Whenever a new year begins, our society encourages us to “turn over a new leaf” in self-improvement areas such as fitness, diet, and personal goals. And while it can be good to establish fresh vision and discipline in these areas, none of them are as important as our daily time with Jesus Christ. Yet it’s all too easy to allow time with Christ to fall by the wayside, simply because we don’t have a clear vision for how to structure our prayer times. Time with Christ can begin to feel stale and dutiful unless we are purposeful about protecting our prayer life and cultivating our daily intimacy with Him.
But how do we connect with the King of the universe in a significant way? There is no magic formula for prayer and seeking God, and every prayer time will probably be a little different. But a good rule of thumb is this – make it all about Him, instead of all about you. Meditate on His goodness, faithfulness, and majesty. Praise Him for all He has done in your life. Thank Him for His astounding work of redemption in your soul. Dwell upon His amazing promises and reckon them as fact, no matter what your feelings or past experience might say. Worship songs, Scripture, and Christ-centered books or sermons can all assist you in doing this.
Of course it’s not wrong to tell God about your fears, hopes, dreams, and feelings. In fact, the Bible tells us to “cast our cares upon Him” (1 Peter 5:7) and to “present our requests to God” (Phil 4:6). But far too many of us spend the majority of our prayer and quiet times meditating upon how we feel rather than upon who God is. When we behold the beauty of our King, our own thoughts, feelings, and worries will fade into the background. As we delight in Him, He grants us the desires of our heart. As we turn our eyes to Him and away from ourselves, He “fills us all in all” (Eph 1:23).
Here are a few other tools that have helped me maintain freshness and focus in my prayer life:
KEEP A PRAYER JOURNAL
I love to keep a prayer journal because it allows me to record the faithfulness of God in my life. Whenever I am walking through a season where my faith is being tested, it is uplifting to read back over my journal throughout the past years or months, and see how many times God has come through for me.
Spend some time thinking through what tools could assist you in having more effective prayer and quiet times. Can you set aside an area of the house that is quiet and free from distractions? Can you download some worship music or audio Scripture to listen to while you pray and meditate upon Him? Word of Promise is one of my favorite audio Bibles, because it is professionally dramatized and is enhanced with beautiful music. Starting out a prayer time by playing a few of the Psalms from Word of Promise has proven a wonderful tool to help usher me into the presence of God.
EMBRACE GODLY DISCIPLINE
During the seasons of my life in which I have embraced a disciplined lifestyle as an act of worship, my intimacy with Christ has flourished. But whenever I say, “It doesn’t matter how much time I spend in prayer,” I find that my relationship with Him slips to the back burner, and I end up talking a lot about Him without really knowing Him. It is not the mere act of “being disciplined” that draws me close to Christ. But discipline allows me to hear His voice, understand His Truth, and connect with His heart in a way that is impossible when I’m controlled by selfishness and apathy.
It is important to recognize that godly discipline and human willpower are two different things. Willpower only lasts temporarily and is dependent upon our own ability. Godly discipline goes far beyond mere human “oomph” and comes through yielding to His Spirit and relying on His grace. It is impossible in our own strength. Even if personal discipline doesn’t come naturally for you, remember that anyone can embrace godly discipline. All you must do is take steps of obedience and call upon Him for the strength and grace to do what you could never do on our own.
Here are some practical ways to start building godly discipline into your life:
* Memorize a simple scripture to recite the moment your alarm goes off. I love to whisper Psalm 118:24 first thing in the morning: “This is the day that the Lord has made; I will rejoice and be glad in it.” Meditating upon Truth turns my focus toward my King and helps me to ignore my body’s plea to pull the covers back over my head.
* Recruit an accountability partner with whom you can honestly share the areas in your life that need greater discipline. Ask that person to pray with you and encourage you as you seek to make changes in these areas, by the grace of God. Having a trusted friend with whom you can share your failures and successes can make a tremendous difference in pushing you toward a more disciplined lifestyle, enabled by God’s grace.
* Start gradually. If you are used to waking up at 9 a.m. and you try to switch cold turkey to a 5 a.m. wake-up time, chances are you will wane in your commitment after a day or two. Instead, try setting your alarm for 20 minutes earlier for the first couple of days. Then, set it for another 20 minutes earlier and work on that new discipline for a few days. Continue this pattern until you have reached the wake-up time that you feel God is asking of you. Let your body get used to change over a period of a few weeks. You can do the same for lengthening your prayer sessions. If you have only been spending five minutes a day in prayer, don’t jump to an hour (unless of course you believe that God is asking you to do so!) Instead, add an additional five minutes each day until you reach the length that you feel God desires.
Remember that every step to build godly discipline into our lives should be an outflow of our love for Christ, not a way to gain spiritual “brownie points” or prove our own righteousness (since we have none outside of Christ anyway!).
GET BACK UP ON THE HORSE
Most of us will go through unusual seasons in which regular, consistent prayer just doesn’t happen. It may be the birth of a child, a hospital stay, a family emergency, and so on, when every spare moment of our time and energy is given to “survival mode.” Last year, Eric and I walked through a season like this. For several weeks, we were in the midst of an intense crisis involving several people that we were close to. And while we did pray during that season, it was just short bursts of crying out to God whenever we could steal away for a few minutes.
I knew that God was giving us grace for what we were walking through, and that He was sustaining us supernaturally even though it wasn’t possible for us to spend hours in prayer each day. But as soon as things calmed down and life returned to a relatively normal pace, I knew it was time to build regular, consistent prayer back into our lives.
When life seems to buck me off my normal prayer routine, I have learned to rise up on the strength of God and get back in the saddle as soon as I possibly can. Instead of feeling like I somehow have to play “spiritual catch up” when I haven’t spent much time in prayer for a while, I rest in the comforting fact that I can pick up right where I left off. No matter what I have walked through, my God is unchanging and He is always ready and waiting for me to cast my cares upon Him!
When prayer is missing from our life and we are controlled by temporal cares and pursuits, we’ll spend countless time and energy trying to make our life work, constantly failing and beating our head against the wall in frustration. But as it says in Psalm 1, when we meditate upon our Lord day and night, we become like a tree that “brings forth much fruit” – and everything that we do just somehow works. Life becomes fruitful instead of frustrating.