Almost all (85%) Christians talk to God in their own words. This finding is from a major research project I did years ago on the prayer practices of ordinary Christians. What they do can be called conversational prayer. One respondent explained that while he does have time set aside for prayer, he enjoys spontaneity. “I try to talk with God when the thought or feeling strikes me. Some days I pray quite a bit, others not such much. I have some special times with God but usually, prayer and contemplation come at random.”
We tend to admire those who spend a long time in prayer. They must be especially devout. The rest of us without the gift of intercession usually feel guilty in comparison.
Yet highly admired Christian leaders taught otherwise. Augustine of Hippo (5th century) preferred “very brief, quickly dispatched prayers.” Thomas Aquinas (13th century) held that frequency, not length, is the important issue in prayer. Frequent short prayers are of more worth than a few lengthy prayers.
Martin Luther (16th century) recommended prayers to be numerous but short in duration. The fewer the words the better the prayer. Few words and much meaning is Christian. Many words and little meaning is pagan. Jacob Boehme (17th century) advised that “many words are not needed, but only a believing, repentant soul.
Dwight Moody (19th century) carried this view over to public prayer. “A man who prays much in private will make short prayers in public.” He regarded lengthy public prayers as something akin to religious pretension.
Donald Bloesch (20th century) concluded that what characterized the great saints was not so much involvement in one single protracted or endless repetition of prayer formulas, but rather the practice of constantly waiting on the Lord, of praying inwardly even when outwardly occupied in daily tasks.
Going to God in Prayer and Worship is the most fundamental practice for being drawn closer to God in everyday living. Prayer is done alone or in small groups. Worship is done in larger assemblies. It is the same relationship as practicing your relationship with God.
What Prayer Accomplishes
The central questions are what these practices do for you and what they do for others.
For you, prayer turns your thoughts God-ward. “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). When biblical truths shape those thoughts, they expose you to the Holy Spirit’s work on your inner being. From such heart-work come the love, joy, peace, and trust that deliver to you more of the abundant life Jesus came to bring.
What your prayers and worship don’t do is earn you more credit in God’s eyes. For centuries church life was approached as a duty we owe to God. The goal would be to build up a more virtuous, God-pleasing life that earns God’s favor.
Rather than just duty, prayer and worship are opportunities to experience more of God’s blessings in this life on the way to heaven. In Christ’s redeeming work we already have the salvation that God promises for the next life. He also promises to send his Holy Spirit and the fruit he can produce for a better life now. We daily have the opportunity to draw upon his potential for life-changing power. The Lord’s Prayer is the ultimate expression of the prayer relationship. Recognize that this prayer is in the context of a lengthier teaching, which Jesus ends with the promise: “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11: 14). Prayer is asking for this special power that changes lives.
Church teachings with little appreciation of the Spirit’s work inevitably approach our routine relationship with God as something we do. This approach too often becomes a guilt-inducing burden for many believers. Better to approach prayer as a refreshing opportunity.
Intercessory prayer is done for others. What it accomplishes is more difficult to answer. This is because of a teaching that God has already made up his mind about what will happen in your life and that of others. Such is the message, especially in John Calvin’s doctrine of double predestination—some are predestined to salvation and others are predestined to damnation. God is sovereign and determines all human affairs. This understanding leaves little room for prayer requests for others. Yet even Calvin himself regularly participated in congregational prayers and petitions. Logic in relating to God has its limits.
A more biblical teaching is that God can indeed change his mind in response to prayers. Evidence is in Abraham’s bargaining with God to spare those in Sodom, and God agreed. Two of Jesus’ parables endorse persistence in prayer. One is the man who repeatedly knocks on his neighbor’s door for bread for an unexpected guest. The other is the widow who nagged the judge with her petitions. In both cases, their persistence brought a favorable result. Won’t such prayer make a difference when addressed not to a grouchy neighbor but to the loving Father?
How much difference does the number of words make in our prayers? Are they even necessary? Will many words bring a better result? Not really. Thinking that many words will persuade God is a form of works righteousness. What’s important is the underlying attitude of dependence on God, who loves and responds like a parent.
Are words even necessary? No. Words are a means of expressing thoughts. It’s the thoughts about God and others that count. Words without thought are empty. Humility and dependence are the keys to exercising the basic relationship with God.
In my randomly sampled prayer research, about half reported a deep sense of peace and a strong presence of God in their prayers. One young woman reported that “I am often moved to tears during prayer, either with joy or fear, I guess.” A young mother relayed that “Sometimes I am able to set aside time to play the piano and sing my prayers to God. I think I feel closest to God in prayer when it is through a song.” A recovering alcoholic wrote, “If I stop just moments to pray and make amends, I can enjoy a ‘peace of mind’ that is mind-boggling.”
Improving Prayer Life
One of the surprises in the research was that four out of five (80%) felt they should improve their prayer life. That’s valuable information for church leaders wanting to better connect with participants. Churches become more effective as they find spiritual needs and fill them. Give high priority to helping church participants grow in their personal prayer relationship with God. The response will be very good.
The biggest surprise in the research was that fully half of these ordinary believers declared that prayer is the most satisfying experience in their life!! That’s an extreme statement. Who would have guessed?
How can you improve your prayer life? The starting point is finding the personal benefits of peace and power in your practice. Don’t just do what somebody else finds satisfying. If you don’t experience benefits, you probably won’t do it long. Learn conversational prayer. Enjoy spontaneity. Find times and places that work for you, like talking with God on your drive to work. Try participating in a prayer group.
What you are looking for is the feeling of the presence of God with the peace and power the Spirit can bring. Those who regularly experience the benefits of prayer find themselves praying more often. Those who pray often are the ones who find prayer the most satisfying experience in their lives. Try it!
When do you find time to pray? How has prayer made a difference in your life? When do you find it difficult to pray?