Prayer is assumed to be essential to the Christian life. Since it is essential it is something that we intuitively know we should work at it. The apostle Paul said, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). My question is, “how in the world do you do that?” Howard Hendricks used to tell the story of a woman who drove herself crazy, literally wound up in an insane asylum, trying to pray without ceasing. Not what Paul had in mind, I’m sure.
The reality is that most of us for much of our Christian lives have struggled to pray well. I certainly have and I still do. But there are a few things I have found very helpful over the years. One of those things flows out of a tiny observation of a surprising “s” in a very familiar verse–Acts 2:42.
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (ESV)
It’s that “s” on the last word. More particularly the “the” and the “s”. The early Christians were devoted to four things, the last thing being “the prayers”, plural. What could that be, ‘the prayers'”?
My conclusion is that it means not just that they prayed, but that they prayed particular prayers, namely, the Psalms. They were continually devoted to praying the Psalms. Reading early Christian authors, it is clear that they quoted the psalms more frequently than any other Old Testament book. They used the words of the psalms to pour out their hearts to God. So, if they did it, so would I. That one change in my prayer life radically changed the way I pray and it has made me a better pray-er, though I still have lots of room for growth. For the last two decades I have used the words of the psalms to form the lexicon of the type of things that I pray for and the way that I pray for them, and it has deepened both my enjoyment of prayer and my sense of His presence when I pray. That is why the quote below resonated with me when I ran across it today.
“If I try to pray for people or events without having the word in front of me guiding my prayers, then several negative things happen. One is that I tend to be very repetitive. … I just pray the same things all the time. Another negative thing is that my mind tends to wander.”
John Piper, cited in Praying the Bible by Donald S. Whitney.
My recently widowed sister in Christ, B.J. Durston, gave me the book from the collection of her late husband Fred’s library. I’m reading it now and I want to commend it as a resource for your “school of prayer” whether you are a grad student in the subject or a beginner. It is short, less than a hundred pages; well written, challenging and practical. Using the word of God to frame your prayers for anyone and anything is a powerful path for your spiritual development.