Do you ever struggle to pray? Most of us do. We know that praying is a wonderful privilege. We know that God is willing to give us countless good things when we pray. We remember that in the past we have found great delight as we’ve prayed. Yet there are times when we simply don’t want to pray. We’ve set aside half an hour each morning to pray. The time has come. But we don’t want to. So we dawdle over our breakfast, listen to one more pointless interview on the radio, put off the moment when we’ll sit – or kneel – down to pray. And then, when we finally do turn off the radio, close the door and sit down, we find it hard to get started. Our mind is sluggish. We can’t remember what we were going to pray about. We manage a few sentences and our mind starts drifting. We’re thinking about our plans for the rest of the day, or our mind is returning to the book we read last night. We realise that we’ve not been praying and force ourselves to try again. But oh, the relief, when the phone rings and we can jump up and leave our praying behind. There are times when we shy away from praying the way a horse may shy away from a high fence.
Hindrances to prayer
Why is it like that? There could be many reasons. Sometimes it is because of some unrepented sin by which we’ve grieved God. His Spirit won’t give us the help we need to pray unless we make it our first priority to confess that sin. And we don’t want to think about it – let alone talk to God about it. But that’s not always the reason. I think that often when I’m reluctant to pray it’s not because I’ve sinned but because I’ve some painful situation at the back of our mind. I know that if I start praying I’ll have to talk to God about the matter – and it will hurt. I don’t want the boil to be lanced.
And then sometimes it’s simply because we’re tired. Praying can be very hard work. When we’re exhausted mentally and emotionally, we may dread the thought of praying. We don’t want to work out what we should be saying to God and we don’t want to work at finding the right words. And when we try, just because we’re tired out, we easily lose our train of thought.
Well, what are we to do when we struggle to pray and seem to make no progress. I’m going to offer you just one suggestion. Prime the pump. Do you know that expression? Back in the days when people went to the village pump for water, often they had to pour a little water into the pump before they got a flow of water out. But once they had got it flowing, it would continue as long as they carried on pumping. In the same way, there are times when we need something to start the flow of prayer. And often we can find that stimulus in prayers that someone else has written.
The Lord’s Prayer
Many Christians are wary of using set forms of prayer. And yes, it can be dangerous. It’s easy just to recite a prayer that someone else has written and not think about its meaning. There are churches where the congregation chants a sequence of written prayers and where nobody ever prays using the words that have come naturally to their lips. That surely cannot be right. And yet there are times when we can take the prayer that someone else has prayed and make it our own. In fact that’s what we should be doing whenever one person prays in a meeting. One person prays but all the folk there listen, they let the words echo in their hearts, and they say Amen. They make the prayer their own.
Well, if I can do that in a public meeting, why can’t I do it in private? Someone else has prayed. Their prayer has been written down. And now, I can use it to prime the pump of my own praying. When my mind is too tired to find words to pray, I can start by using someone else’s words – and by God’s grace, as I share in their words, often my own begin to flow.
Isn’t that how the Lord Jesus wanted us to use “the Lord’s Prayer”? His disciples asked him to teach them to pray. So he gave them a set form of words. Simple words, words that could be easily memorised, words that can sum up all our needs and wants. We use them in our meetings but we can also use them in our own private times of prayer. When you can’t think of what to pray, why not start by using the words the Master has given?
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name; your kingdom come; your will be done. Give us this day our daily bread; forgive us our trespasses – as we forgive those who trespass against us; lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…”
And as you use those words you may find that each phrase moves you to pray in your own words. As you take the words, “Give us this day our daily bread” and make them your own, you may that you begin to thank God for his provision for you – not just necessities like bread, but endless good things. As you pray, “forgive us our trespasses”, you may find that you have to speak at last about the sin that you’ve been avoiding talking to God about for so long.
Of course it’s not just the Lord’s Prayer. There are countless other Bible prayers that you can use to prime your own praying. The great majority of the psalms are prayers. God moved the different psalmists to pray. And then he made sure that their prayers were written down so that we can make them our own. In most of the Bible God speaks to us. But in the psalms he gives us words to speak to him.
When you know you’ve sinned and that you need to confess your sin, you may feel so hopeless and ashamed that you don’t know where to begin. Well, God has given you Psalm 51 so start from there:
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight…
You may know that you ought to be thanking God for all his kindnesses to you. But when you start trying to give thanks, the words dry up on your tongue. Well then, God has given you Psalm 108:
My heart is steadfast, O God!
I will sing and make melody with all my being!
Awake, O harp and lyre!
I will awake the dawn!
I will give thanks to you, O LORD, among the peoples;
I will sing praises to you among the nations.
For your steadfast love is great above the heavens;
your faithfulness reaches to the clouds.
You may be desperately upset over some situation. And you know you ought to be telling the Lord all about it. But your mind is too numb to find the words. God’s given you Psalm 102:
Hear my prayer, O LORD;
let my cry come to you!
Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress!
Incline your ear to me; answer me speedily in the day when I call!
For my days pass away like smoke,
and my bones burn like a furnace.
My heart is struck down like grass and has withered.
New Testament Prayers
Use the psalms to prime the pump. But use other Bible prayers too. Use the prayers you find throughout the New Testament. You know you ought to be praying for your fellow church-members. But somehow you can’t get your mind into gear to do it. Well, God moved Paul to pray for the members of the church in Colosse. So use his words to pray for the members of this church.
“Father, may they be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May they be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified them to share in the inheritance of the saints in light” (Colossians 1:9-12 – I’ve just turned Paul’s “you” into “they”).
You’ll find other wonderful prayers to pray at Romans 11: 33-36 / 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 / 2 Corinthians 13:14 / Galatians 1: 3-4 / Ephesians 1: 3-10 / Ephesians 3: 14-20 / 1 Timothy 6: 15-16 / Hebrews 13: 20-21 / Jude 24-25 / Revelation 5: 12-13. And that’s just a small selection!
Should we restrict ourselves to Bible prayers? Bible prayers are inspired by the Holy Spirit and we can expect God to bless them in a special way. But though they may not be inspired and infallible, we have many prayers prayed down through the centuries by godly men and women, led by God’s Spirit. We are grateful for the help we get from other believers who pray in our meetings. Why should we not accept gratefully help from believers from other places and times?
For me, after Scripture, the first place I go to prime the pump is our hymnbook. Yes, sometimes singing the hymns helps clear the log-jam of my thoughts. But just taking their words and reading them as prayers often helps. And what wonderful prayers they are!
O Jesus full of truth and grace,
More full of grace than I of sin,
Yet once again I seek thy face;
Open thine arms and take me in,
And freely my backslidings heal
And love the faithless sinner still. (GH 693)
O, to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let that grace, Lord, like a fetter
Bind my wandering heart to thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here’s my heart, Lord, take and seal it,
Seal it from thy courts above. (GH 615)
Clouds and darkness round about thee,
For a season veil thy face;
Still I trust and cannot doubt thee,
Jesus, full of truth and grace;
Resting on thy word I stand,
None shall pluck me from thy hand. (GH 761)
I can find in our hymnbook a prayer to help me pray in almost every situation and state of mind.
The Book of Common Prayer
Where else do I find prayers to prime the pump? Well, from time to time I turn to the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer. I’ve already said that I wouldn’t want to belong to a church where the minister and congregation regularly chanted written prayers and there was no room for spontaneous prayers from the heart. But having said that, it remains true that there are wonderful prayers in the BCP, not least those penned by Archbishop Cranmer.
“O Lord, our heavenly Father, Almighty and everlasting God, who hast safely brought us to the beginning of this day: Defend us in the same with thy mighty power; and grant that this day we fall into no sin, neither run into any kind of danger; but that all our doings may be ordered by thy governance, to do always that is righteous in thy sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”
“Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men; We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.”
The Valley of Vision
Where else might you look? The Banner of Truth Trust published in 1975 a book called “The Valley of Vision: A collection of Puritan poems and devotions”. It was edited by an Anglican minister called Arthur Bennett. He brought together prayers and meditations by various Christians in the Puritan tradition and edited them so that others could make use of them. I have not used the book a great deal, but whenever I have looked into it, I’ve found it rich and rewarding. Let me give you a sample:
“Three in One, One in Three, God of my salvation,
Heavenly Father, blessed Son, eternal Spirit,
I adore thee as one Being, one Essence,
one God in three distinct Persons,
for bringing sinners to thy knowledge and to thy kingdom.
O Father, thou hast loved me and sent Jesus to redeem me;
O Jesus, thou hast loved me and assumed my nature,
shed thine own blood to wash away my sins,
wrought righteousness to cover my unworthiness;
O Holy Spirit, thou hast loved me and entered my heart,
implanted there eternal life,
revealed to me the glories of Jesus.
Three Persons and one God, I bless and praise thee,
for love so unmerited, so unspeakable, so wondrous,
so mighty to save the lost and raise them to glory…”
I have turned rather more often to a battered copy of C H Spurgeon’s prayers. Again, here’s a short sample:
“O God, we would stir Thee up. We know Thou sleepest not, and yet sometimes it seems as if Thou didst sleep awhile and leave things to go on in their own way.
We beseech Thee, awake. Plead Thine own cause. We know Thine answer, ‘Awake! Awake! Put on thy strength, O Zion.’ This we would do, Lord, but we cannot do it unless Thou dost put forth Thy strength to turn our weakness into might.
Great God, save this nation! O God of heaven and earth, stay the floods of infidelity and of filthiness that roll over this land. Would God we might see better days! Men seem entirely indifferent now. They will not come to hear the Word as once they did. God of our fathers, let Thy Spirit work again among the masses. Turn the hearts of the people to the hearing of the Word and convert them when they hear it. May it be preached with the Holy Ghost sent down from heaven.
Our hearts are weary for Thee, thou King, Thou King forgotten in thine own land, Thou King despised among Thine own people, when wilt Thou yet be glorious before the eyes of all mankind? Come, we beseech Thee, come quickly, or if Thou comest not personally, send forth the Holy Spirit with a greater power than ever that our hearts may leap within us as they see miracles of mercy repeated in our midst”.
And many more beside
I could carry on listing lots of books in which I’ve found prayers that help me to pray. Some of them were written long before the Reformation and have strange mystical ideas mixed in with Biblical wisdom. But when I read them, I know that these were real believers who really prayed – and who help me to pray. Here is Anselm of Canterbury, praying for fellow-believers whom he had offended and who had become his enemies.
“Tender Lord Jesus,
let me not be the cause of the death of my brothers,
let me not be to them
a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence.
For it is more than enough, Lord,
that I should be a scandal to myself,
my sin is sufficient to me.
Your slave begs you for his fellow slaves,
lest because of me they offend
against the kindness of so good and great a lord.
Let them be reconciled to you and in concord with me,
according to your will and for your own sake”.
And here is Alcuin of York:
“Eternal Light, shine into our hearts,
Eternal Goodness, deliver us from evil,
Eternal Power, be our support,
Eternal Wisdom, scatter the darkness of our ignorance,
Eternal Pity, have mercy upon us;
that will all our heart and mind and soul and strength
we may seek thy face and be brought by thine infinite mercy
to thy holy presence; through Jesus Christ our Lord”.
Enough! Yes, there are lots of books that the Lord may use to help us pray. But don’t let reading other people’s prayers become a substitute for your own. In the end, however many books of prayers we read, or books about prayer, we will not pray real prayers unless the Holy Spirit himself helps us.
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us…” (Romans 8: 26). So maybe when I’m struggling to pray, the very first words I should use are “Holy Spirit, help me in my weakness…” And he surely will.