Honest Talk about Honest Prayer
- 2009 5 Feb
Praying Pastor interviewed Peter Lundell, author of Prayer Power: 30 Days to a Stronger Connection with God (Revell, January 2009). Used with permission.
Many Christians don't talk about hardships with prayer. Why do you open up about the struggles you, as a pastor, have had drawing close to God in prayer?
My first draft of the book read like an instruction manual of all the things you ought to do to be spiritual like me. I realized that the more spiritual I tried to sound, the less honest I was being. I was hiding behind my words. No reader should have to, or would want to, put up with that. And besides, it was boring.
So I determined to be totally honest. I rewrote the book and openly shared every doubt, struggle, and failure, because every reader goes through struggles. And if I’m not honest with readers, how can I expect readers to be honest with others or even themselves? This is especially important for pastors.
I’ve discovered two things: First, brutal honesty is tremendously liberating, and I don’t want to live any other way. Second, when we stick with prayer and don’t give up, answers and victories rise from these struggles. Answers and victory never rise from pretending.
I hope to connect with readers in hope that they’ll connect with me and the victories I’ve experienced—so that they will experience their own victories.
What are some of the things God has taught you about prayer over the years - especially from the perspective of your leadership roles?
It’s good to listen before I talk. If I always dive into prayer and never spend time listening, I only dump my own “give-me list” on God. But his word says in 1 John 5:14–15 that when I seek and pray according to his will, my prayer will be answered. So the key is to first get in sync with God.
We’ve got to have a hunger, or thirst, for God. Without hunger, no program or technique or anything we learn will go anywhere. But with hunger for God, we could know almost nothing and still have a great prayer life. Hunger is singularly important—which is why it’s the first chapter.
When I pray with faith and don’t get what I ask for, God will soon show me why. There is always something to learn in unanswered prayer.
What suggestions do you have for those times when a pastor or leader just doesn't feel like praying?
Read a prayer. Someone was inspired in prayer when he or she wrote it down. So if we’re feeling tired, depressed, or like a zombie, we can let the inspiration that first permeated that written prayer permeate our own hearts and minds. I find the Psalms to be the best source for this. We can do this with the Lord’s Prayer, and extrapolate on each part of it. Books of prayers are also available. I’ve also written my own.
Reading prayers in this way should be seen as a way to get prayer moving, not as the prayer experience itself. In no way do I want to direct people to simply read other people’s prayers. The purpose is to kick-start our own.
Another thing is to play worship music. Put on a CD or iPod and worship along with the music, then move into prayer. It’s no coincidence that Saul’s demonic spirit left when David played his harp, and it’s no mystery why most churches play music in the background during prayer times or altar calls. The Holy Spirit operates more in worship, and the music has the effect of lifting us up and prying us open as well.
Third, try creating a prayer notebook or just a handy list. Though this may feel forced, lists give substance and direction. And with that, our prayer is much more likely to take off with spontaneity and passion.
How can we combat busyness and pray through distractions?
As I discuss later, the first thing is to establish a consistent prayer time and location. Early monks went to the deserts of North Africa to spare themselves the distractions of busy life. Most of us aren’t going to do that, but we can choose to pray in a place that is not full of messes to clean or work to be done, even in a one-room apartment, we can face the window. I practice what I call “intentional neglect.” I intentionally neglect all the things screaming for my attention. When I’m done with my prayer time, then I do them. When God is our priority, everything else falls into place—especially in the church. It amazes me how much we pastors forget that.
When we do pray, we still confront distractions of the mind—there’s really no escape. That’s why I always keep a notebook, day planner, or scratch paper handy. Thoughts will come regarding something I need to do. Rather than distract myself by trying not to forget it, I jot it down, forget about it while I pray, and do it afterward. Or the invading thought, especially if it’s from the Holy Spirit, might be something I turn into a prayer.
If, no matter what we do, we still can’t focus, then yell. Seriously. But yell someplace where people won’t hear and think you’re nuts. If need be, let your very prayer be to ask God to help you focus. Raising the voice can have an immediate and powerful effect in focusing the mind. Try it and see!
What do you mean by "praying boldly" and how can Christians learn to do that?
Praying boldly is the opposite of excessively polite prayer and of—I’ll just say it—wimpy prayer. Praying boldly is praying without intimidation, not caring what other people think, expressing ourselves to God without concern for being appropriate or religiously correct but rather with a passion from our guts that pours out, unashamedly. Bold prayer is not arrogant. It’s humble and faithful, because of its self-abandoned focus on God and expectation of what God will do.
People often assume they must be polite or solemn before God. Nowhere does the Bible teach this. Two thirds of the Psalms are complaints, and they are not polite. Most prayers in both Old and New Testaments are bold, expectant, and to the point. When Jesus teaches on prayer in Luke 11:5–10, he talks about an obnoxious guy who bangs on his friend’s door at midnight. Then he says we should bug him the same way by continually asking, seeking, and knocking. I often wonder if God gets tired of diplomatic prayers. Why else would he actually tell us to be bold and persistent—and use examples that, if we were on the receiving end, most of us would say are obnoxious.
There’s no real method to doing this. It’s a mindset that chooses to free itself from previous assumptions and uses the Bible as a model of how to pray.
How can we practice the presence of God and include him in everyday tasks?
Practicing the presence of God primarily has to do with developing an attitude, a continual awareness that God is always with us, and that in turn, we always incline our attention toward him.
The first thing most of us need to do is to slow down or cut unnecessary activities from our calendar. Busyness is an enemy to practicing the presence of God. Jesus repeatedly blew off other people’s agendas for him and continually focused on his purpose for being here. Pastors who do the same are always happier, closer to God, and more effective. And when we practice the presence of God, we increase our ability to be intimate with him when times do get busy.
Here are some practices that may help develop that attitude: My last thought before I sleep and my first thought when I wake up is centered on God. When I get mad or stressed, I try to see things from God’s perspective. When I am waiting for someone, I use that time to pray. I do menial tasks with an awareness and love of God. I often have a praise song on my mind as I go through the day.
Breath prayers are another practice that can help. These are super-short prayers that we can utter with one breath at any time all through the day. The first one we know of, that has been used for centuries, is the “Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” Most pastors may rather spontaneously say their own breath prayers, such as, “I praise you, Lord.” “Fill me with your Spirit.” “I receive your peace.” The possibilities are endless.
You talk about "prayer of agreement." Can you explain that and why it's an important element of powerful prayer? How valuable are Pastors' Prayer Groups for this?
We’re all familiar with Matthew 18:19–20: “If two of you on earth agree about anything…” That’s a major part of agreement in prayer, but there’s more. I encourage people’s agreement in prayer to start before they even pray. We first need to be in agreement with God’s Word. I always try to pray in accordance with a promise or exhortation or example in Scripture—rather than just give my own agenda to God and hope he blesses it.
Second, pray in agreement with the Holy Spirit. However the Spirit communicates with us (everyone is different), we may feel led to focus or stretch our faith on what God intends, and that may mean letting other prayer requests go. When our prayer is led by the Spirit, we have far better results than when we’re in the driver’s seat.
Third, we agree with others in that fascinating, inscrutable pattern in Scripture where people joining together exponentially increases answers to prayer. When we do this, it’s important to establish exactly what we’re agreeing on. In a hospital, for example, do I as a pastor agree with Mrs. Smith that God will guide the doctor, or that she will have a miraculously fast and complete recovery, or that God will miraculously heal her so that surgery is unnecessary? The amazing thing to me is that God tends to answer prayers at the level where people put their faith.
Pastors’ Prayer groups are great for this. I started and lead one myself. We’ve got a bunch of guys who commit to two things: leave doctrinal differences at the door and relate to each other in humility. It’s wonderful. With great diversity, we combine our knowledge of the Bible with openness to the Spirit and to one another’s wisdom born out of experience. I wish every pastor were in such a group.
You're a proponent for creating a place of prayer and establishing a time of prayer. Why are these important elements for prayer?
These two disciplines are the most important external helps for maintaining a strong prayer life. Without them, our good intentions eventually drown under the assaults of busyness and distractions.
A place of prayer helps us concentrate in the face of distractions. That place could be the church sanctuary, an empty room in the house, a spot in the back yard, or even a rug laid out on the floor, on which the only thing we do is pray. The physical surroundings of a location devoted to prayer tell our brains, “Focus on God.” And if we ever feel bored or in a rut of over-familiarity with a place, a change of location can be stimulating.
Establishing a set prayer time ingrains a habit of prayer into our minds, such that if we miss it, we feel anxious because something is missing or wrong—and it is! A set prayer time is not to force ourselves to pray as much as to create a boundary of protection from busyness. That boundary of time is like a protective fence around a garden, where we give ourselves freedom from intrusions to spend unhindered time with God. Preferably we’ll do this as early as possible in the morning, so we can lay the whole day before the Lord. And unlike a prayer place, I have never found benefit in changing my prayer time, so I highly recommend keeping it sacred, especially if we’re traveling or really busy. Whether short or long, this protective fence of a set time must be intentional, because no one else can do it for us.
You're a pastor, and yet you still struggle with prayer. What advice would you give to fellow pastors or longtime Christians about enriching their prayer lives?
I do and I don’t. I don’t often struggle to pray, because intimacy with God has become part of my lifestyle. But I do struggle in prayer.
True men and women of prayer will sometimes wrestle in prayer, as did many figures in the Bible, like Jacob’s symbolic wrestling with the angel and Jesus’ wrestling over his fate in Gethsemane.
Like anyone else, I struggle with unanswered prayer or major decisions to do something by faith, when tragedy strikes, problems of injustice, and healings that take a lot longer than I’d like. The key is to keep struggling—don’t give up and too quickly assume something is God’s will before you know for sure. The angel commended Jacob for not giving up until he got a blessing. God the Father actually sent an angel to help Jesus wrestle in Gethsemane. Sometimes wrestling in prayer is God’s will for us.
Wrestling in prayer is a good thing. It draws us closer to God. And it changes us in the process.
Peter, please write a prayer you would hope every pastor reading this interview will pray in faith...
Father, you love me so much. Sometimes the demands and heartaches of doing your work drain me. Rejuvenate me with your presence. Fill me with your Spirit as I lift my hands to you. My life and my ministry are in your hands. I choose to keep it there and trust you to lead me and bless me so I will always be a blessing to others. I will pursue every vision you’ve given me and overcome every hardship that intrudes, because, Lord Jesus, I walk in your footsteps. Your victory is mine. Lead me to live it every day. Amen.
Original publication date: February 5, 2009