Gary came to me for help because he was falling into sexual temptation on his smartphone. “Do you pray about this temptation in your daily devotions?” I asked him.
“I don’t do daily devotions,” he replied. Seeing my concerned expression, he explained, “I don’t pray at set times because I pray all the time.”
It sounded super-spiritual, and yet his life was far from super-holy. “Well, that’s great that you pray all the time, Gary,” I eventually replied. “But why would you not want to have a set time of prayer as well?”
Over the next hour or so, we discussed this question about, When should we pray? I want to share the two biblical answers we arrived at by looking at Daniel 6:10 and 1 Thessalonians 5:17.
We’ve been looking at prayer using different biblical images to teach us to pray:
- The cross: Taught us how to pray in Jesus name
- The throne: Taught us to pray with confidence
- The battlefield: Taught us to pray as in a war.
- The supper: Taught us to view prayer as communion
- The door: Taught us to pray for all our needs
- The window: Teaches us how to pray for perspective
This week, we are looking at the schedule of prayer. When should we pray?
1. PRAY AT SET TIMES
[Daniel] got down on his knees three times a day and prayed and gave thanks before his God, as he had done previously (Daniel. 6:10)
Gary had three main objections to having set times of daily prayer.
“I don’t want to be legalistic”
I understand Gary’s concern here. Most of us have had times in our lives when we did daily devotions in a legalistic way. Praying because we have to is like being called to the principal’s office. It’s a miserable experience that drains all joy and profit from the paltry few minutes we can muster to salve our consciences and keep God at bay.
But set times of prayer need not be legalistic. Just as making regular appointments to meet with friends doesn’t make friendships legalistic, so making regular appointments with God does not need to make prayer legalistic. It was a practice that not only Daniel, but David and Jesus engaged in too (Ps. 119:164; Dan. 6:10; Mark 1:35).
How safe would you feel if our top generals said, “We’ve decided to stop daily firearms training because the soldiers say it’s too legalistic”? Daily training in prayer is a vital part of spiritual warfare. As I said to Gary about his need for prayer to beat pornography, “You can risk legalism, or you can guarantee legal trouble.”
“It’s difficult to fit into my schedule”
There’s no doubt that setting aside time to pray impinges on our schedule. It takes time away from other activities and people. It’s hard to fit into busy mornings when we’re rushing to work or getting others rushed to work. It’s hard to fit into the evening when we’re tired and trying to wind down.
But if “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Eccl. 3:1), then surely there must be a set time for prayer. If all the other activities of life have set times (Eccl. 3:2–8), then why not prayer? Our problem is not usually our busy schedule; it’s our upside-down priorities. If we are too busy to pray, we are too busy. God calls us to “be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10). Knowing God necessitates stillness with God.
“I prefer to be spontaneous”
I prefer spontaneity too and wish I was far more spontaneous in prayer. However, if I had only prayed when I had feelings of prayer, I wouldn’t have prayed very much in my life.
Having said that, there have been many times I’ve forced myself to pray, and the feelings have forced themselves into my life. I started praying my habit prayer and it became a joy prayer. Dutiful times can become delightful times (Ps. 119:25–32). I’ve also noticed that my spontaneous prayers were more common when scheduled prayer was more consistent (Matthew 6:6).
When God blessed Shona and I with children, we realized that we were so busy with them that we were hardly getting any time together ourselves. We needed a plan if we were not to drift apart. So we set a time each day when we would sit down for about thirty minutes, just her and me, and through these fixed times maintained and deepened our love for one another. Scheduled love sustained love.
CHANGING OUR STORIES WITH GOD’S STORY
Start Small. If you don’t have regular set times of prayer, then begin with a low bar. If we aim too high and try to begin with thirty minutes of prayer, we won’t last thirty minutes and we won’t do any minutes tomorrow. In his book Atomic Habits, James Clear says that if you want to start exercising, start with one push-up. That’s so do-able, isn’t it? But once you drop to the floor, you think, “Well, I might as well do another while I’m here,” then another, and so on. Similarly, with prayer, aim for one minute a day to begin with. You might be surprised how long you stay once you start. After a week of one-minute set times, make it two minutes, and so on.
Start by adding to an existing habit. It’s very hard to start a new good habit. But habit science encourages us that if we associate a new habit with an existing habit, it becomes much easier to remember to do the new habit. For example, if you have the daily habit of sitting in a chair to drink a coffee each morning, build on that existing habit by adding a time of prayer before you get up from the chair.
Start with Scripture. As many have noted, prayer is responding back to God in a conversation that he has started through his Word. Therefore, we can use the Bible when formulating our prayers. God starts the conversation, and we respond to his words with prayers. Take each verse and turn it into a praise, a confession, a thanksgiving, or a request.
Start with your schedule. For a set time of morning prayer, open your schedule and to-do list, and pray about each meeting, appointment, task. I call these set times of prayer, “Preview Prayers.” For a set time of evening prayer, review what happened, praying about each person you met or each problem that arose. I call these “Review Prayers.”
If we don’t schedule prayer,
we won’t have spontaneous prayer.
How do I get from scheduled prayer to spontaneous prayer?
2. PRAY ALL THE TIME
…Pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Rom. 12:12; Eph 6:18; Col. 4:2; Ps. 86:3)
This command is one of several in this passage which call us to constant and consistent connection with God (16, 18). It doesn’t mean we go around with our eyes closed, head bowed, on our knees. It doesn’t mean that every second we’re not praying we should feel guilty. So what does it mean?
Repetition. In Romans 1:9, Paul talks about praying “without ceasing” for the Romans. This cannot mean it was all he did, but rather he did it frequently and repeatedly. Whenever he thought of the Romans, he prayed for the Romans.
Persistence. We don’t stop praying when the prayer goes unanswered. We don’t give in or give up but go on praying without ceasing.
Dependence. We consciously lean upon God in all that we do. Our default is dependence not independence. “Lord, I need you here…Father, guide me in this conversation…Spirit, give me courage…”
Relationship. Prayer is not a rigid ritual but a rich relationship. It’s like having our best friend with us all the time. Everything is Godward. We bring everything and everyone to God. Every human relationship, connection, or contact is an opportunity to have a relationship, connection, or contact with God.
Lifestyle. We bring prayer into every area of life and every area of life into prayer. It’s not a law but a lifestyle. It’s not another “do this” but a state of being.
CHANGING OUR STORIES WITH GOD’S STORY
Every moment of life is an opportunity for prayer. Every success, every failure, every pain, every comfort, every friend, every enemy, every gain, every loss, every believer, every unbeliever, every moment of life is an opportunity for prayer. What we are aiming for is a seamless life of prayer. Prayer joins every area of life, from the bedroom to the kitchen, from the yard to the workplace, from the sink to the school, from sports to the hospital.
Constant prayer is constant mental health. According to the National Science Foundation, the average person thinks 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts in one day. Of those thoughts, 85% of them are negative, and 95% of those thoughts are the same repetitive thoughts from the previous day. Can you imagine the improvement in mental health you would enjoy if you replaced these negative thoughts with positive prayers?
Pray all the time
to find time to pray
A NEW CHAPTER
Gospel. When I hear “Pray at set times” and “Pray all the time,” I feel so guilty. But then I feel so thankful for the blood of Christ which washes guilt out of my scheduled prayers and my spontaneous prayers.”
Jesus. Jesus never skipped a scheduled prayer time and engaged in prayer all the time. He did this perfectly every day of life at every stage of life.
Start. With Christ’s forgiveness and Christ’s example, let’s start with a scheduled morning prayer time of 3-5 minutes and a spontaneous prayer every time we touch our phones.
Prayer. God of Time, help us to use set prayer times and spontaneous prayer time to pray about our times and prepare for eternal times.
1. What excuses keep you back from putting a daily time of prayer on your schedule?
2. What would be the best time and place for a scheduled time of prayer in your life?
3. Write out 4 prayers based on Psalm 23: An adoration, a confession, a thanks, a request.
4. How can you increase spontaneous prayer in your life?
5. What motivates more prayer in your life? Guilt or the Gospel?
6. What do you think Jesus’ prayer life looked like? What verses guide us here?