by Kel Willis
Interact Magazine 2006
Volume 17 Number 3
How do you spend a whole day in prayer? I mean, what do you do? Don’t you run out of things to pray about? Aren’t you bored?
The thought of spending such a long time in prayer is a bit daunting for many Christians. Not only have some of them never done it before, but they don’t know anyone else who has done it either. In the final analysis, however, I suspect it is not so much that they are unwilling to pray, but that they are not convinced of the value of doing so, and wouldn’t know how to go about it in any case.
On the other hand there are those who have grown up with a church tradition of Wednesday night prayer meetings and half nights of prayer who seem to evidence little or no desire to pray. One has to ask why this is so. Is it because there is no hunger for God and no passion for the lost, or is it that many have come to see prayer as boring and unproductive? Perhaps it is because we as pastors and leaders have been unhelpful models of prayer and are uncertain about some of these issues ourselves. Surely what should motivate us to pray is a hunger to know God better and to see his kingdom extended, with the conviction that spending time in prayer will make the difference.
Most of us want to attend healthy churches, but I wonder if we have thought through the implications of that desire. Healthy churches are made up of healthy Christians and none of us can be that without a vital prayer life. Through our relationship with Jesus, God has given us the immense privilege of enjoying fellowship with him. We are told that because we have been sanctified in Christ, and God has perfected his work of salvation within us, we have access right into his presence (Heb 10:10-22). Think for a moment about what a great privilege that is. God wants us to spend time with him so that we can deepen our relationship. All of us need to intentionally commit to learn how to develop our prayer lives as a part of the process of our own spiritual growth and effective involvement with God in his church.
One of the most fulfilling and refreshing things I do is to periodically take time out to pray and evaluate my life and ministry. For me, this means withdrawing from the busyness of life, the demands of others and the pressures of my particular role, and spending extended time with God. This is an exceedingly rewarding exercise; it not only results in spiritual refreshing, but also allows me to order my thinking about my personal life and ministry in a way that few other situations will allow. It is a time to reflect on my walk with God, my relationships and my ministry. I evaluate my recent activities past activities, and think through plans for the future and strategies to achieve them. I also pray through issues on which I need clarity and find direction for dealing with difficulties. It seems to me that these benefits alone would be sufficient to motivate us to want to plan uninterrupted time with God.
Learning from the giants of the faith
As a young Christian I spent a lot of time reading the stories of the great Christian leaders of the past. It was a stimulating exercise. I was challenged by their passion and commitment and I encourage you to read the biographies of the giants of the faith. Common to all of them was their commitment to significant peiods of prayer.
Most of us have heard the name of AW Tozer, well known for his preaching ministry and his books that have influenced generations of Christian leaders. I recall reading The Pursuit of God and being impacted by his simple message and example. He lived, preached and wrote out of long hours spent in prayer. Another was Hudson Taylor—one of the great missionary leaders of the last century. Believing that men were moved by God through prayer, he spent long periods praying for people and seeing God do great things as a result. Others like George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, George Mueller, David Brainard and Andrew Murray were all convinced that extended times in prayer were vital for the growing Christian and the spiritual health of the church.
There are also many biblical examples. Nehemiah (Neh.1:4) in his grief over Israel and the destruction of Jerusalem said, ‘When I heard these things, I sat down and wept for some days and mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.’ King Jehosephat, when confronted by the invaders who threatened Jerusalem, called the people to prayer and fasting (2 Chron.20:3). In the New Testament we have the example of our Lord Jesus who often withdrew to spend time with the Father for rest and recharging (Matt.4:2). The New Testament church was said to be ‘devoted to prayer’ (Acts 2:42).
For many of us, our prayer life consists of a 10 minute slot (or is that being generous?!) in our regular devotions. This is a far cry from Paul’s evident commitment to see vital prayer as an integral part of all that he did. This is a constant theme of the Pauline Epistles and any study of Paul’s own prayers will encourage us to be more committed to it. He prayed for spiritual discernment and growth. He asked God to enable the church to not only comprehend the truth, but to know how to appropriate it. (Col.1:9-11; Eph.1:15-20).
I am always amazed when someone asks me why they should bother doing this Perhaps behind their question is ‘What’s in it for me?’ There are a number of reasons why I spend the extra time with God.
a) To learn how to pray
I suspect that all of us are on a journey in this realm, and praying more effectively is the goal of every person with a heart to know God in a deeper and richer way. Spending extended time with him is a learning process, not only in working out how to spend that time, but in making it an increasing part of our walk with him. One of the best ways to learn to pray is by doing it! I encourage you to read through Paul’s epistles and note every time he speaks of prayer. Try to understand what he is teaching and ask the Holy Spirit to give you the ability to grasp these truths and put them into practice.
b) To practise the different kinds of prayer
In Ephesians 6:19 we are encouraged to ‘pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests’. There are prayers of worship, praise and thanksgiving. There are prayers of confession, petition, supplication and intercession. All of these are an important part of the Christian’s prayer life and ministry.
In a short period of prayer the time factor alone makes it difficult to fully engage in it. We are certainly limited in our ability to really engage with God in ‘different kinds of prayers’. We need to take time for praise and worship, to catch something of the responsive heart of King David when he wrote, ‘Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise.’ The more time we spend with God and through his Word grow in our understanding of his wonder and majesty, the more we will comprehend his wonderful redemptive work, and the more our hearts will be responsive in worship and adoration.
c) To discover the mind of God
The will of God for our lives is primarily about what he is seeking to do in and through us and is clearly revealed in his Word. We know for example that God’s purpose for us as believers is that we grow to be like Jesus (Rom. 8:28,29) and that we are called to be participating members of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:11-16). We know that the heart of God aches for the lost and that ours should too. Knowing the will of God for these things is relatively easy. However, spending time with him allows us to listen to what he is saying to us. He will primarily speak through his Word and by his Spirit. He will bring to us convictions about the issues we lay before him.
There are often times when we find ourselves confused about what course of action to take. I imagine the church at Antioch was a bit confused when its two key ministry leaders suggested that perhaps it was time to leave and take the gospel to the Gentiles, and so they spent an extended time in prayer and fasting, seeking together the mind of God on the matter (Acts 13:2). When Paul and Barnabas saw the need to appoint elders in the newly established churches, they spent extended time with God seeking his will (Acts14:23). Peter was in prayer when God told him to take a new and bold step, that of sharing the gospel with the Gentiles (Acts 10:9-23). James tells us that if we lack wisdom we are to ask of God who will respond by giving us the capacity to know his wisdom. John encourages us to have confidence in prayer when we have discovered God’s will and pray accordingly (John 5:14).
I find in these extended periods of prayer that lots of issues are clarified. As we follow the convictions he gives, God works on our behalf. This is especially so in program planning, seeking vision, strategy and wisdom for dealing with difficult situations in our churches, and in crisis times when we need to see real deliverance.
d) To exercise spiritual warfare
Sometimes in the ministry of the church we become aware that there is more to an issue than what is seen on the surface. There are times when people seem to intentionally undermine the work or when there is an underlying resistance to the message. At times the resistance is obviously a spiritual attack on the work of God. In our church there are a number of people from other faiths like Hindus, Buddhists and so on. This year as some of them have responded to the gospel there has been real spiritual opposition. Of course this is not new or even unexpected, for we are engaging in spiritual warfare. In Ephesians 6 we are clearly told that it isn’t visible human opposition that we are to be concerned with, but the rulers, the authorities, the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil (Eph. 6:12).
We do not deal with this kind of opposition through dependence on human wisdom, but through applying the principles of spiritual warfare, and these include sustained prayer for wisdom and insight, for the strengthening of God and the exercising of his authority through prayer and the ministry of his Word.
e) To be spiritually refreshed
Sometimes when the battle is raging and we are intensively engaged, we feel emotionally rung out and physically exhausted, but one of the great things about spending time with God is that we become spiritually refreshed and renewed in spirit, mind and body. This is the promise of Isaiah 40:31. We pray in the enabling of God through the strength that he gives (2 Cor. 9:8). Spending an extended period alone with God or in the company of a group of likeminded people is an exceedingly rewarding exercise.
What do I need to do beforehand?
Be it a night of prayer, a few hours with a small group or time alone for extended prayer, it is essential that the time be well planned or it will be in danger of getting bogged down. Those involved will pray longer prayers because they feel responsible to keep it going. The sense of purpose becomes easily lost and results in discouragement as the participants begin to do their own thing. One reason people find prayer hard work is that they find it difficult to maintain focus and their minds begin to drift. Planning makes the difference!
a) Plan the place
Choosing somewhere quiet where you will not be interrupted or distracted is important. I love the Australian bush. One of my friends goes to a quiet cabin on the beach. If you are praying as a group, it is equally important to be sure that the location is conducive.
b) Plan what you take
My usual list includes my Bible and notebook with a pen and coloured pencils for marking my Bible. I plan what I am going to read, usually a small section of no more than ten chapters that I want to read through and meditate on. I also take a book that I am working through. Taking food and drink will depend on whether or not I intend to fast.
How do I go about it?
a) Focus on God
It’s helpful to divide the time into sections. For me, spending time in worship, praise and thanksgiving is a good place to start. This affirming what I know about the wonder of God, his majesty, his character, his love and commitment to humanity and to me personally. I want to affirm and identify with his desire for the church and the lost world.
b) Read and ask God for insight
After a time of worship and listening to God I ask him to open my eyes to his truth as I read the chosen Scriptures. Then I read them with the expectation of discovery, writing down what I have discovered and then meditate on it through the day.
c) Take time to listen
In our prayer lives we don’t need to be talking all the time! Take time to listen to God as he impresses upon you his truth, his purpose and his love for you. Think of the passages you have read. Other Scriptures will come to mind. Mull them over and ask God to develop your understanding. Psalm 1 tells us that the blessed person meditates on God’s Word.
d) Ask God to help you in your praying
This time away is different from my normal devotional life. Usually I have committed to this extended time for a reason. It may be just to find spiritual refreshing or it may be to help in developing vision. A big part of my role is mentoring pastors, so I want to know how I should pray for them and their families. It may be that there are issues in my church or wider ministry in which I need to see God’s intervention, so I ask him to lead and guide me in my prayers. This is a really helpful thing to do if you are part of a group of people committed to prayer. It helps the group depend upon God and focus on specific prayers, rather than nebulous ones with no obvious goal. The best way to do this is to make a list of what you are asking God to do.
e) Pray through the list
Again it’s important to wait on God. Listen to his encouragement as you pray, be open to new directions and new vision. When praying for the church I sometimes read the prayers of Paul and request the same for the churches I am working with.
f) Pray for your own spiritual growth
This means a time of evaluation and openness to God. The Psalmist invited God to search him and know his heart! Affirm your conviction that God is more committed to you than you are to him. I have found it helpful to divide my life into four areas and when I spend time away in prayer, I evaluate each of them: my personal life and walk with God, my family relationships, my relationships with the wider Christian and non-Christian community, and my ministry. Evaluating these on a regular basis is a very healthy and productive thing to do.
g) Spend time in thanksgiving
Paul encourages us to pray with the anticipation that God will answer. Philippians 4:6 simply says, ‘Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.’
If you have never spent an extended time in prayer, don’t start with a whole day or night. Start with a manageable time like an hour or two. When you find this is not enough, add more time, but be sure to plan it well. Just a word of caution: spending more time in prayer doesn’t prove you are a more spiritual person! What is important is your motive to grow in your walk with God and coming to grips with the ministry of prayer being part of what should be normal to the people of God. Take the plunge and plan some extended prayer time, either alone or with a group of like-minded people. It will be an enjoyable and productive experience!
© Kel Willis ( 2006)