If you had to describe your prayer life in one word, what would you choose? Fulfilling? Effective? Joyful?
Or do words like irregular, inconsistent, or blah ring truer?
I’ve been there. And up until fairly recently, I haven’t been concerned, thinking it was normal, and thus OK. What I soon realized is that being content with a lackluster prayer life exposes an anemic view of God. It makes God seem optional instead of supreme and distant instead of approachable by faith in Christ. He is worthy of so much more than my excuses and laziness.
A more joyful prayer life may be closer than you realize, even if you have no idea how to get there. God wants us to enjoy him in prayer, and sometimes all it takes is a small onramp of truth to take us to the highway of joyful prayer and deeper communion with God.
Onramp #1: Meditate on God as our Father.
In the opening words of the Lord’s Prayer, our Lord invites us to address our prayers to, “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9; emphasis added). Seeing God primarily as Father keeps us from seeing him as a harsh judge, an impersonal higher being, or a wish-granting magic genie.
Our all-powerful and loving Father loves us as his children and seeks our best. He has the power and desire to guide our lives, answer our prayers, and work out his purposes in us. Our relational link with our Heavenly Father is unbreakable and his love for us unending.
Knowing implications of our sonship gives us confidence in prayer to our Father. “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (Romans 8:31b–32).
When you struggle in prayer, take heart that your Father knows. Take heart that even when you do not feel love toward God, you can draw near through the awareness of his love for you. All it takes is the mention of the word ‘Father’ to enter into a world of delight.
Onramp #2: Confess your sins.
During difficult spiritual seasons of my life, guilt over my sin kept me from prayer. How could someone as unworthy as me approach a holy God? This attitude betrays a weak understanding of the gospel. God knows our sin and invites us to confess our sins and receive his cleansing (1 John 1:9; c.f. Matthew 6:12; Psalm 32).
According to Calvin,
[T]he beginning, and even the preparation, of proper prayer is the plea for pardon with a humble and sincere confession of guilt…it is no wonder if believers open for themselves the door to prayer with this key…
When feeling crushed by the weight of your sin, take hold of the key of confession and enter through the door to prayer. Let your sin drive you to heartfelt confession and confident joy in the Christ who came to rescue sinners and give them access to the Father (1 Timothy 1:15; cf. Hebrews 4:16).
Onramp #3: Pray prayers that God loves to answer.
God wants to hear your prayers for “the prayer of the upright is His delight” (Proverbs 15:8 NASB). He also guarantees to answer certain prayers. Why not take God at his Word and pray the following?
Pray for wisdom.
James 1:5 says, “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” God will grant you wisdom for any situation—you just need to ask.
Pray according to God’s will.
Consider 1 John 5:14-15, “And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him.” This promise (that can also be expressed as praying in Jesus’ name) should embolden our prayers and sharpen our expectancy.
Since Scripture is God’s revealed will, praying the words of Scripture back to God powerfully apply this truth. Note the following examples:
- Pray to be sanctified (1 Thessalonians 4:3).
- Pray for a renewed mind and set-apart life (Romans 12:1–2).
- Pray to bear fruit by abiding in Christ (John 15:1–8).
- Pray for the grace to please Christ in your work (Ephesians 6:5–8).
- Pray for joy and the Spirit’s presence amidst suffering (Romans 5:3–5).
Pray the Bible’s prayers.
The Bible provides a storehouse of Spirit-inspired prayers. Whether it be the prayers of the apostle Paul, Moses, or Jesus Himself (c.f. Matthew 6:9–14; John 17), praying the words of Scripture helps us approach God with words of his choosing so we think on things and ask for things near to His heart. (John Piper put together a list of all the New Testament prayer requests.)
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I’ve seen how God has answered my persistent prayers echoing the request of Paul in Ephesians 1:15-23 for a deeper spiritual understanding of the hope, love, and power of the gospel—things I would never have prayed for without Paul’s example. These answers to prayer fuel my desire to pray.
Praying for these things doesn’t guarantee he’ll answer as we like, but will act as a guardrail to keep us from stepping out of his will and bring our hearts in-line with His purposes.
Onramp #4: Give Thanks.
Giving thanks lifts our eyes from focusing on our circumstances by reminding us of all God has done for us in Christ. When coupled with genuine prayer, it leads to experiencing the world-transcending peace of God (Philippians 4:6-7).
Famed Bible commentator Matthew Henry provides a perfect example of how thanksgiving leads to joy as he reflected on having his wallet stolen:
1) I am thankful that he never robbed me before.
2) I am thankful that although he took my wallet, he did not take my life.
3) Although he took all I had, it was not much.
4) I am glad that it was I who was robbed, not I who did the robbing.
Henry’s thankfulness turned a traumatic situation into an opportunity to behold God’s grace. As blood-bought children of God with an eternal inheritance, we always have reason to give thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18). Let a thankful, gospel-focused heart lead you into joyful communion with the Father.
Onramp #5: Meditate on the promises of God.
The riches of the gospel are too big and glorious to fully wrap our minds around and can only be grasped in increasing measure as we sweat to comprehend them. Calvin says, “[W]e dig up by prayer the treasures that were pointed out by the Lord’s gospel, and which our faith has gazed upon.” We only unearth some gospel treasures by the spade of prayer.
Meditating on God’s “precious and very great promises” (2 Peter 1:4) will take you deeper into the unsearchable riches of Christ and cause awe and wonder to spill from your lips. I suggest meditating on specific promises for circumstances in your life: your struggles, your doubts, your relationships, your work, etc. As God’s promises wash over your mind and heart, you will enter into greater joy.
The best praying man is the man who is most believingly familiar with the promises of God. After all, prayer is nothing but taking God’s promises to him, and saying to him, ‘Do as thou hast said.’
Prayer: the path to fuller joy in God
Knowing onramps to joyful prayer isn’t the same as taking them daily. We must grow in prayer by setting aside time and pursuing God diligently. This isn’t just a New Year’s resolution, it is a life resolution.
In many ways, this whole article is a misnomer. Our goal should not be merely joyful prayer, but joy in God through prayer. As we discipline ourselves toward that end, our faith will be strengthened and lives enriched as we live more and more in his presence where there is fullness of joy (Psalm 16:11).
Editor’s Note: Kevin Halloran’s new book is When Prayer Is a Struggle: A Practical Guide for Overcoming Obstacles in Prayer. Pastor Colin Smith called the book, “A treasure chest of wise and practical counsel. . . . This book will expand your horizons and give you a new vision for how you can pray more effectively.”