I’m not generally a pray-on-my-knees type of girl, but there was one evening while I was in college when I fell to my knees in the middle of my dorm room. Thankfully my roommate was out for the evening because things got really messy. For several minutes I sat there rocking back and forth as my legs went numb and I sobbed out the prayers for a friend who weighed heavy on my heart.
There are days when I lift up the needs for my friends kind of half-heartedly. Either I’m not sure what to pray or I don’t take the time to sit with God and figure out how to express what’s on my heart.
Other times, like that night in college, the words pour out of my soul in a mix of snot and the same words repeated over and over again.
I meant every word I prayed that night, and the memory still sticks with me as I keep waiting for God to answer.
Prayer doesn’t have to be a big emotional experience for it to be meaningful. It does however need to tap into the deep places of our heart.
Too often prayer just feels like another thing we have to do–some obligation we need to fulfill. We’ve already talked about how prayer is a conversation with God, a chance to commune with Him. We also discussed how prayer is more than just talking to God, but in order to grow in our relationship with Him, we actually need to make space to listen to what He has to say.
Today it’s time to tackle meaningful prayer and how to pray in a way that is more than routine.
When you pray…
“And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him (Matthew 6:5-8, ESV).”
At that time Jesus spoke these words during His Sermon on the Mount, some of the religious leaders were making a show of religion. They were parading themselves in front of everyone, trying to prove what good Jews they were, when in reality, they provided excellent examples of what not to do when it comes to prayer.
Jesus uses their examples to deliver some important truths about what it means to pray with our whole hearts:
1. Meaningful prayer lets go of performance and accepts the invitation to meet with God.
Meaningful prayer is not about performance. Sometimes it feels that way, though, doesn’t it?
There are times when I’m praying with a group of people and I’m hearing their eloquent or honest words and I can’t help but feel like I need to say something pretty and holy too. Or maybe you don’t feel like you need to perform for other people, but prayer feels like a performance for God. It’s easy to get caught up in legalistic ideas that we need to pray these words, for this amount of time, this many times a day.
But unlike the religious leaders at the time who stood out in public and declared loud prayers to God, prayer is not a performance. It’s not something we do to please other people, or to show them that we are good Christians. It isn’t even something we have to do to please God so that He will do what we want Him to do.
When we enter into times of prayer with the mindset that we need to do this and do it right, it’s a glaringly empty experience.
So if it’s not a performance, what is it?
Jesus says it well.
Prayer is an invitation to meet with the Father in the secret place.
That might mean actually going into a quiet space in your home, like a prayer closet or war room. Or it could mean writing your prayers in your journal or silently praying in the secret places of your heart.
Wherever you decide to pray, it’s meant to be between you and God. This is the place where you can come and be vulnerable. This is the place where you can come with all of your honest emotions and needs and lay it all out before God without feeling like you need to censor anything.
2. Meaningful prayer doesn’t count the words; it makes the words count.
It can be tempting to feel like we need to pray for a certain amount of time or hit a certain word count in order for our words to be heard. We keep talking and talking, hoping we’ll somehow stumble upon a magic combination of words that will move God to take action.
But God isn’t swayed by our words. What I mean by that is, there is no “right way” to pray so that God hears you and answers your prayer when and how you want.
God knows what you need even before you speak a word in prayer (verse 8). That won’t ever change.
What does change, however, is your heart.
The answer to our prayers isn’t always changed circumstances, but a changed heart. That happens when we’re willing to come before the Lord honestly and let our words carry some weight behind them.
The truth is, some of the most powerful prayers are the shortest.
“God, I need you.”
God isn’t looking for the right kind of prayers. What He is looking for is the right motivation and heart behind those prayers.
Ways to cultivate meaningful prayer
When it comes down to it, any prayer–no matter the length or the words we use–can be meaningful. We just need to give ourselves the freedom to move past viewing prayer as a habit and begin looking at it as a meaningful time with God.
To do that, here are three ways to help you cultivate a meaningful prayer life:
1. Slow down. There are times when I’m scrolling through Facebook and I see someone’s post requesting prayer. I’ll say a quick prayer (most of the time out of a feeling of obligation) and keep scrolling. Or sometimes I won’t stop to pray at all. There are times when someone asks me for prayer when they’re standing right in front of me and I promise to pray for them later, but usually forget. And there are other times during my personal prayer time that I skim the surface of my heart, anxious to start tackling my to-do list.
Maybe you’ve experienced one or all of those situations before. We know prayer is important, but we don’t often stop to take the time or make the time to pray. We’re so busy rushing around that we think we don’t have time, but we’ve already talked about how it doesn’t have to take much time. And, you know what? What if it does? Would it really be so bad to let our schedule and our Facebook scrolling be interrupted so that we can give our requests to God and seek His guidance?
2. Write it down. I’ve found that I’m easily distracted when it comes to prayer time. My mind wanders and I can quickly forget what I was praying for. To help combat that, I write a lot of prayers in my journal (or sometimes, if I’m alone, I’ll talk to God out loud as if He were sitting right across from me). Writing those prayers down makes me think about what I’m saying. It’s not just word vomit on a page. It keeps me focused, but it also serves as a record for later when I look back and see all those places where God has been faithful.
And yeah, I know, it’s going to take time (maybe read #1 again), but I promise you, taking that extra time and effort to record your prayers rather than just letting them float around in your head is so worth it. How about taking some time to write down your prayers today?
3. Lay it down. Prayer isn’t always a pleasant experience. When I allow it, prayer can tap into a very deep and painful part of my heart. Sometimes during prayer God can drudge up wounds and lies I believe. He may unveil emotions I’ve been trying not to deal with. I may be asked to surrender something I’ve been holding onto.
It’s okay if prayer gets messy. It’s okay to struggle with God in prayer. If we’re going to make our prayer time meaningful, we have to be willing to talk about what really matters to us–even the hard stuff…especially the hard stuff.
Prayer is so much more than a routine.
Prayer draws us into the very presence of God and it changes us. As we share what matters and welcome God into our daily lives through prayer we get to know Him better, we learn to trust Him more, and we learn how to come to Him with our whole hearts.
If prayer has been a struggle for you lately, I challenge you to take one of these things we’ve talked about here and put it into practice this week. Maybe that means finding a notebook and writing down your prayers. Maybe it means tapping into that vulnerable place of your heart and welcoming God into it. Maybe it means slowing down a little or putting some power behind the words you pray. Whatever it is, spend some time today seeking God.
Live in His love!