Have you ever struggled with prayer? You may not be quiet as analytical as I have been with prayer, but maybe you have at some point wrestled with the purpose and the practice of it—even doubted its power to make any difference at all.
Let’s be honest. Prayer is a mysterious thing. But even those of us who are willing to embrace mystery often stumble over deterministic theology (everything is already settled), well-meaning sermons on prayer that only brought the ceiling closer to you, and marque slogans like “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes you.” It’s enough to make you want to become a Buddhist.
About 6 or 7 years ago I entered into a new understanding of my identity in Christ. I had recently come out of vocational ministry and was burdened down with a work-centered faith. In many ways I suppose it was like hitting the reset button on all the things I thought I knew about Jesus, the church, my identity, and prayer. I needed it. Ever felt like that before?
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus, Matthew 11:28
If you want to experience the Lord afresh in intimate fellowship with the Father by way Jesus, then I think it’s necessary to see prayer as a way of resting in the Spirit. It’s amazing how often you can do this throughout the day if you’re intentional about it. Prayer requires intentionality.
“But when you pray, go away by yourself, shut the door behind you, and pray to your Father in private.” Jesus, Matthew 6:6
While we’re told to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17), it would be wise to listen to Jesus talk about prayer as a personal retreat. The intimate times with the Lord enable us to pray continually from a renewed identity with sensitivity toward the Spirit.
Can You Hear Me Now?
Ever find yourself saying, “Was that you, Lord?” Maybe you’ve wondered, “Was that my thoughts, or was God speaking?” I’m willing to bet that you’ve been there before. We’ve all been there.
A few years ago I decided to make an intentional effort to move out of the “roaming” mode of prayer—that place where I’m skeptical about hearing from the Lord—like a bad connection. I became convinced that God speaks to us through our thoughts into our spirit.
When I finally let go of this paranoia and unhelpful skepticism, knowing that I certainly wasn’t having a conversation with myself, I then began to experience intimate moments with the Lord, and much more frequently.
I simply trusted that the Lord was listening, and that he always desires to speak to me. He is closer than a brother (Prov 18:24).
Meeting Jesus Around a Campfire
If I have a place to “go away” by myself and “shut the door” (so to speak), it’s my back porch. Over my fence looms a forest of pine trees. I enjoy creation around me as I sit next to my cast iron chimenea (Mexican-styled fire pit) at dusk. A cup of hot tea or coffee aids in relaxation.
I enter into a place of solitude within my soul, opening myself up to the Lord, as I stare into the fire and close my eyes… waiting… expecting.
I imagine the Lord there with me, I see him just as I might see the face of a loved one. The real difference is that I’m not simply visualizing or remembering. I’m creatively imagining for the sake of conversing with a real person. I’m not talking about delusions of grandeur here.
Since I haven’t seen Jesus with my own eyes, not yet anyway, I borrow the face of Christ played by Jim Caviezel in The Passion of the Christ (2004). That may seem strange at first, but it’s perfectly safe and effective.
The first time I did this I imagined myself on a beach at dusk. I saw the Lord’s face through the fire as if he’s sitting across from me. Within myself I said, “Lord.” He looked at me and began speaking with, “My son, I love you.” Those are usually the first words I hear him speak to me in prayer.
While my mind often races and seeks to be interrupted by intruding thoughts or slip into “roaming” mode, I resist the distraction and focus on the Lord—remaining in the moment as long as I can.
If I will stay open to the Lord and allow my imagination to move freely with the Spirit, I have found that I’ve been pleasantly surprised by a rush of words from Christ, who is the embodiment of the Father.
Jesus Wants to Get Personal
“Though most believers are comfortable speaking of a ‘personal relationship with Jesus,’ few concepts are so greatly celebrated and little experienced.” Wayne Jacobson
I feel that I’ve only begun to experience Jesus in a fresh way. I’m what you would call an aspiring Christian mystic. What I hope to inspire with this post is a courage to try a method of prayer that treats the Lord as a real person, and a dialogue between two beings. Don’t pray like the hypocrites.
What’s keeping you from a fulfilling prayer life? Where’s your back porch? Does your prayer life suffer because of bad theology? What about your ability to creatively imagine the Lord being present in your life?
Give it a try. Take some deep breaths, close your eyes, and see the Lord there before you in the power of a disciplined imagination.
D.D. Flowers, 2013.
For more on prayer, see the following books:
- Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom by Stanley Grenz
- Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ by Jeanne Guyon
- The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence
- Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God by Dallas Willard
- Seeing is Believing: Experience Jesus Through Imaginative Prayer by Greg Boyd
February 28th, 2013 at 2:09 am
Thanks for sharing! I think it will be helpful…
February 28th, 2013 at 9:46 am
Thanks for reading, Thomas! I hope it helps you.
February 28th, 2013 at 8:46 am
I love your honesty and frankness here. For me, if the communication is strained, I am convinced it is because I am not listening, not because God is not speaking.
February 28th, 2013 at 9:45 am
February 28th, 2013 at 5:22 pm
Good thoughts here David. Another resource I have found helpful in this area of listening to the Lord is Mark and Patti Virkler’s book and “Dialogue With God.”
February 28th, 2013 at 5:24 pm
Thanks for suggesting the resource, Bill.
February 28th, 2013 at 7:27 pm
I completely relate to getting away to those places and moments where you can relax and pray. The praying during those times is as you described being very serene and sincere; very deep. You can be honest with God. You actually find yourself listening to Him. He is suddenly honest with you. He always was, you just got still enough to hear Him this time. Your burdens are really lightened and shared with Him. I too have sought the most Biblically scientific way to pray for prayer to be effective. Even taught lessons and series over it. I’ve discovered that the most effective prayer is that of one being still – being still with Him. After all, Jesus gave us the perfect example as He went into the wilderness to pray. Alone; early in the morning; before daylight; without a flash light. What a man’s Man, but sought to be still with the Father. At that, I would like to share a poem I wrote that may signify a moment in which one could be still with Him. I encourage everyone to be still with Himin prayer as often as possible. I hope this doesn’t violate the lengthy post rule…
Sitting by the fireside light
Staring into the starlit sky
Chatting late into the night
Of dreams to come; of times gone by.
Entranced by the embers bright,
At times chatting not,
Just sitting gently quiet
In the peaceful moment.
A moment much after sought.
The flames dancing movement
Is an after thought;
Thoughts of battles won
And of some lost;
After the setting sun,
During the night time frost;
Sharing amid the crackling wood
A spackling more than at times one should;
Of defeat and victory
With the smell of burning hickory,
Or maybe oak or elm or ash
Burning down to a powdery mass.
In the darkness of the night,
A coyote howls
To announce his plight.
A hooting owl
Takes to flight;
A tiptoeing deer
With night time sight
Walking in reverent fear
Just beyond the fire light.
And don’t forget the fateful tree
Who lent freely of itself so that
This time is shared between You and me,
That is to us the fireside chat.
February 28th, 2013 at 9:46 pm
Hey Barry, it’s really cool that you wrote some poetry. Thanks for sharing.
March 1st, 2013 at 7:54 am
I’ve written many. That one came during a camp-out
March 1st, 2013 at 5:34 am
Great topic David, the key from my perspective is one you mentioned near the beginning of your post.
“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Jesus, Matthew 11:28
Entering His rest is essential, for it is ‘in’ His rest that we find just what we are looking for, our wearisome and burdened frames find a comfortable ‘chair’ to set in. We begin to cease striving to ‘do’, and rest ‘in’ His being.
March 2nd, 2013 at 11:51 am
I have spent many hours alone in prayer with God out in the woods behind our home. I have felt his presence and his love for me as he had guided me thru the difficult storms of that have come my way. I find your blog interesting! Thank you for sharing.
March 2nd, 2013 at 11:54 am
God bless you, Nancy. I hope this post was uplifting and encouraging to you. Thanks for reading. You have been in the prayers of many saints.
March 3rd, 2013 at 3:53 pm
David, thanks for showing us how we miss out on so much in our relationship with the Lord when we don’t treat Him like a real person. We’ll easily go hang out with a friend to catch up and spend hours conversing, but find it hard to give the God of the universe a few minutes a day?!?!
In my experience, I find it also tremendously valuable to record what happens in these “behind the door” meetings with the Lord. Just like we might take notes in a business meeting to remember what we need to or what was said for later reference, how much more important is it to be able to reference back to what the Lord has shared with you?
It’s helped me tremendously when being tempted to make choices contrary to what the Lord has shared with me. I can then simply refer back to my notes in the moment. It’s saved me numerous times from moving in a direction I should not have. It can also help us to see patterns or themes in our times with the Lord that can direct us as well.
March 3rd, 2013 at 11:03 pm
Great idea, Michael. It would be very helpful for folks to keep a prayer journal of some kind. Thanks!
March 4th, 2013 at 5:18 am
I’m so thankful for your words today. In the past my approach to prayer was that I would petition God and then I would expect Him to answer me in the scriptures or through other people, so that’s where I looked for him. I rarely spent time just being still and listening for Him to speak directly to my spirit, that is until recently. I was starting to feel like I was missing something in our relationship. Not that there was anything wrong with what I was doing, just that there was more. My knee jerk reaction to this feeling was to spend even more time studying the scriptures or reading the work of other people (blogs like yours, haha), but I knew I was missing the mark.Finally I heard the Spirit say, “Come to me. I live in you.” I’m now learning how to conversate with the Lord much like I did when I was a kid. I actually started spending time with God in this way last summer but then I read the words “christian mystic” for the first time and it scared me off. Also at that time this baptist girl started speaking in tongues. I pushed that away too. I’m so glad that God has been patient with me and step by step He has been faithful to renew my mind, bringing me closer to Him. I’m still really new to this aspect of prayer so again I’m thankful to you and ultimately the Lord for leading your blog.
March 4th, 2013 at 5:32 am
Thank you for sharing a bit of your journey with everyone. I know exactly what you mean by shying away from “mysticism” and only trying to meet Jesus in the Bible and others. So glad the Lord is patient with us. Thanks for reading. Blessings!
March 4th, 2013 at 5:42 am
I was surprised to see you reply considering you are supposed to be in the mountains. Then I remember that it’s Monday evening where I live in India. Happy Monday morning to you!
March 6th, 2013 at 8:35 am
I enjoyed this post. This was helpful. Sometimes we stumble over the simplicity and ever availability of knowing and conversing with our Lord, I know I do.
By the way one of your subheadings has a slight typo. “Can you hear me now” is “Can you hear me know” not sure if that was intentional or not but just wanted to point it out in case it wasn’t
Hope your time in the hills was restorative.
March 6th, 2013 at 9:05 am
Thanks, Seth. Corrected it.
March 6th, 2013 at 9:41 am
There is a thing I practice that helps me go into a mode of prayer, focus, reverence and worship – not necessarily all or in that order. For those of you in today’s business world who are regularly in front of a computer, this may apply. Subscribe to one or two daily devotion pages that sends out a daily Scripture with a paragraph of commentary along with the Scripture. It’s usually a quick read – on purpose, but turns into a quick private devotion lasting as long as you’re lead. In the reading, it very often turns into a time of reflection and prayer. I have about 4 of these per day on most days, and I spread them out throughout the work day. It’s a practice of mine that helps keep me in line and brings me to Him – if only for a short time. Another quick suggestion… reading Scripture can be turned into a very unique prayer just between you and God in however a way that it applies to your thoughts and your life in context of what He is saying to you. The impact of a Scripture read is very valuable. Turning the Scripture into a prayer adds great value. Scripture is incredibly powerful. Prayer is incredibly powerful. Praying Scripture brings the best of the two into one powerful thing.
March 9th, 2013 at 10:33 pm
Curious to know if you have read anything from St. John of the Cross. He had some things to say about visual imagery in prayer. My concern is that anything can become a substitute for the real thing which is Jesus.. One of my favorite Nee quotes is that a clean object can obstruct your vision as well as a dirty one.
March 11th, 2013 at 8:20 pm
I have read very little of St. John of the Cross, but I’m familiar with him. I see your (Nee’s) point, but ultimately it doesn’t change the task before us. It merely points out that, like many things, there are ditches and extremes with everything.
March 12th, 2013 at 8:11 am
“visual imagery” now that’s a topic. Christians have been prone – and rightfully so – to be very suspicious of visual imagery or “visualization”. Since the 60’s and 70’s, so many cultic “visualization” practices have crept into our culture that are paganistic at the least and demonic at the very worse. So christiandom sounded the alarm of warning for Christians to beware. It was well taken and heeded.
The problem with that is that the Bible is incredibly visual. It’s a story book that triggers the imagination throughout its reading. As one reads the story of creation and the parting of the Red Sea, and David killing Goliath and the whole story of the trial and death and resurrection of Christ, one can’t help but “see” the whole thing play out before their “mind’s eye” – the visual part of a persons thoughts. Even the term “mind’s eye” can sound creepy if you label it with today’s negative Christian view toward visualization.
Tell me how one would would read a book such as the Autobiography of Buffalo Bill without picturing in living color the scenery and action stories of 19th century American West. Or how can one read To Kill a Mockingbird without visually drawing in his mind a picture of Boo Radley? Imagine the visualization and imagery conjured in ones mind of Daniel in the lions pit surrounded by lions – and even the heart rate of the reader increasing a bit as they live the story with Daniel. How about Jesus on the cross as He exclaims, “I thirst”. You can see it, feel it, smell it and touch it. As Stephen was being stoned, he looked up and cried out “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God”.
I guess the point I am making is that your prayers can be the same way. In prayer, your mind naturally draws pictures of your thoughts and your prayers as you pray them in living, vivid color. I say go with it.
March 12th, 2013 at 8:14 am
Excellent point, Barry!
December 12th, 2013 at 7:10 am
I’m one of those who pray because God wants me to and I love Him. It’s not because I see any personal benefit in it or see any results from it. It’s interesting you posted this now, because I just started reading Gregory Boyd’s Seeing Is Believing: Experience Jesus through Imaginative Prayer. I hope this will be the key to making prayer meaningful in my life.
December 12th, 2013 at 11:20 am
I think you’ll like Boyd’s book, Lane!
March 27th, 2015 at 11:04 pm
Thanks! If god is not speaking it’s because I’m not listening. God actually wanted to help me all along.