During Advent, I want to take a closer look at prayer. Prayer is so much more than what we usually think of. There are so many different kinds of prayer. Often, we in the church only think of prayer as what the preacher does on Sunday mornings in worship. However, public prayer is only one type of prayer—and it is not really a good model for what we do in private prayer.
Many of us struggle with our private prayer life. Many do not pray at all. Others who do pray regularly may feel like their prayers are dull and lifeless, because they’re just repeating the same prayers day after day, week after week—just asking God for the same things over and over.
Pray doesn’t have to be that way. Prayer can be expressed in so many colorful ways; we never need become bored with it. We can never exhaust the deep well of true prayer if we understand that prayer is so much more than what we thought it was. We need a faithful prayer life. We also need a deep prayer life. During Advent, I will explore some of the diverse forms of prayer.
I highly recommend the book Prayer, Finding the Hearts True Home by Richard Foster. It is a classic and I wish I had read it much earlier in my spiritual journey. It would have helped my prayer life a lot. It has helped me a lot his year. Foster shares 21 different kinds of prayer. I will share some of them with you over the next few weeks on Wednesday nights & Sunday mornings.
Today, I want to explore what I call, examining prayer and encourage you to practice it.
O Lord, you have examined my heart
and know everything about me.
2 You know when I sit down or stand up.
You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
3 You see me when I travel
and when I rest at home.
You know everything I do.
4 You know what I am going to say
even before I say it, Lord.
5 You go before me and follow me.
You place your hand of blessing on my head.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too great for me to understand!
23 Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 Point out anything in me that offends you,
and lead me along the path of everlasting life.
Examining prayer is just what it says—it is a prayerful act of examination. It is prayer that first invites us to consider how God has been present in our day and second invites God to search our heart and cleanse us.
First, examine how God has been present in your day.
Usually, when we think of prayer, we think of closing our eyes and folding our hands, and saying things like: “Dear God, please forgive me for eating that extra piece of pecan pie and help me not to gain too much weight from all I ate at Thanksgiving this year. Amen.” But prayer can also be quietly reflecting on our day, intentionally thinking about all the ways God was present with us.
How many times does God show Himself to us—in the beautiful fall colors, in a song on the radio, in the hug or encouragement of a friend, in an idea that pops into our head—but we, in our hurried pace, don’t recognize it as God’s divine presence. How many times do we feel our conscious tell us, “You should send a card to so and so” or “I wonder why Jeff hasn’t been at church lately” or something else. But the life rushes on and so do we and we forget these little nudges from the Holy Spirit.
Have you ever found yourself at the end of the day thinking, “Now, I know I was supposed to do something or I had an idea and now I can’t remember it”? What if we reflected this way intentionally as an act of prayer? What if we were trusting God to help us remember those things He wanted us to recall?
In examining prayer, we make time to prayerfully go back over our day and trust God to help us remember what’s important—especially the ways He revealed Himself to us or spoke to us or put something on our heart to do. How helpful could it be for you to grab a piece of paper and a pen and prayerfully examine the events of your day and jot down a few notes about how God spoke to you or something He might want you to do?
Second, invite God to examine you—to search your heart and cleanse you.
Psalm 139:23-24 says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” We are broken, sinful people. Because of our brokenness, we don’t even know all the ways we are broken. Maybe we are puffed up with pride, thinking we are pretty good people. Humans are experts at rationalizing our own bad behavior. We are quick to point an accusing finger at others, naming all the ways they fall short, but we will make excuses for own bad behavior so we can continue to live a self-righteous fantacy. This is a dangerous handicap for anyone who wants to follow Christ. We need God’s help to be honest with ourselves and know the ways we fall short. How can we ask God to forgive our sins and heal us if we don’t even know what they are? We need God’s help. We need Him to search us and clean us.
I hope you will not be too intimidated to invite God to examine your life. It’s not like you could ever hide from Him anyway. He made you and He knows everything about you already. He knows you better than you know yourself. What is missing is a conversation where God lovingly reveals what He knows to you. I say lovingly reveals, because God is not mean-spirtited when He searches us. He is gentle and kind. He is honest. He does not justify or rationalize our actions the way we would. But God is also not as hard on us as we might be on ourselves. We often view our bad behavior, bad attitudes, and mistakes in such a discouraging light, we berate ourselves and fall into despair. But God knows the truth that it is neither as good nor as bad as we think. God shows us the truth—which usually lies somewhere in the middle—and then He graciously helps us heal.
An unexamined life is not worth giving.
Romans 12:1 says, “And so, dear brothers and sisters, I plead with you to give your bodies to God because of all he has done for you. Let them be a living and holy sacrifice—the kind he will find acceptable. This is truly the way to worship him.” Christians are to give themselves to God, completely. In order to really give yourself to God, you’ve got to know who you really are. Prayer, where we ask God to search us and reveal ourselves to ourselves is the only way we can then turn our true selves over to God. Therefore, we need God to help us through examining prayer.
How do you do it?
Examining prayer doesn’t have to be complicated. It includes two things: 1) considering how God was been present in your day and 2) inviting God to search your heart and cleanse you.
As I mentioned already, you can simply sit down at your dinner table (or someplace quiet) with a pen and a piece of paper and just ask God to help you reflect on your day. What did you do? What details do you remember? Who did you meet? What were your thoughts? What did you notice about the world around you? Did you have any ideas come to you? Did you feel there was something you should do? There’s no need to put too much pressure on yourself or to be anxious that you won’t remember it all. You see, it’s not all up to you. You are asking God to help you remember what He wants you to remember. Don’t you think He is able to do that? Do you trust Him to help you remember what He wants you to remember and pass over those things He wants you to forget? As you reflect, jot down some notes on paper so you can look back over your list later and always remember. Some people find it helpful to use a journal to be more organized. If that works for you, good; but it’s not necessary. A simple piece of paper or a notepad will suffice.
Now, also ask God to search your heart and reveal anything that He wants you to know about your life. Are there sins for which you need to repent? Is there ungodly behavior or attitudes hiding in your heart? Do you need to forgive someone? Do you need to apologize to someone? Do you need to forgive yourself? What might be at the root of those thoughts and behaviors? Ask God to show you. Again, write down whatever He reveals so you can refer back to it later.
Writing works well for me. I truly envy people who remember names, people, details, events, etc. with remarkable clarity. That amazes me, but that’s not me. I have a terrible memory, so a written record is not only helpful, it is almost a necessity for me. So, I like to-do lists and written spiritual journals. That works well for me. But these are not the only ways to participate in examining prayer.
Physical activity can be very helpful too. God can reveal so much to you while you prayerfully reflect while you go for a walk, cut the grass or rake leaves, wash the dishes or vacuum. So often, we just think of these activities as chores; but done in the right way, they can become prayer that shows us how God is with us all the time and helps us see who we really are. And if your memory is such that you don’t need to write anything down to remember it, then pen and paper are not really necessary. The point is to examine your life and let God examine you.