Prayer and how it is used in Spiritual formation

Prayer and how it is used in Spiritual formation

God wants people to pray. Jesus set the example. He prayed. He taught His followers to pray, and how not to pray. He brought His closest followers with Him to keep watch and to pray, as He began His hardest day in prayer.

The apostles call on believers to be in “unceasing prayer” ( Romans 12:12, Colossians 4:2; 1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:18; Jude 20; 1 Peter 4:7; Philippians 4:6.) Paul was a pray-er, too ( 2 Corinthians 13:7; Ephesians 1:16-23; Philippians 1:9; 2 Thessalonians 1:11).

The early church urged its members to pray intercessions for all. The early church even prayed for their government’s rulers, who were often trying to stop them and (rarely) even kill them. Their concerns were not just for their own.

The more your heart opens out to God in prayer, the more that your prayers will buoy your daily life. Spiritual disciplines and practices assist us in this opening-out.

THINKING IS NOT PRAYING (in Spiritual formation)

There’s a big difference between just thinking something and praying it to God. Prayer has a direction. You’re not churning it in your brain or sharing it with friends or talking it over with a psychologist or getting in touch with your inner self.

Prayer is directed to God — acknowledging not only God’s existence, but also a relationship and even a certain degree of trust. Prayer’s not a waste of time because God is hard at work in this confused, ambiguous world, to draw it toward God’s good purposes.

Prayer is your response to God’s work. If there’s no one there, if there’s no way to relate or even communicate, or if a wrathful god would strike you down just for trying, why would anyone pray? There’s an unspoken hope in each prayer, even if it hangs by a thread or is the size of a mustard seed, that somehow the mightiest being of all thinks you matter. God’s response also has a direction : you will not be left adrift or be led nowhere (unless, like Israel in the Sinai, you have a lesson to learn from the drifting).

ASKING AMISS (is not Spiritual formation)

Prayer is no place for illusions. Yet, each of us clings to illusions, and we will end up somehow bringing them into our prayers. This leads to what James called “asking amiss”. The Spirit is working to tell us the truth, and the growth of our prayer relationship with God depends on how well we take heed.

PUPPETEERING (is not Spiritual formation)

One of the growing problems of the church is that it can’t seem to get it through its thick skull that God controls the outcome of prayer. Not the Church, not the minister, not the person who prays.

It’s not at all rare that a pastor does a political sermon where he is doing nothing more than playing ventriloquist with a dummy labeled ‘God’. (Aside from being idolatrous, it’s not funny.) So it is also with the “health and wealth” pseudo-gospel where the church ‘prays’ with the attitude of a puppeteer : pull the string, and God’s hand stretches out to send forth a blessing. God is not a genie in a lamp; our wish is not God’s command. God is not a PEZ dispenser, where you lift the head and out comes a treat. If we are asking anything in prayer, we are to be asking, not putting in a 1-800 call to a divine telemarketing service or clicking our prayer mouse to reach a multi-level marketeer in some level of heaven. (God doesn’t outsource divine attention. God receives your prayer call direct.) God is bigger than you, so don’t go bossing God around.

USING GOD (in Spiritual formation)

Jesus taught us to pray that God’s will be done. That means seeking God’s purposes instead of seeking a new car or a passing grade or a fast-track promotion or a miraculous sign. Jesus didn’t promise earthly bliss in 30 days or less. Jesus’ promises are for those who abide in Him, who put themselves at His service and draw their love from His. His brother James (4:3) said you don’t receive, because you ask so you can spend it on pleasures for yourself. There is such a thing as the wrath of God, and one sure way to provoke it is to try to jerk God around for one’s own advantage. God has something great in store; pray for it!

LAUNDRY LIST PRAYER (is not praying for Spiritual formation)

Prayer is not a laundry list. It is communication with someone you love and trust. Don’t only pray when you want something, and don’t stop praying once you run out of things you want.
Prayer is as much listening (‘meditation’) as it is talking, as much a sharing as it is a plea for help. Yet, God has asked us (even dared us?) to ask. Nothing’s too small, too big, too hard, or for that matter too twisted by our selfishness or lack of perception, for God to hear our prayer and take account of it.

Ask, and ye shall receive — but often ye shall receive something else that’s more in keeping with what God needs from you. And it will come in God’s time, not ours. God promises those who believe in Christ a loving response.

LABELS and NAME-CALLING (is not prayer in Spiritual formation)

In the Bible, Jesus shares the story about a fixture in the religious community who when praying thanked God he is not like that traitorous tax collecting low-life scum over there. It’s not only an example of being prideful, it’s an example of reducing a person to a category. Categories are useful for understanding data, but they’re dreadful for understanding a person. Categories don’t tell the truth about people; people just don’t fit. You may not be as out front about it as the proud man of the parable. But do you ever pray about people as if they would have some pre-slotted attitude or worth? It’s not hard to find people who pray to God about a “godless liberal” or “heathen” or “hypocrite” or “snob”, and so on. But treating people according to a label can be almost as harmful when we mean good by it, because we’re not treating that specific person as the person they actually are. It’s bad enough that the world around us depersonalizes people; it’s sin for followers of Christ to do so, since we know better. Christ died not just for all of us, but for each of us. Them, too. Pray like it!


A practice that’s most commonly associated with recent spiritual awakenings is that of seeking times of silence in our lives. It’s hard to hear the Spirit with all the noise around us. So, many Christians have learned to take some small part of each day and set it aside for silence. This means shutting off the beeper, turning off the TV and radio, taking the phone off the hook, and closing the door. Or, it means walking off to the beach or garden or mountain, as Jesus Himself did, and not doing anything but leaving yourself open to the Lord.

This time set aside for silence during the day is often called ‘quiet time’. It’s usually done first thing in the morning, but some people have been able to use their train or bus ride to work for it, or perhaps they slip off to a neglected cubbyhole of their workplace during coffee break or lunch. Quiet time, as with other devotional activities, can help give some divine rhythm to the daily routine.

That takes care of outside noise. But what about the inner noise? Our own mind is constantly thinking about what to do, what’s going to happen, what others are thinking, and what we aspire to or lust after. That sort of stuff is also noise, at least to our spirit. To turn that off, the ancients did something very simple: they breathed. That is, they breathed through their nose, slowly, deeply, using their diaphragm, focusing their mind on the act of breathing.

The body reacts to this sort of breathing by relaxing; muscle tension fades away, and blood pressure drops. The mind reacts, too. As your body relaxes, your thoughts focus down on the one bodily action you can’t shut off. This leaves more of your mind free to hear God whispering to you.

Many Christians who use quiet time lead into it with a certain kind of noise: praise or intercessory prayer (prayer that asks for our needs and for the needs of others). Most of us find it easier to be quiet once we take off the weight of our burdens for those we love and lay them before God. But others, especially those of a ‘contemplative’ approach, find that to be too ‘noisy’.

The first thing they do is listen to God in silence, and then lead out of it with intercessions. Whatever order you find useful, trust that God will receive your prayers and will speak to you in the silence.

Quiet time is more than just a daily appointment with God. It’s more like a visit with your closest friend. It’s especially important for those of us who’ve made our lives in such a way that we’d make God get an appointment to speak to us. Good relationships need the time; they can’t live as just another item on the agenda, yet they are lost if time isn’t specifically set aside for them.


If quiet time is a daily spiritual need, then there may be times when a longer stretch of solitude may be needed. For that, there is the ‘retreat’. This is done by going to a specific place away from where you live and work, away from hobbies and duties, families and habits, media and pressures. It can be done totally alone, or with just a spiritual director or sponsor, or with a small group of people who have a common purpose or bond.

It works because it thoroughly separates you from life as you know it for more than just a few minutes a day. This gives you a chance to step outside of your entire way of life for a little while and see it from a different angle. The retreat time can help you get back in touch with parts of yourself that had been bypassed in daily life for the sake of efficiency or to avoid the pain.

It can be a time of extended discussion with God, of throwing forth thoughts and feelings, working things out, being still and waiting on the Lord. A retreat may well refresh you with quiet rest, but if that’s all the ‘retreat’ is, then it’s just another vacation. The spiritual retreat is time spent with God.


“Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy”, goes one of the Ten Commandments. The sabbath is one day every week, a time set aside for not working, but resting, and for attending to one’s faith in God.

In our daily living in this world, we can get tricked into measuring our own value and those around us by what we accomplish, either in quality or quantity. But neither quality nor quantity are the measure of a person. We are measured by a different stick, the one a loving God uses for God’s children.

Sabbath is not a time for running away, but for regaining perspective, and taking the time for worship of the One on whom our value depends, and being with others who are doing the same thing.

But how does one keep a Sabbath? Some hints :

1.Turn off your beeper. And your fax.
2. Take the mobile phone out of your purse or off your belt. 3. Use your car as little as you can get away with, getting rid of those piddly car trips for little things, especially when you can do the task by walking or biking.
4. Keep your computer off as much as you can. This will give you the time and freedom to be a carbon-based life form among other carbon-based life forms.

This all by itself will cause the day to seem like something special. If you’re a business person or are in charge of some ongoing activity, start keeping Sabbath by way of the art of delegation. Entrust others who do not observe sabbath (or do so on a different day) with the work that needs to be done on the Sabbath. And, while you can’t account for everything, plan ahead so that as little as possible is left to do that can’t be done the next day.

5. DO NOT USE THE SABBATH TO PLAN AHEAD FOR THE UPCOMING WEEK. (This is one of the top temptations for people of today’s world.) The world will still be there tomorrow, God will still be in charge of it, and you still won’t be.
6. Spend some time worshipping God with others. (I know some of you cringe at this, but for the most part this means go to church.)
7. Sing. Study. Pray. Laugh. And spend at least some of your time doing the things that help to keep the faithful flock faithful and strong.
8. Let go of the angers you’ve piled up over the week. Including the ones that crop up on the Sabbath, as they inevitably do.
8. Practice praying about anything you’re worried about. Trust God to deal with it all.
9. If you have a family, spend the rest of your time with them, with ample one-on-ones and full-family group activities.
They are God’s greatest gift to you aside from life itself, so be God’s great gift for them. Discover what they’re thinking and feeling. Maybe you can be with your parents or grandparents, honoring them as God commanded.
Or perhaps you’re single. Make visits to friends, and plan to do things with them. Invite people over for a dinner or barbecue or a sports get-together.
10. If you have that someone special, do something special with him/her. Building love is the holiest of tasks.
Say Hi! to someone you don’t know, and have a chat with them.
11. Do something good for someone else. Preferably someone you don’t want to do good for.
12. Relax. Sit by the pool, or on the porch. Take a nap.
13. Read a good book or watch a video, especially one which will help enrich or build your faith. Maybe take a stroll, to nowhere in particular.

Sabbath is a day of rest, so why do you do so little actual resting?

The Sabbath was not meant for running away. Human needs still happen around us on the Sabbath. God may have rested in creating the world, but the world does not rest. (Perhaps that might explain the law of entropy (in physics), in which all things tend toward inertia or inactivity: the world’s merely getting tired from having no rest.) Some Pharisees were watching Jesus closely to see whether Jesus would heal a leper on the Sabbath. He did, of course. When confronted with the man’s need, He had to act somehow. It would have been unGodly not to heal the man. Those Pharisees who were there at the scene thought otherwise, even though some teachers in their own part of the Jewish tradition held that there was no day that was wrong for doing good if the opportunity presented itself. They showed a loss of perspective and a hardness of heart. Let us be as Jesus in practicing the Sabbath, not as those Pharisees found in Mark 3.

JOURNALING (writing it down and keeping track)

Devotional journals have been everything from a child writing down her daily thoughts about God in a notebook, to complex systematic projects with structured Bible passages and discipline exercises and such.

Dan Phillips calls it simply “a written record of personal reactions to spiritual matters”. The key thing about writing a journal is that it’s a place to spiritually share yourself with God and with yourself. You’re pouring your thoughts out to God, but you’re also part of the audience, because you go back to it to see how you’ve spiritually grown — or perhaps shrank. (It’s not just journal-writing, it’s also journal-keeping.)

What kind of things go into it?

1. things you sense around you (observations)
2. places you’ve been and what you draw from them (pilgrimage and travel)
3. insights you’ve had along the way
4. prayers you’ve prayed (formally-written, poetic, or said/screamed/sobbed toward God).
5. special things that others have written or said.
6. ways you’ve surprised yourself.
7. things you’ve discovered while looking back in the journal.
8. dreams, if your dreams have some sort of spiritual angle to them.
9. that which comes to you while meditating on something.

As with most spiritual practices, there are important guidelines that help to make the journal effective. The most important is that you must be honest with yourself and God when writing.

You probably won’t get that right from the start. Few of us have any idea of what it really means to be honest to God, and so we have to learn as we go along. Another good guideline is that the date and time should be marked with each entry. You can refer to that when you’re looking back, or trying to remember. And, it is most helpful if the entries are tied into a rhythm of regular Bible reading (such as in a lectionary cycle) and private prayer.

This is a spiritual journal, not a diary. Its focus is on the relationship between you and God, not you and your spouse or you and your pastor or you and your psychiatrist.

Those others can be part of what you write about — anything can — but for the journal, they are to be seen through the lens of your relationship with God, and your living a life that is honestly spiritual.

Get yourself a good, sturdy book for it, perhaps a leather-bound journal with lots of pages. You’ll be taking it with you when you move, travel, go on a retreat, or make pilgrimage. It’s too important a task to be left to a flimsy notebook. Leave the book you’re currently using in plain view, so that it can beckon you to come and write. Think without analyzing. Leave yourself open so the Spirit can get you to share honestly as you’re writing. And don’t tell yourself, “nah, that’s too strange a thought”. Don’t censor it, just write it.

College Hour
University Pastor

University Pastor