I’ve got an idea for another book. It’s called – ‘Disappointment, Failure, Confusion and Doubt’. Part of me feels like pitching it to some Christian publishers just to see what the reaction is. Somehow I don’t think they’d be queueing up.
On the other hand if I suggested a book called ‘The secret of prayer’ or better still ‘5 secrets that will secure an effective prayer life’ I’d at least get some follow up enquiries. If you google ‘secret of prayer’ you’ll find plenty of stuff – one guy offers 13 secrets whilst another was offering four but the link’s broken, which is a bit of a bummer if he was onto something.
The wise amongst you will have worked out very quickly that I don’t think there is a secret to prayer. It’s a bit like my son Joe’s first geography lesson where the teacher put up 20 pictures and asked which ones were linked to geography. Wise beyond his years, Joe immediately figured that the answer was all of them.
In a lot of ways prayer is not something to be figured out. I amongst many others will have spent too much time reading books on prayer and not enough time actually praying. It’s not that there’s nothing we can learn about prayer but I’m in a place where I don’t there’s any great mystique about it and I’m wary of theories and formulas that offer the promise of getting God to do what we want.
At this point I need to make one thing really clear and you can decide whether to stop reading or to join me in exploring this further. The fact is I’m really not that good at prayer. My prayers are often erratic, vague and self-centred. My qualification to say anything slightly useful about prayer isn’t that I am good at it but that I’m trying to work out how to do it better. When I heard that one of the cell groups in the cluster (group of cell groups) I lead with my wife had talked about struggling in prayer and bible reading I was delighted – not because I wanted them to stay in that place but because the prayer elephant in the room had trumpeted and people could start to talk honestly about ways to help them actually pray and read the Bible.
So here’s 3 non secret and entirely unoriginal thoughts about prayer:
- Prayer should be simple
I vividly remember the day the African Pentecostal Bishop came to pray for Ben. We’d heard he was in town, there were online videos of healings at his meetings and we had a boy with terminal cancer so we asked him to come and he came. Handsworth was not used to seeing a cavalcade of sharp suited African men and lavishly dressed African ladies rock up to someone’s house but here they were. The Bishop came upstairs with me and prayed, calmly and sensitively for my boy. I felt God’s presence. We came back downstairs and he said to me – ‘We pray and then it’s up to God’. That’s a theology of prayer I can work with.
The alternative is to say that the result of prayer is dependent on how good we are at praying. When we think that we put ourselves in God’s place – it becomes about our ability, our performance. The Bible calls that works and makes clear our works are not what is required – what’s required is his works. Prayer is inviting God to be at work and at the same time being prepared to be a part of the work he is doing. Prayer is what we tell our kids – it’s talking to God and the more we do it, the better things generally are because we are letting him do his work in us.
- Prayer should be practical
As someone who’s been involved in church leadership and who has previously worked full-time for church I can hereby officially declare that doing those things does not mean that you are any better at prayer. I know I’m reiterating the point a little but prayer can be a bit like Facebook – just like we look at Facebook and think everyone else is having a better time we look at other Christians, especially leaders and think they’re better at prayer.
Prayer is not easy. It’s countercultural and counterintuitive because our instincts lead us to focus on our own needs and rely on our own abilities. This means we need some help!
Community is key – getting away from the unbiblical idea that it’s all about us sorting things out individually with God. Community can encourage and advise and keep us to account. Meeting together to pray is important and things like WhatsApp prayer groups can be really helpful – we set one up when my wife, Louise was struggling in a teaching job and those prayers got her through a pretty horrible time.
There’s some other good stuff out there. I’ve just replaced my forlorn written prayer list with the PrayerMate app, through which you set up initial lists and it then turns them into daily lists for you. It’s making a difference to my prayer life (i.e. more prayer is happening!)
My church STC Sheffield has a short, daily podcast with a Bible reading, quick thought, prayer and worship song – it doesn’t replace the need to do other stuff but it’s a great help to get going.
- Prayer is a choice
Once we accept prayer is good for us but shake off the taboo about the fact that we’re not much good at it, we ultimately need to decide to crack on and do it. Then when we fail, as we will, decide again to do it with the support of others.
There is no way around the fact that prayer is a choice and is hard work.
At the weekend I had the opportunity to share part of my story through an interview at the CVM men’s annual gathering. That meant talking to 2000 people. As I waited for my moment, one of the guys from church, leaned across and asked if he could pray for me. I was really moved that he did that and by what he prayed. It would have been much easier to do nothing. When the thought about praying for me popped into his head he could have decided not to. But he chose to pray.
So let’s choose to pray. Let’s talk honestly with each other about it. Let’s use the tools that are there to help us but let’s not wait for a prayer epiphany, let’s come to God as we are and through prayer let him do something more with our lives.