Prayer as a Means for Spiritual Growth
Prayer is an important spiritual discipline. God expects us to pray. He wants us to learn to pray, and he is faithful to answer our prayers.
Prayer, along with Bible reading and intake, is one of our most important spiritual disciplines. Yet despite its importance, most Christians pray very little. Some don’t pray at all, or they pray occasionally for only a few minutes. To grow in Christ, we must pray. There are three truths about prayer that we see from Scripture.
1. Prayer Is Expected
The Bible is replete with commands to pray. Jesus taught extensively on prayer. Jesus assumes that all Christians pray. It is natural for us to express our thoughts and emotions to our creator God.
And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:5–13 ESV)
“And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9)
“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” (Luke 18:1)
“Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Colossians 4:2)
“Pray without ceasing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
There are many reasons why many of us do not pray. Let’s review some of the most common ones.
Reasons We Don’t Pray
- Lack of Discipline: We don’t set aside time to pray. We don’t plan in advance to pray. We don’t resolve to pray.
- Lack of Trust: We don’t think anything will happen when we pray. We don’t believe that prayer makes any difference.
- Lack of Nearness to God: We don’t sense the presence of God. We don’t feel that God will hear us and care for us.
- Lack of Need: We don’t think there is a need. We are prideful and self-sufficient.
- Lack of Awareness of God’s Greatness: We don’t think about God’s attributes of greatness, and we forget Christ’s atoning work of salvation.
Don’t look at prayer as duty or drudgery. Prayer is a privilege, and it is a joyful necessity. We constantly need strength, wisdom and comfort. How can we live without expressing our weaknesses and vulnerability to our God. We are expected to pray. God assumes that his children will constantly pray.
2. Prayer Is Learned
Many Christians find it difficult to pray because they have not learned to pray. Prayer must be taught. Prayer must also be learned. A Christian learns to pray like a child learns to talk. The disciples understood this, and they asked Jesus to teach them to pray.
“Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”” (Luke 11:1)
Since our Lord Jesus Christ is not standing in our midst, how do we learn to pray today?
How to Learn to Pray?
- By Praying: The best way to learn how to pray is to pray. You can try to learn to ride a bike by reading a book. But the best way to learn to ride a bike is to just get on a bike and go. The best way to learn how to pray is to just pray.
- By Praying with Others: We learn to pray through praying with others who can model prayer for us.
- By Reading about Prayer: We can read what others have written about prayer in addition to praying. Reading is another way we can learn from other Christians.
- By Meditating on Scripture: Meditation transitions us from Bible intake to prayer output (Psalm 5:1; 19:14). Meditation is thinking deeply and digesting what God has said. We then speak to God about what we are thinking and meditating through meaningful prayer.
Below are five quotations on the connection between meditation and prayer.
Richard Baxter: “In our meditations, to intermix soliloquy and prayer; sometimes speaking to our own hearts, and sometimes to God, is, I apprehend, the highest step we can advance to in this heavenly work. Nor should we imagine it will be as well to take up with prayer alone, and lay aside meditation; for they are distinct duties, and must both of them be performed. We need the one as well as the other, and therefore we shall wrong ourselves by neglecting either. Besides, the mixture of them, like music, will be more engaging; as the one serves to put life into the other. And our speaking to ourselves in meditation, should go before our speaking to God in prayer.”
Thomas Manton: “Meditation is a middle sort of duty between the word and prayer, and hath respect to both. The word feedeth meditation, and meditation feedeth prayer. These duties must always go hand in hand; meditation must follow hearing and precede prayer. To hear and not to meditate is unfruitful. We may hear and hear, but it is like putting a thing into a bag with holes. . . . It is rashness to pray and not to meditate. What we take in by the word we digest by meditation and let out by prayer. These three duties must be ordered that one may not jostle out the other. Men are barren, dry, and sapless in their prayers for want of exercising themselves in holy thoughts.”
William Bridge: “As it is the sister of reading, so it is the mother of prayer. Though a man’s heart be much indisposed to prayer, yet, if he can but fall into a meditation of God, and the things of God, his heart will soon come off to prayer … Begin with reading or hearing. Go on with meditation; end in prayer … Reading without meditation is unfruitful; meditation without reading is hurtful; to meditate and to read without prayer upon both, is without blessing.”
Peter Toon: “To read the Bible and not to meditate was seen as an unfruitful exercise: better to read one chapter and meditate afterward than to read several chapters and not to meditate. Likewise to meditate and not to pray was like preparing to run a race and never leaving the starting line. The three duties of reading Scripture, meditation, and prayer belonged together, and though each could be done occasionally on its own, as formal duties to God they were best done together.”
George Müller: “Before this time my practice had been, at least for ten years previously, as an habitual thing, to give myself to prayer after having dressed in the morning. Now, I saw that the most important thing was to give myself to the reading of God’s Word, and to meditation on it, that thus my heart might be comforted, encouraged, warned, reproved, instructed; and that thus, by means of the Word of God, whilst meditating on it, my heart might be brought into experimental communion with the Lord.
I began therefore to meditate on the New Testament from the beginning, early in the morning. The first thing I did, after having asked in a few words of the Lord’s blessing upon His precious Word, was to begin to meditate on the Word of God, searching as it were into every verse to get blessing out of it; not for the sake of the public ministry of the Word, not for the sake of preaching on what I had meditated upon, but for the sake of obtaining food for my own soul.
The result I have found to be almost invariably this, that after a few minutes my soul has been led to confession, or to thanksgiving, or to intercession, or to supplication; so that, though I did not, as it were, give myself to prayer, but to meditation, yet it turned almost immediately more or less to prayer. When thus I have been for a while making confession or intercession or supplication, or have given thanks, I go on to the next words or verse, turning all, as I go on, into prayer for myself or others, as the Word may lead to it, but still continually keeping before me that food for my own soul is the object of my meditation. The result of this is that there is always a good deal of confession, thanksgiving, supplication, or intercession mingled with my meditation, and that my inner man almost invariably is even sensibly nourished and strengthened, and that by breakfast time, with rare exceptions, I am in a peaceful if not happy state of heart.
The difference, then, between my former practice and my present one is this: formerly, when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer, or almost all the time. At all events I almost invariably began with prayer … But what was the result? I often spent a quarter of an hour, or half an hour, or even an hour on my knees before being conscious to myself of having derived comfort, encouragement, humbling of soul, etc.; and often, after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then really began to pray.
I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental fellowship with God, I speak to my Father and to my Friend (vile though I am, and unworthy of it) about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word. It often now astonishes me that I did not sooner see this point … And yet now, since God has taught me this point, it is as plain to me as anything that the first thing the child of God has to do morning by morning is to obtain food for his inner man.
Now what is food for the inner man? Not prayer, but the Word of God; and here again, not the simple reading of the Word of God, so that it only passes through our minds, just as water passes through a pipe, but considering what we read, pondering over it and applying it to our hearts.
When we pray we speak to God. Now prayer, in order to be continued for any length of time in any other than a formal manner, requires, generally speaking, a measure of strength or godly desire, and the season therefore when this exercise of the soul can be most effectually performed is after the inner man has been nourished by meditation on the Word of God, where we find our Father speaking to us, to encourage us, to comfort us, to instruct us, to humble us, to reprove us. We may therefore profitably meditate with God’s blessing though we are ever so weak spiritually; nay, the weaker we are, the more we need meditation for the strengthening of our inner man. Thus there is far less to be feared from wandering of mind than if we give ourselves to prayer without having had time previously for meditation.
I dwell so particularly on this point because of the immense spiritual profit and refreshment I am conscious of having derived from it myself, and I affectionately and solemnly beseech all my fellow believers to ponder this matter. By the blessing of God, I ascribe to this mode the help and strength which I have had from God to pass in peace through deeper trials, in various ways, than I have ever had before; and having now above fourteen years tried this way, I can most fully, in the fear of God, commend it.”
3. Prayer Is Answered
As Christians, we experience joy when God answers our prayers. When God draws us to prayer through Scripture and His Spirit, God does not intend to frustrate us. God promises that He will hear and answer us.
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” (Matthew 7:7–8)
Charles Spurgeon: “I cannot imagine any one of you tantalizing your child by exciting in him a desire that you did not intend to gratify. It were a very ungenerous thing to offer alms to the poor, and then when they hold out their hand for it, to mock their poverty with a denial. It were a cruel addition to the miseries of the sick if they were taken to the hospital and there left to die untended and uncared for. Where God leads you to pray, He means you to receive.”
Sometimes God does not take action on our prayers immediately. He may not answer our prayers in the way we would expect. God always hears our prayers, yet he may not grant everything we ask. There are at least three reasons God may not grant our requests.
Reasons We Ask and Do Not Receive When We Pray
- We ask for things outside God’s will. (Matthew 26:39; 1 John 5:14)
- We ask with selfish motives. (James 4:3)
- We ask while living in blatant sin. (Isaiah 59:2)
Final Thought on Prayer
- Prayer is expected; will you pray?
- Prayer is learned; will you learn to pray?
- Prayer is answered; will you persistently pray?
J.C. Ryle: “What is the reason that some believers are so much brighter and holier than others? I believe the difference, in nineteen cases out of twenty, arises from different habits about private prayer. I believe that those who are not eminently holy pray little, and those who are eminently holy pray much.”
Further Study on Prayer
- Prayer by Tim Keller
- Praying the Bible by Donald S. Whitney
- Praying with Paul: A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D.A. Carson
- The Prayer of the Lord by R.C. Sproul
Richard Baxter, The Practical Works of Richard Baxter: Select Treatises (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1981), 103. ↩︎
Thomas Manton, The Complete Works of Thomas Manton (reprint, Worthington, PA: Maranatha Publications, n.d.), 272–273. ↩︎
William Bridge, The Works of the Reverend William Bridge (reprint, 1845; reprint, Beaver Falls, PA: Soli Deo Gloria, 1989), vol. 3, 132, 154. ↩︎
Peter Toon, From Mind to Heart: Christian Meditation Today (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), 93. ↩︎
Roger Steer, ed., Spiritual Secrets of George Müller (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw Publishers; and Robesonia, PA: OMF Books, 1985), 60– 62. ↩︎
C. H. Spurgeon, “Thought-Reading Extraordinary,” Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1885; reprint, Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim Publications, 1973), vol. 30, 539– 540. ↩︎
J. C. Ryle, A Call to Prayer (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979), 35. ↩︎