10 Things I Learned About Prayer in 2021

When the calendar page flips open to December, I start a long, slow reflection back on the year. What worked? What didn’t work? Did I learn anything? Have I grown?

My word for 2021 was “ask”, which I took as an invitation to explore prayer. It’s been lovely to spend a whole year focusing on one topic, allowing it time to soak into my heart and soul. The extended time seemed unhurried, more like a leisurely stroll with a friend. It gave God a chance to straighten me out on some misconceptions and fill me up with practical truth. Here are some things I learned:

1. A year isn’t long enough to explore prayer. Neither is a lifetime, of course. Prayer isn’t something to master or figure out. There’s no code to crack or formula to follow. I want to keep growing and learning in this area, so I plan to continually have a book on the subject in my TBR pile. Here are two I’m looking forward to reading in 2022.

2. The old dead guys have written the best books on prayer, but contemporary authors are providing some great resources. The stack in the photo below are some of the books I’ve read this year on the topic. I heartily recommend them.

3. I am in a very different place at the end of this year than I expected to be in January 2021. My neat and tidy prayer lists and tabbed categories and boxes to check fell by the wayside. I’ve loosened my grip on controlled formulas and rigid routines. Even though my word was “ask”, I find myself twelve months later asking less and enjoying time with God more.

4. Many years ago, someone told me that my prayers for healing for a loved one weren’t answered because of my lack of faith. That put me in a tailspin for a while, until a more mature believer put their arms around me and gave wise counsel. I still have some residual angst about prayer and faith, so I loved Ole Hallesby’s thoughts: “The essence of faith is to come to Christ. You have more faith than you think you have if you have faith enough to pray.” The simple act of opening my heart’s door to Jesus and giving Him access to my helplessness is enough. I do not need to muster up some kind of fake confidence in order to help God secure an answer. He does not need my help, simply access.

5. I’ve learned that there are bigger things to pray for than Uncle John’s bum knee and Aunt Susie’s sore shoulder. Allistair Begg points out that praying for health issues is rare — almost non-existent — in the Bible. Paul’s prayers for other people were on another level. He prayed for the eyes of their hearts to be opened, he prayed for their love to abound more and more, he prayed for his friends to be filled with spiritual wisdom and understanding. I’ll continue to bring physical needs to the Lord in prayer, but I’m learning to also pray for Uncle John and Aunt Susie to know Christ and the power of His resurrection.

6. “Be with…” is the lamest prayer there is. I’ve stopped saying, “Be with her, be with him, be with us.” For one thing, it’s unimaginative and unambitious. For another thing, Jesus’ last words before ascending were, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” “It’s a bit of a waste to make the sum total of my prayer for people the request that Jesus would do what he already said he’d do, and has already started doing.” (Begg) No more “be with” prayers!

7. The book of Psalms is where it’s at when it comes to prayer. Eugene Peterson recommends a daily dose of psalms on a regular rotation. He goes so far as to say the Psalms are necessary to the praying life of every believer. “They are God’s gift to train us in prayer that is comprehensive and honest.” Martin Luther put it like this: “Whoever has begun to pray the Psalter seriously and regularly will soon give a vacation to other little devotional prayers and say, ‘Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter.'” O Lord, I want to pray juicy prayers, strong and passionate prayers, prayers with some heat. So I will pray the Psalms.

8. There is something beautiful about praying the same prayers that saints down through the centuries have whispered. When my own words fail me, I fall back on the language of ancient liturgy and Puritan preachers. I’ve memorized the Compline, a nighttime prayer, and find that it’s a good way to end the day. As I put my head on the pillow and shut off my light, I know that people all over the world are joining me.

Keep watch, dear Lord,
with those who work, or watch, or weep this night,
and give your angels charge over those who sleep.
Tend the sick, Lord Christ;
give rest to the weary, bless the dying,
soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted,
shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

(From “Prayers in the Night”, Tish Harrison Warren)

9. I had narrowly defined prayer as me talking to God. Once I ran through my list of prayer requests, I was off and running into the day. But there’s more. I’m learning to pause for a few minutes and say, “What do you think about this, God?” and then actually listen. I had also narrowly defined prayer as personal time between me and God. But many of the Psalms are undeniably intended for corporate worship. “Come let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker; for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture.” (Ps. 95:6-7) Lots of plurals there. Sounds like we’re supposed to pray with one another.

10. I will end the year with the same request I started it with: “Teach me to pray.”

Pray until you can pray;
pray to be helped to pray
and do not give up praying because you cannot pray.
For it is when you think you cannot pray,
that is when you are praying.

Other helpful resources:
The Daily Prayer on Wild At Heart app, John Eldredge
Prayer in a Noisy World, podcast by Valerie Woerner
Lectio 365 app, 24/7 Prayer
In The Lord I Take Refuge podcast, Dane Ortland
Hidden Streams podcast, Chad Bird

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