I began my life with God privately, a thirteen-year-old in my room at night, pouring out my concerns and wishes to a God I didn’t know and begging Him to be real.
Ironically, that was probably the best prayer time in my entire life. Back then I knew I didn’t have a clue about God or life. Back then I didn’t understand the Bible I had pulled off my shelf in an effort to find some missing piece.
Now I know what that piece was. Now, after seminary and in the midst of a doctorate program, I assume I got the clue. Intellectually, I know that I still don’t understand completely and that I need God to be real.
But secretly? I think I can do this faith thing on my own. Intense prayer too easily becomes part of the “then” rather than “now.”
No assumption could be more wrong. Anne Lamott says the best two prayers are “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you.” I have uttered both when other words were either unnecessary or unavailable.
But what about the in-between times? Are there ways all of us can ignite our prayer life that get us out of the twin ruts of guilt and sameness? With peoples’ different learning styles, communication styles, and attention spans, routines work for some but not for many others. So here are a few prayer “assists” that suit our varying temperaments.
Pray by the pen
Focus is one of my biggest issues. I can be praying earnestly for a friend, but then — oh look: a pile of laundry or an article idea or a Facebook post. Like the disciples, I can too easily fall asleep on the job rather than pay attention (Matthew 26:40).
So I pondered: When do I find myself completely focused on a task? The answer came easily: when I’m writing. So why not write prayers? One small purple notebook later, pages are filled with names and notes about particular needs. It doesn’t have to be a dissertation; I never write out what I’m praying. As I listen to God, He brings these names and needs to my mind, and I write simple words as reminders.
I also used to feel guilt if I didn’t pray for everyone and everything on my list. Now, once I fill a page with whomever and whatever God brings to mind, I’m done. I trust Him to know who needs it most today. This works well for a person like me whose brain is connected to her pen and wanders off easily otherwise. As long as the pen is moving, I’m praying.
Pray by the book
In Mike Breen’s book Building a Discipling Culture, he suggests using six phrases from the Lord’s Prayer as a filter for each prayer.
Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
May your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.
Give us today the food we need,
and forgive us our sins, as we have forgiven those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation, but rescue us from the evil one (Matthew 6:9-13).
How will this request honor God’s name? How will it fulfill the kingdom coming on earth? Is it a part of someone’s daily needs?
“God, please let Linda honor your name today in her situation.” “God, please use Jim to advance your kingdom today in his work with refugees. Stop the hindrances to what he does.” “God, Julie needs her daily bread today — in the form of a car payment. Bring help to her.”
It keeps my prayers grounded in Jesus’ words and priorities.
We can also plead with God to use us for each of these phrases: “God, show me how to supply someone’s daily bread today.” This type of prayer works well for those who get overwhelmed with not knowing how to pray or what to pray for.
People who are born organizers appreciate the regularity of praying by the book, whether this one or another. Choose a new devotional or a classic of the ages like The Book of Common Prayer. Pray through with the prompts given and add your own. For analytical people, it provides needed regulation they enjoy.
For some of us, routine is key: “In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly” (Psalm 5:3).
Pray by sight
Pray your Facebook friends page, a few per day. Look at those profile pictures and ask God to bless them with His will and ways. Focusing on individual photos engages our visual imagination as well as our compassion.
Paul repeatedly tells us to pray for others, and Jesus included our enemies on that list. In fact, Paul covers a lot of these prayer basics here: “Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere” (Ephesians 6:18, NLT).
You can use other photos too. Google the news images for the day and pray over them. Walk through your family photos on the wall and pray. Even look at drawings of Jesus’ life and ask God to make you more like whatever He’s doing in the picture. For those who like to “see” what they pray, this method pulls them deeper.
A visual and artistic person may find it easier to focus if they draw their prayers or create beautiful images from the Scripture verses they are reading. As you draw, pray over the words or images you create, and ask God to use you to fill needs in His kingdom and others’ lives that require your creative touch.
Pray by hands and feet
For those who learn by moving, let movement remind you to pray. Thank God for the day He has made as soon as you hit that alarm button. (For some of us, morning gratitude may take a few minutes. That’s OK.) Ask for cleansing and forgiveness as you wash your face. Thank Him for provision, and present your needs as you eat breakfast.
Ask for direction as you drive to work or the store, and plead for others you see all those around you at either place. Thank God for His gift of your body and ask for endurance for His tasks while you exercise or walk the kids to school.
If we are to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18), what better way than to practice prayer in our daily movements.
Many people can concentrate only when they are on the go, so this method helps them focus on God. This is also a good option for parents of young children, as they find it a challenge to get fifteen minutes of silence alone with God. It also models a life of prayer and dependence for those children to see.
Pray by ear
I am definitely not an audio learner. I figured that out early when teachers wanted to read stories to the class, and I just wanted to grab the book and go off into a corner to read it myself.
But if you do learn by hearing, how about listening to Scripture and then praying through it? Listen to a passage, then thank God for the truths in it and His gift of it to you. Ask Him to apply it to your life today and to help you bless others with its meaning.
Audio learners should also try praying out loud, connecting brain and words, retaining that crucial focus. We can take a cue from the psalmists, who were familiar with the power of outspoken prayer: “I cried out to him with my mouth; his praise was on my tongue” (Psalm 66:17).
Pray without words
Sometimes we find it hard to hear from God because we won’t be quiet. All of us need some time when we unplug from everything that beeps, whistles, and dings. Ask God to help you drop the distractions and accept whatever He sends your way.
When we don’t have words, we are tempted not to pray. But God suggests this is the best time: “The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Romans 8:26).
Sometimes I’ll sit down with one prayer agenda, and I’ll finish with quite another. God delights in occasionally hijacking us. Having your prayers hijacked by God is the best kind of prayer you’ll ever know. We may know the promise of Jeremiah: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know” (Jeremiah 33:3).
I have struggled with prayer most of my Christian life. Lack of time. Lack of focus. Lack of trust. Lack of effort. And I know I’m not alone. We can lessen the chance of discouragement if we try praying in ways that suit who we are and fit how God wired us. He knows if He made you an artist, a writer, or an organizer at heart. He put your best “tuning in” instrument in your eyes, ears, or feet for a reason.
C. S. Lewis said, “I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
As a part of our “now,” prayer does that work of change.
Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, unless otherwise noted.
Dr. Jill Richardson pastors in suburban Chicago, as well as does writing and speaking. Her doctorate is in Church Leadership in a Changing Context, with a focus on the next generation and preaching. Her passion is to work with the next generation to create a healthy, just church. Jill has three grown daughters. She enjoys traveling, gardening, volunteering with World Relief, and a good cup of Earl Grey. She lives in Warrenville, IL.