PRAYER IS RELATIONSHIP
Today we start the next stage of our journey in Pursuing God One-On-One. When we first started this study, we discovered we were created to live in the Presence of God. In fact, we learned that the story of the Bible is the story of the Presence of God. It’s the story of how we were created to live in the Presence, how we lost the Presence, and how God has been pursuing us throughout history to restore His Presence in our lives.
But, as we learned, this relationship with God has always been a two-way street. God is pursuing us—but He is seeking worshippers who will pursue Him in the Spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). One of the most important ways we pursue God is through prayer. This is the topic we will be exploring for the next three weeks. During this journey, there are three important principles that will guide us.
Prayer is Relationship
The first principle is that prayer is all about relationship. Sometimes we have the natural tendency to turn prayer into a religious ritual—and when we do, it leads to a superficial and artificial relationship with God. We will explore God’s heart for authentic relationship this week in our study.
Prayer is Partnership
The second principle is that prayer is a partnership. When we think about prayer, we often tend to think of it primarily as the way we pursue God to deepen our relationship with Him. But prayer is not solely a relationship; it is also about partnership. Prayer is one of the most important ways we partner with God to bring His Kingdom from heaven to earth. We will explore prayer as partnership in Week Eight.
Prayer Is Two-Way Communication
When we think about prayer, we naturally tend to think in terms of talking to God. But prayer is more than just talking; it’s also about listening. One of the marks of any healthy relationship is great two-way communication. In Week Nine, we will delve into the topic of how to listen to God and discern His voice. This plays an essential role both in pursuing our relationship with God and in partnering with Him through prayer.
This is going to be an exciting journey. Along the way, our goal is to clear up some common misconceptions about prayer that can slow us down—and clear out a path for an authentic relationship with God that is radically honest, deeply transforming, and leads to major Kingdom impact.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face when it comes to spending time alone with God in prayer? Does prayer come naturally for you, or is it more of a struggle?
In our previous studies, we have seen how important prayer was for Jesus. Here are four examples from His life. Read each one carefully. Observe when, where, and why Jesus was praying in each of these situations. Journal your observations. What implications are there for your life?
John 6:1-15 with Matthew 14:13-24
Write a prayer to God. Be honest about how you feel about prayer. Share any challenges you face. Ask God to teach you how to pray in a way that leads to renewal, transformation, and authentic relationship.
KEEP IT SIMPLE
In his book Abba’s Child, Brennan Manning tells a story about an old man who was dying of cancer. His daughter asked the new priest in town to come and pray with her father. When the priest arrived, the old man was in bed and there was an empty chair beside him. The priest assumed the chair was for him and said, “I can see you were expecting me.” But the old man explained that this was not the case and asked the priest to close the door. Once the door was shut, the old man shared something he had never spoken of before—not even with his daughter. He explained that his whole life he had gone to church, but he had never known how to pray. Then four years ago, his best friend had made a suggestion. He said:
“Joe, prayer is just a simple matter of having a conversation with Jesus. Here’s what I suggest. Sit down on a chair, place an empty chair in front of you, and in faith, see Jesus in the chair. It’s not spooky because He promised, ‘I'll be with you all your days.’ Then just speak to Him and listen in the same way you’re doing with me right now.” Brennan Manning
Joe told the priest that he tried it—and liked it. In fact, he liked it so much he started talking with Jesus two hours a day—and that’s why the chair was always right next to his bed. The priest was deeply moved and encouraged him to continue his journey. Then he prayed with him, anointed him with oil and left.
Two nights later, the daughter called to tell the priest her father had died that afternoon. The priest asked if he had died in peace and she said yes. She had left him at about 2:00 p.m. to go to the store and when she got back an hour later, he was dead. But one thing was odd, she explained. When she found him, he had pulled himself to the edge of his bed—and died with his head resting in the chair.
This simple story is a beautiful reminder that when we pray, we need to keep it simple. At its heart, prayer is just a conversation—with Jesus. When we forget this, we overcomplicate prayer.
Sometimes as Christ-followers, it can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking we need to sound a certain way when we come into the Presence of God. Sometimes we even change our tone of voice or use more “religious” language when we pray. It can also be tempting to edit our thoughts and emotions—to only discuss those topics we think are appropriate for a divine conversation. This is always a temptation—to turn prayer into a religious ritual rather than a personal conversation. However, when we pray this way, it can lead to a superficial and artificial relationship with God—not an authentic one. This highlights an important thought: When we talk with God, we need to be ourselves—and keep the conversation as simple, natural and normal as possible.
Jesus is perhaps the best example of this. In His day there were many religious leaders who were known for their long-winded prayers. Jesus actually criticized this type of behavior and taught His disciples to keep prayer simple (Luke 20:47). He said,
When you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.
God calls us into a real relationship with Him—not a “religious” relationship. While some structure can be helpful in prayer, Jesus rebukes “religious” talk when we pray. After all, He reminds us—the Father knows what we need before we ask, so there’s no need to complicate things.
So, when we pray, we need to keep it simple. Just pull up two chairs—and have a conversation.
Think about the story of the old man and the chair. What things can we learn from his approach to prayer?
What were some of your first impressions of prayer growing up? Were you taught (either explicitly or implicitly) that we need to use special religious words, tone, or posture when we pray?
Have you ever felt uncomfortable praying in a group because you didn’t think you were very good at it? How does Jesus’ teaching speak to this?
Next week we will study the story of Elijah and prophets of Baal. God withheld rain from Israel for three years because of their rebellion and idolatry. The drought created a national crisis. The land was dry and the crops and livestock were dying. This led to a confrontation between Elijah and the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. Read I Kings 18. Compare the prayers of the pagan priests with Elijah’s prayer. How does this illustrate Jesus’ teaching about prayer?
Write a prayer asking God to clear up any misconceptions you have about prayer that are holding you back from developing a more authentic relationship with Him.
KEEP IT HONEST
Yesterday we learned if we want to grow in prayer, we need to keep it simple and talk with God as we would talk with a close friend. The next step we need to take in our journey is—keep it honest.
In any relationship, honesty is the key to intimacy. Whenever we start a new relationship, whether it’s a friendship, romantic relationship, mentoring relationship, or any other kind of close relationship, we are often slow at first to share our true selves. This is normal—and often wise. But as time goes on and trust builds, we start to share ourselves at deeper and deeper levels. As we do, the relationship grows.
The same is true in our relationship with God. The more honesty we share, the deeper our relationship becomes. This is not always easy. Sometimes we’re afraid to share our true self—especially our “dark side”—for fear God will stop loving us or even reject us. But the reality is, He already knows the truth about us—and He loves us anyway. Remember, this is why Jesus came—not simply to forgive us, but also to heal and restore us. For that to happen, we have to share our true self with Him.
One of the beautiful things about the Bible is it provides us with many great examples of people who loved God and were very honest about their emotions. The prophet Jeremiah, for example, was called to speak for God when he was still young—probably in his teens. The sins of Judah had finally caught up with them and they were on a one-way road to destruction. In this situation, God chose Jeremiah to deliver a warning of their impending doom. Jeremiah didn’t want the job—but God didn’t give him any other option. Instead, God promised to give him strength to stand up to all the rejection, abuse and danger he would face. At times, Jeremiah did not feel like God was keeping His end of the bargain—and he didn’t hold back from telling God exactly how he felt.
You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived;
You overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and
reproach all day long.
But if I say, “I will not mention His word or speak anymore in His name,”
His word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones.
I am weary of holding it in;
Indeed, I cannot. Jeremiah 20:7–9
This is strong language—but it’s in the Bible for a reason. Jeremiah trusted God could handle his anger and frustration—and he was right. Ultimately, this honesty led to a deeper relationship between God and Jeremiah—not the loss of it. In fact, Jeremiah continued to speak on God’s behalf for the rest of his life—and God continued to watch over him.
Jeremiah’s prayer is not unique; we see this kind of transparency all throughout the Bible. Job complains. David questions. Habakkuk challenges. Jonah sulks. Jesus weeps. Paul is discouraged. Some of the best examples of this type of authenticity can be found throughout the book of Psalms.
As Philip Yancey writes in The Bible Jesus Read,
The 150 Psalms present a mosaic of spiritual therapy in process. Doubt, paranoia, giddiness, meanness, delight, hatred, joy, praise, vengefulness, betrayal – you can find it all in the Psalms. Such strewing of emotions, which I once saw as hopeless disarray, I now see as a sign of health. From Psalms I have learned that I can rightfully bring to God whatever I feel about him. I need not paper over my failures and try to clean up my own rottenness; far better to bring those weaknesses to God, who alone has the power to heal. Philip Yancey
If we want to grow in our relationship with God, we need to learn from these examples and be radically honest with Him. As we share our true selves—the good, the bad, and the ugly—we will experience God’s grace and healing and we can begin to take steps to grow. If we pretend and hide our true selves, we will stunt our growth and miss out on what God has for us.
If your prayer life is boring, an important question to ask yourself is: How honest am I being with God when I pray? The extent to which we are willing to be honest and obedient to God will determine the depth of relationship we are able to have with Him.
Remember that when Jesus came, He came for everyone—especially the “worst” sinners. Jesus compared Himself to a doctor who came to heal our souls. But even the finest doctor in all the world cannot help us if we refuse to be honest about our symptoms (Mark 2:13-17). In the same way, the only person God cannot help is the person who refuses to admit his need for help from Jesus. When we filter our thoughts, feelings, and motives—and limit the topics we discuss with God, we cut ourselves off from the Source of true healing and limit our relationship with God. In Ruthless Trust, Brennan Manning writes,
Sometimes we harbor an unexpressed suspicion that Jesus cannot handle all that goes on in our minds and hearts. We doubt that He can accept our hateful thoughts, cruel fantasies, and bizarre dreams. We wonder how He would deal with our primitive urges, our inflated illusions, and our exotic mental castles. The deep resistance to making ourselves so vulnerable, so naked, so unprotected is our implicit way of saying, "Jesus, I trust you, but there are limits." By refusing to share our fantasies, worries, and joys, we limit God's lordship over our life and make clear that there are parts of us that we do not wish to submit to a divine conversation. It seems that the Master had something more in mind when he said, "Trust in me" (John 14.1b). Brennan Manning
If we want to grow in prayer, we need to keep it simple—and keep it honest. Only then can God do His deepest and most exciting work in our lives.
Have you ever found yourself holding back from sharing your deepest thoughts, emotions, and desires from God because you weren’t sure how He might react? If so, what is your biggest fear or concern?
Read and reflect on these three passages: Jeremiah 20:7-12, Job 7:17-21, and Psalm 55:1-5. Each of these passages models radical honesty. Observe each one carefully. What is the situation? Why are these writers so upset? How are they feeling? Identify their emotions, complaints, and accusations.
Is there anything that surprises or impresses you about these three prayers?
Write a prayer asking God to help you trust Him enough to be radically honest with Him in prayer.
PRAY ABOUT EVERYTHING
This week we’ve learned prayer is simply a conversation with God—and to grow in prayer we need to keep it simple and keep it honest. Today, we are ready for the next step in our journey—which is to pray about everything!
When it comes to prayer, we often tend to lean towards one extreme or another. Some of us tend to reserve prayer for only the bigger things in our lives—a serious health risk, a lost job, or even a move across the country. Or maybe even bigger things—such as natural disasters, nuclear threats, or national elections. But we will be slower to pray about small personal requests because we don’t want to bother God.
Others of us, on the other hand, are quick to pray for just about anything. We will pray for open parking spaces, lost keys, and good weather for the weekend campout. However, in general we tend to be slower to pray for the really “big” things in life—the affairs of nations, world crises, famine relief, etc.
But according to the Bible, there is nothing too small nor too big to bring to God.
What both extremes have in common is a small view of God. When we don’t want to bother God with small things, it suggests we believe His strength and power are limited. We don’t want to overburden Him with our small concerns because He has so many bigger problems to solve. On the other hand, when we focus on praying only for our own smaller concerns, it suggests we don’t believe He’s powerful enough to handle the truly big problems in our lives, the nation, or the world.
What’s important for both extremes to remember is that God is not like us. He is not limited in His strength, wisdom, or mental horsepower. Let’s take a look at what the Bible says about God:
Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
or with the breadth of His hand marked off the heavens?
Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket,
or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a
balance? . . .
Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket;
they are regarded as dust on the scales;
He weighs the islands as though they were fine dust. . .
Before Him all the nations are as nothing;
they are regarded by Him as worthless and less than
nothing. . . .
He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this
world to nothing. . . .
Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens: Who created all
He who brings out the starry host one by one and calls forth
each of them by name.
Because of His great power and mighty strength, not one of
them is missing. . . .
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and His understanding no one can fathom.
Isaiah 40:12, 15, 17, 23, 26 & 28
God is not limited like we are. He doesn’t get tired or overtaxed. He is brilliant, powerful, and compassionate. He is the Creator who spoke one hundred billion galaxies into existence—and maintains them moment by moment with His powerful word.
So, we can pray about everything—big or small—because God can handle it. In His letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul gives us some great instruction about prayer:
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4:6–7
Do not be anxious about anything. God wants us to bring everything that concerns us to Him, regardless of how big or small it is—because He cares for us (I Peter 5:7). Here’s the rule: If it’s big enough to worry about, it’s big enough to pray about!
In light of all this evidence, how can we limit our prayers to just big or small things? The answer is: we can’t! Prayer is a powerful way to connect with God personally and to partner with God globally.
When it comes to prayer, we need to keep it simple, keep it real, and pray for everything.
When you pray, do you tend to pray for smaller things, bigger things, or both?
Do you ever struggle with not praying for something because it seems too small?
Do you ever struggle with not praying for something because it seems too big?
Read Isaiah 40:12-31. Isaiah is prophesying the return of Israel from exile in Babylon. From a human perspective, this seemed impossible and Israel was doubting God’s ability to do it. This is God’s response. What are implications of this for our prayer life?
Write a prayer to God. Ask Him to reveal how powerful, brilliant and compassionate He is so you can pray for all your concerns—both big and small.
FIND WHAT WORKS
This week we’ve learned God is pursuing each of us for a deep and authentic relationship. However, this relationship will look differently in each of our lives. Each of us is uniquely wired and will have to discover how we best connect with God and learn to listen to His voice.
This idea—that we each have a unique relationship with God—has tremendous implications for prayer. Some of us will prefer to approach prayer in a more planned way, while others will take a more spontaneous approach. There is no "one-size-fits-all" method for everyone. This is why we need to experiment—and find what works. Regardless of your preference, the goal is the same—to connect with the Father in a way that leads to renewal, transformation, and deep relationship.
If you are a more structured person, you may want to approach prayer with a general plan for the conversation. Think of this as how you might approach an important conversation with a close friend or an influential leader. In this case, you would likely create a loose outline to make sure you cover the most important topics, right? This can work with prayer too.
One example of a more structured approach to prayer is to use the acronym ACTS:
This simple acronym highlights four of the most important topics in our ongoing conversations with God. The first is adoration or praise. When we pray, we always want to come before God with a posture of deep love, respect, and praise. The second topic is confession. Confession is simply being honest about our flaws and failures so we can be forgiven, healed, and transformed. The third topic is thanksgiving. God is the source of every good gift (James 1:17) and one of the marks of any healthy relationship is gratitude. The fourth topic is supplication or asking. God loves us and has promised to meet all our needs. So, asking is an important part of prayer—whether it’s asking for something for ourselves, for those we love, or for His Kingdom.
There are other acronyms that cover similar topics — but with a slightly different focus. For example, another acronym is PRAY:
The first three topics are very similar to the ACTS acronym, but the last one—Yield—is different. This reminds us to listen and follow what God is revealing to us during our prayer time.
A third example of a planned approach to prayer is to use the Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13) as a topical outline to guide our conversation. The first half of the Lord’s prayer focuses on God and His priorities (His name, His will, and His Kingdom). When using this model, we pray first for God to be recognized, honored, and worshipped. Then, we pray for His Kingdom agenda to advance—whether it’s in our own lives, families, church, community, or the world.
The second half of the Lord’s Prayer focuses on our needs—both physical and spiritual (our basic needs, forgiveness and spiritual protection). When using this structure, we can pray for a wide variety of specific requests that fall under these general categories.
These are just three examples of a more planned approach. Remember, if you try a planned approach, the idea is not to follow these plans in an overly rigid way but simply to use them as a guide. These can be used to direct the content of your prayers and balance the conversation, so you cover the most important topics.
While many people like structured prayers, other Christ-followers find they connect best with God when they approach prayer in a more spontaneous and unplanned way. These conversations will include the same types of topics (praise, confession, thanksgiving, asking, listening, yielding, etc.). However, their prayer sessions will be much more free flowing, as the Holy Spirit guides their conversation.
So, what’s the best approach? There isn’t one! In fact, if you asked five strong Christ-followers how they pray, you will probably get five different answers. This is why you need to experiment and find out what works best for you.
Some people use prayer request lists.
Some pray out loud; others pray silently.
Some write their prayers; others don’t write them at all.
Some pray their own prayers; others use liturgical prayers.
Some pray on their knees; others sit in a comfortable chair with a cup of coffee.
Some start with the Word; others with worship; some with journaling—and others just start!
With all these options, you are likely wondering: Where do I start? The answer is, you will have to figure it out on your own! No one can do it for you. As you start your journey, ask the Holy Spirit to lead and guide you, and then experiment—and find out what works.
Do you prefer to approach prayer in a more planned or more spontaneous way?
Have you ever experimented with any of these more planned approaches (e.g. ACTS, PRAY, the Lord’s Prayer, etc.)? If so, how did it go?
Today we identified some of the most important topics for prayer—for example: adoration, confession, thanksgiving, asking, listening, and yielding. Which of these comes most naturally to you? Which one is the hardest?
How has your prayer life evolved over the years? What have been some of the most helpful practices (big or small) you have discovered along the way? Journal these so you can share with your Life Group.
Next week we will study Daniel 9:1-27. This is a very famous prayer the prophet Daniel prayed at a pivotal point in Israel’s history. Read through it quickly. How many of the four “topics” in ACTS can you identify in this prayer?
Write a prayer to God. Ask Him to guide you in your ongoing conversations with Him—to help you discover the best ways for you to connect with Him through prayer.