Getting Good at Prayer Isn't the Point

A pastor's primer on praying.

John Ortberg

If you ever feel guilty about not praying enough, raise your mental hand. If someone at a party were to ask you: "How is your prayer life these days?" (which, by the way, is a great way to kill a conversation at a party), what would you say? Is the state of your prayer life determined by how often you pray? How long you pray? Is it measured by how many people you are praying for, or how much faith you pray with, or how many prayers get answered?

Why is it that some pastors pray fervently and frequently, yet their ministry always seems to be a struggle? Why do others pray rarely, yet their churches boom? Prayer has an essential relationship to ministry, yet there's a mystery to it. One day Jesus' disciples came to him with a difficult ministry challenge—an exorcism they could not perform. With a word, Jesus cast out the demon. The disciples asked, "Why couldn't we drive out the demon?"

"This kind only comes out by prayer," Jesus told them. But here's what's curious—Jesus didn't pray. He just told the demon to leave. And it did.

Perhaps Jesus was already prayed up. Perhaps for Jesus, prayer was embedded in a larger context of life in which prayer permeated every moment.

Many years ago I read words that helped me to understand Jesus and ministry and prayer in a new way: To believe is to begin to pray.

Believing and Praying

To believe as Jesus did doesn't just mean believing that God exists. It means to believe he's always present. That's a different level of awareness, which begins to turn all my words into prayer.

We can understand this by thinking about speaking in the presence of another person. There are three possibilities:

1. I can speak to someone.

2. I can speak in the presence of someone.

3. I can speak in the absence of someone.

If I'm speaking in the absence of someone ("behind their back"), I might say something I would not say in their presence ("to their face" or knowing they will hear my words).

In fact, the strain of managing my words in the presence of others is why pastors look forward to being done with an elder meeting or the church door greeting line, so I can just "be myself."

When it comes to God, we know Scenario #1 is possible (I can speak to God), and Scenario #2 is possible (I can speak to someone else aware of God's presence). But we can forget that Scenario #3 is not possible ("where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?").

Yes, at times God "hides" himself from us. God does not force his presence upon us, and we can live as though God were not present. This leads to oddities in our spiritual lives. I went to a Christian college where in the cafeteria we would play the "thumbs game" to see who would pray. The last one to raise his thumb (the loser) would have to pray over the meal: "Heavenly Father, we are grateful to be in your presence and grateful for this food."

Years later it occurred to me that God must wonder, "If it's such an honor to pray to me, how come the loser is the pray-er?" It's as if, while we were playing the thumbs game, we thought God was not watching. Then when we bowed our heads, we were suddenly on the heavenly radar.

Jesus never did this. Jesus knew his Father was listening not just when he prayed but all the time. For Jesus, the line between praying and just speaking in God's presence thinned out to the point of disappearing. This is why, when he healed people, sometimes Jesus would address his Father, and other times address the person he was going to heal.

He actually comments on this directly when he's about to raise Lazarus: "I thank you that you hear me. I know that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here" (John 11:42).

In other words, the goal of prayer is not to get good at prayer, not to see who can spend the longest time in prayer. (Jesus said not to pray like the pagans who believe they will be heard because of their many words.) The goal is not to pray with greater feelings of certainty, or greater eloquence, or even greater frequency.

The goal of prayer is to live all my life and to do all my ministry in the joyful awareness that God is present, right here, right now. This is the prayer-filled life that can sustain and empower a life of ministry.

Courts of Disclosure

Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper said that the structure of every human being resembles, in a way, the structure of the tabernacle. There is an outer court, where everyone is allowed. This is the area of my public ministry, where people hear me preach and watch me lead. Everybody sees my public image, and often because of the nature of ministry, people evaluate it. Someone said to me this past weekend: "That sermon was better than normal." (Do church attenders stay up all night figuring out ambiguous compliments?)

Then there is a Holy Place, where access is restricted. You have this too, a smaller chamber where only those you admit are allowed. Prayer here with those close to us will bring us life. I have a few "fully-disclosing friends" before whom I have no secrets. With them I confess, and then pray both to receive forgiveness and to be strengthened for the future. Inviting the right people into the Holy Place may be the biggest predictor of your longevity in ministry.

But then there is a most sacred place, very small and carefully guarded. This is the Holy of Holies. There is room here for only one person and God.

You too have one of these. It is unspeakably precious. It does not matter whether your church is large or small; whether you are young or old, whether your role is visible or unseen. If all is not well in your Holy of Holies, no glory in the outer courts can sustain you. If your life with God is joyful and whole there, no disturbance in the Outer Court can destroy you.

Often the mood in my Holy of Holies is dictated by how things are going in the Outer Court. If many people are happy there, if more people than expected came to church last week, if the sermon seemed to go well, then I am grateful and happy in my core. At least till next week.

But for Jesus, life began in the Holy of Holies; alone, with his Father, and flowed out from there.

Let Ministry Drive your Prayer

Jesus prayed. Jesus allowed his ministry to move him to focused prayer.

Jesus prayed when life was crowded and draining. After he began his ministry and the demands on his time and energy increased, we're told that "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." Sometimes seasons of ministry that are outwardly most successful are inwardly most vulnerable.

Jesus prayed when he faced important choices. When it was time to select his closest friends, his disciples, he asked for guidance. "Jesus went out into the mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve …"

Henri Nouwen noted that with Jesus the order was solitude, community, ministry. With me it's often the reverse—I began with my little dreams, and if they don't work, I try to get other people to come help me. And if that doesn't work, I tell God he needs to bless me.

Jesus prayed when he was sad or frightened. When John the Baptist was arrested and eventually killed, Jesus withdrew to a lonely place to be alone with his Father.

Jesus prayed when he needed strength for his work. While it was dark, Jesus would go away from the demands of the crowds talk to God.

Jesus prayed when he was worried about the people he loved. Just before his crucifixion, he warned Peter about the trials that he would face. Amazingly enough he didn't warn or lecture or fix Peter. He just told him, "I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail."

Jesus prayed when he faced insurmountable problems. In the garden of Gethsemane, he knelt down to surrender his will to the will of the Father. It puts my struggles with under-resourced budgets and unmet goals in perspective.

I often find I feel guilty when I read about those descriptions of Jesus at prayer, but I'm not sure guilt is much of a prayer help over the long haul. I'll sometimes ask pastors, "Do you think Jesus prayed because he wanted to pray, or because he thought he should pray?

I don't think Jesus had a little journal where he'd give himself a gold star every morning that he said the Lord's Prayer. I think he wanted to pray. I think that for us to pray much, or deeply, we need to move from what we think we should do to what we want to do. But that won't happen if we just tell ourselves that we should want to pray.

Here are some ways of praying that have increased my want-to.

Gratitude

The apostle Paul, who knew something about "all circumstances," once wrote, "Give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus." Contemporary social science research continually underscores the tremendous power that the practice of gratitude carries for human flourishing.

As a pastor, I want to be the most grateful person in my congregation. So I have begun a practice of regularly writing down five items for which I'm grateful, and then thanking God for them.

I find it helps me to make them items that are small and humble. If I'm successful at something, I might feel pleasure in it, but dwelling on it (for me) quickly moves toward ego boosting.

To be helpful, these items don't need to be dramatic but they need to be real enough to produce a surge of joy and thanksgiving in my spirit. It may be a conversation I had with one of my children. It might be the taste of Peet's coffee early in the morning. It might be the sight of Baxter the dog romping in a field; or a good two-iron shot on a golf course. (If you're out in a thunderstorm grab a two-iron, for as Lee Trevino once said, "Even God can't hit a two-iron.")

Then I connect the dots and remember that these are gifts from God, and reflect on how good God is. I find that I naturally want to do this.

Mental Hygiene Prayer

This is a form of prayer that I've adapted from cognitive therapy. I have done this for the last couple of years—often several times a day. It follows an ABCDE outline:

Antecedent—a circumstance that troubles me. For instance, I get an email complaining about a sermon. I name this to God.

Beliefs—I write down and confess to God all the troubling beliefs this triggers: "It wasn't a good sermon. I must be disappointing everyone. I'm losing the ability to preach. People will know I'm a phony."

Consequence of these beliefs—I ask the Spirit to help me understand my own emotions: I feel depressed. Negative about the future. Ashamed.

Dispute the beliefs—Together with God I name truths that I can stand on: God (and my mom) still loves me no matter how my preaching goes. One person's response doesn't mean everyone felt that way. I don't want to be the kind of person whose heart depends on getting applause from everybody every week. I want to be the kind of person that lives in freedom.

Energized outcome—I reflect with God on how this prayer brings life to my spirit: I am more hopeful. Less self-preoccupied. I am more encouraged.

I find myself wanting to engage in this form of prayer because it is so genuinely helpful to me in "taking every thought captive." Without it, I can stew over a bad sermon or a congregational complaint or a troubling elder meeting or a conflict with a staff person for a long time.

Prayers in God's World

It took me too many years to pay attention to where I pray. People sometimes speak of a "prayer closet," but I don't tend to want to spend much time in a closet. Then I noticed that Jesus often prayed in places of great beauty or barrenness: on a mountain, or in a garden, or on a lake, or in the wilderness.

So I pray outside much more often than I used to. I will even leave my office at church to take a walk outside for a few minutes to pray during the work day. Somehow God seems closer to me when I'm closer to what he made.

Particular Examen

This language comes from Saint Ignatius; it's a kind of "fearless moral inventory" that I take at the end of the day for that particular sin which is most damaging for my own spiritual life.

The goal of prayer is to live all my life in the joyful awareness that God is present.

For me, at least in this season, it's the sin of self-love. I'll ask God for help. Then I walk through my day, one scene at a time, identifying moments when I engaged in behaviors displeasing to God and reflected my own tendency to put myself ahead of God and other people.

I remember a meeting where a coworker made a sarcastic comment. Instead of confronting it appropriately, I ignored it, because it was easier for me to avoid than to muster the courage that confronting would have required. I remember telling my wife that I was late because of the traffic, when the real reason was I simply didn't want to interrupt what I was doing enough to make it on time.

Oddly enough, I find myself looking forward to this prayer—because it helps me catch myself more quickly during the day, and has the power to lead me (at least a little) toward my best self.

Intercession

Several years ago a teacher who had a huge impact on my friends and me passed away. At his funeral, his son showed me the Greek New Testament where, decades ago, he'd written the name of myself, then my wife, then our three children to pray for us each week. It was profoundly moving.

So I started a similar list in the back of my (English) Bible. I have the names of numbers of leaders at our church—and their families—written down for each day of the week. There's something about the thought that I carry on the same tradition as Dr. Hawthorne that helps make this prayer moving for me.

Marching Orders

One of the early members of AA talked about a tradition their little group had of spending a few moments listening to see if God had anything for them to do that day. It was rarely anything dramatic, most often a small act of service. Write a note of encouragement. Go back and correct a mistake at work from yesterday. Straighten your room. Pay a bill.

I thought this was good training for people in ministry, because it's so easy for us to focus only on God's big callings. But in ministry we can also get so caught up in what I want to do that I lose willingness to say yes to God's call.

So I take a little time during prayer to just listen, see if there are any small tasks that come to mind, and practice saying yes.

I have found that, when it comes to prayer, experimenting with different "hows" helps me "want to" pray more. Prayer is such a mystery to me that I'm not sure my prayer life is better now than when I started out in ministry many years ago. But maybe that's not the point. I believe in prayer now in ways that I did not understand then.

And to believe is to begin to pray.