My prayer life has evolved in stages.
First came what I can only call the listicle stage, wherein I communicated with God mostly in…well, lists: lists of things I needed, lists of things I was thankful for, lists of prayers for people I loved, lists of things I wanted forgiveness for. This is a great way to start praying – it’s easy and simple. Children especially love this: if you sit with them long enough you’ll hear prayers for mushrooms and toenails and their invisible friend Angus down the street.
After a time, though, listing things wasn’t enough, and I evolved into the “buddy” stage: the stage of talking at God. About me. And about everything else. Most (Protestant) Christians come to this form of prayer naturally; we’re taught that God loves us and is interested in us and wants to be a part of our lives, and so we start to “talk” to Him, mingling the conversations with the aforementioned lists. We share our thoughts, our ideas, and our hopes, and we add that to the intercessory prayer we’re already doing for ourselves and others.
For me for a long time, and I’d guess most Christians, the evolution of prayer comes to rest there for a while. We try to pray as much as we can throughout the day, touching base with God here and there, throwing up prayers or talking to Him about Bible verses we’ve read or whatever happens to be on our mind. And let me be clear: that’s really good. The Bible encourages us “in every situation” to “present [our] requests to God” (Philippians 4:6-7).
And yet I’ve become convicted in the last several years that most of my prayers are about…me. I’m talking at God most of the time, presenting Him with my lists of needs and worries, filling up the air with my thoughts and opinions and feelings, without allowing room for a conversation. Two questions nagged at me for a long time every time I sat down to pray: what am I giving to God with my prayer? And in what ways can I allow God to speak, to make this more about Him and less about me?
The Lord’s Prayer that Christ models for us begins not with supplication nor self; it begins with a recognition of who God is, an invocation of God’s greatness and His presence and His power in the world. As I dwelt on that, I began to add a new component to the way I prayed: a deliberate gifting-to-God time, a focused-on-God time that was not centered on me, my needs, or what I was thinking or feeling, but on my understanding of God and what He wants from me. Here are some of the different ways I do it, depending on my mood or the moment:
- I focus on who God is and I praise that and dwell in it. God delights in praise and is present in the praises of His people (Psalm 22:3). The act of praise, for us to acknowledge to God who God is, is a gift to God that is entirely selfless. There are different ways to do this. Sometimes I focus on different aspects of the Trinity. Sometimes I focus on just one. Sometimes I go through a list of names for God that I know, and focus on one or several of those. The point is to honor God, to affirm His nature and to recognize Him by acknowledging Him. In a time of trial I might focus on Jesus as a healer and prince of peace. At other times I might focus on the Holy Spirit as a comforter. Here’s an example: Father God, you are so much greater than me. I can’t fathom what you know or what you’ve planned for those who love you. Above the world, above our understanding of time and space, you patiently work Your will. You are Holy and worthy of praise and I am amazed by everything that I don’t know, but trust that you know. And in your great might, though you did not need us, you chose to love us and to save us.
- I pray in remembrance. Often, in the Old Testament, God commanded the Israelites to mark the site of His great works or their experiences with stones. In the New Testament, Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord’s Supper as a way for them to remember what He will do for them. One way to praise God is to touch on your own history in a similar memory: to go back and to recall to God, with praise, the ways in which you have been delivered or saved.
- Dwell in something you have read about God, or in Scripture. For me, if I read a particularly stirring passage in a book by an author I love, like C.S. Lewis or Philip Yancey, that book makes me think about God differently. So I will periodically dwell on something I’ve learned, this new truth about God, and how it informs my understanding of how awesome He is. Additionally, sometimes it helps just to find a Bible verse – the Psalms are good for this – and to either pray that, or dwell in the spirit of the author of what has been written.
I’m sure there are certainly more ways to get God-focused than this. Feel free to share some of your own! But these have gone a long way toward helping me feel closer to God – and less like I am dominating our conversations. For me, in my prayer life, it’s important to me to remember that the act of prayer is not a narcissistic exercise, but one meant to bring me into a better relationship with God.