I’ve always struggled with prayer in my life, making time for it, not getting distracted while doing it, never knowing what to say. I don’t think I’m totally alone in this. The following are things I believe are important, though I hardly do them perfectly. They are reminders to me as much as suggestions to others.
Some of the reasons I believe I struggled for a long time are myths about prayer that Evangelicals believe, or ways in which we make it harder on ourselves than it has to be.
Prayer is communication. You’re talking to God. Pretty hard to do if you can’t express yourself. Evangelical theology can many times cut short our expressiveness in prayer by distracting us with ideas of how we should be doing, or who we think we should be. But God is dealing with who you are, not who you ought to be, and you can’t fool Him anyway. We think that having God as the center of our life means total, unquestioning acceptance of every situation. Paul said to be content in all things, not to be a limp, emotionless rag in all things. If you’re angry with God, be angry. Tell Him you’re angry. If you’re sad, tell Him. As I say, express yourself, just as you would to a close friend.
Pray the Psalms. The Psalms are the prayerbook of the Church. A divinely-inspired prayerbook, no less. Read them out loud in a posture of prayer, as if it was you saying it first. Think of yourself as the Psalmist, and the words are yours. Make the Psalmist’s belief your own. Don’t worry about whether you understand it all exactly or whether it really is true of you. Don’t get caught in a self-evaluative process at this stage. Just read them out loud, making them your own. Over time, this will shape your desires to the point that they really will become your own prayers. It will ingrain in you some powerful and deep the0logy. It will change you over time, if you persist.
Use a prayerbook. I know when I prayed on my own without and aids, I was often helpless and unsure of what to say, My prayers became functional and rushed, repeating the same things over and over. But we are not alone. Many wise people in the Church have been praying for two thousand years. Find some good prayerbooks and pray the prayers in them. Something with a bit of meat is best, like the Book of Common Prayer. It has written prayers in aesthetically skilled language, for nearly every occasion that might come up in a Christian life. Pray them. Learn and benefit from the collective wisdom of the Church.
Pray the promises. Many times I found I would just pray when I needed something. Eventually, I realized that if Jesus was the King, this process ought to be a bit better. We do not receive because we do not ask with faith, says James. Such a verse has been misused to justify praying for all sorts of things, but the thing more than anything else we ought to pray for are the gift of God’s promises, for Him to give us what He has promised us. We are adopted sons of Abraham, told to enter the dwelling place of God with boldness. My prayers usually go something like this: “Heavenly Father, I thank you for the blessing and grace of salvation through your Son, Jesus Christ. By my baptism into union with Him, I have become a co-heir with Him in the heavenlys, inheritor of all the gifts you have given Him. I ask you now as an adopted son of Abraham, brother to your own Son Jesus Christ, please bestow on me all these things in full.” That sort of thing. “Remember your humble servant,” sort of thing. God delights in us reminding us of His promises, and our false humility stops us from asking for fear it would sound demanding. We do not receive because we do not ask.
Pray with the body. A sense of place is important. Associations with various locations color how we see and understand them. If you got beat up in a park, you’re not going to want to hang out there much. Memory helps set the tone. Because evangelicals have such a false humility, we think praying anywhere is okay. And it is. But you really should have a place set apart for prayer time. If you pray on your bed, you’ll probably get sleepy. Where you do the bills and get distracted. But place is important. Having a place set apart for prayer helps (though does not fix) this problem. It is also important to pray with the body. Because we are proto-gnostics, we fear the body and want to pray any way we want. But kneeling or bowing can have an electrifying effect on your prayer life.