There is a mystery to the way prayer works. Often the Biblical commands about prayer and the Biblical narratives about prayer seem to be at odds with one another. Prayer often feels like a two-sided coin.
This semester I would like to compare and contrast the different sides of the coin when it comes to the mystery of prayer. In so doing, I hope you can identify ways that you could grow in your own prayer life.
Those who believe in continual prayer find support for their position in verses like these that clearly tell us to pray continually. God is always with us, and part of abiding in Him is talking with Him all day and every day.
Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus. – I Thessalonians 5:16-18
Be happy in your hope. Do not give up when trouble comes. Do not let anything stop you from praying. – Romans 12:12
If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. – John 15:7
Brother Lawrence’s famous book Practicing the Presence of God describes how his walk with God was incredibly strengthened by his learning to pray throughout the day while doing mundane tasks like washing dishes. Communication is vital in any relationships. We become closer to those that we talk with most often.
Nehemiah is a great example of a man who prayed throughout his day. In the book of Nehemiah he prays short “popcorn style” prayers throughout the book (5:19, 6:9, 6:14, 13:14, 13:22, 13:29, 13:30). When a situation would arise, he would pray accordingly right then and there.
They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.” But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.” Nehemiah 6:9
Truth and Pitfalls in Continual Prayer
No doubt we’re called to continual prayer. It’s part of living a holistic Christian life. Those who pray continually do not compartmentalize their life into the the religious and irreligious. They believe God is with them wherever they go so they maintain a conversation with God throughout the day. While this is a wonderful discipline to practice, those who primarily pray this way a prone to a few temptations.
Those who only practice continual prayer are prone to not truly pray at all. Sometimes those who say they “pray all the time” are truly no doing so. It can become an excuse for not really making time to intentionally talk with God. I find it hard to believe someone can effectively pray continually unless they are first setting aside time to pray personally.
Those who only practice continual prayer are prone to only pray about themselves. Those who pray continually, like Nehemiah, usually only end up praying for themselves. While they may pray for others who come to mind or even the world as they see or read the news, mostly their continual prayers revolve around themselves and the circumstances of their day.
Those who believe in set-aside prayer find support for their position in verses like these that clearly tell us to set aside time to pray each day. Several people (chief of whom is Jesus) set the example and other scriptures simply tell us to do so.
But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Luke 5:16
About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. Acts 10:9
But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. Matthew 6:6
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. James 5:13,14
Set aside time in prayer with God and with others strengthens our relationship with God and with others. Just as long dates and long conversations with a spouse are needed to grow the relationship, so are long and personal conversations with God needed to grow our relationship with Him. We become closest with those whom we speak with the longest.
Nehemiah was not only known for his continual prayer. He also set aside time to pray at length. The book of Nehemiah begins by recording one of Nehemiah’s more lengthy prayers and telling how he prayed like this for days.
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Nehemiah 1:4
Truth and Pitfalls in Set-aside Prayer
No doubt God has called us to set-aside time in our schedules just to pray and seek Him. Spending time with God in prayer is perhaps the most important Christian discipline. It could fairly be argued that set-aside prayer is more important than continual prayer because set-aside prayer leads to better continual prayer. That being said, those who only practice set-aside prayer are prone to some of their own temptations.
Those who only practice set-aside prayer are prone to separate the sacred from the secular. Their quiet time can become God’s time while the rest of the day is their time. They can tend to forget that God is with them and is a part of every aspect of their day. They forget to listen to His voice and call upon him throughout the day.
Those who only practice set-aside prayer are prone to make prayer a religious duty. Because this kind of prayer is so tangible, you can check the box when it has been done. Sometimes the relational aspect of prayer that comes with continual prayer can be lost by those who only set aside time to pray. They can see prayer as only a discipline and not a delight.
Justin Christopher is the National Campus Director for Campus Renewal Ministries and the author of Campus Renewal: A Practical Plan for Uniting Campus Ministries in Prayer and Mission. He gives leadership to the Campus House of Prayer and the missional community movement at the University of Texas.