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Shape for praying

I’m a little uneasy in posting this one.  I could appear pious.  Or I could appear weak and fallible, which would make me seem even more pious.  I just hope, if you read on, that you’ll find some encouragement.  If a ‘prayer life’ sounds big or fancy to you, I reckon that’s okay, because I’ve never had much of one!

Getting sheepish

Over the course of years, my prayer life has largely been woolly, shapeless and inconsistent.  At times I’ve had many things to pray.  At times I’ve had great motivation to pray.  At times I have prayed those things in earnest and had the joy of seeing God work in me and others.  Yet, frequently I’ve had little to pray.  Frequently I’ve not cared to pray.  Frequently I have had a prayer life of silent, damp fuzz.

Sometimes this has left me guilty and despondent.  And when I do hear God’s grace again, it has left me burning to do more — but how?  How can I start building a prayer life with some kind of shape and stability, in which God can work in me and those around me over the course of years?

Getting confidence

nike_justdoitfadetee_blk_large3Two things have recently given me a boost in confidence.  One blog put prayer-life down to Just Do It.  I found that helpful.  I often fret that I’m not ‘in the right place’ to pray or that I don’t have the right words to say (frequently just as a rationalisation of my own apathy and laziness), when the point is not to pray perfectly (as if that were even possible) but to pray.

On a similar line, in one great book on prayer, Don Carson mentions the Puritan idea of praying until we pray: to spend time, mumbling and jabbering at God, until we stop being to-the-point, until we break through feelings of awkwardness and surreality, until we find that we are actually praying, that God is drawing us to pour out our inner cares and motivations, to seek his will, to know his grace, to delight in his redeeming love.  This is not vacuous contemplative prayer.  This is more like praying in the Spirit, praying that burns, praying that, more than personal reflection or God listening, involves God transforming us.  Carson wants us to ensure that we are being persistent in prayer instead of approaching God as we often do, like ‘boys who ring front door bells and run away before anyone answers’.

Getting shape

The woolliness of my prayer life over the years could in part be due to the lack of shape given to prayer and devotion in my church and family background.  That’s not to say prayer and devotion didn’t happen — it did — but there were few ‘set’ prayers and none I was familiar with apart from the Lord’s prayer, while liturgy was pretty free-form.  So, while I’ve never really struggled with stifled formalism and mindless ritual, I’ve also never had deep devotional habits woven into the fabric of my faith.  (It wasn’t surprising that I found the Book of Common Prayer somewhat refreshing at the time I started going to an Anglican church.)

I figure that meaningful habits are useful and useful habits are meaningful (?!).  I guess that structured prayer and devotion could be good if it’s not high-church ritualism.  At the same time, I’ve been uncomfortable with the traditional evangelical emphasis on personal ‘quiet time’, which is what I got legalistic about in the first place.  I’ve always assumed that mindful, authentic prayer should be ‘free’ but for me, it turns out, unstructured praying has boiled down to poor prayer.  Today I find that, if I’m to make a go of praying continually, I actually need to build a habit of some sort and get some familiar pegs on which to build doable praying.

Something that grabbed my attention a couple of years ago was what Tamie and I call ‘Peter Adam prayers’.  Peter, the principal of Ridley, shared with us his list of one-sentence prayers that give shape to his prayer life.  It’s a collection of phrases he’s tailored to his own weaknesses, needs and relationships, and he prays through this simple list each day.  What I’ve begun is a collection of my own Peter Adam prayers.  Things like:

Lead me to repentance in all things.

Enable me to fan into flame your gifts to me.

I tried some out the other day.  Each phrase, sometimes a single word, became a little trail expanding into glades of prayer.

If you follow this blog, I’d love your prayers — that God would continue to help us all with these things.

Categories: Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

6 replies

  1. Prayer… well there’s always so much to say about prayer. I think one thing that comes to mind for me is a scene from the movie “Bruce Almighty” – it is towards the end when Bruce dies as is “in heaven” with God (Morgan Freeman). God asks Bruce to pray, and Bruce starts praying for “starving children in Africa” etc. and then God stops him and asks him what he REALLY wants to pray for… And he prays for what’s on his heart. And while if we always did this I think we’d find ourselves praying a lot of selfish prayers… but I find when we can relax in prayer like this God will then grow out hearts to pray for other things also.

    I spose prayer is a thing that differs for everybody – I mean there are no rules, it’s a personal way of communicating with God. What works for someone, might not work for someone else. What works for you now, might not work for you in a years time.

    I like the idea of the one-sentence prayer list… it is these type of things that can often be a good way to focus prayer like you were saying Arthur.

  2. I’ve always wondered whether prayer should be so difficult, or if it’s really simple – after all, prayer is simply talking to Dad. Or, you know, whether it should be really free, or needs structure and discipline…

    I guess when it comes down to it, talking to God is unlike any conversation in existence. It is necessarily mysterious, and difficult, and something to keep on learning about.

    J.I. Packer wrote ( that “prayer is essentially making friends with the holy Three”, which I think captures the need to regard prayer as simple yet profound and difficult for sinners like us!

    Cool post, thanks for it :)

  3. thanks so much for such a sensitive and thoughtful post on prayer. really helpful to read and i can totally relate.

    i’ve always struggled with the whole balance with structured prayer times to make sure i actually pray, versus praying because i am in an ongoing conversation with god. praying in an ongoing conversation with god is good on one hand, but without the structure of sitting down and having specific things to pray for i think i can become lazy.

    so, thanks for the encouragement to habit-form, as well as the idea of having key phrases. loving reading yours and tamie’s blog posts :)

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