The Practice of Private Prayer

Private prayer is a difficult occupation. Our communication with God is vital. Therefore, the devil aims to keep us from it in any way he can. Not only that, the world tells us that we are foolish to believe in and pray to an invisible God, and our flesh is weak and undisciplined. The most common form of distraction is busyness in life, work and ministry. Especially in church work, there is always more that can be done. The next sermon or newsletter article is always waiting to be written, someone always needs a visit or a phone call, the last Session meeting must be followed up and the next one prepared. There is so much to do and think about that it is very easy to justify skipping private prayer in order to “get on with God’s business.” We justify ourselves, thinking that doing God’s work is more important than communicating with the God of the work. Often it is because we believe we see more tangible results from work than from prayer, when in fact, prayer connects us with God, who is the source of any lasting result in our work. Martin Luther once told a friend that he had so much to do the next day he had to get up earlier to pray longer in order to accomplish all that he had to do. Therefore, we must make an appointment each day with God as part of our plan for the day or it will get pushed out of our schedule. Even five minutes a day is better than nothing. We must make an appointment until we can’t live without it.

My practice has been primarily to write my prayers in a journal. I began years ago writing them by hand but mostly switched to the computer in recent years. Writing my prayers has several benefits. First, it helps me clarify what I’m thinking and feeling. Emotions are fleeting, jumbled and confused much of the time. When I write, I take the time to sort out one emotion from another. For example, am I feeling angry, sad, disappointed or joyful? I bring those feelings to God for his ministry. Then, sometimes as in many of the Psalms, they turn into praise of God because he is the only answer to my problems. Thoughts are similar. As I write them out, they become clearer. I bring them before God. Second, it helps me organize my thoughts. I don’t try to put them in a particular order as I write, but when I look at what I’ve written I see patterns and recurring themes in my thoughts and feelings that I can seek God about. Third, it serves as a spiritual diary. I can look back to what was happening in my heart a year ago, a month ago, or during the past week, to see how God is working in my life. If I’m still struggling with the same thing, I ask God to show me why and try to go deeper in that area. Fourth, it allows me to recall what I’ve prayed for so that I can give thanks when my prayers are answered. Many of the Psalms recall the psalmists’ previous requests and give thanks to God for his mercies in answering those prayers. If I don’t write them down I often forget what I’ve asked for and don’t give thanks where it is due. I have done this now for so long I really miss it when I don’t make the time to do it.

One of my goals for the future is to speak my private prayers more often, to combine writing with speaking. I have tended to resist speaking my prayers because of the several benefits of writing noted above as well as the possibility of being overheard by others with me in the house or office. Following are some of the benefits of speaking my prayers. First, there is a greater sense of immediacy. It is like the difference between writing someone a letter or email and actually talking with them in person or on the phone. It is communication right now, not something waiting in the mailbox to be read later and to be responded to even later yet. Moreover, speaking out loud emphasizes to me the fact that God’s presence is really with me. He is not in some remote location that requires writing. He hears and speaks and acts, sometimes right away. Second, there is a greater sense of pathos when speaking. The best I can do to emphasize a point when writing is to use various fonts or underlining, while when speaking I can raise or lower the volume or pitch of my voice, or I can speak more rapidly or slowly, among other things. Hearing the pathos in my own voice helps me realize my condition, whether I’m buoyant or flat, clear or dull, thankful or thankless, repentant or obstinate, so that I can bring that to God and let him deal with it. Third, spoken prayers can be done more quickly and in various locations. They don’t require turning on the computer, sitting down, or even total quiet (though that is helpful). I can spend a brief time praying aloud if I have only a short while, or I can do it while I am walking about the room, the house, or the neighborhood.

Categories: Articles, Seminary writings

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