Jesus Christ modeled for us not just the kind of prayer we should pray in the Lord’s Prayer, but also a life of prayer and communion with the Father. In the gospels, there are 15 accounts of Jesus praying. The question has been asked, “If Jesus, both fully God and fully man, needed to pray, how much more do we need to pray?” Jesus prayed early in the morning (Mark 1:35) and late at night (Mark 6:46; Luke 6:12-13; Matthew 26:36-44).
Jesus is not our only example. But if you’re like me, when you hear stories of men and women who spend hours each morning praying, it is not encouraging but discouraging. You look at their standard and feel hopeless. For instance, Dave Earley lists these examples:
- George Muller said that he could accomplish more in four hours of work after an hour of prayer than in five hours of work.
- Christians in South Korea today hold prayer services at 4am, 5am and 6am with 12,000 attending from one church.
- John Wesley and Martin Luther both started their days with 1-2 hours of prayer.
We must grapple with the very real fact that most of us consider ourselves too busy to find time to pray. There is really not much we can say to justify our lack of prayer. We spend our time on things that we value. Because our culture values busyness, we remain busy (among other reasons).
We find ourselves with daily disciplines of checking email or brushing teeth or watching a favorite TV show or doing dishes, but somehow prayer escapes us. Philip Yancey remarks that sociologists noticed in the 1970s a remarkable shift from a culture that valued self-denial to one that loved self-fulfillment.
“Under these new rules, prayer loses. It requires discipline, involves persevering through periods of darkness and dryness, and its results are difficult to measure. Rarely does it satisfy emotional cravings right away. Indeed, the New Testament presents prayer as a weapon in a prolonged struggle. Jesus’ parables on prayer show a widow pestering a judge and a man pounding on his neighbor’s door” (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference, p. 164).
One of the best questions we can ask ourselves is, “When do you pray?” Do you put prayer on your daily calendar? Is it one of your to-dos? One person said that it was very easy to skip prayer when it was put on a calendar as “7:00-7:30am: Prayer” but much harder when labeled “God.”
The reality is that as our lives change, so will our schedule of praying. Richard Baxter, Puritan pastor, counseled people to find “the fittest time for prayer, the fittest place for prayer, and the fittest preparation of heart” for prayer. Your time of prayer will not look like mine. Maybe Saturdays are best. Maybe its during the commute to work. Or maybe its on a lunch break.
Richard Foster writes wisely about our tendency to use our lack of time as an excuse.
“We cannot assume that time will somehow magically appear. We will never have time for prayer—we must make time. On this score we have to be ruthless with our rationalizations. We must never, for instance, excuse our prayerlessness under the guise of ‘always living prayerfully.’ John Dalyrymple rightly observes, ‘The truth is that we only learn to pray all the time everywhere after we have resolutely set about praying some of the time somewhere.’”
I have never been an early riser, but I am disciplining myself. I find that my kids will wake up with me if I set the alarm for 7:00, but they sleep through my buzzer prior to that. So I am trying to wake up earlier than I’d like, leave my laptop and phone off, and spend time with God. And I come to the church every Friday at 7:15am for prayer. Even though I have been doing this for years, it is still a discipline.
What about you? When do you pray?
As I have taught this ordo salutis at my church, we have exposed ourselves to the spiritual disciplines. Evangelicals regularly emphasize such disciplines as Bible reading and prayer, the Lord’s Supper, and community. They may even encourage other forms of spiritual discipline without labeling them. As far as I know, it is only since Richard Foster’s release of The Celebration of Discipline several decades ago that evangelicals have started to embrace the broad spectrum of spiritual disciplines as valuable.
Spiritual disciplines are a means of grace. They are part of the “path of disciplined grace” as Foster says. This does not mean they are the sole means of grace, but any discussion of the avenues God has appointed to distribute His grace to us would be severely lacking without mention of them. They are, as Dallas Willard says, wisdom not righteousness. In the disciplines, we do not earn righteousness but become wise toward the ways of God.
Galatians 6:8 says, “Those who sow to please their sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; those who sow to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” Richard Foster comments, “A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines–they are a way of sowing to the Spirit…. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done” (Celebration of Discipline, p. 7).
G.K. Chesterton writes in Orthodoxy something to the effect that we falsely assume that something consistent does not have life in it, such as a clock. We are wrong. Consistency is actually a sign of life. He gives the example of children who say, “Do it again,” to parents who get tired quickly and then says God may be much younger than we. Our inconsistency gives away the death within us. The spiritual disciplines are, if anything, the consistent way to let God breathe life into us.
Inward disciplines are those that one does in solitary that no one knows about. These are those Jesus speaks about in Matthew 6 where we must be careful not to get our reward from people observing our deeds of righteousness. Outward disciplines are ones that one does where there is evidence of the act. They are not necessarily done alone—in fact, some of them seem to require a relationship with others. But they are not done intentionally with others. And corporate disciplines are those done together with a consistent group of other Christians. The adjectives describe a person’s relationship to those around him while practicing the disciplines.
Think of it like raising a child. A child, as he grows up, learns new things that will prepare him for life. He learns how to set an alarm clock and wake up early, how to manage his money, how to behave around the opposite sex, how to respect his elders. All of these practices are new at one time but, in time, become a part of who he is. Eventually, he is one who wakes up early, one who can manage his money, etc. And, in time, he becomes a person who wakes up because it makes him a better businessman. He manages his money because it enables financial freedom.
We practice the spiritual disciplines not only so we can be people of prayer, etc. but people for whom prayer provides an avenue for God to change us. If we want to be people of character, of virtue, prepared and ready to rule and reign as people reflecting God’s image in the world, then we must subject ourselves to this path of disciplined grace. And we must remember that change will take time.
Dallas Willard gives correction to those who would complain about the difficulty of the disciplines, as if following Jesus were simple and easy. “Ironically, in our efforts to avoid the necessary pains of discipline we miss the easy yoke and light burden [that Jesus spoke of in Matthew 11]. We then fall into the rending frustration of trying to do and be the Christian we know we ought to be without the necessary insight and strength that only discipline can provide. We become unbalanced and are unable to handle our lives” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, p. 7).
Here is a list of some of the basic spiritual disciplines taken from Adele Calhoun’s Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.