Admittedly, one should be more interested in actually praying, than just talking or writing about it. But there is obviously a place to discuss this, because Jesus himself spent time talking about prayer. He even gave his disciples instructions on how to pray.
So it is not amiss to think and write about prayer – as long of course as we do not neglect the actual doing of prayer. So this article is meant to help achieve that aim. It consists of an observation about prayer, and a recommendation concerning prayer.
My observation is this: I think it is fairly accurate to state that for most Christians prayer consists mainly of a shopping list. That is, we come to God with a list of wants – a to-do list. We want God to fix a relationship, or help sort out a financial problem, or take care of a jam we are in, or help Aunt Martha to not be such a pest, or bring a non-believer into the Kingdom.
I suspect that for most believers this is the main thing that happens when they pray – they are asking God to do stuff. Now that is not wrong of course – there most certainly is a place for bringing to God our needs, our requests, our pleas for help, and our many pressing issues.
But I want to remind us that simply asking God for stuff does not exhaust what prayer is all about. In fact it is only one part of prayer – an important part to be sure, but still just a part. There are other very important aspects of prayer that we so often tend to ignore or overlook.
But without engaging in these other elements of prayer, we are not only offering just partial prayer, but we are short-changing both God and ourselves as well. So let me here recommend one method of prayer which helps us draw in these other aspects of prayer.
This recommendation, it needs to be stressed, is not meant to turn our prayer time into some lifeless ritual or some regular routine. It is just a helpful little device to help us better pray, and more consistently engage in some of these other vital aspects of prayer.
I refer to an acronym which has been around for some time and many of you would already know about it. But I have found it helpful in my prayer life, so I pass it on to you. If it helps you to establish a richer, fuller and deeper prayer life, that is terrific. If it does not, or if it in fact becomes counterproductive for you, then simply forget about it altogether.
So here is what the acronym is: ACTS. This very simple memory device stands for a four-part prayer session:
I believe the order here is quite significant. Again, not meaning to become legalistic here, or formulaic, I think this order of prayer has a lot of merit to it. Notice first of all that the shopping list actually comes last. There are other things which may be more important to first deal with in our prayer time, and if done, they may result in the final element being far more efficacious.
So let’s look at each one in turn. Adoration simply has to do with reflecting on God and his character. It is about meditating on who God is, what he is like, and what he has done. It is simply to soak up God and spend some moments in his presence, recognising who he is and why he is so beautiful.
As we ponder on his lovingkindness, or on his great mercy, or his vast love, or his deep holiness, or his tremendous justice, this gets us in the right frame of mind. It gets the focus off of ourselves and gets it back on to God, where it belongs.
This may be one of the most important things we can do when we think about spending time in prayer. This really is our chief end after all. As the Westminster Shorter Confession rightly states, “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever”.
Simply spending time with him, loving him and adoring him for who he is should really be the chief activity of our prayer life. Everything else seems to flow from this and take significance from this primary task. It is an attitude of prayer that we all need to learn to cultivate and grow in.
The second activity, confession, of course very naturally flows from the first. After we have spent time in God’s glorious presence, it will become apparent real quickly if there are any areas of sin that need to be confessed. Indeed, we can only really ever see ourselves as we truly are after we first see God for who he is.
Spending time in his holy and pure presence will immediately illuminate any areas in our life that need to be dealt with, any wrongs that need to be righted, and any sins that need to be confessed. Neither one of these first two steps should be rushed through. We should allow for as much time as possible with each one.
When sin is confessed, we can then turn to thanksgiving. After engaging in the first two steps, there will be plenty to give thanks about. All those exposed and confessed sins will certainly be something to be very thankful for. But more importantly, just reflecting on who God is and how great he is will result in spontaneous praise and thanksgiving.
How can we not thank God when we meditate on the great depths of his love or the amazing majesty of his person? How can we not break forth into praise when we have contemplated his character which is unbending in its commitment to truth, unflagging in its passion for justice, and unswerving in its bestowal of grace and mercy?
Falling on our knees or our faces before him is the only sensible reaction to having spent time before his face. The heart and mouth will overflow with praise and the giving of thanks. There will be nothing artificial or forced about it. It will come as spontaneously and naturally as when we utter words of wonder and delight over a beautiful sunset or some majestic mountains.
Then, finally, we get to our shopping list. One important thing you will notice is that if you have gone through these first three activities, you may notice your shopping list change. In many ways it becomes far less important. Many items will simply drop off the list.
Other items which you thought were just things to pray about now become objects to take action over. That person you just cannot get along with who you wanted to pray about may now be seen in a new light. You may recognise that you in fact have to take some steps here, and you may have some fence-mending to engage in.
So do you begin to see why just the shopping list approach to prayer is so restrictive and so incomplete? Going through these other steps first will often radically change the way you come to God in supplication. It will always change our outlook when we first spend some quality time with God.
As I say, this is not meant to be some mere formula or ritual. If it is of help to you then fine. If not, just forget it. But whatever or however we pray, let us make sure that we are in fact praying. We will likely never know until we come into our eternal rest just how important prayer is, and just how deficient and negligent we were for neglecting it so much.
To conclude, let me just offer a few classic quotes about prayer. Happy praying!
“The greatest tragedy of life is not unanswered prayer, but unoffered prayer.” F.B. Meyer
“Do you know what the most eloquent prayer is? When you don’t say a word!” Leonard Ravenhill
“So when we sing, ‘Draw me nearer, nearer, blessed Lord,’ we are not thinking of the nearness of place, but of the nearness of relationship. It is for increasing degrees of awareness that we pray, for a more perfect consciousness of the divine Presence.” A.W. Tozer
“There is a mighty lot of difference between saying prayers and praying.” John G. Lake
“You may pray for an hour and still not pray. You may meet God for a moment and then be in touch with Him all day.” Fredrik Wisloff
“Always respond to every impulse to pray. The impulse to pray may come when you are reading or when you are battling with a text. I would make an absolute law of this – always obey such an impulse.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones
“Is prayer your steering wheel or your spare tire?” Corrie Ten Boom
“I don’t often spend more than half an hour in prayer at one time. But I never go more than half an hour without praying.” Smith Wigglesworth
“Prayer does not fit us for the greater work, prayer is the greater work.” Oswald Chambers
“Every great movement of God can be traced to a kneeling figure.” D.L. Moody
“The Church is looking for better methods; God is looking for better men. The Holy Ghost does not flow through methods, but through men. He does not come on machinery, but on men. He does not anoint plans, but men…Men of prayer.” E. M. Bounds