The Secret to Prayer

If there’s one thing I want to be known as, it’s a man of prayer.

For years, I tried to discipline myself to pray. Prayer cards, prayer apps, prayer journals; I’ve experimented with (and discarded) all these methods.

My difficulty in cultivating a life of prayer confounded me since I’m disciplined in many areas of my life. I run or walk at the same time each morning, I read the Scriptures and take notes in the margins daily, I work a full-time job alongside a part-time job and teaching a weekly class at my church. But for all my discipline, I could not cultivate a praying life.

I am pleased to say that is changing. I am not pleased to say why.

Why I Haven’t Been a Man Who Prays

In his book A Praying Life, Paul E. Miller writes,

You don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; you just need to be poor in spirit.

What does it mean to be “poor in spirit”? In three different prayers, the shepherd-boy turned king named David explains:

As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God! (Psalm 40:17)

But I am poor and needy;
hasten to me, O God!
You are my help and my deliverer;
O Lord, do not delay! (Psalm 70:5)

For I am poor and needy,
and my heart is stricken within me. (Psalm 109:22)

After years of failing at prayer, I am realizing that my lack of prayer has nothing to do with my lack of discipline and has everything to do with my lack of neediness.

The truth is, I think I’m enough. I don’t think I need God to solve my problems. If I can’t figure out what to do with my life, I read some books. If I don’t know how to discipline my kids, I ask someone who seems to know how.

Where I turn when I’m in need reveals whom I truly believe in. Miller writes,

If you are not praying, then you are quietly confident that time, money, and talent are all you need in life.

He follows this statement by pointing out that if you live like time, money, and talent are all you need, “You’ll always be a little too tired, a little too busy.” And so I have been. For a long time. Like butter spread too thin, I have been covering just enough of my life to make it taste like I’m there.

Praying Because You Have to

But this is not how Jesus lived. If you look closely at Jesus’ life, you will find him on his knees in a desolate place before each major moment of his life, and as a matter of regular practice. Miller contrasts Jesus with the quietly self-confident person, saying,

But if, like Jesus, you realize you can’t do life on your own, then no matter how busy, no matter how tired you are, you will find the time to pray.

You see, Jesus and David prayed for the same reason: they needed to. They had to.

I didn’t pray because I thought I could do life on my own. I didn’t pray because I didn’t need to.

But now I do.

I’m not sure what exactly opened my eyes to how needy I am, but it must have been some combination of having four small children ages six and under and feeling the appropriate smallness of the impact I can have on the world and people around me.

I can’t make my children obey me. I can’t guarantee their safety. I can’t plan the next ten years. I can’t truly know what someone is thinking or feeling. I can’t control much of anything. Not really.

Learning to be Desperate

But I had to learn that desperation, like all of us. We are all born knowing we’re dependent on someone else for everything, then at some point, we grow up and think we’re self-reliant and self-sufficient. But sooner or later, life catches up in the form of a diagnosis or unemployment or a wayward child, and we realize all over again how helpless we truly are.

This realization doesn’t necessarily drive us to see our neediness, however. It can, and often does, begin a low period where we seek to control our circumstances until we can climb out of the pit we’re in. Sometimes we find our way out, sometimes we don’t.

But we would be better off to stay in the pit a bit longer and learn how desperate we truly are for outside help. This is one reason why God allows us to enter into prolonged periods of stress, pain, or anxiety. Miller reminds us that

Learned desperation is at the heart of a praying life.

When we learn how desperate we are for God, we draw near to him. When we learn that we’re constantly desperate for God, we stay near to him. In the same book, Miller writes,

The criteria for coming to Jesus is weariness. Come overwhelmed with life. Come with your wandering mind. Come messy.

A few weeks ago, I came to Jesus weary, overwhelmed, wandering–messy.

And then I started to pray. “A needy heart is a praying heart. Dependency is the heartbeat of prayer,” says Miller. He’s right.

The secret to prayer is not discipline or scheduling or recording prayer requests. The secret to prayer is needing it.

Now I come to Jesus and pray like I need him, because of course, I do.