You begin every day with prayer, one way or another.
In his book The Common Rule, Justin Earley explains that unless we create new habits of gospel prayers in the morning, we’ll start the day with some kind of “prayer” we’ve borrowed from the world. Whether it’s anxiety-ridden regret or self-sufficient resolve, something fills our minds as soon as we awake, directing us to look beyond ourselves, or at least deeper within. And here’s the thing: unless we intend for our prayers to accord with truth, they won’t.
What would it mean to start the day differently — to pray according to truth? It would mean, for starters, that we don’t merely look beyond ourselves (and certainly not within), but to God alone. That sounds simple enough: start every day praying to God according to truth. We soon realize, however, that praying truth as a daily habit can feel complicated.
For one, regularly praying truth means we say many of the same words again and again. We address God in the same ways, declaring the same realities. We don’t say them in vain repetition, but we do repeat them. For example, God is truly our Father in heaven every time we pray, and so we say it — if not every time, at least repeatedly.
“Repeating certain sayings every day doesn’t necessarily make them insincere.”
And unless we’re only asking God for various things, our praying will involve adoring God for his attributes (which never change) and thanking him for his gifts (which are constant), and this also means repetition. But in repeating the same truths, what if we slip into a kind of wooden formalism? What if we end up just going through the motions?
This is a danger. Habits, by definition, become second nature to us; we do them almost involuntarily, without needing to work up our wills. But if that’s where praying truth takes us, does that mean our prayers are insincere (or less sincere)? Have we just dug ourselves into a deeper hole? To remedy the first problem of not praying daily according to truth, have we now spun off a second problem of wooden formalism?
While wooden formalism is indeed possible, we also should consider the alternative danger of banking on creativity and spontaneity to carry our prayer life. How creative and spontaneous do we suppose we should be? Do we imagine that our praying to God should follow the same patterns of our dialogue with friends? Are we to approach him with no agenda, whether his or our own? Perhaps we assume we should pray as we’re guided by whatever seems to come up during our time together, as if we were sitting across from a trusted confidant, cup of coffee in hand.
As romantic and authentic as this idea might seem, the problem with this type of creative praying — at least for many of us — is its impracticality. It makes one especially vulnerable to what D.A. Carson calls “mental drift,” which makes sense given one obvious difference between God and your coffee friend: God is invisible (1 Timothy 1:17). It’s not easy to carry on a conversation with an invisible person. It takes locking in our minds and hearts with unusual energy, which tends to wane. One reason crises improve our prayer lives is become they focus us, at least for a season.
Carson describes what he means by “mental drift” in his book Praying with Paul, and it’s safe to say the experience resonates with all of us. He gives the following example:
Dear Lord, I thank you for the opportunity of coming into your presence by the merits of Jesus. It is a wonderful blessing to call you Father. . . . I wonder where I left my car keys? [No, no! Back to business.] Heavenly Father, I began by asking that you will watch over my family — not just in the physical sphere, but in the moral and spiritual dimensions of our lives. . . . Boy, last Sunday’s sermon was sure bad. I wonder if I’ll get that report written on time? [No, no!] Father, give real fruitfulness to that missionary couple we support, whatever their name is. . . . Oh, my! I had almost forgotten I promised to fix my son’s bike today. . . . (2)
At risk in this experience is that we become so discouraged, maybe even cynical, that we give up praying altogether. We are so bad at it that trying feels like a waste of time.
But if we understand that prayerlessness is the greatest danger, then a wandering mind or mindless repetitions suddenly become more normal, part of our humanness in this age. It’s redeemed humanness in that we’re praying, but humanness still in that praying is a struggle.
Carson addresses these and other ailments with several lessons on prayer, including, first, that we should plan to pray; and second, that we should adopt practical ways to impede mental drift during those appointments. Among these practical ways he mentions vocalizing our prayers, praying over Scripture, and journaling our prayers. Following the same line of thought, I would add repeating true prayers habitually. In other words, pray the same truths at the same points every day.
This method applies both pieces of Carson’s advice: it makes prayer a regular practice, and it keeps our prayers on track. By repeating true prayers habitually, we kill a few birds with one stone: we’ve eliminated prayerlessness, we’ve mitigated the possibility of mental drift, and inasmuch as these repeated prayers are indeed true, we’ve directed our prayers according to truth, which was our problem from the start.
The final piece, and the one impossible to script, is how we keep these prayers real. For that, we need the ongoing grace of God. At the same time, it’s worth noting that repeating certain sayings every day doesn’t necessarily make them insincere. For example, I say the exact same things to my wife and children every single day, even multiple times a day, and I’ve never not meant it, even if sometimes I might say it with more zest than at other times. Zesty praying is a worthwhile hope — and may God grant it! — but our first goal should be starting the day with genuine praying that accords with truth.
Now how does that look?
Every day, at the earliest possible moment — before you check your phone or your mind starts preparing for what’s ahead, but after you’re mentally aware enough to think — consider reciting a simple prayer full of truth.
In The Common Rule, Earley provides this example: “Spirit, I was made for your presence. May this day be one I spend with you in all that I do. Amen.” Another example is a four-part petition taken from Psalm 51, or perhaps one from Psalm 143, or many other such examples found in The Book of Common Prayer. If our prayer lives accompany a life of Bible reading, then we have fresh opportunities each day to stumble into another pathway for prayer. Listening to God is one of the greatest preparations for speaking to God.
“Every day, at the earliest possible moment, consider rehearsing a simple prayer full of truth.”
If possible, consider making this simple prayer habit a mile-marker throughout your day, with different prayers repeated at morning, noon, and bedtime. But start with the morning, since it marks what many call a “keystone habit.” The idea there, popularized by Charles Duhigg’s best-selling The Power of Habit, is that not all habits are equal. Some habits have the power to start a chain reaction. Duhigg writes, “The habits that matter most are the ones that, when they start to shift, dislodge and remake other patterns” (101). Repeating true prayers, every morning, can have that effect.
To be sure, this is not the only praying we do, but it is the praying we’re sure to do. Often, it can become a jump-start to longer, more conversant prayers — as the Puritans liked to put it, we “pray until we pray.” Carson reminds us of this Puritan persistence, which means we should pray “long enough and honestly enough, at a single session, to get past the feeling of formalism and unreality” (18).
Indeed, would that God would make that our habit! If it already is, then disregard all that’s been said here. But if that goal is still ahead, fellow redeemed human, repeating true prayers habitually, every morning, might be your best next step.
The late J.I. Packer puts this all in context, as quoted by Carson:
There is no recipe for prayer that can work for us like a handyman’s do-it-yourself manual or a cookery book, where the claim is that if you follow the instructions you can’t go wrong. Praying is not like carpentry or cookery; it is the active exercise of a personal relationship, a kind of friendship, with the living God and his Son Jesus Christ, and the way it goes is more under divine control than under ours. . . . As in other close relationships, so in prayer: you have to find out by trial and error what is right for you, and you learn to pray by praying. (19)
Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is the lead pastor of Cities Church in Saint Paul, Minnesota, where he lives with his wife, Melissa, and their eight children. He is the author of Mercy for Today: A Daily Prayer from Psalm 51.