What Happened to Prayer? Teaching a Spiritual Discipline

Has humanity lost the vision of prayer? Have our youth today dropped it along with their yesteryear GameBoys, Pogs, and Pokemon cards? It would seem that the only time to pray is always “before.” To pray is to be quiet before bed, before meals, and before sports games, right? To pray is to receive something. To pray is to voice our concerns to God in expectation of an answer in our favor. .. and if this answer doesn’t come, than the prayer didn’t work, right? Has prayer become just an option? Have we lost the vision of the immensity of prayer?

It is astounding to think about the pace of American society. With the dawn of Playstation 3’s and Pentium Processors, iPod’s and Internet Café’s, the essence of Christian youth today is, in some capacity, to become involved with technology – technology has become life! I am just starting to read a book by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons called UnChristian. In their research they found that “young people engage in a nearly constant search for fresh experiences and new sources of motivation. They want to try things out themselves, disdaining self-proclaimed experts. . . If something doesn’t work for them, or if they are not permitted to participate in the process, they quickly move on to something that grabs them.”1 Kimmaman places forth an interesting emphasis and highlights several key components of youth today – fresh experiences, sources of motivation, trying new things, yet bouncing around between them. And this begs the question, “Has prayer become boring?” Do youth identify prayer with the church building, or with their own relationship with Jesus Christ? It’s interesting that teens often worry about relationships with other teens, but their relationship with Christ is on the depth-chart. These are questions that need to be exposed to our youth.

Taking a step back, though, there has arisen a serious misconception of the term ‘spiritual discipline.’ Often, the connotation that drives this term is time-consuming, boring, lame, uninteresting, etc. Just highlight one of these terms, look in the thesaurus, and all those synonyms work as a definition of spiritual discipline, too. Brian Weaver, in his introduction on spiritual disciplines on thESource, speaks quite nicely saying, “God uses these disciplines to mold, conform and transform us, His children, to His will, and to lead us through this life to the next. . . These disciplines are actions. . .”

So, in consideration of prayer as a spiritual discipline, prayer may be something that needs to be redefined for your youth. It needs to highlight our action toward God, not as a way to mold our own lives through our expectations of prayer, but to BE molded by God. I admit, it’s a subtle difference, but this difference removes our expectations. It removes our desire for answers to prayer in our favor and allows “our heart to have a conversation with God” (Psalm 27:8). I like what Thomas Merton posits in saying, “What is the use of prayer if at the very moment of prayer, we have so little confidence in God that we are too busy planning our own kind of answer to our prayer?” The ill-defined prayer, and further prayer as spiritual discipline, is shaping the entire mentality of our youth as they stand face-to-face with the misperception of prayer.

So, then, what is prayer? What is the actual definition of prayer to be reapplied to a generation of status-updaters and text-message senders? Francis Pieper in Christian Dogmatics (Volume 3) says, “Prayer. . .is the continuous longing for the heart of God. . . Prayer has been fittingly compared to the heartbeat of physical life: it never ceases.” For Pieper, prayer is the integration by the Spirit tied within the heart-strings of the created human. When our lips and tongue stop moving after our “time-allotted” prayer, the Spirit of God continues to groan in our heart – continues to communicate to God in us. Romans 8:26-27 says in the context of what is to come, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.” The Spirit speaks for man in a language only audible by God by voicing the passions only audible in ourselves. The Spirit reveals to God, for us when we are unable, the depths of our heart. “The Spirit continues to move whenever there is a Christian.”

Martin Luther likened prayer to a pulse of a living human – so long as the pulse/heart continues to beat, so long does the Spirit continue to pray unceasingly for the Christian. And just as the pulse beats on during the journey from birth to death through this life, maybe prayer is similar. Maybe, now in the context of the Spirit living within each Christian, prayer is meant to be a journey. I like to think of prayer similar to the ‘Narrow Door’ in Luke 13:22ff where Jesus places the entire emphasis of faith on the journey and struggle against self, the path that goes through that door, that compact gate. Along life, what if prayer looked much more like a journey than an obligation? What if prayer in daily life was normative to the extent that our prayer elicited the essential act of kneeling before God; the act of approach? Psalm 141:2 says, “May my prayer be set before you like incense. . .” When was the last time you saw incense (or smoke) rise down? It seems awkward to think about something that is made to raise as flowing down. Our mentality of prayer should be set as such, an act that rises, whatever the consequence, in trust that our Lord Jesus does indeed hear our petitions, desires, wants, and needs (Matt. 7:7).

I want to focus on two key ideas of prayer that are demonstrated in the biblical text. The first that we will emphasize will be Jesus’ teaching of prayer in Matthew 6:5ff and the second text will be looking at the Psalms as a whole. First, Matthew 6:5 begins with the emphasis on the body position and pride involved in the prayer of the Pharisees. It then shifts from the pride that is inherent in the Pharisaic prayer routines, moving quickly into the do’s and don’t’s of prayer. But after looking at Matthew 6 more closely, Jesus is simply trying to guide the reader into the action of praying. He tells us that God knows what is heavy on our hearts. He knows that often times we keep babbling and do not know what to say. . .but pushes us to act. Jesus even, for us, creates a template for a prayer that recognizes God, recognizes our need as humanity and recognizes the world around us that continues to tempt us. It’s a prayer that focuses on our basic needs. God doesn’t need us to pray. . . He already knows what we will say. But we need us to pray. We need to be aware and reaffirmed that God continues to walk with us, providing for us, loving us! In John 17, Jesus himself prays three lengthy prayers audibly in front the of disciples as a model – and includes aspects that reaffirm the disciples, that confess thoughts to God, and that connect the souls of those around Him to the Spirit of God above Him. Prayer is not supposed to tell God things He doesn’t know, but to remind us of things that we’ve forgotten – chiefly, of Christ himself!

I was sitting in class a few month ago, and the topic for the day was “Praying the Psalms.” This idea of Psalms as a prayer book was introduced to me in a small book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer called Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible. In this, I was not sold. I couldn’t perceive the need to recite words from the Psalms that aligned with the needs of my heart. I couldn’t work myself up to believe that the Psalms would ease the problems of my heart, or that they would be able to voice the situations of my life. “Not happening”, I said. . .and went through the motions with this small text by Bonhoeffer. But then in class a comment made by a classmate stuck with me, “I never would have imagined the language that the Psalms offer me to pray in a way that I am continually reminded of the love that God has for me.” There is a lot of truth in this statement, because the emphasis is not on what God can do for me, but what He has already done in me through Christ and His action on the cross. And I began to understand the language that the Psalms held within their words, a language that, in a way, put words to the groaning that the Spirit in my heart was continually doing. In the Psalms, we can begin to translate that voice lost in our technology –  the voice of the Spirit within us, praying for us, reassuring us, and reminding us of our Everlasting God who walks daily with us.

So given all of this, in the lengthy exhibition on prayer that it is, what do we do with it? How do we teach our youth what we have learned – that prayer is as a spiritual discipline.

Honestly, I do not have a one to ten step session outlined for you to try with your group. I do not have a perfect plan for you to begin teaching your youth about prayer as a spiritual discipline. The entire idea of a spiritual discipline is something that needs to be worked at. It is an action that is different for all people. For some, it is setting the alarm 15 minutes earlier. For some people, it is staying up 15 minutes later and committing yourself to praying or resting in God during this time. For me, when I try to employ this idea, I find reasons not to pray – like sleeping in, keep reading, keep watching TV. But for some people it works.

In teaching this lesson of prayer as spiritual discipline, allow freedom in prayer. Allow participation and experience in praying before God based on the things that we have talked about in this article. Be the model of what prayer looks like in the Psalms, but also in John 17. If the youth are going to buy into prayer as spiritual discipline, they need to see it and participate in it. They want to see you (the youth leader, pastor, parent, etc.) do it. From here, you can begin to teach the role of the Spirit within the hearts of youth, praying for them and groaning in them. As quasi-homework for your youth and in order for them to experience the Psalms, not just read them, it may be a great idea to each pick out a Psalm to be read in the morning, revisit that Psalm around lunchtime, and then pray that Psalm in the evening. Times can be altered, but the experience of the Psalm is not! Or maybe you stress to your youth that instead of setting a time, they set a place or action. If they are going to go to Starbucks for a coffee, tell them not just to get a drink and leave, but to sit down for three minutes in the shop in prayer, reading a Psalm, or sitting still with our vision raised before God through the Spirit.

Prayer is not about receiving, but about giving. It is an experienced reminder that Christ continues to guide us and live in us. With the Merton quote in mind, prayer is trusting that God hears, not trusting that God gives us the answer we expect. Prayer in itself returns our vision to God, removing ourselves from the temptations that surround us and often suffocate us. It is looking at heaven wherever we are, and allowing the Spirit to work within us. Prayer is the spiritual discipline that takes action – and a commitment to this action – one that may oftentimes seem sacrificial to our busy technologically-overrun schedules. But this action is pretty representative of the action of Jesus Christ at Golgotha on our behalf, right? The Sacrificial Action.

1Kinnaman, D. & Lyons, G. UnChristian, 23.

Published October 1, 2010

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