Prayer is more challenging than we’d like to admit. At its most basic elements, prayer is having a conversation with God. Sounds easy enough. But what if you don’t know what to say? What if you never hear anything from God? What if you get distracted? It’s easy to see where things fall apart. We find ourselves making the same request as the disciples, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1).
I’ve heard numerous different acronyms for prayer over the years. Each one has its strengths and weaknesses. A couple of years ago, I read Pete Greig’s book How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People. I found this book helpful and have since started using Greig’s acronym P.R.A.Y. It stands for pause, rejoice, ask, and yield. In this four-part series, we will be exploring each one of these aspects of prayer.
P.R.A.Y. begins with pause. Pete Greig writes, “To start we must stop. To move forward we must pause. This is the first step in a deeper prayer life: Put down your wish list and wait.”
All too often, we (myself included) rush in and out of our quiet time. We scarf down a few Bible verses like a McDonald’s Big Mac. Then we fire off a handful of prayer requests and move on with the day. We would do well to slow down. There are two main benefits of stopping before we start.
1. Pausing helps us center on God.
We must slow down if we want to enjoy God’s presence. Richard Foster, in Prayer: Finding the Hearts True Home, writes, “Prayer is nothing more than an ongoing and growing love relationship with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”
No parent likes coming home after a long day of work only to be greeted with demands. We want our little kids to run into our arms saying “Mommy!” or “Daddy!” That’s why Jesus begins the Lord’s Prayer by saying, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Jesus spends a moment acknowledging his Father. We can do the same by pausing for a minute or two in silence before we pray.
2. Pausing helps us listen to God.
Depending on your theological background, the idea of hearing from God may sound completely normal or totally weird. The reality is most Christians never hear an audible word from God. However, everyone who has the indwelling of the Holy Spirit can discern the still small voice of God (1 Kings 19:12).
Dallas Willard believes the reason many people never experience hearing from the Spirit is that we’re not listening. In Hearing God, he writes, “The fact that we do not hear does not mean that God is not speaking to us…We know that messages from radio and television programs are passing through our bodies and brains at all hours of the day: messages that an appropriately tuned receiver could pluck from the very air we breathe…We are not attuned to God’s voice.”
I remember a woman sharing about her struggle with hearing God. She used the same metaphor as Willard as she said, “I hope to turn the volume up in my prayer. Or tune my radio to the right station. Or turn the radio on. Or something!” Maybe our problem is not that God speaks too little; it’s that we talk too much. If we want to hear from God, we need to pause long enough to listen.
What about the Bible?
The Bible will always be the authoritative, trustworthy, and inspired Word of God. We should consistently read Scripture as a primary means of hearing God. If a Christian thinks they hear something from God and their word contradicts God’s Word, it’s not from God. That thought is coming from somewhere else. But just because the Holy Spirit inspired the Bible doesn’t mean he stopped speaking. God is not only transcendent; he is also personal, relational, and immanent.
In Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God, Tim Keller comments on how Scripture and prayer help us experience God, “Our prayers should arise out of immersion in the Scripture. [We] speak only to the degree we are spoken to…The wedding of the Bible and prayer anchors your life down in the real God.”
We get a glimpse of what this looks like in the life of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 12:8-9. Paul recounts a consistent prayer request to remove the thorn in his flesh, “Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’”
Paul got his prayer answered (“no” is still an answer). We don’t know whether Paul heard an audible voice or if he felt the Spirit directing his thoughts. We don’t know whether he saw a vision of God’s power or if the Holy Spirit brought the word “grace” to mind. Whatever happened, Paul knew that God was leading him to accept this weakness in his life. Even though the pain was still there, the Holy Spirit’s relational presence gave him comfort.
We will experience a deeper level of communication and closeness with God when we pause in prayer. If you’ve never tried stopping, here are a few steps to get started.
Find a quiet place. I love praying on the commute to work, but that can’t be the only place I pray. We need areas that are still enough to close our eyes.
Pause before speaking. If you are tempted to rush, try setting a 2-minute timer on your phone. You can always build up silence from there.
Breath prayer. A simple breath prayer you can use is the first line of the Lord’s Prayer. Follow this pattern:
Breathe in slowly.
Breathe out slowly, saying, “Our Father in heaven.”
Breathe in slowly.
Breathe out slowly, saying, “Holy is your name.”
Samuel prayer. When Samuel was a young boy, he heard from God by pausing and saying, “Speak Lord, your servant is listening.” God had been trying to communicate with Samuel time and time again. It wasn’t until Samuel paused did he get the message.
Silent prayer may be simple, but it takes a great deal of focus. C. S. Lewis explains this in Letters to Malcolm, “I still think the prayer without words is the best—if one can really achieve it. But I now see that in trying to make it my daily bread I was counting on a greater mental and spiritual strength than I really have. To pray successfully without words one needs to be ’at the top of one’s form’”
Don’t despair if you have trouble pausing in prayer. Like all the other disciplines, it takes practice. Take some time today to start stopping.
What helps you pause in prayer? What do you do when your mind wanders off? Let me know in the comments below!