, will be blessed by these prayers.” Such a realization encourages us to converse with him with greater regularity.
I like ruts. That’s a strange thing to admit, but it’s true. I have found that familiar ruts (maybe a more positive expression would be “routines”) help me get started on tasks that I might otherwise put off because of simple inertia.
And when something breaks up one of my routines? I can be paralyzed with indecision. Happened not too long ago. My teenage son had a day off of school. I decided to bag my agenda for the day and do something with him. “What would you like to do?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he shrugged. “Go to a movie?” I suggested. “I dunno.” “Bowling?” “I dunno.” Take the train into the city?” “I dunno.”
We were both stuck. The absence of routine had stopped us cold. In fact, we probably would have sat there indefinitely in indecision if my wife had not shown up and threatened to put us both to housework if we couldn’t find something to do. That got us going.
I’m a big fan of ruts, routines, and patterns. When I exercise each day, for example, I know exactly what I am going to do. I know how many sets of push-ups I’ll attempt and how far I’ll run (3.1 miles exactly—not 3.2 or 3.0). I don’t make up my workout as I go. I do it the same way, every time. And that’s one of the reasons I don’t hesitate to get started. I jump right in.
I’ve discovered that routines are equally helpful when it comes to prayer. There are certain patterns that I go to that launch me into intercession. Rather than getting hung up on the question of “what should I pray for?” I have a familiar way with which to begin.
I’ll devote more attention to several helpful prayer patterns in a later chapter, but let me mention a few of these formulas now to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about. I’ll start with the believer’s armor. There are six pieces to this protective suit that Paul describes in Ephesians 6:13–17.
How does one put on “the belt of truth” or “the breastplate of righteousness” or “the helmet of salvation”? The writer of the old hymn, “Stand up, Stand up for Jesus” knew the answer to that question. “Put on the gospel armor,” his lyrics instruct us, “each piece put on with prayer.” Good advice. Pray on the Ephesians 6 armor.
My kids and I made a practice of doing this on the short drive to school each morning. (My two oldest are now out of the home—and I miss sharing this routine with them.) Until just recently when he graduated, my youngest and I began many of our days with this prayer as we traveled to his high school. I’d ask him to choose one of the six pieces of armor and get us started. He might select the gospel shoes and begin with: “Lord, I’m putting on the gospel shoes. Help me to be a bold witness today. Let me run toward conversations about Jesus and the good news of his salvation.”
Then it was my turn. Perhaps I’d choose the belt of truth. I’d pray something like: “We want to be honest men today, Lord. Characterized by your truth. Help us to walk in integrity—to be the same in private as we are in public. Keep us from using deceitful words….”
Back and forth we’d go until we had prayed through all six pieces of armor (or as many as we could get to before we rolled into the parking lot). Anybody who has high schoolers knows the semi-comatose condition in which they head out the door most early mornings. Trying to engage them in coherent prayer could be a hopeless challenge. But I’ve found that the use of certain patterns, like the believer’s armor, launches us into meaningful intercession in a brief period of time.
Let me give you two more examples. The A to Z list of God’s attributes and titles has already been mentioned. Each day I move through this list by taking the next three entries and praising God for such. If I am in the m’s, I may be exalting God for being master, mediator, and merciful. Within half a minute of dropping into my prayer chair, I have already begun to extol God with heartfelt adoration. My pattern got me started.
The fruits of the Spirit (described as a singular, collective fruit in Gal. 5:22–23) provide another pattern. Knowing these nine traits by heart (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithful-ness, gentleness, and self-control) allows me to meditatively scroll through the list and choose one to focus on in prayer. “What do I need most today, Lord? Gentleness? Okay, take away my inclination to be harsh with others. Don’t let my speech be filled with sarcasm. Remind me of how gentle you have been with me—like a shepherd with his little lamb.”
Patterns help us overcome the obstacle of inertia and begin to pray. I’ll cover several more of these in chapter 3. You’ll learn the routines of “body parts,” “a few friends,” “persecuted believers,” and others.
This is not a technique that I made up. I learned it from Jesus. We’ve already looked at the disciples’ request in the opening verse of Luke 11: “Lord, teach us to pray.” His response in the verses that follow has come to be known as “The Lord’s Prayer.” Most believers are familiar with this model prayer. If they hear the words, “Our Father, Who art in heaven,” they know to continue, “Hallowed be Thy name.”
Unfortunately, what was intended to be a model prayer has become a mantra to many who use it. High school football teams recite it for good luck in the locker room before big games. Others rattle it off in desperate circumstances as a means of protection.
But Jesus’ intention was not to give us an incantation to repeat word for word. He was providing us with a pattern to follow when we pray. A road map that would get us started on our journey. The prayer begins with praise, continues with petition, and wraps up with confession. What a great example.
If we want prayer to play a more significant role in our lives we must overcome some common obstacles: no plan, no praise, and no pattern. Our next chapter will cover five additional roadblocks. But with God’s help we can bust the busters.
Copyright © 2008 by Jim Nicodem
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law.
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