A number of hindrances can stunt spiritual growth in prayer. What are some of these? Consider for a few moments the thoughts that may prevent you from praying. Are you skeptical that God hears your prayers? Are you unsure of what to pray about? Are you overwhelmed with the volume of things in the world that desperately need prayers?
Now consider some of the things that prevent you from praying. Perhaps the habit of not praying—or the habit of regurgitating the same superficial words—prevents real growth in your prayer life. Are you too busy to pray? Are there daily distractions or other priorities that get in the way of good intentions to do it later? Perhaps you even try to pray but become distracted in your prayer with other things. These are just a few examples, but can be frustrating and thwart spiritual growth nonetheless.
To help reframe how we think about and approach prayer, it is important to reflect on what prayer is not. True prayer is a privilege, not a burden. It is not an obligation or a meaningless motion. Prayer is not about supplying God with a wish list or to-do list. It is so much more! When we think about the purpose of prayer, we can start to open our hearts to this privilege. It can be easy to get caught up in the idea that God needs us to pray about x, y, and z. In fact, it’s just the opposite; we need God, therefore, we pray (Psalm 4:1-2; Psalm 5:1-3). This shift in understanding allows us to see that through prayer, we rely on God (He’s not relying on us). Our hearts can be open and invested in this very personal and intimate relationship with our Savior (Psalm 34:4-8; Psalm 73:23-28).
There are four principles that can help us better understand the purpose of prayer. Understanding what prayer is allows us to grow.
Prayer is Intentional
Unlike a mindless habit or repetitive activity, prayer must first be intentional. It’s not just going through the actions. Time, effort, and discipline have to be applied, especially when meaningful prayer is not already part of our routines. Look at the example Christ himself provided. He was intentional about praying. He made time to seek God in prayer, even when he could have been sleeping or very much distracted with events occurring in his life (Matthew 26:36-45; Mark 1:35). It would have been easier for him to sleep along with his disciples. He could have chosen not to rise early and pray, but he was intentional instead. We also must be intentional with our prayer lives. Cultivate a real, meaningful relationship with the Lord.
- Choose a time and pick a place to be consistent. Using the time on the way to work is great, but nothing can replace an intentional time set aside with the Father. Start with 7 minutes: 3 minutes reading from God's Word and 4 minutes in prayer. The time should be when your mind can be clear and focused. Make sure the place is quiet and free from distraction. Leave your phone in the other room.
Prayer is Personal
Prayer is very personal. Once we develop an intentional mindset, we will be primed to develop a more personal relationship with the Lord through prayer. As discussed, when we pray, it’s about our heart and attitude: our reliance on God, our trust in him, and a meaningful relationship. Jesus warned his disciples that prayer is not about an outward appearance of righteousness. It’s about our hearts and an intimacy with God that is deep and personal (Matthew 6:5-6). It’s not an empty action, as God examines our hearts and hears our prayers:
“O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise. For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:15-17)
Furthermore, prayer is even more personal than the words we use. Our relationship with God is developed through a prayerful reliance on Him, not in what we say:
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:26-27)
- Keep a record of praise and requests. You can keep a journal or put sticky notes up in your "prayer spot". What is God doing this week? Write it down. Keep track of requests and "check them off" as God answers. This builds confidence and boldness as you visually see God's faithfulness.
Prayer is Relational
Clearly, a personal, intimate relationship with God is available to each of us through prayer. As we grow in our personal relationship, we can begin to see that prayer also works to develop relationships with others. Of course, the first relationship occurs between God and us (Psalm 28:6-7; Psalm 55:22). However, prayer is also a tool to cultivate relationships with our brothers and sisters, as well as our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48; Romans 12:14-15; James 5:13-16). When we pray for others, we are cultivating a relationship that brings them near to Christ also. We may also begin to change our heart to love and value others—even those we think are unlovable—the way Christ does.
- Pray for others when you say you will! If you are with the person when you say you'll pray for them, do it right there! Pray for the nations. Make praying for the unreached a part of your daily requests. Praying for other cultures is a great way to ensure the unreached do not remain out of sight, out of mind.
Prayer is Continual
Once we begin to understand what prayer is—an intentional, personal, relational act of worship—we can value the importance of prayer being continual. This may seem like an impossible task, but we are told to do so time and again (Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). It’s not so much about a literal 24/7 prayer. Once again, this continual act of prayer is more about our growing, continual dependence on the Lord and the growth in our relationships with God and others.
- Don't do all the talking. Listen to God too! Another good use of a journal is to write down what you hear from Him.
So now that we have some basic principles about the purpose and importance of prayer, think about how you can grow in your prayer life. Don’t miss out on a personal, prayerful relationship with Christ!
- Two great resources on prayer are: Too Busy Not to Pray by Bill Hybels and Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God by Timothy Keller.
There is perhaps no spiritual discipline understood less than fasting. At the heart of fasting is a declaration of dependency on God. That's why it is so important. When added to prayer as a routine part of our lives, our intimacy grows with our Father.
When something else satisfies more than Jesus, we need to remind ourselves that He is more than enough. There is no greater way to do this than to go without a fundamental resource of our bodies. Fasting is a powerful spiritual discipline that is altogether neglected in modern Christianity. But Jesus expected it of His followers (Matthew 6:16a). Fasting is all about saying “more than I want food in my stomach, I want God to fill me with His presence. More than bread in my belly, I want the Bread of Life.”
Fasting is undertaken for multiple reasons in biblical history: mourning sin (Daniel 9:1-3, Psalm 69:10), seeking counsel (2 Chronicles 20:3, Ezra 8:21), or spiritual preparation (Daniel 1:12, Acts 13:3). When it comes to fasting, we can quickly become legalistic and get caught up in the details of what it is we will take a break from and for how long. "Am I doing it right if I have this?" Don’t fall into this trap. More time and effort will be spent figuring out if you can have this or that, and then the entire point is missed. It’s not about the technical details, it’s about why you are committing to the fast. Simply commit to a fast and allow God to release you in His timing. If you need to, start gently.
When you are in the midst of the fast and it is the hardest to resist the temptation of food or drink, that’s when you turn to God’s Word. Whenever you were going to eat a meal or snack, grab Scripture and eat it up instead. In the minutes you would’ve spent eating, spend it in prayer instead. Of primary focus, meditate on Christ’s sacrifice (1 Peter 2:21-25). Let God lead the time and listen to what He’s saying.
Make the prayer of Psalm 139 your intent for fasting: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” He is certain to answer this. Be ready for it! God loves His children and desires what is best for them, and we may go kicking and screaming, but the goodness and purity that results will be worth the discipline. (Hebrews 12:1-13) The right heart during the fast will refocus the Christ-follower's dependency on Him. God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him. And that is what fasting is about.
Getting Started with Fasting
How do we undertake the discipline of fasting? A food fast is the hallmark of biblical example. In our times, there are also other things to consider removing for a period of time, such as media or entertainments. These are excellent choices, but nothing quite replaces a good fast from food. Any personal health conditions should be considered, with medical advice sought from a physician before beginning.
Here are a few ideas:
- If you typically take in a lot of caffeine, it is not advisable to cut yourself off "cold turkey". Reduce down your caffeine intake in the days leading up to your fast.
- A great place to start is to undertake a “Jewish fast”, where you go without food or drink from sundown to sundown. Water is acceptable.
- Particularly for people with medical needs, a "clear liquids" or "juice" fast is a great way to partake in this discipline.
- When feeling led to undergo a multi-day fast, the “Daniel fast” can be effective. Meats, grains, and sweets are removed from the diet, with a focus on healthy fruits and vegetables so as to provide physical as well as spiritual cleansing.
- When you break your fast, do not gorge. Eat something sensible in an appropriate portion. And thank God for the blessings He provides every day, including our provision of food.
- Total fasts of multiple days should be approached with all due consideration and discernment. Undertaking this is beyond the scope of this article. It is wise to speak to a spiritual partner or pastor before beginning.
- A great resource on fasting: A Hunger for God by John Piper.
This article was written from the teaching ministry of Compass Church, a plant of PPBC, by ordinary brothers and sisters who led each other in small group discussion.