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Solutions to Common Problems in Prayer as a Spiritual Discipline

In our focus on the personal spiritual disciplines, we have said the two most important disciplines are the intake of the Word and prayer.

God’s sheep—truly converted people—both need and want a godly example to follow. They long for a man who can feed their souls from the Word of God and show them how to be faithful disciples of Jesus. Those intended to fill this role as “examples to the flock” (1 Pet. 5:3) are the ones God calls to the biblical office of pastor.

In this series of articles on “Pastors and the Spiritual Disciplines,” we have seen that the practice of the biblical disciplines found in Scripture is how all Christians—including pastors—pursue obedience to the command of 1 Tim. 4:7, “Discipline yourself for the purpose of godliness.” It is primarily by godliness (holiness, Christlikeness) that a pastor becomes the kind of example for the flock God intends him to be.

In our focus on the personal spiritual disciplines (omitting the equally important interpersonal ones), we have said the two most important disciplines are the intake of the Word and prayer. The previous article stressed the importance of all forms of Bible intake, especially reading and meditation on Scripture. This article spotlights prayer.

A common problem in prayer

In the previous article, I noted there is an almost universal problem with the intake of the Word and prayer. With biblical intake, people who read the Bible often say that as soon as they close God’s Book, they cannot remember anything they’ve read. I maintained that the heart of the problem is not people’s memories, education, or IQ but rather a lack of meditation on something they read. I suggested that people read a “big” section of Scripture (a chapter or more) but then meditate “small,” that is, on one verse or phrase from their reading. And even if they have only ten minutes for the Bible, they should read for five and meditate for five. 

With prayer, the common problem is this: people tend to pray the same old things about the same old things. This can make the heart dull, and the mind wander. Frankly, praying this way day after day can become boring. And when prayer is boring, people tend to pray less frequently. They—even pastors—feel like spiritual failures and assume they are the problem. As with Bible intake, I believe the person usually is not the problem; rather, it is their method

Praying about the same old things is not the problem. It’s normal. That’s because our lives typically consist of the same things from one day to the next. If you’re going to pray daily about your life, and if most things in your life don’t change dramatically very often, that means you’re going to pray about basically the same things every day. No problem there. The problem is that we usually say the same old things about the same old things. And to try to pray differently every day about the same things takes more time and mental effort than most are willing to give.

As a result, you can pray to the most fascinating Person in the universe about the most important things in your life and be bored to death. Would you look forward to a conversation with anyone (even God!) if you said the same things every time?

“With prayer, the common problem is this: people tend to pray the same old things about the same old things.”

The simple solution

What’s the solution? Whatever it is, it must be simple. God’s people are all over the world—of all ages, educational levels, IQs, and degrees of Christian advantages (good teaching, books, etc.)—and yet if all are to do the same thing (pray), then it must be fundamentally simple. In other words, every Christian (including you) must be able to have a meaningful, satisfying prayer life.

What, then, is the simple, permanent, biblical solution to this almost universal problem in prayer? Here it is: When you pray, pray the Bible. Turn the words of Scripture into the words of your prayers.

The Method

Let’s say you were praying through Psalm 23. It might look like this:

You read, “The Lord is my shepherd,” then pray something like, Lord, I thank You that You are my shepherd. You’re a good shepherd. And You’ve shepherded me all my life. Would You please shepherd my family today? Guide them into Your ways. Lead them not into temptation; deliver them from evil. Please make them Your sheep, too. May they love You as their shepherd as I love You as my shepherd. And would You shepherd me in the decision that’s before me? Should I make that move or not? And please shepherd me as I shepherd Your flock.

Then, when nothing else comes to mind, you go to the next line: “I shall not want.” Thank You, Lord, that I’ve never really been in want. I haven’t missed many meals. But I know You want me to bring my desires to You, so would You provide the finances for these bills, school, and car? Then maybe you think of someone in need—perhaps someone in your church, people in a disaster area, or the persecuted church overseas—and you pray for them.

Go to the next line when you can’t think of anything else to say. Perhaps nothing comes to mind from the next line, so you go to the next one. Maybe you’re in a passage where you don’t understand a verse. Fine. Skip it and go to the next verse. Nothing says you have to pray over every verse or finish the psalm. Go through the verses line-by-line, talking with God about whatever the text prompts until you run out of time.

Anyone can do that—from the most mature Christian to the newest believer, from those who know the Bible best to those who know it least. Even a 6-year-old who can read can do that. You don’t need any notes or to remember a formula. Just talk to God about what you read in His Word. See how easy that is?

This works whether you’ve got five minutes or one hour. In either case, you never run out of anything to say; best of all, you never repeat yourself. Pray the Bible, and you’ll never again say the same old things about the same old things. You’ll pray about routine matters but in brand new ways. And you’ll find yourself praying about things you’d never otherwise pray for.

“Pray the Bible, and you’ll never again say the same old things about the same old things.”

The Psalms and elsewhere

The Psalms are the easiest places to learn how to pray the Bible. After all, they were inspired by God for the very purpose of reflecting on God through song. The next easiest are the New Testament letters. Once you’ve tried it (go for about seven minutes the first time), you’ll be able to pray through any part of the Bible.

As you pray this way, I believe you’ll experience prayer for what it is: a real conversation with a real Person. For the Bible is God speaking, isn’t it? Just like a real conversation, God speaks in His Word, then you speak to Him in His “own language,” as Joni Eareckson Tada has put it.

Pastor, this will help you not only in your private prayers but also in your prayers with others and in your public prayers. And it’s an excellent method to teach your people. 

If I had the space, I’d show you how the great man of prayer and faith—George Müller (1805-1888)—prayed the Bible daily. And how in Acts 4:23-30 the early church prayed the Psalms, after which verse 31 records, “When they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken.” And how on the cross, in two of the brief things He said (Mt. 27:46 and Lk. 23:46), Jesus prayed the Psalms. Why not you?

If you want to learn more about this method of prayer, see my little book, Praying the Bible (Crossway, 2016). For a free leader’s guide to teaching this to a group, click here.

Part 1 of this article can be found here.

Part 2 of this article can be found here.

Part 3 of this article can be found here.

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