Calloused knees. Prayer closet. Answered prayers. Prayer warrior.
These four phrases don’t exactly trigger me with spiritual PTSD, but they do represent markers in my journey of moving from prayer-guilt into the grace of praying. For many years, I felt more like a D-student in the school of prayer than a beloved son in the presence of God. I was afraid to not pray, but I had very little delight in actually praying.
As a young believer in the late sixties, the joy of my new life in Christ was palpable and plenteous. But pretty soon, I started to feel the pressure of a new burden to “get it right.” I had consistent quiet times, underlined verses in my Bible (in three different colors), and engaged in Scripture memory. I fellowshipped, witnessed, and prayed. Unfortunately, these crucial spiritual disciplines functioned more as a means of guilt (or pride) than as a means of grace. Many of God’s good gifts are misused and disused until they become rightly used. This is certainly true of prayer.
A part of the problem — no, the biggest issue — was that I began the Christian life with a limited understanding of what happened when God gave me faith to trust Jesus and hid my life in his Son. I was certain of going to heaven when I died, but I knew little of what God thought about me while I lived.
United Forever with Christ
In Christ, all riches were already deposited into my account, but I was clueless about them. I knew Jesus died for my sins and that I was fully forgiven. But only years later did I come to understand my union with Christ, the imputation of his righteousness, and my adoption into God’s family — to name a few of the glorious benefits of our life in Christ.
I don’t blame anyone for not teaching me about union with Christ. I’m just eternally grateful I finally learned about it, came to rest in it, and now live out of its glorious implications. It wasn’t a game changer, but an everything changer — not a new day, but a new forever.
Our union with Christ is the foundation and fountain for knowing God, and the spiritual disciplines — including prayer (when shaped and fueled by the gospel) — are the means by which we deepen our knowledge of God and learn to “glorify and enjoy him forever.” Though the gospel has freed us from all earning, it certainly doesn’t free us from all effort. But the effort I now invest in praying has become a delight, not a burden.
Moving on from guilt and fear, I now focus on three callings that have radically transformed how I engage in prayer.
Fellowship with Your Father
“Fellowship with your Father” is exactly how my spiritual father, Jack Miller, reframed prayer for me, keying off of Jesus’s glorious invitation to say, “Our Father in heaven” (Matthew 6:9). How many times did I hear (and need to hear) Jack say, “Scotty, our Father wants to spend time with you more than you are even confident and comfortable in his presence. He loves you. You’ll never shock him, and he’ll never shame you. He knows your need is greater than you realize, and his provision for you in Jesus is exponentially more than you have yet grasped.”
Indeed, the gospel frees us from thinking of prayer as a way to get God’s attention — an effort to convince him of something we need or something we want him to do. Prayer is God’s nonstop welcome to us — a grace-subpoena into his presence (Hebrews 4:16).
Our Father is always initiating and resourcing our communion with himself. As we spend both quality and quantity time with him, all the incomplete and wrong notions we’ve had about him get exposed and expelled. He also re-parents us through unrushed time in his presence. Abba is the Father we always wanted, and he alone can be to us what no human father could ever be.
The better we know God as our Father, we more we begin to embrace how big and good his prayer-answer vocabulary actually is. Answered prayer is no longer equated with a yes to our petitions. We begin to rest in our Father’s multiple wise answers, like no, not yet, and yes, but not exactly as you are asking. The burden is off our shoulders. We can ask with abandon and trust with even greater abandon. Our Father is always doing all things well, even when he doesn’t do all things easy. Our Father’s no is sweeter than any yes we can imagine — or demand. We start giving more yeses to him rather than “needing” yeses from him.
Jack also made it abundantly clear to me, “The more you fellowship with your Father, the more you will rejoice in his plan for the nations and live as his partner in world evangelism.” Jack could not think of prayer, the gospel, and our Father without seeing and rejoicing in the day when God’s every-nation family will stream into the New Jerusalem.
Behold Jesus’s Glory
The apostle Paul’s words are as riveting as they are compelling: “We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Many centuries earlier, King David expressed a similar heart orientation and single passion — even making it his number-one prayer request: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord” (Psalm 27:4).
Prayer as contemplation of Jesus’s glory reorients us away from prayer as consternation about getting results. Adoration of Jesus must not be relegated to the first letter of ACTS: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Adoration is the meaning and essence of each and every other aspect of life. Indeed, fixing our gaze on Jesus isn’t a warm-up exercise to prayer; it is prayer.
As we marinate in the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus, we are changed — we become more like Jesus, which is the goal of our salvation (Romans 8:28–30; 1 John 3:1–3). Our hope is fueled, because we discover more fully what the Scriptures mean when they declare Jesus to be the emphatic Yes! to every promise God has made (2 Corinthians 1:20). Our praying becomes less about claiming God’s promises and more about seeing how God’s promises claim us — and all of history. We think less about becoming prayer warriors, and we rest in Jesus as the prayer-warrior extraordinaire — ever living to make intercession for us and in us by the Holy Spirit (Hebrews 7:25; Romans 8:26).
Adoring Jesus also deepens our intimacy with him and intensifies our longing to be with him in eternity — the better-by-far-ness Paul writes about in Philippians 1:23. It also fuels our courage to go with Jesus into a life of missional living and loving. We cease thinking of doing anything merely for Jesus; rather, we begin to live as those who do everything with Jesus. Only Jesus can, and is, making all things new. Prayer frees us to find our place in his story, now that we’re already in his heart.
Listen to the Spirit’s Testimony
Lastly, thinking of prayer as listening to the Holy Spirit’s testimony helps us include in our prayer times not only talking but hearing. In Romans 8, Paul highlights just how vital this aspect of our fellowship with God actually is: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs” (Romans 8:16–17). The Spirit is always preaching the gospel to us — nonstop, 24/7. As we linger over God’s word, do we take time to listen?
In fact, it is by the Spirit’s voice we most clearly hear God singing over us with great rejoicing (Zephaniah 3:17). How is this so? Because the Spirit is always making much of Jesus and is constantly applying his finished work to our hearts. As we experience the wonder of God’s great delight in us, we move more fully into the true blessedness of the convicting voice of the Spirit, the voice that is now and forever void of any condemnation (Romans 8:1). Confession and repentance become a way of life and a liberating joy.
Unfortunately, too much of the time we allow other noises and voices to drown out the Spirit’s voice. We tune the frequency of our hearts to our fears, disappointments, and anger. We indulge the whispers, shouts, and lies of the devil. We let the siren songs of our world and our lusts mute the peace-giving, joy-fueling, hope-enlarging testimony of the Spirit. We pay to hear an out-of-tune kazoo band, while the triune God has graciously made us members of his every-nation orchestra that gets to play and enjoy the grand symphony of the gospel.
Let’s get still and know that our God is God (Psalm 46:10). He does all that he pleases, all the time and everywhere (Psalm 115:3). Hallelujah, it has pleased him to make us his beloved daughters and sons through the work of Jesus.