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Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Continual Prayer


Preface - I highly recommend Richard Foster's book, Prayer, as a resource as you study prayer.  Foster's book has been a valuable resource to me as I've developed this series on prayer and in my own efforts to deepen my prayer life.

Introduction and Definition
I love the lyrics in the song “Let Us Pray” by Steven Curtis Chapman when it says, “And just because we say the word, "Amen", it doesn't mean this conversation needs to end.  Let us pray, let us pray, everywhere in every way.  Every moment of the day, it is the right time.  Let us pray without end and when we finish start again.  Like breathing out and breathing in, let us pray.

There are so many ways to pray and today I want to talk about continual prayer (AKA Unceasing Prayer).  If prayer, at its heart, is really communion with God, shouldn’t prayer be something we do every minute of every day?  Why do we say “amen” and go on with our life—as if prayer were something we paused to do apart from everything else.  Don’t we want to walk with God all the time, to be in constant communion with Him?  Is that even possible?  It is possible and it’s called continual prayer and Scripture commends it to us.

Ephesians 6:18 – Pray in the Spirit at all times and on every occasion. Stay alert and be persistent in your prayers for all believers everywhere.

Romans 12:12 – Rejoice in our confident hope. Be patient in trouble, and keep on praying.

1 Thessalonians 5:17 - Never stop praying.

Now continual prayer doesn’t mean walking around all day with our heads bowed, hands folded, and eyes closed in prayer.  There are other ways to work towards a constant state of prayer throughout the day.  I want to share some exercises that can help you be in more constant prayerful communion with the Lord.

Breathe Prayer
One spiritual exercise is known as breath prayer.  A breath prayer is a short prayer you can pray in one breath.  An example of a breath prayer from Scripture is the prayer of the tax collector from Luke 18:13, “O God, be merciful to me, for I am a sinner.”  Perhaps you remember the story…

The idea behind a breath prayer is to choose one breath prayer to focus on for an entire day.  Then, you say your breath prayer throughout the day as you are driving, working, cooking dinner, cleaning up, or whatever you are doing.  You don’t say the words of your prayer continuously; rather you say it whenever you think about it and try to reflect on it all day.  You make the prayer the focus of your thinking throughout the day.  In doing so, you stay in a prayerful attitude and open your heart to whatever the Lord might speak on the subject.  You can make up your own breath prayer or try one from Scripture, such as:
“Speak Lord, for your servant hears…” (1 Samuel 3:9 & 10, NKJV).

“The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want” (Psalm 23:1, KJV).

“Know that Jesus is Lord… Cease striving” (Based on Psalm 46:10, NASB).

“In Christ alone my soul finds rest…” (Based on Psalm 62:1).

"My help comes from the Lord…" (Psalm 121:2)

"Here I am." (Isaiah 6:8)

"Show your power." (Based on Psalm 80:2)

"Not my will, but yours." (based on Matthew 26:39)

"Come, Lord Jesus." (Revelation 22:20)

Practicing the Presence of God
Another way we can move toward the continual prayer of constant communion with God is an exercise called practicing the presence of God.  Psalm 13:8 says, “If I go up to heaven, you are there; if I go down to the grave, you are there.”  We may know in our mind that God is everywhere, all the time, but our heart does not always feel God’s presence in every place, all the time.  It takes practice to help our heart feel what our mind already knows.  Christians throughout the ages have developed techniques to open the awareness of our heart to God’s presence with us all the time.

Few people jump straight into full awareness of God’s presence with us everywhere and all of the time.  We have to take baby steps to progress toward that goal.  You can think of it like learning to writing.  When you are a child—maybe five or six-years-old—you don’t jump from being illiterate straight to writing a long essays.  No.  First, you have to learn the alphabet—A, B, C, D…  Then you have to learn the sounds they make and how letters form together to make words.  And then, you have to learn how to hold a pencil and how to form certain pen-strokes that form letters and learn how to keep the words you write neat and all on the same line.  It takes years of practice to learn to write well.  In the beginning, you struggle because you have to think about every letter and every word you form.  Then, you learn to make coherent sentences.  Then, after a time, it starts to become more natural and you begin to write without having to think about it all that much.  It’s just natural.

The same is true when we practice the presence of God.  We take small steps that move us from the very beginning stages to more advanced stages where our awareness of God’s presence with us all the time is something we don’t have to think about; we just know it to be true and we feel Him and know Him all of the time.  Here are some steps that can help you grow as you practice the presence of God.

The first step feels a little artificial.  It is an exercise that takes practice and work.  You have to rehearse it again and again before it starts to be natural and you can move on to more advanced stages.  In the first step, we look for ordinary everyday reminders to call us to prayer.    Teachers could learn to say a quick prayer every time they hear the school bell ring.  Or maybe it could be a reminder to pray every time you see your favorite color.  Doctors, nurses, and surgeons might say a prayer every time they scrub up or wash their hands.  You could even set an alarm on your phone or your wrist watch to go off every hour to remind you to pray.  Your prayers need not be long.  They could be a simple breath prayer.

The second step in practicing the presence of God starts when our prayers begin to happen subconsciously.  After a while, our short, regular prayers start to become so habitual we don’t need the reminders anymore.  We don’t even think about it; we just automatically pray because our prayer habits have become so engrained into our daily life.  At this stage, you may start to see some practical changes in your attitudes and behavior.  You may be less agitated in traffic; you may worry less; you may treat people with more kindness.  You are beginning to feel that God is with you even in those moments you used to exclude Him from before.  Knowing He is with you changes how you act and empowers you to be more like Christ in every moment.

The third stage occurs as prayer moves into the heart.  Our prayer has become more of an attitude of the heart than of just words we say.  We may not even articulate a prayer, but our thoughts, feelings, and behavior now express the sentiments we formerly spoke in prayer.  We are walking in close communion with the Lord.  He is in us and part of us and our lives become a continual pray of God’s love.  We also begin to see others the way God sees them.  Richard Foster writes in his book Prayer, “We walk into a room and quickly know who is sad or lonely or dealing with a deep, inexpressible sorrow.  In such cases, we are able to slip over beside them and sit in silence, bringing comfort and understanding and healing, knowing that “deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7).

Answers to Objections
Some may have concerns about continual prayer.  In Matthew 6:7, Jesus warned, “When you pray, don’t babble on and on as the Gentiles do. They think their prayers are answered merely by repeating their words again and again.  Some have argued the kinds of continual prayers I’ve mentioned are like the repetitive babbling of the Gentiles that Jesus condemned.  But I don’t think so.  What Jesus was dealing with was religious leaders who liked to make a public spectacle out of the prayers in order to impress people and pagans who thought prayer was some kind of magical incantation they could use to control God. 

The kind of continual prayers we want to practice are secret prayers.  We aren’t doing them as a way of showing off for others.  In fact, if you do them right, you could go through your entire day without anyone even knowing you were praying.  It is a practice between you and God alone.  Furthermore, you are not trying to manipulate God by repeating your prayers over and over as some magical incantation.  The point of your repetition is to affect your own behaviors and attitudes, not God’s.  There’s nothing wrong with repetition.  In Matthew 26: 36-44, Jesus repeated his prayers about his cup of suffering three times in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Lord, if it is possible, take this cup from me!”  Furthermore, he said we should, “Keep on asking, and you will receive what you ask for. Keep on seeking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7).
  
Some people may be afraid of constant communion with God.  What if you are angry or having an argument with your wife or are angry at your kids?  While some might want Jesus to be very close to them in those moments, others might feel awkward thinking of God seeing them in those unflattering times.  It’s ok.  God is patient with us.  Richard Foster puts it this way in his book:

“Frankly, beyond the desperation prayers… (“O God, help!”), I have found that I cannot pray during these times.  So rather than try to fool myself by piously pretending constant communion, what I do in such situations is to ask God for a timeout.  He is gracious as always and understands our frailty.  In time we can come back and try again.  The question is not whether we fail again and again—that is a given; the question is whether over a period of time we are developing a practiced habit of divine fellowship.”

Conclusion
So, know that you’ve heard about continual prayer, how might you put it into practice in your life.  We need to pray faithfully.  We also need to pray deeply.  Prayer is the life blood of our relationship with God.  It is why we were put here on earth.  So how might you use the techniques of continual prayer to help you be in more constant fellowship with God through prayer?

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