10 Nov, 2015 Prayer – do we really need a lot of time in it?
I’ve been reading a leadership book (which I’ll leave nameless because what follows). It promotes prayer as a vital leadership habit – but then it measures prayer in terms of time. It’s a great book – but I disagree with this point. Now – please don’t take offence, or think that I don’t value prayer, but, in my current thinking, I struggle to connect the activity of large amounts of time in prayer with God’s working. Instead I connect faith and God’s faithfulness with God working. Certainly we must pray. As the Scriptures say, ‘We do not have because we do not ask.’ But how long does it need to take?
Do I really have to repeat myself?
Early in my Christian life it dawned on me that God is well-able to hear my prayers – so why should I need to repeat myself? While repetition might be an expression of sincerity and eagerness for something – it could also be an expression of doubt, repeating a request because we are not yet convinced that God has heard or will grant it. Like a loving father, the Bible tells us that God gives good things to his children. We do not need to plead with him, as if to persuade him. The whole point of Jesus’ teachings on prayer – like in Matthew 11 – is that God is NOT LIKE the man in bed who’s neighbour needed bread, and who got up to help him reluctantly (God does not answer our prayers reluctantly). It goes on to say “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead?… If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” Do we really need to ‘tarry’ in prayer? I’d say ‘yes’, in as much as it is an expression of sincerity – but ‘no’, if our belief is that this will somehow persuade God – because this assumes that God isn’t listening and willing to act. To state the balances again: I believe we should have persevering hearts – and that this includes bringing certain petitions repeatedly before God, because we live in time and space, and some answers take time (and the waiting bothers us)… but if our trust is in God’s character and good will (knowing that he hears our prayers and is a good heavenly Father), we don’t need to repeat things ‘babbling like the pagans’. We need to ask with faith – and to trust his faithfulness.
Repetition is more about reminding ourselves of what we have prayed – and convincing ourselves that God has heard and will answer. Having asked, and trusted, it is right to sometimes stop asking and to relax (unless the Holy Spirit prompts otherwise)!
Too many times I’ve ‘strived’ in prayer – as if my effort would gain God’s attention. I’ve been to a lot prayer meetings. At one time in my life I was in 5 prayer meetings per week (separate to my own time with God in his Word and prayer) – and valued those times. But I don’t buy the ‘time in prayer’ thing anymore. Maturity in prayer is not measured by the amount of time spent praying. It’s measured by faith, and by trust in God’s character – based off a knowledge of who God is, and of who we are because of Christ Jesus!
So, why would we spend hours in prayer? What are we to make of Jesus’ example of hours spent in ‘prayer’?
Hours in private ‘prayer’ – a training ground for the heart
As I reflect back, most of the time I spent in long private prayer times was time spent in reflection – considering what God’s Word said and reflecting upon his character and will. I was reflecting on what I should pray for – and seeking God’s leading, by his Spirit. I was ‘refreshing my awareness of’ his presence. I was trying to work out what to pray. It was about me clearing my head – and finding God’s perspective on a matter. So the actual praying (talking time) can be very short – and this is my point. Our long times in ‘prayer’ are often about the training of our hearts and minds and faith to know God’s will, and to ask with surrendered faith – trusting God’s character, irrespective of whether God does or doesn’t answer as and when we would like him to (and having this time to reflect is very important, because it is foundation to our prayers!).
Time in prayer is also about stirring vision and faith for things that are possible with God – which we might not yet be in the habit of envisaging during the course of our daily lives. It’s about growing our hearts and faith, and the gradual developing of a healthy dependence upon God. It’s about knowing our limits – and taking time to reflect upon our experiences so that hurt and bitterness do not develop roots in our hearts. It’s about reflecting upon the emotions we feel – like frustration or anxiety or hopelessness, so that we can see where they come from, measuring them against the truth of God’s Word – and then surrendering each matter to God with a brief concluding prayer. Yes – when we are taking a step of faith but are struggling to find enough faith for it (i.e. are anxious) – we need time in ‘prayer’. Yes, when we face trials, and our emotions are struggling, we need to retreat to ‘pray’. But it’s mostly about the growth of our hearts and perspectives and faith, and about discerning God’s will. The praying (talking) part can be very short.
True prayer – beyond being an activity – is surely about a state of continual consciousness of God’s presence with us, talking with him at all points throughout the day, seeking his will and leading – to please him in our lives. It’s about living in a spirit of prayer. It’s about growing to trust Gods character and power!
Why is this time-distinction important?
Because we sometimes talk as if maturity in prayer was measured by time spent in prayer – when it’s not!
For us, right now, we’ve ‘stepped out of the boat’ (away from doing things we are capable of achieving by ourselves) and so we have to trust God for provision and favour. I could not survive a day if I had to trust the amount of time spent in prayer, as if that were a work that achieved God’s favour. I’d suffer anxiety if I thought like that. Prayer is not a work that gains God’s favour! My faith is in who God is, not my efforts! God is good and loving and faithful. We do not need to fear when we ‘step out of the boat’ to trust him. We do not need to ‘babble like the pagans’ – doubting God hears us and therefore repeating ourselves endlessly. We need to ask – and to trust. Prayer is a simple matter, based on our faith in God’s faithfulness (with all of that being based in what God’s Word says – which is our foundation for discerning spiritual truth).
I’d add just one point. Derek Prince said that, if we had ten minutes to pray, his understanding of God and his ways suggested that nine of those minutes should be spent in thanksgiving. Again, it’s not so much about the amount of time we spend asking God for things… as a general attitude of continual thankfulness to God, believing that he is with us, is for us, is leading us, and hears us… …while we live out our faith through loving and serving others in daily life. Expressing thanks to God builds our faith. It helps us to see God for who he really is. That then affects our 1 minute spent praying to God.
Finding God’s power through prayer is about faith in God’s faithfulness – not the length of time spent in it. I think its an important distinction!