Is there such a thing as a spiritual muscle? Perhaps there is, or perhaps not, but most things in life work on the principle that the more you do something, the more you apply yourself, the better you become at it. This might be a bit weird to apply to prayer – is there a batting average for prayer, a scorecard for “prayers prayed” and “prayers answered”?Prayer is about a relationship with God, so it may be better to think of it less like something you can practice strengthening your ability to do it, and more like deepening a relationship that’s expressed through prayer. Having said all that, there’s something to be said about developing “muscle memory” when it comes to prayer.
Have you ever met people whose first instinct when they find themselves in a tough situation is to pray to God for wisdom, patience, or whatever strength they may need in the situation?
It is not in a superstitious, or “overly religious and trying to show it” type of way, but prayer that reveals a deep, constant connection to and relationship with the living God. That type of “muscle memory” comes from making prayer a go-to in all types of life situations, and that’s something we can all improve.
At its most basic level, prayer is about talking with God. While many people might think of prayer as asking God for things, there’s more to it than that. Sure, as our heavenly Father, we do ask God for help, for provision of resources, and more. Just as a child will approach its parent for help with a wide range of things, we can approach God. However, if that child had no relationship with their parent aside from asking for things, a lot is missing from that relationship.
Similarly, prayer may have elements of making requests of God for ourselves, but that’s not all it is. Through prayer we can tell God of our anxieties, we can confess things we’ve done wrong, we can pray for others, and we can thank God for who he is and what he’s done in our lives. In other words, there are exciting ways in which our relationship with od can be enriched through prayer.
How to strengthen your prayer life
1. Pray often
Some people have friends they’ve known for years. Though they may not speak all the time, their dynamic is vibrant and every time they do get together, it’s like they pick up right where they left off. If you’re in such a set of relationships, you know how rare that is.Most relationships suffer when we don’t put the time in to cultivate them. To deepen our relationships, often we need to spend time with the person. That’s how we get to know them, that’s how you build the kind of experiences that bond people in meaningful ways.
To strengthen your prayer life, you must make the time to pray often. Make it a habit to pray in different circumstances, and to do it frequently. Making prayer a habit keeps you connected with God. It’s something we see Jesus doing in the Gospels. We read often that Jesus went to lonely places and prayed, sometimes all night (Mark 1:35; Luke 6:12).
Our prayers don’t have to be fancy, and they’re not for show, as Jesus warns in Matthew 6. Can you imagine if someone was talking to you, but they changed how they talked to you because there were people around them that they want to impress? Most of us would tap out of that conversation because it’s clearly more about impressing the onlookers than about truly connecting.
In prayer, we are encouraged to pray for ourselves and others. Paul sets us this example in several ways. His letters to the different churches are chock-full of prayers. He prays that people would know and understand God more, he prays believers would see the majesty of God’s plan for the world, he prays for people’s protection, and he encourages those enduring hardship to persevere, commiserating with them.
It’s not surprising to read something like “I mention you always in my prayers”, “I give thanks to God always for you”, “I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers”, “I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy”, and many similar prayers scattered throughout his letters.
Paul prays often, and he encourages us to “pray at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication” (Eph 6:18), “Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6). The key to a vibrant prayer life is to make it an indispensable part of your life.
2. Nothing is off limits
Prayer is a special kind of relationship because it’s with God. As Jesus reminds his followers, ask God for what you need, but he already knows (Matthew 6). This realization of the fact that God knows all brings about an interesting question – why pray at all if God already knows what I need and what’s going on in my head?
C.S. Lewis addressed this in part by saying that prayer changes us, not God. “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me,” wrote Lewis.
Of course, God knows what’s in our hearts, but it changes us if we’re willing to open our hearts to God and tell him what’s going on. That self-disclosure opens us up to the work God wants to do in our lives, a possibility we close off when we want nothing to do with God.
When you pray, allowing nothing to be off-limits and being vulnerable with God grows and enriches us in unimaginable ways. God can challenge us and speak into areas of our lives where we are hurt, angry, frustrated, and so much more.
Additionally, prayer is not a one-way street. God answers in various ways – such as by bringing to our minds a Bible verse or giving words to a trusted friend that speak into the moment, etc. God doesn’t contradict himself, so check what you see and hear against the Bible to see if it matches up. Sometimes while you’re praying about thing A, God will bring thing B to mind, prompting you to address that first.
3. Pray with others/ hear others pray
As with other things in life, we can always learn from other people and grow by doing with others. One of the values of living life in community with others is that it provides us a space in which they can minister to us and us to them. It not only encourages others when we pray for them, but it grows us by having others be the focus of our prayers.Having the needs of others before us, and standing alongside them as they yearn for healing, seek the restoration of a wayward child, mourn the loss of a loved one, and celebrate the birth of a baby – our souls and lives are stretched, deepened, and enriched in deeper ways than when we pray by and for ourselves.
Hearing the prayers of others can also alert us to fresh and different ways to relate to God. Reading the prayers in the Bible, or reading stories in missionary biographies, or listening to the person in your church life group as they pray – this can teach us to pray in ways that might not occur to us.
4. Let others pray for you
Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than it is to receive. In prayer, we can give of ourselves to others by focusing on their needs even as we present our requests to God. However, that doesn’t mean receiving the prayers of others isn’t blessed. Receiving the prayers of others blesses them!
If you’ve ever had brothers and sisters who believe in Jesus gathering around you and praying for you, then you know how encouraging and uplifting that can be for your own prayer walk. Our prayers can be emboldened and strengthened when we allow others to speak into our lives.
“Reading”, Courtesy of Finde Zukunft, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Dark Forest”, Courtesy of Han LaRoux, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Journaling”, Courtesy of Finde Zukunft, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Deserted Road”, Courtesy of Chris Turgeon, Unsplash.com, CC0 License