For years, when I thought about prayer, I mostly felt guilty for my lack of a robust prayer life. Reading stories of great saints praying for two hours a day or more left me with a gnawing sense of defeat. I would often resolve to pray more. But the resolves didn’t last.
One day I realized that something had changed. While not exactly satisfied with my prayer life, I knew that I had one. I’m sure that I still don’t pray as much as I should. But I pray a lot more than I used to. And I’ve tried to think about why. What changed? On one level, of course, whatever prayer life I have is the fruit of God’s grace. He gets the credit. But God uses means. The Spirit’s work doesn’t bypass our thoughts, feelings, habits, and desires. No, he works in and through all these aspects of our personhood.
When I think about my prayer life in these terms, two kinds of things bubble to the surface. On one hand, I can identify certain things that happen inside of me that often trigger prayer. And on the other hand, there are several tools I’ve discovered that have helped me form better habits in prayer. This post is on the triggers. The next will be on the tools.
“You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” Augustine’s famous prayer is my biography in a sentence. I first felt the sharp stab of desire as a child. I remember hearing a beautiful song that made me feel I hardly know what. It made me both happy and sad. It evoked longings I didn’t know I had and had no labels for. As I grew older, the longings became more acute.
We all feel this existential ache one way or another. C. S. Lewis wrote about this longing, calling it “the truest index of our real situation.” The problem, of course, is that we usually mistake the object of our true desire. We try to slake our thirst with personal success, sexual fulfillment, meaningful relationships, the accumulation of cool stuff, and the approval of others. We forsake the fountain of living waters and try to drink from broken cisterns that can hold no water. But the ache remains. And that ache is one of the key triggers for prayer. In the words of the Psalmist,
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.
The second trigger that drives me to prayer is guilt. I don’t mean feeling guilty if I don’t pray. I mean the conviction I feel for having sinned against God and others. To echo a confession that Robert Murray M’Cheyne made in one of his letters, “None but God knows what an abyss of corruption is in my heart.” Anyone who truly knows their own heart can say the same. I suppose I’ve prayed more prayers of confession than anything else. I’m so grateful for Psalm 51 and the other penitential psalms. These psalms, along with the promises of divine forgiveness, remind us that we don’t have to wallow in guilt or stay in our sins. With the tax-collector in Luke 18:13, we can pray, “God, be merciful to me a sinner!”
Perhaps nothing has helped my prayer life more than the pressure of difficult and painful circumstances. We call it stress, but the biblical word is “trial.” Sometimes our circumstances are almost unbearable. We feel like we’re about to sink. That’s why one of my favorite prayers in Scripture comes from the lips of Peter as he sinks beneath the waves: “Lord, save me!” It’s short, simple, and to the point. But for someone desperate for help, it’s enough.
On one level, trials are – well – stressful! But when we can embrace our trials as instruments in our Father’s hands, intended for our good, they can lead us into a deeper dependence on him. In the words of an old hymn,
Trials make the promise sweet
Trials give new life to prayer
Trials bring me at his feet
Lay me low and keep me there.
Another motivation that triggers prayer is love. I especially have in mind love and compassion for others. When Paul asked the believers in Rome to pray for him, he appealed to their love, a fruit of the Spirit’s work in their hearts. Love is the most effective spur to intercessory prayer.
As a pastor, I get a front row seat to people’s deepest needs and problems. More often than not, I feel inadequate to meet those needs. But I’m learning that the best way to love them is to pray for them, to ask the One whose sufficiency knows no bounds to meet their needs according to his riches in Christ.
One more trigger for prayer is gratitude. I should feel much more gratitude than I do. As M’Cheyne, whom I quoted above, said in a wonderful poem:
When I stand before the throne,
Dressed in beauty not my own,
When I see thee as thou art,
Love thee with unsinning heart,
Then, Lord, shall I fully know –
Not till then – how much I owe.
Like M’Cheyne, I know that I don’t fully realize how much I owe to the Lord’s kindness and grace. But sometimes I get a glimpse – often on the heels of a fresh sight of my sinful heart and the Lord’s unfailing grace and mercy in my life, and gratitude overflows into joyful thanks.
Longing, guilt, stress, love, and gratitude. There is nothing unique about these feelings. This is the ordinary stuff out of which all of our internal lives are made. But what I have slowly learned is to let these ordinary feelings be my starting place for prayer.
If you want to grow in your prayer life, just start where you are.
Does your soul throb with the dull ache for something more? Take it to God. Is your conscience stained with the memories of yesterday’s sins? Bring them to Jesus. Are you worried about a loved one’s health? Anxious about how you’ll make ends meet this month? Unburden your heart to the Father.
Wherever you are, whatever you’re facing, start there. Bring your needs to the throne of grace, and you will have a prayer life.
Brian G. Hedges is the lead pastor for Fulkerson Park Baptist Church in Niles Michigan, and the author of several books including Active Spirituality: Grace and Effort in the Christian Life. Brian and his wife Holly have four children and live in South Bend, Indiana. Brian also blogs at www.brianghedges.com and you can follow him on Twitter @brianghedges.
Augustine, Confessions, Bk. 1, Ch. 1
C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory (HarperCollins, 2009), p. 42
Andrew A. Bonar, ed., Memoirs & Remains of Robert Murray M’Cheyne (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2004 reprint of 1844 edition) p. 637. Robert Murray M’Cheyne was a 19th century Scottish minister renowned for his earnest pursuit of holiness.
William Cowper, “Welcome Cross”
See Romans 15:30
From his poem, “I am Debtor,” quoted in Bonar, ed., Memoirs & Remains, p. 637.