Question: for how long should I pray each day?
Answer: for 10 minutes more than you are already.
I really like this answer to what appears to be an imponderable question. Praying is an amazing privilege, being able to come before our Almighty God. And like all privileges, it brings responsibilities, not to take it for granted. My Bible reading has me in Deuteronomy at the moment, not easy reading by any means, and a reminder of the holiness of God and what He is prepared to do to preserve the sanctity of His chosen people Israel. And this is the same Almighty God that we are approaching in prayer! Quite a thought, isn't it?
The above answer, it seems to me, helps to bridge the need to take prayer seriously with our own human frailty, looking to move us on in a sustainable way. I hope you find the thoughts below helpful - and, as always, am interested to hear any thoughts you have as we look to encourage each other in this key part of Christian living.
First we praise and worship God
In this recent blog post I looked at church life and the idea that, first and foremost, we gather together to worship our Almighty God. And in this blog post I looked at the early disciples' prayer in Acts 4 when persecution started to kick in, and noted how, when they had considerable reason to be thinking about themselves, they spent the first 3/4 of the prayer in worship. Similarly the Lord's prayer.
The message here seems to be quite clear. In coming to prayer, whether it's individual, small group or large group, the first thing to do is come into God's presence and acknowledge His might, His holiness, His love, His forgiveness. There are a number of reasons for this, I think, one of which is to give a clear context for what comes next?
What do pray for?
In so far as prayer is asking for things, we can certainly be asking for God's hand on our lives and those we love and know, that people who are not Christians should become Christians, that those who are should have their faith strengthened. We need also to be praying for our political leaders and the direction in which they are leading our countries.
Beyond this, the question becomes: how specific should our requests be? Or to put the question differently, how do we distinguish between coming before God and asking for things in His name - which is right - and telling God what to do - which is presumptuous beyond belief? No easy answers to this question, but let me tell you what I think in the context of people we know becoming ill. It is right to pray that God's will be done, that the ill person and those around would know God's peace, presence and guidance, that good may come out of adversity. In general, I am not happy to pray directly for a physical healing this side of the grave. There may be occasions when this may be the right thing to pray, but I'm mindful of verses in the Bible including:
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,"
declares the LORD.
God's purposes transcend our understanding, and we do not want to put ourselves in the situation of assuming that we know what God will do in the future, leading potentially to accusations of lack of faith or, indeed, loss of faith in our Almighty God.
Us speaking with God or God speaking with us?
As far as I can make out there are broadly two schools of thought in evangelical Christianity. One is that God has revealed Himself through Jesus Christ and through the Bible, and that prayer is us communicating with God. Another is that God continues to reveal Himself through prayer in the sense of God speaking with us, prophesies and so on.
Whilst I would in general align myself with the first view I am open to the possibility of God revealing Himself still today but would want to make one point here: if we believe that God has revealed something to us which cannot be directly be backed up from Scripture, then we need always to be open to possibility that we might be wrong. A great case study here is how Jeremiah dealt with Hananiah as considered in this blog post but in brief: God has revealed to Jeremiah that the Israelites are about to be exiled and will not return for 70 yeras. Hananiah comes along and says that it will be only 2 years. Whilst Jeremiah has considerable reason to believe that he is speaking the mind of God, he acknowledges the possiiblity of being wrong, only later to be vindicated.
How to pray?
It's good to have a part of any communal gathering of Christians set aside for prayer. Some churches organise small groups to pray which makes a great deal of sense. And it is important also to pray on an individual basis.
I would say that, whilst I am happy in my own mind that I have a clear and sustainable method for reading the Bible as considered last week, I find individual prayer difficult. My mind wanders, I think of other things to do, as much as I tell myself I'm coming before our Almighty God, I find this difficult to internalise.
One point I would make. We have in the Bible many prayers, most notably the Lord's prayer in which Jesus sets out a pattern to pray. Within the Anglican and other traditions there are many set prayers. At best these prayers give a clear model and draw upon centuries of Christian thought and understanding. At worst they become meaningless rituals. On the other hand, extempore prayers, our own prayers, can bring a freshness and immediacy but may be overly dependent on how we feel at any particular time. The challenge here, I think, is to blend the two in a meaningful way which brings honour to God as we look to communicate with Him.
And finally, let's encourage each other in our prayer - and indeed Bible reading - lives. Let's ask each other what we're reading, what we've learnt, what we've prayed for. If you contact me to say you're praying for me then I'll pray for you.