Prayer: Reorienting Ourselves

Note: This is part of a series of articles we're using at the church I pastor to explore prayer. I'm posting them here in case they would be helpful for others.

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)

One of the things you learn in marriage is that there are issues that are solved simply by being with each other. When busyness and hurry take over life, it is possible to go for days or even weeks without connecting. As the days tick by, tensions inevitably build. Anxiety and frustration creep in. You feel distant and less in love. Go long enough and you can feel like the marriage itself is falling apart or intimacy has disappeared.

While there are real problems that can exist in marriage and require deeper work, a significant part of this strain can be relieved by carving out space to be together. As a couple spends time face to face, talking and sharing and laughing and communing, it is like something in the heart settles. They are reminded of who they are and who this person they love is. They are reoriented back toward each other.

That is true of marriage; it is even more true of our relationship with God. Last week we said prayer is a means God uses to change the world, but it is also a means God uses to change us. Prayer is not just a duty we perform to achieve results “out there”; it is meeting with God, reminding ourselves of who we are and who He is, reorienting our hearts back toward Him.

Paul sees this internal change in the above passage from Philippians 4. He speaks to our anxiety. That word means “restless” or “concerned,” and includes not just fear but also sorrow, stress, and frustration. When we are troubled, we should pray, sharing our hearts with God. Notice: he does not promise that, as a result of such sharing, God will fix our situation. Paul isn’t focused on an outward change but an internal one: as we share our hearts with God, His peace will shelter us, even when we don’t understand it.

Often, lives filled with stress or anger are signs of a lack of prayer, and it is prayerfulness that restores us to the truth of things. We are reminded of who God is and that He both loves us and rules over the universe. The British pastor Lewis Allen says, “Prayerlessness is abandoning ourselves either to fate or, worse, to ourselves. No wonder we find life stressful when prayer dries up. Prayer is recapturing a Christ-centered worldview, in which we celebrate again his loving rule. Problems might not go away, but they regain their God-ordained perspective.”

Prayer reorients us; it also strengthens us. It doesn’t just calm our anxieties, it also renews our energy to confront them. Jesus recognized the need for strengthening prayer. As his ministry grew, so did his commitment to carve out space to be with the Father. As Luke puts it, “But now even more the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities. But he would withdraw to desolate places and pray.” (Luke 5:15-16)

If we want to do great things for God, it must always start with making time to be with God. Prayer is the food and drink of the Christian life. Without it, we will not have the God-given strength we need to fight sin and serve the world. The famous preacher Charles Spurgeon memorably put it like this: “Prayer plumes the wings of God’s young eaglets so that they may learn to mount above the clouds. Prayer brings inner strength to God’s warriors and sends them forth to spiritual battle with their muscles firm and their armor in place.”

If all of this is true, how should it shape our prayer lives?

First, we should devote ourselves to prayer exactly when we least feel like praying. One of the deadly paradoxes of life is that the times we most need the presence of God are the times we are least prone to do the things that help us to experience that presence. This is why we need to develop good habits of prayer—more on that in a few weeks. But it is also why we must remember that prayer is not just a rote recitation or a spiritual requirement but an opportunity to meet with God and so to find strength and healing. We must fight for it like a man in the desert fights to reach water.

Second, our prayers should focus not just on what we need but on who God is and what He has done for us. As we saw in Philippians 4, our anxious prayers should be offered “with thanksgiving.” This is because what we need is not simply for God to do something in our circumstances but for what God has already done and is doing to reassure our hearts. I have come to the Lord in prayer in times of distress and started with praise and thanksgiving; by the time I was done celebrating who He is and what He had done, I couldn’t even remember what I was coming to ask. I had met with the God, and beholding Him and His goodness was itself the answer I needed.

Lastly, we should take the time to let prayer breathe and so form our hearts. Prayer should, at least some of the time, be spacious. We should speak and then pause long enough to listen and let our words be affirmed or challenged. We should ask and then ponder how God might be answering. We should say true words and then meditate on those truths, knowing it is not just God who listen but we who should hear ourselves as we hear from Him. Prayer is a journey through the mansion in our souls, and we should let each room become familiar as we explore it with God at our side and as our guide.

As we do all of this, we make room for God’s peace to enter in and guard our minds in Christ Jesus. May He be present with you in your prayers, transforming you even as He works through them to transform the world.

Discussion Questions:

  • What do you think of the idea that prayer is as much for us as it is for any end in the world? What are some ways prayer can change us internally?
  • How does prayer help restore our “God-ordained perspective”?
  • Have you felt the hardness of prayer in times of discouragement? How have you been able to continue in prayer when life feels dry or overwhelming?
  • What are some ways we can “let prayer breathe”? Why do you think we often struggle to do this?

Practice: Sit together as a group (or divided into a few small groups) and take turns offering prayers of praise and thanksgiving. Name and rejoice in who God is. Talk about what He has done for us in Jesus. Give thanks for ways He has shown up for us in the past or is blessing us in the present. After each praise, pause for a moment and reflect and then use the following responsive praise from the Psalm after each item:

Leader: Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good.

Group: His steadfast love endures forever.