All day, I look forward to the moment when I can be with someone I love, undistracted and unhindered by anything else. In my mind, I store up little items to share, issues to discuss, questions to ask. I look forward to the comfort and companionship in having the experience that someone knows me, hears me, and cares to take part in the smallest details of my life.
This is how our prayer life with God can be, as we spend time unrestricted in his presence – and His interest in us is only matched by His ability to do something about it. We have not just a confidante to commiserate with us, but One who can answer and act.
But too often, I come to those precious, peaceful moments only to find that my strength is drained, my enthusiasm has faded along with the effects of my morning coffee. I no longer want to share. I want to zone out. I don’t want to dwell on the day. I want to relax and forget myself.
The struggle is brief. I can switch on a mindless TV comedy, or I can concentrate my thoughts to meet with the Lord in prayer. Too often, the TV control comes out, and I stay comfortably on the couch instead of bending down in prayer.
The prayer muscle, whether it could be said to be rooted in the mind or will, the heart or spirit, is one that needs continual and increasing exercise, just like any muscle. Using it infrequently or always in the same pattern weakens it until it is difficult to use at all.
Stretching and strengthening your prayer muscle requires discipline and testing the limits – just like your gym regime must constantly intensify if your fitness level is to continue improving. Adding something new and challenging to your prayer practice can help reach a new peak of prayer power.
Then he returned to the disciples and found them asleep. He said to Peter, “Couldn’t you watch with me even one hour? Keep watch and pray, so that you will not give in to temptation. For the spirit is willing, but the body is weak!” (Matthew 26:40-41 NLT).
When Jesus was praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, literally watching the last hours of his life slip away, all his disciples could think of was much they needed a little rest. The thought motivated me to get off the couch, to clear my mind from what I thought was so all consuming in my life, and to reflect on what is in the mind of Christ.
“Watch and pray, with Me, for one hour.” That’s all He asked for - one hour. Take time, and pray for at least 10 minutes each day for 6 days. But don’t pray for any of the concerns that are on your mind already. Don’t even pray for a specific person you know or an event you are involved in. Instead, give up your own concerns for a short space of time to watch and pray with Christ. Intercede for the things that might be on His mind. Think of the things that He spoke of when he lived and walked on Earth. Read a passage of Scripture and choose something mentioned in it. Consider topics such as the unity of believers; the persecuted church; or those who are lost. Take just one topic and let it be the sole subject for that one prayer.
Practice the opposite strategy as well. When building a muscle it is important not just to strengthen it, but to keep it warmed up with frequent, short spells of activity throughout the day. Pray continually - as 1 Thessalonians 5:17 says, “without ceasing.” Pray in any place and at any moment - perhaps silently with your eyes open. You may have less than a minute, less than 15 seconds, to spend on it, but the moment something comes into your heart and mind, clear your brain of everything else for just an instant, and pray.
Finally, stay flexible. Don’t become so set in the same routine that your muscle protests against any new and different movements. Do you always refer to God by a certain title, such as “Father”? Change it up by calling Him “Jesus,” “King,” “Savior” or any of the names or descriptions that belong to God. Do you always begin or end your prayer with a certain phrase? Use different words to open or close your prayer, or end it with nothing but submissive silence and unspoken worship for as long as your attention will allow. Sing a verse or two of a hymn as part of your prayer, quote Scripture or recite a written prayer or a piece of liturgy. Go wherever true worship leads you, as long as Scripture and correct theology inform your innovations, and as long as you don’t find it easy and routine enough that you can quickly be back on the couch.