Hacking Your Prayer Life
or... Tools for a Healthy Prayer Life
Well, I hope you like my click-bate headline there. "Hacking Your Prayer Life" — as if that's even possible! Since it's not, let me explain. If you've been following along on this series of posts on prayer you'll know one of the first things I said was that the only requirement to prayer is that you do it, that you show up and be with God in prayer. However, even that can be hard, especially if you’re time in prayer feels unproductive or disconnected; if your prayers feel like they are bouncing around in an echoing chamber or if you simply feel dry and disconnected from God. And if life, in general, is hard for whatever reason prayer, even just showing up, can seem impossible!
So I want to share, not necessarily "hacks" to your prayer life, but maybe a couple of tips or tricks, some tools for when prayer feels hard. But first, let me say a couple of things.
First, you're not alone. This is one of the beautiful things about the Book of Psalms, those poets and prayers are brutally honest and cry out to God who feels distant, they even ask if God has forgotten about them.
v.1 As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. v.2 My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? v.3 My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, "Where is your God?"
The psalmist goes on...
v.9 I say to God, my rock, "Why have you forgotten me? Why must I walk about mournfully because the enemy oppresses me?" v.10 As with a deadly wound in my body, my adversaries taunt me, while they say to me continually, "Where is your God?"
That might seem dark, but to me, there is comfort and hope in that. Even the people we might consider having the strongest prayer life, good enough to make it in the Bible, are honest and experience dryness and a perceived distance in their life with God.
Second, I want to say that their prayers aren't just good for edification, they are good for education! The Psalms teach us to pray!
They teach us prayer overtly. The words and structures, the honesty and petitioning, and most notably, they teach us through the content of the prayers, giving us words to pray.
Our psalter also teaches us to pray in ways that are a bit under the hood, in ways we might not notice or think about initially. Psalm 25, which I preached on this past week, brought two of these more subsidiary dimensions of learning to my attention. These two things are the tools or tricks to prayer I think we are given from Psalm 25.
Tools for Prayer from Psalm 25
The first tool for prayer is the use of simple letters, acrostics to be specific. Because the author didn't write in English, we can't see it, but this prayer uses an acrostic method. There are 22 verses or petitions to Psalm 25, each begin with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
I imagine the psalmist was struggling to pray or just having a bad day. He sits down, maybe even drops to his knees and finds that there are no words, he just doesn't know where to begin. So he pulls out one of the oldest tricks in the book. He learned his A.B.C.'s or A to T's (Hebrew letters) when he was a little boy, he knows the alphabet, so he starts with A and used it to prompt, to springboard his prayer. Then he just keeps going, each letter giving him a place to begin his next petition. Have you ever heard it said that a blank page is the scariest and hardest part of writing? I wonder if the blank page, per se, isn't the hardest place to begin in prayer at times. I mean the Bible speaks on various occasions of not have the words or the strength to pray. What if we could use some practical tools like the psalmist did in Psalm 25?
You could use the alphabet or you could use something like A.C.T.S. which stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. I've seen letters given to each finger of your hand; I've seen P.R.A.Y. or F.E.A.S.T. turned into acronyms, the options are endless.
As I said, the only requirement is that you show up. These are just some things that might help once you do.
I might also suggest morning or evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. There is a logic and flow to those daily offices and if you don't want to pray those exact words, find some time and observe the purpose of each section. Note the purpose of the opening sentence, confession, scripture, prayers of the people, creed, closing, etc; note the purpose of all those parts and pray the purpose with your own words. Sounds like a lot of work to me but hey, you do you! ;-)
The other tool given in Psalm 25, that's obvious when you think about it but not overtly mentioned, is writing down your prayers, for clarity sake, let's call it keeping a prayer journal.
We have many of these prayers, it would seem because the psalmist chose to write them down. There are a ton of benefits to journaling in general and prayer journaling in specific. My journal is a bit of both. I don't keep a specific prayer journal but writing my thoughts and prayers has become a treasured and helpful part of my prayer life.
Here are a few benefits I've experienced. But if you want more specific information on prayer journaling, I found these two articles that might be helpful.
#1. A priest from Arizona wrote about it. Good stuff.
#2. The Navigators, which is primarily a discipleship ministry for college students, have an article about prayer journaling. A bit cheesy in places but I think helpful overall. They have a few other articles on prayer if you want to click around.
My experience is that writing down my prayers has two primary benefits. First, it helps me to focus. I'm a seven with a severe case of monkey mind. Writing down my prayer helps me to stay focused and on track rather than chasing every stray thought and urgent to-do on my list. Lately, I've been journaling alongside my morning or mid-way prayer, using the new ACNA Book of Common Prayer. I work, prayer by prayer and line by line through the morning office or the shorter mid-day prayer and when something more specific comes to mind, or I am prompted by the written words to pray for specific requests, I move to my journal. I do that throughout, moving back and forth from prayer book to prayer journal, staying focused, being led and finding freedom and space for personal prayers as well. Journaling through the daily office has been a really fruitful practice over the past couple years.
The second benefit I've experienced is around memory. When you write down your prayers, you can not only remember them and continue to pray for those things but you can more clearly see and thank God when he answers those prayers if you have a record of them. Being reminded of these answered prayers is also helpful in dry times when you find yourself wondering if God ever hears your prayers. He does, you have a personal record it!
I hope you'll give these prayer tools a try and continue to grow in your life with God every day!
With such a focus on prayer, I'm reminded of many of my friends who don't come from liturgical traditions and the idea of praying other peoples prayers seems odd at best, and empty or fake at worst. We'll continue the idea of tools for a healthy prayer life next week, with liturgical prayer as our focus.