If only I could praise in myself the lack of prayer—if only I could somehow justify my avoidance of God ...
Truth be told, we feel plenty of guilt with thoughts like these playing on repeat in our heads. Next to reading the Bible too seldom, many of us quietly grieve a failed prayer life, perhaps more than anything else in our efforts as a disciple. We dutifully resolve—fueled onward by yet another sermon or benediction or pastoral letter—to be more deliberate in talking with God. But when the inspiration has faded and there’s no discernible growth to point to, we give up once again and wait for the next wave of trying.
What gives? What are we missing in this essential part of following Jesus Christ? Why do we need to fully embrace a life of prayer?
After all the sermons and seminars have ended, when all of the books on prayer have collected their dust, what we ultimately need is to recover an understanding of prayer as an actual experience of God. It’s wonderful to receive counsel from godly, seasoned pray-ers, yet the lessons we learn from such people will never teach us what we really need to know. Only prayer—conversation with God Himself—can do that.
The focus of this guide is to help you establish a daily practice of talking to, listening to, and simply being with the Lord—a practice that integrates naturally into the rhythms of daily life.
In other words, the goal here is not information but formation. To that end, we’ve put together the following to help you begin to see prayer as not only something you do but also an essential part of who you are.
In the 4th century, theologian and celebrated preacher John Chrysostom said, “Prayer is the light of the soul, giving us true knowledge of God.” The kind of knowledge he spoke of was not the sort learned in books, but that borne of a true encounter with the living Christ.
Fundamentally, prayer is communion with God. Yes, we come to Him with our needs and wants, as Scripture encourages. Yes, prayer involves conversation with the Lord, speaking and listening. But neither our conversing nor our petitions are really what prayer is all about—they are the means, not the end. Rather, what we’re after is an ever-deepening oneness with the Savior that each of these parts facilitates. What we long for is God Himself.
Make It Physical: Embodied Prayer
While there is no “correct” or “proper” position for prayer, what we do with our bodies should not be discounted. Why? Because we are embodied creations who have been promised resurrection bodies. As temples of the Holy Spirit who are meant for God’s glory, we worship Him by presenting our physical selves as living and holy sacrifices (1 Corinthians 6:19-20; Rom. 12:1). Oftentimes, we think of prayer in purely cerebral terms—as an act of the mind—but it should be something the whole person experiences—mind, soul, and yes, the body as well.
Throughout the Bible, many postures of prayer are mentioned. Abraham fell upon his face before God (Gen. 17:3; Gen. 17:17). Moses interceded with arms outstretched (Exodus 9:27–29). King Solomon knelt (1 Kings 8:54). The tax collector beat his breast and lowered his eyes (Luke 18:13). Hannah tearfully pleaded with silent lips (1 Samuel 1:9-18). And Jesus turned His eyes to heaven (John 11:41).
Though it may feel uncomfortable at first, speaking to the Lord with your body by means of various postures is a wonderful way to enrich your prayer life. You can begin in the privacy of your own home and go from there.
In moments of confession, try kneeling. Or when speaking words of adoration, bow from the waist, as if the Lord is standing physically before you. By humbling the body in these ways, your prayers may become more honest as your heart and words are shaped by this physical position.
When interceding for others, lie prostrate—allow your entire body to express your dependence on God.
Accept blessings with your hands open and your head lowered.
Pronounce blessings on others with your arms outstretched or by laying hands on them.
Pray outdoors with your face tilted toward the sun.
Sit in a peaceful spot and allow your body to relax as you speak to God.
Ask Boldly: Intercessory Prayer
In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, “Intercession means no more than to bring our brother into the presence of God, to see him under the Cross of Jesus as a poor human being … His need and his sin become so heavy and oppressive that we feel them as our own, and we can do nothing else but pray.” In the Old Testament, the high priest would go before God’s presence in the Holy of Holies to intercede for the people. But Jesus, through His death on the cross, became our Great High Priest, interceding for us with the Father.
Prayer itself is overwhelming, and praying for others even more so. It’s not uncommon to think, What if I say it wrong? What if I leave something out? How specific do I need to be? Yet God commands us to pray. And we should remember He does not leave us to our own devices—Jesus sits at God’s right hand, advocating for us, and the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf with “groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26). We don’t have to pray perfectly; God is not grading our prayers. But as we pray with a sincere heart bent towards His will, He teaches us. The best way to learn intercession is simply to begin.
Intercessory prayer in a corporate worship context is simply intercession with others for others. Yet praying in public can feel intimidating, and if we’re not careful, it can turn into a show. (See Luke 18:9-14.) The early church prayed together. Unity in pouring out their hearts as one—needing and depending on God to do what only He can do—resulted in fellowship, discipleship, and spiritual power. As we pray together, we find courage to be real and transparent, and we learn from one another.
The simplest way to learn to pray for others is to imitate how those in the Bible interceded. Paul prayed for the Colossians to have knowledge, wisdom, and understanding (Col. 1:9). Jesus prayed for us in John 17, asking God to keep believers in His name so that we may be unified (John 17:11). He also prayed for us to have joy, protection, and sanctification.
Pray the promises of God. For example, you can turn Ephesians 5 into a prayer for others to imitate God and walk in love, or for God to teach and instruct them (Psalm 32:8).
Pray for a person, simply asking God to grant healing or favor. For instance, Matthew 6:8 says, “Your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.”
There may still be times when language fails you—in those moments, simply pray the person’s name. As noted above, God knows what each of us needs better than we do. By calling individuals to mind in the presence of God, we’re effectively bringing them before Him, in a way similar to how the young man in Luke 5:17-26 was lowered through a roof by his friends. Praying in this manner allows us to faithfully remember a greater number of people from day to day, asking God to show each one His customary love and mercy.
Take Your Time: Meditation
The average read-the-Bible-in-a-year plan is a sprint, a manic race to absorb roughly 775,000 words in 365 days. Basically, it’s the literary equivalent of riding a Segway through the Louvre and saying you’ve taken in the beauty of each of the 380,000 pieces of art on display.
Reading quickly, while valuable in its way, leaves little room to contemplate lilies clothed in their finery (Matt. 6:28-30) or the way unity is like oil in Aaron’s beard (Psalm 133:1-3). When we slow down to really look, however, we’ll remember that the moon and stars aren’t cold astronomical bodies but the very work of God’s fingers (Psalm 8:3-4).
By moving too rapidly, we miss not only the beauty of language but also the very grandeur of God.
By moving too rapidly, we miss not only the beauty of language but also the very grandeur of God. And that’s why we must intentionally slow down when reading and take time to contemplate the words, images, and stories in Scripture. They are the things that stick. Puritan pastor Thomas Watson put it like this: “Without meditation, the truths of God will not stay with us. The heart is hard, and the memory slippery—and without meditation all is lost!”
Meditation is often defined as imagination and contemplation on God’s words and goodness. By intentionally engaging with Scripture in this way, we slow down—pondering each word and allowing scenes and images to come alive in our imagination. Meditation allows us to have a conversation with the Bible. It helps us to wonder.
This can be done with a lengthy passage or just a verse or two. And meditation doesn’t have to be limited to a moment—we can continue it while we’re driving or going for a walk.
Other options, when you don’t have a verse in mind, would be to meditate on a phrase such as “Lord, have mercy,” to read (or memorize) a benediction like the one found in Ephesians 3:14-21, or to recite the names of God and what they mean.
Find a verse or passage that depicts a scene, and use your imagination to visualize and experience it in your mind. Start with something like “He leads me beside quiet waters” (Psalm 23:2). Picture the scene, inhabit it fully, and let it fill your senses.
Read a passage such as Psalm 19 and let the beauty of the words rush over you; speak them aloud, savoring the sounds. Examine the passage for examples of figurative language such as symbolism, metaphor, or simile and allow them to enrich the experience.
Before praying, let yourself sit quietly for a few minutes. Breathe deeply and focus your mind.
Take a Breath: Unceasing Prayer
The apostle Paul, in a letter to the church in Thessalonica, wrote these words—not only as exhortation, but also as a pastoral command: “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). And to the Ephesians, “With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18). As people who hold faithfully to Scripture’s teaching, we have to believe that Paul genuinely thought ceaseless prayer is possible. But for those of us who are contending with the accelerated pace of modern life, the question is a poignant one: How?
There’s no formula for overcoming the mind’s difficulty at achieving a life of ceaseless prayer. But there’s a proven method, centuries old, to help us persevere and find the way—regardless of what we’re doing or who’s around.
Ceaseless prayer will help you discover the Lord to be the constant companion He already is.
For hundreds of years, Christians have quietly repeated short prayers or fragments of Scripture through the day to remain present to God. Having a simple refrain to call upon repeatedly helps us maintain connection to Christ and tunes the heart to hear Him knocking at its door.
Doing so also helps us to dislodge unwanted thoughts. Rather than engage such thoughts head on, we can—through our discipline of prayer—let them pass like a bird flying by a window, and then turn attention back to God through our prayerful refrain.
But what about the scripture that says, “When you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matt. 6:7 NKJV)? Not all repetition is “vain” or “meaningless,” as the NASB reads. A well-chosen verse of prayer is anything but. Then, reciting with devotion and attention to God yields a habit of the heart that brings us closer to the Savior, and further into His likeness.
There’s no magic in this method. Practicing the discipline of ceaseless prayer doesn’t replace the time you set aside to meditate upon Scripture and to fellowship with God. It’s an extension of that devotion—a way to continue communing as you mow the lawn, do the dishes, serve at church, or work at your job. Learning to call out to Him in this way won’t detract from your daily responsibilities. It’ll simply help you discover the Lord to be the constant companion He already is.
The Lord’s Prayer. Memorize the prayer lesson Jesus gave His disciples (Matt. 6:9-13). If you find it hard to repeat through the day, let certain events—like meals or your daily commute—serve as reminders to stop and commune with God.
The Publican’s Prayer. In Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14), the first man thanks God that he’s not as sinful as others, while the second honestly assesses his sinfulness: “God, be merciful to me a sinner!” Jesus said, “I tell you, [the tax collector] went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14 NKJV). Note two things about this prayer: Though the word mercy often evokes the idea of a pardon, here it refers to God’s lovingkindess and is a request for Him to pour His healing love upon us. Also, the word sinner shouldn’t make us feel bad. Rather, it’s a statement of humility and our neediness before the Lord. You can also try an adapted version of the prayer, which is “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.”
The Psalms. Praying spontaneously is a good practice, but many people find written prayers helpful when they don’t know what to say. Consider turning to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called “the Bible’s prayerbook”—the Psalms—and using Psalm 51:10, Psalm 70:1, or Psalm 139:23.
Find the Words: Scripted Prayer
I don’t know what to say. It’s the most common reason people avoid prayer. They want to praise God, intercede for others, or confess their sins, but when they try, the words vanish into thin air. But there’s no law stating that each prayer we offer has to be a perfect one-of-a-kind creation or a tailor-made collection of flawless phrases.
When we struggle to speak, we can use the thoughts of others. Doing so has a way of removing us from the equation, for rather than us forming the words, we allow the words to shape us. As we repeat these prayers and commit them to memory, they become a part of our daily worship and allow us to have richer, deeper communication with God.
St. Patrick’s Breastplate. This prayer can be prayed in part or in its entirety. The most commonly used section is the 15 lines that begin with “Christ with me, Christ before me.”
The Prayer of St. Francis. The well-known prayer that begins with the line “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace” has a way of reorienting our focus on the One who will guide us through every challenge. Praying to be a source of love, faith, light, and reconciliation is a wonderful way to begin the day and set our minds on things above (Col. 3:2).
The Book of Common Prayer. This rich book is filled with many types of prayers to be used throughout the year. Select one or two to incorporate into your daily routine—perhaps at mealtimes, before beginning the work day, or at bedtime.
Dallas Hazelrig, Jamie A. Hughes, Cameron Lawrence, and Aline Mello contributed to this article.
Photo-illustrations by Joe Cavazos