Prayer: How to Start Praying

Two weeks ago, we discussed some reasons why praying can be difficult. This is the second part of that series.

When we are excited about starting something new, we tend to jump into the deep end. This isn’t necessarily bad — sometimes it’s good to start there! But other times jumping straight into the deep end simply overwhelms us and makes us not want to be in the water at all.

I’ve experienced this in prayer, and seen the experience played out in lives of loved ones. We hear a powerful sermon or hear a moving testimony of the power of prayer. We get a glimpse of what prayer can do in the life! So we clean out our closets (prayer room!), buy a brand new prayer journal, carve out two hours for prayer, commit to spending that time every single day. And we’re off!

I think all of those things are wonderful and even intensely helpful: having a designated place for meaningful prayer, having a dedicated book to capture prayers and answers to them, and committing specific times to seek God in prayer. All of those are wonderful. The problem, though, comes when we go from 0 to 100 and then become discouraged or start to feel guilty when we can’t maintain the 100. Does God still hear my heart’s cry when I’m washing dishes? Am I allowed to pray for this person for only 3 minutes? Will God still hear me? Do I have to write down every prayer to reap the full benefits?

If you already have a vibrant prayer life, then I praise God! And this post is not for you. If you’re struggling to find a rhythm, or you simply want to start praying regularly, then this post is for you. 

Photo by Jeremy Yap on Unsplash

Talk to God as to a Friend

God is infinitely holy, yes, and He is also intensely close and desires a personal relationship with us. If you need an example of vulnerable, tell-it-like-it-is prayers, peruse the Psalms. David ranges from anger to depression, from intense joy to gratitude. His prayers are, frankly, emotional and honest. We are encouraged to, “Trust in Him at all times…pour out your heart before Him. God is a refuge for us. Selah.” (Psalm 62:8).

Sometimes we think that God only cares about the spiritual things: He wants us to pray for the salvation of others, our understanding of Scripture, and like…physical healing maybe. But that is not the picture that Jesus draws for us in Matthew 6. Instead, He mentions clothing and food — i.e. the foundational and essential needs we have just to live life. He says that the Father knows our need of these things (Matthew 6:32). Anything that is on our mind, God wants to hear about it.

An absolute gem of a quote puts it this way:

Keep your wants, your joys, your sorrows, your cares, and your fears before God. You cannot burden Him; you cannot weary Him. He who numbers the hairs of your head is not indifferent to the wants of His children. “The Lord is very pitiful, and of tender mercy.” James 5:11. His heart of love is touched by our sorrows and even by our utterances of them. Take to Him everything that perplexes the mind. Nothing is too great for Him to bear, for He holds up worlds, He rules over all the affairs of the universe. Nothing that in any way concerns our peace is too small for Him to notice. There is no chapter in our experience too dark for Him to read; there is no perplexity too difficult for Him to unravel. No calamity can befall the least of His children, no anxiety harass the soul, no joy cheer, no sincere prayer escape the lips, of which our heavenly Father is unobservant, or in which He takes no immediate interest. “He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds.” Psalm 147:3. The relations between God and each soul are as distinct and full as though there were not another soul upon the earth to share His watchcare, not another soul for whom He gave His beloved Son.*

Thinking of God this way helps me really bring to Him whatever is on my mind. Yes, I pray for the salvation of loved ones. I also pray for their jobs, their peace, being able to see them again soon. I pray for wisdom as I study Object-Oriented Programming, and I ask that God would use me to be an encouragement to my study partners. When I’m just feeling off (like as I write this), I ask God to help me not let my emotions determine the outcome of my day. I ask for wisdom to know why my lower back has been hurting lately and to find a way to take better care of it. I ask God to guide David and I as we take care of Everest. I ask for Him to guide an upcoming conversation next week that I’m nervous about and I don’t know what to say. I ask God to replace my fear and anxiety about our current global situation with His pervasive peace. 

There are no thees and thous in my prayers, because that’s not how I actually talk. I’m respectful, of course, but I’m also very real. 

If you’re not used to praying this way, it might be helpful to envision you’re talking to a good friend who wants to know all the details. Because that’s what you’re actually doing. Nothing is too little or too big for His attention. He wants to hear all the things. 

Focus on Quality Instead of Quantity

I used to set a timer for my prayer time and wouldn’t let myself get up until it finished. Now, that may be helpful for some people, but it simply became an exercise in legalism for me. Some days, I spend a long time praying because I have a lot to pray about. Other days, because of my schedule or just because, I pray less. But every conversation with a close friend is not the same length. There is not a prescribed amount of time that has to pass before we receive God’s blessing. 

There is one focus that is sort of related to amount of time: don’t be in a rush. This is hard for me because my favorite part of the day is getting things done in quick succession. But we need to take the time to lay our burdens at His feet and then take up His peace in its place. That’s a process and it takes time. How much time? It depends. But if I’m trying to break a world-record of getting-peace-quick, I miss the point of prayer; I miss the focus of connecting with God. 

Thus, sit quietly. Set apart enough time that you don’t feel like you’re rushing or that you’ll be late for something, and just talk to God as to a friend. 

Another thing: although this set-apart-time is wonderful and needed, it does not have to be the only time you pray. You are allowed to pray when you’re washing dishes! When you’re walking to your car. When you’re sitting at a table with family. God’s ears are always open to use — so don’t think you can only seek Him in prescribed times. 

Use Tools That Actually Help You

I’ve started and stopped more prayer journals than I can count. But prayer journals don’t work for me. After lots of trial and error, my prayer time looks like this:

I write a row of triangles every morning. I always start with praises and praying for David (and little Everest—I want her to be well trained!). Then I pray for a few friends that the Lord brings to mind. I also pray for family members. Then I pray for the day, through the tasks I’ve lined up, and then I pray for things in the future: a speaking engagement coming up, the possibility of doing the graduate program for my current programming course. In the journalling part of my daily spread, I may record answers to prayer, or prayers written out long hand. But it’s not a requirement. I write these triangles to focus my mind, not to keep a 100% accurate record of what I did or did not pray for. Jesus can keep that record. 

Some people love to write all of their prayers out by hand. Others like to keep detailed notes of who they’re praying for and when and how God answered those prayers. Some people use flashcards and put people’s names on them. Some people do none of the above. All of these options are tools. But don’t mistake tools for salvific essentials in your time with God. Only use that which helps you connect with God, helps you lean into your time with Him. Stay away from things that just add more requirements and guilt that God never intended for you. 

How Do I Start Right Now?

Great question. Taking from what we’ve discussed above, I suggest finding the next hour-ish of time that you can set apart. Tell your loved ones that you want to be alone during this time. Take a Bible and maybe a journal and pen, but not your phone (trust me on this one). And then just talk to God about whatever’s on your heart and mind. Tell Him all the things. Then seek to do it again the next day. Might help to do it in the same time each day for consistency, but no worries if not. Ask Him to guide you to Scriptures that speak to your situation. Read a psalm or two. And remember the focus: communion with God. 

I see prayer a lot like calling my mom. Whether I call her every day or I miss a week or two, she’s just as happy to hear from me. She doesn’t guilt-trip me for not calling her or not telling her something earlier: she’s just happy to talk with me, hear about my life, and share hers with me, too. Because she loves me. And so does God; somehow, even more. 

* Steps to Christ, page 100, paragraph 1