A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World

I struggle to pray. I get distracted. I get busy. I can come up with a million reasons why prayer is hard. The end result is a prayerless life, or at least a life with much less prayer than is needed.

God’s been at work in my life driving me to prayer. Books like Beloved Dust by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel and Prayer by Timothy Keller have helped. So has a growing sense of helplessness — a good thing, as it turns out.

Paul Miller

Paul Miller

I recently read A Praying Life by Paul Miller, and I’m glad I did. It’s one of the most practical books I’ve read on the subject, and is helping me overcome some of my struggles in prayer.

Miller begins by describing all the reasons that people don’t pray. We wonder if prayer does anything, and even if God is listening. Not only that, our efforts to pray fall short, because we tend to focus on prayer rather than on God, which is like focusing on the windshield while driving rather than on the road.

The rest of the book is divided into five parts. In part one, Miller helps us learn how to pray as a child. “Come overwhelmed with life. Come with a wandering mind. Come messy,” he writes. We can come to God as we are, asking, believing, playing, and without much to offer, just as children do.

In part two, Miller helps us overcome our cynicism, which he calls the dominant spirit of the age. We will not pray as long as we are cynical. Miller explains how Jesus cures our cynicism and leads us into trust.

In part three, Miller explores the ways we pray about everything — even the small things — in our daily lives, knowing that God is both infinite and personal. God cares about parking spots and the small annoyances of parenting, such as how our kids pour milk. Miller helps teach us how to ask God, and also helps us understand Jesus’ extravagant promises about prayer.

In part four, Miller guides us to consider our lives last part of the bigger story that God is creating. “Often when you think everything has gone wrong,” he writes, “it’s just that you’re in the middle of a story.”

Finally, in part five, Miller gives us practical tools on how to pray using prayer cards and a prayer journal. He helps us understand how to hear from God without over-relying on our intuition.

Miller writes honestly as someone who has struggled with prayer himself, but also as someone who has learned to pray. The book is steeped in the reality of family life, and is, as some have called it, kind of a prayer memoir. Rather than a weakness, I see this as a strength. It not only teaches about prayer, but illustrates its teaching with stories from his own life and family.

A Praying Life illustrates what a real, messy life looks like when it’s a life of prayer. It makes a praying life seem attainable, and a prayerless life unimaginable. If you, like me, would like your life to be a praying one, then I highly recommend this book. I wish I’d read it years ago.

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My Three Biggest Struggles in Prayer

I don’t pray like I should. When I look at how Jesus prayed, I realize that my prayer life is anemic. I don’t say this to be humble or to exaggerate. I do pray; I just realize that my prayer life falls short of what I want it to be, and what it needs to be.

As I think about this, there are at least three reasons.

One: I’m not desperate. “A needy heart is a praying heart,” writes Paul Miller in his excellent book A Praying Life. “Dependency is the heartbeat of prayer.” I’m always needy, but I’m not always aware of my need. If I really grasped how much I need God, then I would be much quicker to pray.

Two: I’m not honest. I like to pray when I have my act together. I want God to see my best side. I have a much harder time praying when I’m tempted or struggling. More accurately, I have a hard time praying honestly when I’m tempted or struggling. This is a sign that I’m trusting in my own righteousness rather than in the righteousness of Christ. If I really understood the gospel, I’d be okay with coming to God no matter how I’m feeling. The gospel frees us to be honest in prayer and to come just as we are.

Three: I’m not bold. When I read Jesus’ lavish promises about prayer, I instinctively pull back. Can I really come boldly? Can I pray boldly, audaciously, relentlessly as Jesus seemed to teach? Is there really such a thing as mountain-moving prayer? I look for the footnotes, the conditions that will convince me that Jesus wasn’t really saying that I should keep on asking, seeking, and knocking. As a result, my prayers become safe and boring. Even I lose interest.

These are my three biggest issues in prayer. They also point me in the direction of a healthy prayer life. When I am desperate, honest, and bold, I am ready to pray. The best news: when the gospel sinks in, it frees me to be desperate, honest, and bold.

My prayer? That God would grant me a holy desperation, honesty, and boldness. Maybe you’ll pray with me?

Saturday Links

Links for your weekend reading:

The Letter of R.T. Kendall to the UK Church

R.T. Kendall's open letter to the UK church is good for all of us to read.

3 Ways Rising Secularism Affects Evangelism

Here are three ways I think our evangelism strategies will change in a post-Christian age.

There Isn’t a Way for Churches to Reach Millennials

There isn’t a way to reach millennials. There are many ways, because the real truth about millennials is they are people just like every other age group of people.

Introverts in the Dearest Place on Earth

Both extroverts and introverts must do the work to see that those with the gift of introversion are a grace to God’s Church.

Listening to Young Atheists

These students were, above all else, idealists who longed for authenticity, and having failed to find it in their churches, they settled for a non-belief that, while less grand in its promises, felt more genuine and attainable.

3 Reasons Pastors Should Reject Leadership Books

There are reasons, and seasons, that church leaders should avoid leadership books.

3 Reasons Pastors Should Read Leadership Books

If devotional life and Christian worldview are solid and accompanied by a growing love for people, church leaders can benefit from reading leadership books. Here are three reasons why.

Two Sets of Virtues

It occurred to me that there were two sets of virtues, the résumé virtues and the eulogy virtues. The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love? (David Brooks)

I’ll admit that I’m attracted to the résumé virtues. Who wouldn’t want to be known as a gifted communicator, a beloved pastor, a clear writer, and a successful church planter?

Then there are the eulogy virtues that will never make it onto a résumé. In fact, they may make my résumé less impressive: man of prayer, husband and father who made time for wife and kids, servant who didn’t chase limelight, good friend, man who cared.

A friend of mine was asked by a search committee what he desired if he came to their church. To his credit, he responded with a list that reflected mostly eulogy virtues. It would be great for the church to grow, but what he wanted most, he said, was to love the Lord more, to love his wife more, and so on. It wasn't the answer they expected.

The older I get, the more I recognize my desire for the résumé virtues, and the less I trust this desire. In the end, it’s the eulogy virtues that I really need. I’m praying instead for a character God can use rather than accomplishments others can admire.

The Benefits of an Annual Study Group

Every year I gather with a small group of pastors for a week. We meet the same week every year. The agenda is simple: on Tuesday morning we catch up, and then we get to work under the leadership of a Bible scholar. By the end of the week, we've completed our study of a book of the Bible or a theme (like the parables) and are on our way to being ready to preach what we've studied.

Photo compliments of Chris Brauns

Photo compliments of Chris Brauns

This honestly is a highlight of my year. Some reasons:

The relationships — Having met with the same group for a number of years now, I really appreciate these people and look forward to seeing them every year. There's something about walking with a group of fellow pastors over the long haul, even if you only see them once a year.

The Word — While pastors should always be in the Word, we have to fight for time of study. It is a treat to dedicate a few days to the in-depth study that we crave.

The format — It's one thing to read a commentary. It's another thing to have a commentator in the room. And it's one thing to work alone on the big idea and approach to a sermon based on a text. It's another thing to sit in a room full of sharp people and work on it together.

The break — I am usually tired by this time of year. I've come through winter and Easter, but haven't yet slowed down for summer. This May retreat is a good opportunity to take a breath and begin to slow down, or at least change gears from the frantic pace of ministry.

We're not the only ones who do this. Other formal and informal groups hold retreats or colloquiums. It meets a real need.

If you know some like-minded pastors with a high commitment to the Word, and they're interested in dedicating a few days a year to this kind of thing, then you have a lot of what's needed. I'll bet you can find a Bible scholar (completely optional) who would be delighted to help you work through a portion of Scripture as you prepare to preach it.

I've often wondered why groups like this aren't more common. Try it. Big conferences are good, but I'd trade ten of them for one of these.