This is not an article for spiritual giants who spend three hours a day on their knees, attend every prayer meeting, and pack each spare moment with petitions and praises.
If this is you, feel free to stop reading now (and pray for the rest of us).
This is an article for those of us who think the word “PRAY” is the most jarring four-letter word uttered in the church. It’s for those of us who struggle to pray, who are afraid to pray, or who feel guilty about our crummy prayer lives.
I get it. I struggle to pray, too. I don’t consider myself a prayer warrior or a prayer giant. I’m more of a prayer toddler.
But I want to learn to pray. Not set any prayer records—just learn to pray. I want to be a man known for prayer. When you don’t know how to do something, you ask an expert. So that’s what I did.
EAVESDROPPING ON A SAINT
A few years ago, I approached one of the matriarchs in our church, a woman twice my age who is considered a prayer warrior both inside and outside our church. “Will you meet with me—regularly—and teach me how to pray?” I asked.
She looked pleased and surprised. “Well, I don’t know about teaching you anything. But how ‘bout we get together, and we’ll talk to Father? I’d like that.”
For a few years she and I met for two hours every week. Talking and praying. Praying and talking. There was no formal agenda, no didactic teaching, no lectures. Just a man enjoying the privilege of being invited into this saint’s conversation with God.
ALWAYS A STUDENT
God taught me some crucial things about prayer in those days, things I’m still learning:
Prayer is about relationship. As Jesus often pointed out, God primarily identifies himself to us as “Father,” which is how my prayer mentor addressed him and talked about him—constantly. His presence as her Father was real. Even in her late 70s she prayed like a child sitting in his lap. She was always overjoyed to be with him. There was nothing better for her.
She has a childlike faith—the kind Jesus told us is a prerequisite for citizens in his kingdom. This has been an important and growing reality for me to grasp. As Paul E. Miller wrote in his excellent book, A Praying Life, “Oddly enough, many people struggle to learn how to pray because they are focusing on praying, not on God.” When I struggle with prayer, I wonder if I’m even thinking of God at all.
God cares about everything, no matter how small. Because she knew him intimately as “Father,” my prayer mentor would speak with him about everything. Most topics were fairly mundane. I was expecting her to lead me in high and lofty prayers of vision and outreach and mission and world-moving.
Her prayers extended half a world away—to her kids and grandkids in another state, to a missionary in Uganda—but even then, her prayers had dirt on them. They were earthy; smeared with fingerprints and splattered with mud.
But if God is our Father, doesn’t he care about these intimate details? Won’t he meet us in them? And when he does, won’t we truly know he cares?
When I get home from work, my three- and six-year-old girls, can’t wait to tell me about the cat that was in the backyard, the Calico Critter toys they were playing with, and the bird nest they created in their nature study. I can simply write them off and call them to more “important” things, or I can take their hands, get down on my knees, and revel in their childish simplicity.
Thinking God too important for seemingly “simple” things is actually a subtle form of pride. We consider ourselves too important to give him our attention and time—too self-sufficient to ask him for help. But Jesus said to pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10).
Heaven comes to earth in our prayers, therefore our prayers ought to be earthy. Because we are involved in conversation with the God who sovereignly oversees everything, you better believe he cares about what’s important to you and me.
Real, deep prayer is biblical prayer. My prayer mentor is a woman immersed in God’s Word. Her prayers drip with the Bible. She devours it. She spends time in it for hours each day. She speaks and prays the Word.
I’ve known younger, less mature believers with active prayer lives. They talk with God throughout the day. They ask him for simple things and see him answer their prayers. They claim to hear from him, but oftentimes their claims seem unfounded and “out there.”
I have noticed that these dear friends—though attuned to God’s presence in everyday life—haven’t become deeply attuned to God’s Word. They have yet to mature through time spent listening to God in the Scriptures. As they do so, I can’t wait to see the kind of prayer warriors they will become.
My prayer-warrior mentor often claimed to hear from God. But when she told me what she heard, it was so intertwined with the Scriptures it was hard to doubt she was hearing from God Himself.
God often uses unanswered prayers to redirect my prayers toward his heart. My mentor has said numerous times: “Father loves to give good gifts” (see James 1:17). All gifts from God are good—even ones that are painful, unwanted, or unexpected—because they are from a good Father. When we learn to thank God even for the difficult stuff, we come closer to his will.
A friend was recently experiencing a high level of anxiety due to some unusual circumstances. I had been praying the issue would be resolved and her anxiety lessened. When I heard the issue was not resolved as hoped, I was reminded her anxiety would probably increase. Here’s where God took me in prayer: “Father, please use this delay and disappointment as an opportunity for continued growth in trusting you with her anxiety.” I don’t know if I would have seen the situation in the same way years earlier.
Some people pull more weight with God than others. This isn’t a very popular sentiment in our egalitarian society. It doesn’t mean some have better standing before God; we all stand in Christ’s righteousness. It simply means prayer warriors are those who have spent a lot of time with their Father.
As a result, they are increasingly able to love the things he loves. When they pray “your will be done,” they really mean it—they want his will to be done more than anything. And they have a clearer understanding of what that will is, which makes their prayers to the point and more powerful.
Their prayers are answered more often because they’re praying along with God’s heart: “The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working” (James 5:16b). When my prayers go unanswered, I find it’s largely because they were the wrong prayers to begin with. Not that I shouldn’t have prayed them (we have to start where we are), but we become giants in prayer when we are able to untangle our wills from our prayers and instead wrap them up in our Father’s.
FIND A PRAYER MENTOR
I learned all of these things from time spent with a person, not an article or a book. In the end, I have only one piece of advice about prayer: find a prayer mentor.
Look for someone who loves Jesus intensely. They probably have gray hair. Their Bible will be well-used and worn-out. Most likely, they won’t think they can teach you anything.
Don’t let that stop you because they’ll teach you about the most necessary thing (see Luke 10:38-42).
Mike Phay serves as Lead Pastor at FBC Prineville (Oregon) and as a Staff Writer at Gospel-Centered Discipleship. He has been married to Keri for over 20 years, and they have five amazing kids. You can follow him on Twitter (@mikephay) or check out his blog.