4 KEYS TO UNLOCKING

THE POWER OF PRAYER

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

If you grew up in the '90s, you probably remember days spent at Chuck E. Cheese or the local arcade of choice. Littered throughout were games waiting for your hard earned quarters -- games that offered the promise of prizes and satisfaction. If you were able to maneuver Pac-Man to safety or win a series of virtual boxing matches, you could enter the next phase. You leveled up. You could now unlock new characters, maps, or features. Perhaps most enticing of all, you were rewarded with golden ticket stubs that guaranteed you'd be leaving with a prize. When we talk about "unlocking" the power of prayer, it's not quite the same as a video game: accomplishing a task once, checking it off, and being good to go. As we discussed in our feature on how to pray, prayer is relational, and therefore any kind of practices that go into it are simply the means of growing closer to God. In other words, unlocking the power of prayer is not done with a "you won!" kind of mindset, but rather an understanding that you’re taking gradual steps that will change your life in profound ways over the long run. At first glance, this may feel like a letdown. No one likes the slow build. No one likes waiting. We want the prize NOW! In fact, everything about our society is moving in this direction. The digital age has wired us to demand the immediate. We order something from Amazon and it arrives five minutes later. We call an Uber and it’s there at our beckoning. We don’t even wait a week anymore for the next episode of a hit TV show; we binge it all at once on Netflix. But while Silicon Valley might have perfected the art of preying on a neurotransmitter we have called dopamine, this does not mean the immediate is ultimately the most satisfying. You’re probably heard the heavily overused phrase, “the best things in life are worth waiting for” -- but it’s true. Both science and scripture can attest to that. The power of prayer is unlocked when we make it a daily habit of talking to God. Although it’s not a straight line up, ultimately each day builds on the previous and suddenly we find that prayer has become our first instinct, not our last resort. So while cultivating prayer through these following four practices will not "perfect" your prayer life, they will hopefully serve as helpful guideposts in your journey.

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KEY 1: MAKE PRAYER A PRIORITY

Unlocking the power of prayer should not be seen as a gigantic mountain that needs to be immediately conquered, but instead a journey that starts with a first step. What is that first step? Creating time in your life to actually do it. Like with anything, prayer can fall by the wayside if there isn't intentionality to make it a priority. As the first century philosopher Epictetus once said: "we become what we give our attention to." If we want to grow and become more like Jesus, we have to connect with him, and that's what the heart of prayer is. And if we don’t start by making prayer a priority in our lives, it becomes virtually impossible to find the deep connection we long for. So how do you create a manageable time and space to connect with God without getting ritualistic? Start small, maybe within ten minutes. Our aim shouldn’t be scale, but rather heart. Carve out a portion of time, maybe before you start your day, to center yourself in the presence of God. Before you turn on the news or check your Instagram feed, sit with Jesus in prayer. This will look different for everyone. Some people will prefer more structure by using things like guided prayers, while others prefer to meditate on scripture. Studies have shown that the way you start and end your day has a profound impact on your brain. IDC Research, a market research firm based in Massachusetts, found that 80 percent of people check their smartphones within the first 15 minutes of waking up. Former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris (of Netflix's The Social Dilemma fame) warns of the dangers of this. He says that checking your phone immediately "frames the experience of 'waking up in the morning' around a menu of 'all the things I’ve missed since yesterday." On a biological level, your brain will have gotten used to the instant dopamine hit from the "notifications" you check on your phone. However, the brain can gradually learn to adjust away from that dopamine dependency. But it’s worth clarifying your prayer time doesn't have to be in the morning -- it's just a suggested time that precedes the interruptions and craziness of the day. For a week, wake up 10 minutes earlier and devote that time to prayer. Just see how it goes, and keep track of what you prayed for and how you felt as you prayed if  journaling is your thing. Be kind to yourself as you enter this process and be honest with yourself. If you wake up late one day or forget to do it, don't feel like you have to do double or nothing to make up space. Again, operate with the guiding principle that God is after your heart, not perfectionism. It is only when we take this posture, we start discovering the power in prayer. Over time, you might find that this becomes your favorite part of the day. A time of peace, contentment and centeredness around God’s presence. However, if time and space isn't your issue, but you still struggle to find basic, practical ways to build a habit of prayer, check out our guide on How to Pray, here.

KEY 2: PRACTICE SILENCE & SOLITUDE

To some, the words "silence" and "solitude" might sound intimidating. You shudder at the thought of going on a long drive without the company of a friend or your favorite podcast. For others, escaping the noise of every day and the burden of conversation sounds like a joy. Regardless of personality type, you may feel unsure of what to do in your prayer time, as prayer often involves talking. Extroverted people in particular may have an especially hard time with the alone part, but as we'll discuss, it should be thoughtfully incorporated with a balanced approach. Why is silence and solitude important? We already discussed that we live in an incredibly distracted world, but that shouldn’t be our primary motivator. The biggest reason why we should is that as Jesus modeled for us, it builds our relationship with God. Luke 5:16 sums up Jesus' routine silence and solitude practice concisely: "Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed." Jesus didn't withdraw because the work was too much for him, but because he knew the power of prayer was found in spending intentional time alone with God the Father. Pulling up to a tranquil forest or beach and sitting alone with God sounds great and all, but what does one do once they're physically there in the moment? It goes without saying that the environment you choose to place yourself in will impact how "silent" and "away from others" you really are. Wherever you choose to go, consider practicing contemplative prayer.

Examples of Contemplative Prayer

While contemplative prayer may bear some similarities to meditation (like centering oneself to operate from a place of peace), the foundation of contemplative prayer is the exact opposite. While meditation starts and ends with you, contemplative prayer is God-focused. So, how do we hone in on contemplative prayer? Here are two practical prayers that fall under the umbrella of contemplative prayer: the Prayer of Examen, and Listening Prayer.

Prayer of Examen

Developed by Spanish priest St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Prayer of Examen is a basic way to reflect on your day with God. It's an exercise in thankfulness, and a way to "process" through various experiences -- good and bad -- that happened to you and how you felt during said moments. Start by praying this prayer:"Lord, teach me to be generous.Teach me to serve you as you deserve;to give and not to count the cost,to fight and not to heed the wounds,to toil and not to seek for rest,to labor and not to ask for reward,save that of knowing that I do your will." The Prayer of Examen unlocks the power of prayer by walking through everything with God and simply noticing moments where God was present, or moments where we felt a certain way. This can be done in tandem with journaling as we discussed in our blog on How to Pray.

Listening Prayer

One theologian put it this way: “It is one thing to speak to God. It is another thing to listen. When we listen to God, we receive guidance from [him].” How do we sit still when our mind and body is racing? Well, there's actually a lot we can learn from sheep. Sheep, despite being considered weak, dull animals, are smart enough to know the distinct call of their shepherd. Scripture describes this idea in John 10: "He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out...and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice." Scripture describes God as this good shepherd. And through listening prayer, we as the sheep cut through the noise and become attune to his voice. Of course, this may provoke questions on if we're actually hearing God's voice or just our own thoughts. To help with this, consider taking these steps:

    1. Get in a comfortable place and put your phone on silent. Ask God to quiet the chatter in your mind and that his voice would cut through the noise.
    2. Next, just wait. Simply listen in the silence for a few minutes.
    3. You may find your mind still to be noisy. That’s perfectly okay. Use this as an opportunity for curiosity. Jot down words or thoughts or even scriptures that come to mind.
    4. God will never contradict himself. So contrast what you’re getting with the words you see in scripture. Of course, that means God isn’t going to tell you to cheat on your girlfriend or to cut corners at work.

This may sound simple, but we quickly find it’s anything but easy. At least at first. Our minds are constantly being molded by outside forces to become more and more distracted, so it will take focused effort to retrain our brains to operate in a different way. So don't be discouraged if you don't hear anything explicit, especially initially. We must be willing to come back to the table, day after day. So many people quit as soon as they start, because the expectation was that this would be a quick fix. Yes, God does speak through many avenues and he does so constantly, but it takes patience to become aware of his voice. With so many things grappling for our attention, we have to be willing to stick around long enough to experience the power in prayer.

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KEY 3: LAMENT WITH THE PSALMS

We walk into community and are met with an earnest handshake and a smile. "How are you?," the person asks. "Fine. I'm fine. Great. Good." Yet inside, we are falling apart. We have these pre-programmed, borderline automatic responses to pain that seeks to minimize and move on. While we don't have to share our deepest, darkest secrets with strangers, it's healthy to process through pain and lament when painful things happen. Part of the problem is our Western culture of "move on" and "what have you done for me lately?" Our culture has a hard time grieving and wrestling with suffering. We minimize tragedies by distracting ourselves into oblivion or trying to move onto the next best thing. We often pray when life is good, but don't always do so when things get tough. Maybe we look around and see injustice or pain or even death. That buildup of mounting frustration and anger has to go somewhere, and we may find ourselves asking:

"What do we do with all of this pain?"

"How do we, in a healthy way, express that immense pain bottled up inside of us?" We sometimes mistakenly think we can't give into sorrow, or that we have to be strong and hold it together. On the flip side, lament is defined as"a passionate expression of grief or sorrow." This "passionate expression" can unlock the power of prayer and actually lead to deep healing. This is something seen quite a bit throughout the library of scripture. David, the ancient king of Israel and author of some of the Psalms (a collection of ancient songs) was very familiar with lament. In fact, more than two-thirds of the book of Psalms details some form of lament. "How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?," the distraught king cries out in Psalm 13. That's a real, raw, and honest take. It's a reminder that God isn't scared of our pain, and we shouldn't be afraid to bring it before him. Just because David felt far from God, doesn't mean God cared about him any less. Feelings can often blur the line between perception and reality, making it even more crucial that we vent and process those feelings with God. And even after a desperate cry, David still places his ultimate hope in God: "But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation," he says at the end of Psalm 13. God is fully attuned and not indifferent to the reality of pain in our broken world. Listen to Jesus' words in John 16: "In this life you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world." (John 16:33) Though lament will look different depending on the person and the state of the matter, here are a few ways to put this in practice:

    • Let it out; empty the tank. The power in prayer is only unlocked when we don't hold back our emotions and what we want to say to God.
    • Pray with trusted family, friends, spiritual leaders, or community. As we'll get to in a second, there's great value in sharing your honest feelings with others. Express your disappointment, and then like David in Psalm 13, redeem said disappointment by reaffirming God's character and hand on your life. Read these words from Psalm 13 aloud after expressing what it is you're going through: "Even in the midst of ___________, I trust in your unfailing love."
    • Just like in the other prayer practices, journaling is an effective tool for expressing the thoughts and feelings that we can't verbalize. If there isn't a psalm that resonates with you in the current moment you're facing, write your own. Tell God how you're feeling, what you'd like to see differently, and then ask to trust and know him more, even in the midst of this.
    • Embrace the in-betweens as well. By this, we mean sitting in the mysterious, transition periods of life despite wanting to fast-forward to the next best thing. Ask God what He's trying to show you in this period? And in doing so, remember that He is described as the "God of all comfort" (2 Cor. 1:3) and wants to wrap His arms around you in your pain.

Make no mistake, lament is not an easy process, and there will be moments when it's actually really challenging. As professor and theologian Soong-Chan Rah says, “Lament will not allow us to revert to easy answers." That's partly why it is one of several components towards unlocking the power of prayer, and like most things should be used at the right time and place.

KEY 4: PRAY FOR OTHERS (INTERCESSION)

Many prayer frameworks contain the following idea: upward, inward, outward. The premise is that we first look to God, then we're changed on the inside, and as such we carry that light of Jesus to others. While we're often good at the personal growth part, it can be easy to overlook tending to the needs of others in our prayer lives. Perhaps the biggest question attached to intercession is whether or not prayer really does change outcomes. For a deeper dive into that, click here. In the meantime, the short answer is yes, it has and continues to measurably change things. Interceding (or praying for / on the behalf of others) can be multifaceted. In some cases it could mean asking God to bring names to mind and praying for their needs. Other times it might mean digging into desperation and contending for God to move and bring about radical change. When Peter, one of the original followers of Jesus, was imprisoned, the whole church came together to pray for him. An angel appeared soon after and unshackled him, showing the power of unity and persistence when it comes to praying for others. But on a personal level, praying for others also allows us to see past ourselves and gain perspective. That's not to say that our own wants and needs are not important. However, we clearly see Jesus put a high premium on extending our love out to others. Jesus even talks about the highest form of love being laying one's life down for another. While that doesn't always mean physically taking a bullet for someone, it might mean being inconvenienced to comfort or help our neighbor. Scripture has quite a lot to say on intercession, and you can dive more fully into that on our blog on Intercessory Prayer, but James 5 eloquently sums up the heart of it: "Is anyone among you sick? Then he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much." We see an intentional effort by a community (or even an individual) to, in faith, pray for those around them and petition God for change or healing, or whatever the circumstances dictate. It is here the power of prayer is unlocked.

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CONCLUSION

While prayer and video games have many differences, they share the similarity that practice only betters your experience. And like any practice, they are ultimately means to an end of growing closer to God. Be kind to yourself as you go through this process, and don't get hung up on doing everything perfectly. That's not the point. Again, these are just the essentials of getting off the ground when it comes to prayer as an active role in your life. Part of the beautiful discovery process when it comes to unlocking the power of prayer is developing a deeper understanding of God and growing in discerning his voice. Building any kind of new rhythm takes time, so give yourself grace while also implementing the aforementioned practical steps. Map it out and take notes on what works and what doesn't. Remember that it's trial and error, and no one is monitoring how long, how well, or how "effective" you are. We can't guarantee that your prayer life will look a certain way, and we wouldn't want to. Comparison will ultimately be your biggest adversary if you're constantly checking to ask why you aren't getting the same "results" as the people around you. Accountability and partnership is great, but make sure it stays as that and not a measuring stick for your own, personal relationship with God. For more, click here to visit our Prayer Hub.

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