12. Prayer: The Inner Life of a Disciple

Can you imagine walking and living with Jesus day after day and never having a conversation with him? Can you imagine a family never communicating? A married couple? Partners in a business? Of course not! If discipleship involves a deep, personal, long-term relationship with God in Christ, following Jesus day-by-day and learning from him, then disciples are required to learn to commune with God through Christ.

Prayer is the vital communication link that permits our relationship with God to grow and deepen. Just as a relationship with spouse continues to evolve and grow over time, we never reach the end of growth in our prayer life. Our relationship with God grows, changes, and deepens as our walk with God grows and deepens day-by-day. In this way, our relationship with God is no different than our relationship with any other person: We must take time to be in communion with another person.

When I first became a Christian, I had trouble learning to pray. Over the years, I found that the best way to learn to pray is to just pray, learning at each stage of discipleship what you need to move forward in the life of prayer. No one can ever learn all there is to know about communicating with God, just as no person can ever know all there is to know about human communication. What we can know is something we can put into practice today! If we continue to open our lives to the Spirit of God, we will grow in our prayer life.

We live in a post-Christian society. Many people did not grow up in Christian homes with parents helping them learn to pray. They never attended Sunday School or Vacation Bible School. They never prayed in church with other members of the congregation. They never experienced the prayers of family, friends, or fellow church members. Even those who grew up in Christian homes may never have seen and heard their parents and friends pray. Many of these people live in a “soulless would” in which there is no room for a God of Love who cares for them and wants to get to know them. They grew up thinking that a material universe is all there is or can be.

For these people, prayer can be a foreign experience. Nevertheless, in times of suffering and pain, most people cry out for help, even from the God they do not know, but whose character is written upon their hearts. (In fact, this instinctive human propensity to pray is one reason for believing there is a personal God.) It is not that people do not have the capacity to pray or the inner inclination to pray. [1] They do. The problem is that they have never developed a personal relationship with God such that they can lift up their needs to God in a natural way. Once such people open their hearts to God, their God-given capacity for prayer can be developed and enhanced. Maturity in the life of the Spirit is dependent upon moving from a state of prayer immaturity to prayer maturity.

Even among Christians who know something of prayer, many are reluctant to pray. Prayer is an act of self-revelation. Some people are afraid of what they might say. Others are afraid that they will not be able to pray as well as a professional, such as a pastor or group leader. These fears can deprive people of a vibrant prayer life. Opening up in honest prayer in front of family, friends, fellow church members, and others can be as embarrassing as being seen without clothes on. Our False Self—our façade of control, of capacity to solve our own problems—must come down for us to learn to pray honestly concerning our fears, faults and failures. [2] There is no hiding who we are in honest prayer.

A Disciple is a Person of Prayer

Like discipleship itself, prayer is not something we learn about, it is something we learn to do. Like all skills, no one begins his or her life of prayer as an accomplished prayer. Instead, by trial and error, long experience, praying well and badly, rightly and wrongly, maturely and immaturely, slowly but surely our prayer life grows. This has been my experience, and I think it has been the experience of most Christians. In prayer, like pitching a baseball, you begin learning to just throw a simple fastball, and then you improve your game.

As a result, it is important in prayer, as with any skill, to keep practicing and keep learning. A disciple needs to be a person of prayer, and a disciple of fifty years should be a better person of prayer than a disciple of fifteen minutes—and they will be if they just keep on praying. A few years ago, I went on an eight-day silent retreat. For a week about twenty-five of us did nothing but pray silently. We prayed in groups, alone, in journals, on walks, while running, etc. We prayed prayers from Scripture, in writing, and in silent contemplation of God. Once a day we prayed out loud in worship. Believe me, forty years ago, I could not have endured such a long period of silence and prayer.

Learning to Pray

Most Christians learn to pray by watching someone else pray. People born into Christian homes, learn to pray hearing parents pray at meals or at bedtime. Before long, we were saying our prayers just before we went to bed. As we attended Church with our parents, we listened to the pastor pray and prayed from a bulletin or prayer book. In Sunday School we heard prayers, and then learned to pray ourselves. Perhaps we saw our parents praying in difficult circumstances or over difficult decisions. As we matured, we learned to pray under the pressure of difficult times of life.

This description of the way people learn to pray alerts us to the need for mature Christians to help new Christians, and especially those who grew up in non-Christian homes, to learn to pray. As important as books, tapes, video’s, classes, and other opportunities to learn to pray are nothing can take the place of a personal relationship with another human being who models prayer for a new or growing Christian.

Prayer involves a personal relationship with God and is best taught within the context of a personal relationship with another person. This can be a family member, friend, a small group leader, a Sunday School teacher, a pastor or anyone else who prays regularly.

When I was a new Christian, I was good at reading my Bible, attending church, and being involved in certain ministries. I was not good at praying. I am naturally an active person. Sitting silently, praying, and listening for God was (and is) hard for me. Therefore, I did what people who like to read do: I bought a book, Prayer, by George A. Buttrick. [3] It did not take long to realize that reading a 300-page book was not likely to improve my prayer life. Therefore, I took a different tactic. I just started praying.

Then, I found a short guide to prayer that focused on adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and personal requests (supplication), the so-called “ACTS method” of prayer. I listened to people pray who were in Bible studies I attended. Several years later, I was part of an early morning prayer group that met for a couple of years during a difficult time in an organization we were a part of. This group stretched and improved my prayer life. In seminary, a group of us met weekly for prayer and had prayer partners. Once in ministry, I developed habits of prayer that continue to this day. In a tough period in ministry, I started another prayer discipline: that of praying the scriptures and a kind of Christian contemplation on Christ. One summer, I want away for an eight-day silent time of prayer, wanting to further deepen a prayer relationship with God. More recently, I began keeping a long prayer list. Sometimes, I write out prayers in my journal. All these disciplines did not come naturally or easily. They just appeared at the right time in my life of discipleship. The same thing is true of nearly all Christians. What disciple-makers must do is get a person started in the life of prayer.

Jesus and Prayer

Jesus had a simple method for teaching his disciples to pray: he prayed. Jesus prayed at every turning point in his life and ministry. Matthew tells us that, after Jesus fed the 5000, he went out alone and prayed: “After he had dismissed his disciples, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray” (Matt. 14: 23). At the end of his life, Jesus prayed for release from the momentous task ahead of him. Mark describes it this way: “Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:35-36). From the beginning to the end of his earthly ministry, Jesus was a person of prayer.

His disciples recognized that prayer was the secret of Jesus’ unusual wisdom goodness, and power. Therefore, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). In response to their request, he taught them what has always been considered the model prayer. By the time of the Sermon on the Mount, the disciples had been with Jesus for a while. They had seen miracles, healings, exorcisms, and the like. They had heard his teachings and his preaching. They had eaten a lot of meals together. They had experienced his hidden, secret, silent power. They had seen him pray and go away to be alone in prayer. They had noticed that Jesus was a person of prayer, and somehow his prayer life was deeply a part of who he was and his mission and ministry. Therefore, it was natural that they should ask him to teach them to pray.

In response, Jesus provided them (and us) with a few basic things to remember. He begins with some general instructions:

  • First, our prayers are to be directed to God. Jesus prayed to his Heavenly Father. This does not mean that we cannot use different words to refer to the One True God, the Father Almighty, the Maker of Heaven and Earth. We can pray to God, the Eternal God, the Almighty, God the Healer, the Triune God, the One Who Is, and the like. We can direct our prayers to Jesus and the Holy Spirit, but we must remember that we are directing all those prayers to the Triune God whom Jesus called, “Father.” In particular, we don’t pray to other god’s, natural forces, new age figures, crystals, or the like, Just the God of Love revealed in Christ.
  • Second, we should pray from the heart. Jesus tells his disciples to pray in secret (Matthew 6:6). He does so to remind them (and us) not to pray to show off, show how spiritual we are, try to gain the praise of other people, show off our personal prayer language, or for any reason other than to communicate with God. Although we use our minds as we pray, it is our heart connecting to the heart of God that is at stake in prayer. This is why silent prayer and contemplative prayers are still prayers: our human heart is connecting with the divine heart of God.
  • Third, we should be careful about “babbling” (Matt. 6:7). We should not pray words just to be seen praying words, nor should we think that we are going to get a better response from God just because we use a lot of words. Christians should pray rationally, that is reasonably. We should be careful not to pray nonsense or repeat a request 1000 times, hoping to force God’s hand. We should not make our prayer life a time of emotional self-exposure, irrational, or showing off. If occasionally overcome with emotion, we pray an especially emotional prayer, that’s fine. If on occasion we repeat a phrase or a request, that is fine. If we have a deep prayer for a family member or ourselves that we must pray over and over for years, that is fine. Jesus’ instructions were not meant to be hard and fast rules, but things to do and avoid doing.

The Two Tablets of the Lord’s Prayer

Having given some basic teaching on what prayer should be like, Jesus gave his disciples (and us) an example in a prayer we all know as the Lord’s Prayer. [4]  In its historic form it goes like this:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy Name. Thy Kingdom come, 
Thy will be done. On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those that trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. 
For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, 
For ever and ever.  Amen. [5]

Pastors, scholars and others have noticed that it is possible to understand the prayer as divided into two halves, much like the Ten Commandments, with one half being about our relationship with God and the other half being about ourselves and our needs. [6] It begins by invoking “Our Father who art in Heaven.” This is meant to indicate that we are not praying to a force, to an impersonal deity, but to a person, our Heavenly Father who loves us and who can be trusted to hear our prayers. Because God is personal, we believe he hears and responds to prayers, even of the answer is “no” or “not yet.”

When we pray “Hallowed Be Thy Name,” we are recognizing and invoking the God who gave us his Name on Mt. Sinai and who is absolutely holy and who we should recognize as absolutely holy. This means that God is wholly other, different from us, not under our control, and not subject our complete scrutiny. In the end, we cannot fully understand God. We can only worship God. God’s holiness also means that God is uncontaminated by sin, self-interest at the expense of others, and limitations or flaws. Therefore, God can be trusted to hear and respond to our prayers in love.

Second, we pray for God’s Kingdom to come “on earth as it is in Heaven.” This is where the Gospel and discipleship begin to enter into our prayers in an important way. When we pray for God’s Kingdom to come we are praying that God’s mercy, wisdom, justice, peace, and love would come into our broken world. We pray that old divisions be healed, that wars cease, that the poor, widows, and others in need be taken care of, that those unjustly imprisoned be released, that those who are being treated unfairly be treated fairly. We pray that our world would become like heaven itself. This is a time when we can speak to God about big issues, war, peace, government, and the like. Jesus came proclaiming the Kingdom of God, and every day we should pray for that kingdom to come to us in some way that day.

Third, having prayed to God for big things, we pray for ourselves. When we pray for our daily bread, we pray for the necessities of life. We pray for the things we need for ourselves, our family, our friends, our neighbors, and those we love and care about. This prayer brings our faith into the very smallest, ordinary, common needs of our life. We all need clothing, food, shelter, family wholeness, and other things.

Fourth, we pray to forgive those who have wronged us. If the first prayers we have are for physical needs, our second prayers are for our moral and emotional needs, our need to be forgiven and to forgive others. Jesus warns his disciples that it is not healthy to hold grudges. It is not healthy not to forgive others. In fact, if we cannot bring ourselves to forgive others, it interferes with our prayers for forgiveness (Matt. 7:14-15). Our personal wholeness is deeply related to achieving relational wholeness with God and others.

Just as those who have wronged us need forgiveness, we also need forgiveness. In this regard, God reminds us that if we expect to be forgiven, we had best get about the business of forgiving others. Since we are all flawed in some way and hurt others, forgiving others is a part of our solidarity with the entire human race filled with fallen, flawed, and finite people, just like us.

Finally, we pray to be delivered from evil. We live in a fallen world, and sin and temptation are ever-present realities. When we pray to be delivered from evil, we are praying that God will rescue us from our own sin and from the sin that surrounds us. Among contemporary Christians, this can be a neglected prayer. We are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as being able to handle the circumstances of life, including those that are less than healthy. This prayer to be delivered from evil is a recognition of the limits of our human goodness and power to resist temptation.

The Power of Prayerfulness

Prayer is part of God meeting our needs. Through prayer, God protects us where we need protection, changes us where we need change, and allows us to be part of bringing God’s kingdom into the world. Most importantly, however, prayer is about building and growing in our relationship with God in Christ. In 2015, I took a sabbatical. Every day that summer, I spent a significant amount of time reading my Bible, reflecting in my journal, contemplating Scripture and the problems of our family and our congregation. More than once, I spent an entire morning praying. It was one of the most important things about the time. It had a big impact on my life and ministry.

Jesus was a person of prayer and so was the apostle Paul. Paul knew firsthand the power of prayer. Here is what he wrote to Timothy, his “child in the Lord” near the end of his life:

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone – for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men – the testimony given in its proper time (I Timothy 2:1-6).

For Paul, prayer was the source of spiritual growth, of political stability, of salvation, of peace. In prayer, the power of God is brought to bear upon the human condition. Paul desired that prayers be made for all people, and especially for those in authority, with the goal that Christians and the rest of the world live in peace. It is particularly important in our prayers that we recognize, as Paul did, that God does not play favorites. God wants all human being to be saved and in a deep relationship of love and wisdom with the Eternal. God wants all human beings to know Christ and the power of the work Christ did on the Cross for all humanity. The Cross was a testimony, revealing to the world God’s message of salvation available for everyone. IT was an act of love and of solidarity between God and the world (John 3:16-17). The life of prayer is fundamentally a process of being drawn as a disciple into the wisdom and love of God for the benefit of the disciple who prays and for the world Christ loves and desires to be in everlasting fellowship with God. Our prayer life, in the last analysis, is a part of the process of being filled with the self-giving, transforming wisdom and love of God.

Prayerfulness and the Crisis of Discipleship

At its foundation, a crisis of discipleship is a crisis of prayer. The power of God is not unleashed into the world by human strategies, human programs, human philosophies, or human actions. The power of God is unleashed through prayer by the power of the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts records that, when the early church prayed, “the place where they were meeting was shaken” (Acts 4:31). When the Holy Spirit comes, the power of God is present, and our lives, families, churches, and communities are shaken by the power of God’s love. This is not a human shaking. It is a shaking produced by the love and wisdom of God entering into the lives of people and into the organizations and situations in which they find themselves.

The churches of the Northern Hemisphere have relied upon cultural support, financial affluence, advertising, charismatic leadership, and a host of human programs rather than upon the Spirit of God. In the era we are now entering, none of those things will enable the church to survive and prosper without prayer and the kind of deep faith that prayer produces. Until then, there will continue to be a crisis of discipleship.

Copyright 2019, G. Christopher Scruggs, All Rights Reserved

[1] One of the most fascinating of the attempts to explain away the spiritual dimension of life is found in the occasional articles that proclaim that a group of scientists have “found the God part of the human brain and now can explain religious experience. Human beings are complex psychosomatic (mind and body) creatures. It is, therefore, to be expected that, for human beings to have any awareness of the transcendent, there must be some physical and mental capacity for such awareness. The capacity to be aware of an object, in this case God, is a requirement for such awareness to develop. See, Sharon Begley, “Science Finds God” https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/newsweek/science_of_god/scienceofgod.htm?noredirect=on (Downloaded July 15, 2019). The very fact that human beings have the capacity for faith in God and for prayer to an unseen God is evidence that there is a reality behind this capacity.

[2] The “False Self” is a construction of the human ego designed to project an acceptable persona to others. This constructed False Self divides a person from the True Self, preventing psychological and spiritual wholeness. The human propensity to create a “False Self” is a coping mechanism resulting from our sense of insecurity and inadequacy, usually stemming from the anxieties of childhood, youth, and adolescence. From a religious perspective, our False Self ultimately derives from alienation from God due to pride and selfishness, unwillingness to accept who God has made us, and failure to recognize God’s ultimate trustworthiness to redeem and bless his creatures and creation. Example: I lift up myself because I am prideful but I try to not let my pride show. This is a false representation of who I am. I am a prideful sinner and I hope to not reveal this truth to others.

[3] George A. Buttrick, Prayer (Nashville, TN: Cokesbury/Abingdon Press, 1942). It is still in print, but it is often reproduced in small type. Its style is dated to a time when people liked longer paragraphs and more complex writing than most of us enjoy today. Several years ago, I tried to read it again and had great difficulty keeping my mind on it!

[4] Bonhoeffer devotes an entire chapter to the Lord’s Prayer in Cost of Discipleship. See, Cost of Discipleship, 180ff. This discussion follows both Bonhoeffer’s discussion and that of John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. See, John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion Vol. 2 John T. McNeill, ed. Ford Lewis Battles, trans. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.3.34 ff.

[5] See, Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:2-4. In this essay, I have used a version found in the confessions and prayer books of certain churches, that the older, more traditional language. As a matter of fact, my churches use a more contemporary version, particularly one in which the word, “Trespasses” is translated “Sin” or “Debts.”

[6] John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Downer’s Grove, Ill: IVP Press, 1978), 146

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