Samuel Lee, the great Puritan writer, argued,
Prayer is the soul’s colloquy with God, and secret prayer is a conference with God upon admission into the private chamber of heaven. When you have shut your own closet, when God and your soul are alone, with this key you open the chambers of paradise and enter the closet of divine love.
As the medieval philosophers noted, every choice is a renunciation – a thousand renunciations. To choose one thing is to abandon another. You cannot, as the age-old saying goes, have your cake and eat it too. As in Genesis, choose the one tree and lose privileges at the other. To choose God is to differentiate yourself from the world. To want intimacy with Him is to abandon all other gods.
John Guest offered a balanced perspective:
Prayer is first and foremost an expression of an intimate relationship with God.
Prayer includes discipline, but it is not merely a discipline. It involves setting aside a regular time and place, but it is not merely an item on our schedule. It includes asking for things we need, but it is not merely a shopping list of requests and rejoicings. It involves speaking to God and God speaking to us, but it is not merely an exchange of memoranda.
More than anything else, prayer is a relationship. When we reduce it to a regimen, we deprive ourselves of what all who knew God throughout the Scriptures expressed in their prayers: that God is alive, and the He knows us and lets Himself be known by us, that we can enjoy a deep and intimate personal relationship with Him in prayer.
Prayer itself, the act, is an expression of your need to live out of God’s life, and not merely invite Him into yours. It is more than a fleeting feeling. If you attempt to sustain your prayer life merely out of emotional highs, positive moods, even good intentions, you will fail. A healthy prayer life is found in the balance of both a private and corporate ritual, one as simple as the commitment to pray daily and attend church weekly; to be a part of a small prayer group and also to pray with one’s spouse on a regular basis. Commitment. Ritual – and by that we mean the rigor of a predictable routine. Despite one’s feelings, one’s sense of whether the experience is profitable or not, we should pray. The daily meeting with God is habitual. The ancient John of the Cross noted that in prayer we fight:
…boredom, tiredness, lack of energy. It’s hard, very hard, existentially impossible, to crank up the energy, day in and day out, to pray with real affectivity, real feeling, and real heart. We simply cannot sustain that kind of energy and enthusiasm. We’re human beings, limited in our energies, and chronically too tired, too dissipated, and torn in various directions to sustain prayer on the basis of feelings. We need something else to help us. What?
The answer is ‘ritual – a rhythm, a routine.’ Ritual in a noble sense. Once you embrace a daily/weekly rhythm, the personal and the corporate, you begin to live by that cadence. It is no longer about the immediate euphoria of any given morning of prayer or weekly worship service. It is about obedience and consistency of life. The discipline itself does not change us: God changes us, but the ritual and routine that galvanizes discipline becomes the context into which God’s transforming power is infused.
We sometimes have romantic ideas about prayer and encounters in our attempts to develop a life of prayer that actually distort our perception of prayer and serve to discourage regular daily times of prayer with God. In truth, bright lights and a booming voice is rare. On some mornings, there may be no new, life-changing insight. Good relationships are long-term, and at the same time daily. As Rolheiser reminds us,
Nobody can…sustain high energy all the time, or fully invest himself or herself all the time…Real life doesn’t work that way. Neither does prayer. What sustains a relationship over the long term is ritual, routine, a regular rhythm that incarnates the commitment.
Those who have aging parents visit them, not for the take-way – particularly those with afflictions such as Alzheimer’s – they visit not for the joy, but out of dutiful love! They go despite the feelings with which they wrestle, the disappointments that may exist about how the life of their parent has ended. This is the greater love – not self-serving love, not love looking for a pay-off, but genuine agape. Those who are raising teens ask them the hard questions even if it means processing through a grand hassle, and they do so out of love! You pray because you love God, and He loves you! Your daily time is a declaration of that love, and it opens the cosmic door on your side and intentionally invites Him into your life.
Dawson Trotman, founder of the Navigators, observed that discipline without must be matched by the desire within. We sometimes intensify activity, crank up the will, and see prayer as a kind of power plant, the boiler room of the church. In the distance, God is calling, “Come away!” He is wooing us back to the place we once were when He asks us, “Do you love me? Feed my sheep!” In the flurry of a growing flock, in the feeding of the sheep, it is possible to lose the relationship with Him. Like a couple, busy raising their children, the fruit of their love, running from the supermarket to soccer games, somehow they lose one another in the middle of what the relationship itself created.
A study of mice revealed the deadly impact of amphetamine, both in groups and alone. Researchers determined that it takes twenty times as much amphetamine to kill an individual mouse than to kill a mouse in a group. In a group of mice given a deadly dose, a mouse not administered the drug will still be overcome by the mere impact of the deadly effect of the drug on his peers. Within ten minutes of being in a group of dying mice on the drug, the drug-free mouse will succumb. Dallas Willard charges, “Western men and women, especially, talk a great deal about being individuals. But our conformity to social pattern is hardly less remarkable than that of mice – and just as deadly.” Prayer is the great differentiator. It sets us apart from the group. It takes us out of the rat race. It is the moment when we make our daily declaration, “God is enough!” In solitude, we find what Dallas Willard calls ‘the psychic distance’ necessary to be free from the crowd.
Stop for a minute and evaluate your own prayer life. Is it duty or delight? Is it regular or fleeting? Are you cultivating a relationship or loosing sight of our ultimate purpose here on earth? Declare your love for God. Stay the course. Each day is a new day to commit to Him.
This blog is part of The Praying Church Handbook – Volume III – Pastor and the Congregation which can be purchased at alivepublications.org>
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 Samuel Lee, “Secret Prayer Successfully Managed,” The Puritans on Prayer. Ed: Don Kistler (Morgan, PA; Soli Deo Gloria, 1995), 239-293, 245.
 John Guest, Only a Prayer Away: Finding Deeper Intimacy with God (Ann Arbor, MI: Vine, 1985), 75.
 Ronald Rolheiser, Our One Great Act of Fidelity (New York: Doubleday Religion, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, 2011), 78.
 Ibid 80.
 Dallas Willard, The Spirit of the Disciplines (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1988), 160-161.
 Ibid, 161.