For years, I was convinced I would always be a poor pray-er. After more than two decades as a Christian, I prayed infrequently, relying on a scattershot approach when I did so at all. But I knew that Jesus set an example for a prayerful life and that mine needed to change. I decided the weeks leading up to Easter offered an ideal time to address the situation. I planned to use those days to discipline myself and learn from the prayers of others—to lend my own prayer life more form by rising early to begin my day speaking with the Lord. The most difficult decision? Choosing the prayers I would use.
Using a written prayer might seem an empty ritual, but the practice has a rich history in the church. The psalms are essentially prayers set to music, and the Lord’s Prayer continues to be used in churches, both as a form and a model for communicating with God. Because I wanted to broaden and deepen my prayer life, I looked outside my own particular Christian context. I modified a prayer written by Pachomius, a fourth-century Christian, because of its emphasis on the Trinity. I also used the weekly devotional prayers in the Puritan text The Valley of Vision and selections from the Book of Common Prayer.
After making a plan, I set my alarm and went to sleep feeling hopeful. At 5:30 the next morning, I opened one eye, rolled out of bed, and before beginning my normal routine, mumbled my way through the prayer I had chosen. Later, as I ended that first day, I felt some of my old despair creeping back in because my “prayer life” seemed so segregated from everything else I did.
That pattern continued all week, but by day seven I began to see some changes. I started to look forward to the alarm. I also saw myself, prayer, and the Lord more clearly.
As I turned to the New Testament, I realized that what I was experiencing was true of everyone who encountered Jesus with a humble heart: when we put ourselves in His hands, He changes us. Not only that, but He also meets our needs and commissions us to proclaim Him and the eternal kingdom.
Genuine prayer includes first an admission that the situation is grim and we are worse than we thought.
Consider Peter, by tradition known as a burly and brash fisherman. When he meets Jesus, something changes so suddenly that he leaves his fishing nets—likely a generational business—to follow the Teacher. One of his earliest encounters with Jesus is just after a fruitless night of fishing. At this Nazarene carpenter’s urging, Peter pushes away from the shore for one last cast of the net. When the boats nearly sink under the weight of fish, Peter sees himself—and Jesus—more clearly than ever. “Go away from me, Lord,” he says. “I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8 NIV). But Jesus calls Peter to follow Him and promises that he will instead “catch” men.
Encountering Jesus in prayer should inspire us to see ourselves as Peter did. Genuine prayer includes first an admission that the situation is grim and we are worse than we thought. We do not come to Him in decent shape, in need of a little coaching to push us to the finish line. Instead, we are in desperate need of remaking and reshaping by the One who fashioned us in the first place. In my experiment, I felt that I was starting to see myself with Peter’s clarity, thanks to Psalm 51. Incorporated into the Pachomius prayer, this psalm opens with David crying for mercy because of his sin with Bathsheba. The most familiar part is David’s request for renewal, and I found his plea—“Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps. 51:10)—reverberating through my meetings and tasks.
As He did with Peter, the Lord sometimes seeks us out. Other times, meeting Him requires persistence on our part.
For instance, when four men brought a paralyzed friend to Jesus, they found Him beyond their reach. They could have gone home, could have waited for another day. Instead, they carried their friend onto the roof, made a hole, and lowered him into the house. Jesus’ response was not anger but compassion: “Friend, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20). Afterward, He also demonstrated His authority by healing the man’s paralysis.
The tenacity of those men in getting to Jesus had lasting impact on everyone there. It could also illustrate something important about prayer: We need not bear our burdens alone. One man carrying his friend to Jesus would have been very difficult, but four men shared the load and encouraged one another along the way. “Bear one another’s burdens,” Paul writes (Gal. 6:2). We can do this easily when we speak to the Lord on each other’s behalf.
The only result guaranteed by prayer is a changed pray-er. Prayer works miracles in people
Like all the spiritual disciplines, prayer is a practice, but not in the sense of practice for an eventual performance. The Greek root of practice means simply “to do.” And like any exercise, praying happens over and over as we learn its essential nature. It is not a daily performance—Jesus is the only one to perform the human life flawlessly. We are left to practice life, too, and we do that partly by praying.
Recently, when I brought my son for a checkup, the nurse gestured toward the step to the exam table. It is not built for the patient’s comfort or convenience. It is meant to give the doctor the best situation to examine and treat the patient.
Prayer is a little like that step my son used to climb onto the table. We use it to get to a place where the Great Physician can perform spiritual work in us that He alone can do. Scriptures that promise moved mountains sometimes lead us to view prayer as a kind of hotline to heaven, guaranteeing results for action. The only result guaranteed by prayer, however, is a changed pray-er. In other words, prayer works miracles in people, and the resulting shift in perspective helps the person seek God’s glory rather than his own.
Speaking to God is a means, not an end. But a means to what? Consider how Jesus’ encounter in Mark 10:47 demonstrates the way prayer can lead us to God, putting us at His mercy. Bartimaeus cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The blind man’s cries—his prayers—brought him to Jesus, from whom he received sight. As the weeks rolled on, I was coming to recognize how praying was doing the same in me. Prayer was not just opening my eyes, but also healing them.
As I offered the same words again and again, I began to see my former prayerlessness for what it was: pride. I was arrogant in my self-sufficiency. I had been focusing on what I considered most important. But that daily, written prayer forced me to confront the same things every day: my powerlessness and God’s sovereignty; my sinfulness and God’s mercy; my hardheartedness and God’s great love.
John Wesley once wrote, “God does nothing but by prayer, and everything with it.” Over the course of several weeks, I experienced that truth firsthand. I had begun my journey hoping God would change my prayer life, give it better structure and more frequency. Both occurred, yes, but not in the way I expected. My prayers led me to Jesus, who, like a gentle craftsman, changed my prayers by changing me.