The Ministry of Prayer: The Terrain for Prayer (Fan into Flame, 14)

T.M. Moore is the editor of the Worldview Church and serves both as a writer and a theological consultant for the Colson Center for Christian Worldview.

“But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”

-          Acts 6:4

Now, there are two things that must marvelously move us to pray. First, the instruction of God by which he commands us to pray. Secondly, the promise whereby he assures us that we shall obtain all that which we will ask. For, those who invoke him, seek him, and depend on him, receive a singular consolation inasmuch as they know that, in doing that, they do a thing pleasing to him. Moreover, being assured of his truth, let them certainly trust that he will answer their prayer.

-          Calvin, Instruction in Faith 1537

The Word first of all

For those called to the ministry of the Word, fanning into flame their calling from the Lord must begin with improving their skills the use of the Scriptures. We have considered what that requires and have assessed our progress and needs in this regard.

Yet our devotion to the Word of God must never be very far from our commitment to seeking the Lord in prayer. As the Apostles testified, Scripture and prayer are the two foundational duties of the shepherds of God’s flocks. So, at the same time we work to improve our skills in the ministry of the Word, we must also work at developing our understanding and use of prayer.

Prayer brings the wind of the Spirit into the life of faith, stimulating the embers of longing for God to grow into a steady flame of desire and communion. In this second part of our series on fanning into flame the calling appointed to us by the Lord, we will look at various ways to improve our use of the discipline of prayer.

We begin by mapping out the terrain for prayer.

Biblical scope and depth
Our prayers will only be as effective as they are broad and deep. That is, what we don’t commit to prayer we will probably never much realize; and if our prayers lack full devotion of heart, mind, and conscience, we may rightly expect our Lord to regard them similarly.

The Apostle Paul instructs us to pray about everything with thanks and supplications (Phil. 4:6, 7). The scope of our prayers, that is, is as large as the world and everything in it. Can we possibly hope to encompass so great a universe of things in our prayers?

I believe we can, and, indeed, we must. Many people try to assure a proper scope to their prayers by using either a formula for prayer or a prayer list. Formulas (think: ACTS) and lists can be helpful; however, they can also be limiting since, by definition, they only mark out a certain “patch” of the terrain of prayer.

The same is true concerning the depth of our prayers. How can we ensure that, in prayer, our minds, hearts, and consciences are as fully and sincerely engaged as God intends? Lists and formulas can only be of limited help in this regard.

Is it possible to achieve some Biblical foundation and direction for discerning the scope and depth which ought to define our prayers?

My short answer is to look to the psalms. In the psalms – the largest book of the Bible, as we know – we find songs, prayers, testimonies, and other scripts that can be useful in guiding us into the full field of prayer, both as to its scope and its depth. The psalms have served as the prayer book of God’s people since they first began to be assembled. In our day there are encouraging signs that believers are rediscovering the power and blessing of learning to pray the psalms.

By praying through the psalms on a regular basis we can be sure of two things. First, we will cover the field of all that God is seeking from us in prayer. The psalms guide us in seeking the Lord for every area of life. They also, second, engage all the resources of our souls and lives, enlightening our minds, engaging our affections, examining our priorities and values at every turn, and guiding all our words and deeds.

Learn to pray the psalms, let the psalms provide your formula and list for prayer, and devote yourself to continually improving in this discipline. Thus you may be assured that, increasingly, your prayers will traverse the whole terrain of all that God expects from His people. Praying the psalms can become a spiritual gymnasium for working out constant improvement in the breadth and depth of your prayers.

Time for prayer
Pastors struggle with the discipline of prayer, and not because they don’t think prayer is important. We all understand that Paul instructs us to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). Unless we are to regard that instruction as just so much spiritual hyperbole, we’ll need to figure out some way of making this a working part of our ministries.

Time in prayer is just as important as breadth and depth. Indeed, we will have a hard time achieving a proper scope in our prayers apart from allotting sufficient time to the work. The Apostles in Jerusalem understood that important tasks had to be attended to for the wellbeing of the congregation. But they also recognized that those tasks, if they were to take them on, could jeopardize their ability to fulfill their primary callings. Someone else would have to step up to manage the daily needs of the church. The Apostles would concentrate on the Word and prayer.

Gaining enough time for prayer begins by looking at our schedules. How much of what we do in the work of ministry doesn’t need to be done by us? Are we allowing a “tyranny of the urgent” to drain off time we might otherwise devote to prayer? Are we depriving deacons and elders and other servants of God of opportunities for serving the Body of Christ because we insist on doing everything ourselves?

Learn to manage your time better and you’ll discover that you have more time available for the work of prayer. I’ll have more to suggest in this regard in just a bit.

Desire for prayer
But getting rid of things that occupy time we might devote to prayer – necessary things, but not necessarily our things – will not ensure that this time goes to this important work. Unless we hunger for prayer, like the deer thirsts for water (Ps. 42:1), the time we gain we may lose to other busyness.

What is your attitude toward prayer? Is prayer the spiritual breath of your daily walk with the Lord? The inbreathing and outbreathing of your soul’s deepest longings? In physical life, if we cease breathing, we die. The same is true in our spiritual lives. Thus it behooves us to understand the promise of prayer if we are to make best use of this great privilege and responsibility.

The promise of prayer is nothing other than God Himself. He promises to show us “great things and mysteries” in prayer (Jer. 33:3), and certainly nothing is greater or more mysterious than the Lord Himself. The goal of prayer is communion with our heavenly Father, spiritual intercourse within His glory. In God’s presence are fullness of joy and pleasures pure and everlasting (Ps. 16:11). It seems to me that, if we really believed this, we would hurry to prayer much more frequently and eagerly than we do.

Here there is no substitute for simply pleading with God to teach and help you in your prayers. As much as you can, in the moments you are able to recover for prayer, pour out your heart before the Lord, asking Him to give you a new vision and greater desire for prayer. Call upon Him, and persist in this (Is. 62:6, 7); ask, seek, and knock at the Lord’s gate, pleading with Him to blow across the prayer embers of your heart until He fans into flame a greater longing for His presence and, thus, a keener desire to meet with Him in prayer.

Pray without ceasing
By making time throughout the day to seek the Lord for a greater desire for prayer you can begin to improve in Paul’s instruction that we should pray without ceasing. Paul means what he says here. As Calvin observed, “For when should the many sins of which we are conscious allow us nonchalantly to stop praying as suppliants for pardon of our guilt and penalty? When do temptations yield us a truce from hastening after help? Moreover, zeal for the Kingdom of God and his glory ought so to lay hold on us, not intermittently but constantly, that the same opportunity may ever remain ours. It is therefore not in vain that constancy in prayer is enjoined upon us” (Institutes III.XX.7).

Here I will offer a few suggestions for bringing prayer more consistently into your waking moments.

Set appointments for prayer. It has been the practice of believers in every generation to observe “hours of prayers”, as we see in the practice of the Apostles (cf. Acts 3:1). To clarify, observing the hours of prayer means coming before the Lord at certain times and not necessarily for long hours of prayer at a time – although extended seasons of solitude and prayer can also be most beneficial

Be alert to the Spirit’s cues. God’s Spirit is at work within us, to make us willing and able to do what pleases Him (Phil. 2:13). If the psalms are to be believed, God is pleased when we turn to Him in prayer as prompted by circumstances, emotional states, observations of the creation, words from others (whether threatening or blessing), remembrances of others, and much more. Everything at any moment can be a prompt from God’s Spirit for a word of thanks, praise, or intercession, whether spoken or unspoken. And every such opportunity and moment invested in prayer can prolong and enrich this sweet communion.

Sing to the Lord. We’re not good at this, we must admit. Christians sing when they have to – as, for example, in worship. But we don’t sing much throughout the day, even though singing is an indication of the filling of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 5:18-21). Practice singing to the Lord, especially the psalms, and let singing become a part of your daily repertoire of prayer.

Pray at every opportunity. No meeting, conversation, appointment, email to a friend, or task should be engaged without prayer. Pray at the beginning and end, pray to yourself during, and review your day at the end of it in prayer before the Lord.

We can pray improve in Paul’s challenge to pray without ceasing. And we will be more likely to do so once we’ve begun to improve the scope and depth of our prayers and have captured the time and attitude necessary for prayer to be as important a part of our calling as the ministry of the Word.

Christian_Ministry_by_BridgesNext steps: How would you assess the state of your prayers at this time? What might you do to begin capturing more of your time for prayer? Share your thoughts about these with your spouse or a close friend.

For more insight to the work of pastoral ministry, order a copy of Charles Bridges’ excellent classic, The Christian Ministry, from our online store. I would also like to encourage you to get James Sire’s excellent book, Learning to Pray through the Psalms.