I started the habit of daily prayer as a freshman in college, and it was rare for me to miss even a day. But there were times when something would come up that kept me from my devotions. On one occasion, having missed two days in a row, I recognized myself becoming more irritable and impatient. When I resumed my “appointment with Jesus,” I found my outlook and demeanor improved.
Just a coincidence? It’s happened more than once and with other effects, too. What struck me about the first time, though, was that I didn’t feel like my prayer had any effect. In fact, I didn’t feel anything at all when I prayed. It seemed as though I would spend the entire time wrestling with daydreams and distractions. How was it that prayer could have such a positive impact on me when my prayer was so “pathetic”?
At that time in my life, I expected that during a good prayer time I would experience some revelation, emotional high, or closeness to God. It seemed, however, that God wasn’t doing His part, and I was growing more frustrated. Missing those few days of prayer helped me realize that the time I spent with the Lord was not wasted. Something was happening at a deeper, unconscious level. Soon afterward, I stopped judging the quality of my prayer time and focused on being faithful.
Are there other benefits to prayer beside producing peace and joy? Biblical teaching and the experience of the saints repeatedly reinforce how we need to be vigilant in prayer if we are to grow in holiness, peace, joy, and intimacy with God. Prayer helps us recognize sin in our lives, gain self-knowledge, and find direction when faced with decisions. Regular personal devotions can improve our ability to develop and maintain healthy relationships. I have personally experienced all of these.
Explaining the Effects of Prayer
Even some atheists can see value in prayer. They would, however, attribute any positive results to a natural cause, like self-quieting and relaxation or providing time for reflection. I believe, however, that the real benefits come supernaturally through God’s grace and the action of the Holy Spirit. Through prayer:
- We open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit who is in and with us. (John 14:15-17)
- The Spirit produces fruitful changes within us, including love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:16-24)
- The Spirit helps us recognize the destructive attitudes and behaviors in our lives that we know as sin. (John 16:8-11)
- We see the truth. (John 16:13)
- We experience life and peace. (Romans 8:6)
- The Spirit shapes and molds us so we can respond to others in the right way. (Galatians 5:25-26)
Even when we don’t know how to pray or what to pray for, the Holy Spirit prays through us (Romans 8:26-27). It seems that the effects of prayer have little to do with us and how we pray, and they have everything to do with God and his action in us. If this is so, is there anything we can or should do to better cooperate with the Holy Spirit? I believe there are.
What NOT to Do
Learning from my missteps, I can suggest two things we shouldn’t do.
First, don’t pray for an effect. This was a mistake I made early in my walk with the Lord. We can’t manipulate God. We need to let go of our expectation of a particular experience or emotional high during prayer. The main purpose of our prayer is to grow in our relationship with God.
Second, don’t place too much emphasis on the method of prayer. God cares more about what’s in our heart than any formula or way of praying. Particular practices and general guidelines for prayer are there to help us be more attentive to God and have nothing to do with how we influence Him.
Be faithful in prayer.
Establish a regular habit or discipline of prayer. God does the work and not us, but we have to show up and open ourselves to His grace.
By solitude, I don’t just mean praying by ourselves. Instead, solitude means giving ourselves to God alone. Even in the midst of a crowded room or a busy schedule, we can offer everything we do and say to God.
Solitude also means being ready to listen to the Spirit.
Adjust your attitude.
God cares about the state of our heart and how we approach Him in prayer. He desires we come to him with:
- A contrite and repentant heart.
But we are not always so sensitive to these and the opposite movements (e.g., pride) within us. Even when we are, change in these areas comes slowly.
Let prayer change your life.
We need to get beyond the tendency to compartmentalize God and just “put in our time.” Instead, be expectant and ready to cooperate with the Spirit when he moves us toward ongoing growth and conversion.
The Healthy Pray-er is part of a series on practices that promote spiritual and psychological health.