Most new Christians find prayer comes as naturally as breathing. After a little time goes by, however, we discover that our familiarity with God often leads to neglect in our prayer lives. Taking for granted that God will always be listening, the sweet communion of our initial walk begins to fade away and soon we wake up to find, as B.B. King would say, “the thrill is gone.”
If you haven’t fell into this pit yet, I encourage you to read this chapter carefully because it can save you from a lot of grief. But even if you’ve already sunk into the mire, I have good news for you. One of the best ways to reenergize a stagnant prayer life is to catch a glimpse of how each member of the Trinity is involved.
Prayer follows the Trinitarian pattern we’ve already seen in our salvation and Bible reading. We pray to God the Father through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 2:18 the Apostle Paul writes, “For through Him we both have access in One Spirit to the Father.” Commenting on this verse, Harold Hoehner notes that just as, “it took the work of the three persons of the Trinity to redeem humans. Here the three persons of the Trinity are involved in the believers’ access to God.” (Hoehner 2002, 389) Our access to the Father is made possible through the work of Jesus on the cross and the ongoing intercession of the Holy Spirit.
In our zeal to make prayer a casual conversation with God, we often miss the profound nature of this Trinitarian approach. We need to take a moment, therefore, and focus on what happens behind the scenes when we pray. Often our focus in prayer is only on what we’re doing or saying. To truly understand prayer, however, we need to pull back the veil and capture a glimpse of how each member of the Godhead is involved. Doing so will enable us to develop a more Biblical approach and tidy up the loose vocabulary we use about prayer. All of this will serve to deepen our intimacy with God and motivate us to an even deeper life of prayer.
We Pray to God the Father
In the model prayer, Jesus taught the disciples to address God as, “Our Father in heaven.” (Matt 6:9) For the believer, addressing God as Father is a reflection of our familial relationship. The word Father (pater) was an expression of intimacy closely tied with the Aramaic term abba, used to identify the special relationship between a young child and his/her parents. It is a term of affection similar to calling an earthly father, daddy.
In Jesus’ day, it was practically unheard of to call God by such an intmate name. Jews in that day, carefully avoided the use of “my Father” or “our Father” when referring to God. Such a term of familal intimacy, however, fits perfectly with the picture of salvation in the New Testament. John 1:12 says, “…to all who did receive him, who believe in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.” As the adopted children of God we enjoy the unique priviliege of approaching God as our Father (see 1 John 3:1 and Eph 2:19) This new status was what motivated the early chuch to stand during prayer. Slaves bow, children stand. Because God is our Father we can stand before Him as beloved children.
Addressing God as Father is also a recognition of His sovereignty and an acknowledgement of our dependence. Just as an earthly Father supports his family, God provides for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of His children. We can be confident He cares about every aspect of our lives, because we are His beloved children. As such, we can approach Him as a kind, caring and benevolent Father. But this access is only made possible through the work of Jesus, which brings us to the second aspect of prayer.
We Pray Through God the Son
We never approach God the Father on our own merits. We always come to God the Father through Jesus the Son. (Eph 2:18) Jesus made this clear in John 14:6 where He says, “I am the way the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” Our access to the Father is made possible because Jesus is both our mediator and our intercessor.
As the mediator of our salvation, Jesus died in our place to secure our salvation. 1 Timothy 2:5 says, “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus.” The job of a mediator is to bridge the gap between two parties in a dispute, to help them resolve their problems. Because of our sin, there’s nothing we can do to reconcile ourselves God. No amount of law keeping, good works or religious activity can bridge the gap and give us a right standing before God. So, Jesus stood in our place, becoming the perfect sacrifice for our sin on the cross so we can go free. As our mediator, Jesus died for our sin and gave us access to God the Father. But His work does not end with securing our salvation. Having ascended back to heaven, Jesus continues to stand for us before the Father as our intercessor.
As intercessor, Jesus pleads our case and prays on our behalf before the Father. Hebrews 4:14-16 says,
Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens. Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.
As our High Priest, Jesus sympathizes with our weaknesses and understands the things we go through because He’s experienced everything it means to be human, except for sin. As a result, we can be confident in prayer, knowing that someone who perfectly understands our plight is praying in heaven for us. This fact alone should be enough to drive us towards a deeper prayer life. But there is one more aspect we need to consider in our prayer life.
We Prayer in the Power of the Holy Spirit
The entire Christian life is to be lived under the direction and control of the Holy Spirit. This pattern is shown for us in the life of Jesus — who was begotten (Luke 1:35), led (Lk 4:1), anointed (Acts 10:38), taught (Is 9:2,3), performed miracles (Marr 12:28), and raised from the dead (Acts 1:2) by the power of the Holy Spirit. Likewise, the Holy Spirit works in our lives by convicting us of sin (John 16:8-11), bringing about the new birth (John 3:3-8), sealing our salvation (Eph 1:13-14), and gifting us for service (1 Cor 12:4-11). It makes perfect sense then, that the Holy Spirit has a major role in our prayer life.
We often struggle with the weaknesses of our old sinful nature. As a result, we sometimes don’t know how to pray. Several years ago, I faced this situation with my dad. At the time, I knew my dad was very sick and he wanted God to take him home. But I was not ready to let him go. Every time I’d try to pray my heart would be torn. On one hand, I wanted to ask God to end his suffering. But on the other, I desperately wanted God to sustain his life for a little while longer so that I’d have more time with him. This is just one of the many times in my life when I really didn’t know how to pray.
These are the times when we experience some of the deepest workings of the Holy Spirit. Romans 8:26-27 says;
Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groaning’s too deep for words. And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.
Commenting on this passage, Robert Mounce writes, “Prayer has always been one of the great mysteries of the spiritual life. We understand that God is listening, but we sense our inadequacy when it comes to knowing how to pray or exactly what we should pray for.” (Mounce 1995, 186) That’s exactly the poistion I was in with my dad. But there’s a tremendous promise in this verse. When we don’t know what to pray for, the Holy Spirit takes over and intercedes on our behalf.
A number of years ago, we had a couple in our church who were struggling with a decision about whether or not to go back on the mission field. They had served for a number of years on the foreign mission field, but returned to the United States for the birth of a their first child, who faced some serious medical problems. After a year of treatment and therapy, their baby was doing better and they were faced with the decision about whether or not to return to the mission field. Every direction they turned they were encountering mixed signal. On one side, they heard from the churches back on the mission field desperatley begging them to return. But on the other, their family and friends were urging them to remain in the United States for their baby’s health. Rather, than looking for advice, this genuinely devoted and godly couple simply wanted me to pray for them.
In that situation, and many others, I honestly didn’t know how I should pray. All I could do was trust the Holy Spirit to guide me. For several hours, I prayed with that couple in my office, desperatley seeking the will of God. During most of that time we simply cried out to God in “groanings too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26) But as we searched the Word and sought the mind of God, slowly the Holy Spirit began to impress upon all of us that at that time it was not God’s will for them to return to the field.
There will be times when our vision is too limited and our minds to small to comprehend the mind of God, It’s in these moments that we experience the deep work of the Holy Spirit, taking up the slack and intereceding before the Father on our behalf. That’s why we constantly need to rely on the Holy Spirit to guide and direct our prayer. (Eph 6:18 Jude 1:20)
Simply knowing that we pray to God the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit is not enough. We need to put this into daily practice in our lives. Doing so requires discipline and focus. Our physical health requires that we discipline ourselves to eat the right foods, get enough rest, and exercise to keep our bodies fit. It makes sense then that our Spiritual lives also need discipline to be healthy.
Richard Foster captured the essence of the Spiritual disciples when he said, “The Discipline’s allow us to place ourselves before God so that He can transform us.” These are not a magic formula or a quid pro quo, but a positioning of ourselves for God’s use and blessing. Dallas Willard noted that the key to the Christian life is “the intelligent, informed, unyielding resolve to live like Jesus lived in all aspects of his life.” The problem is that most of us try to live the Christian life in the “moment of specific decision” without taking adequate steps to prepare ourselves. The Spiritual disciplines are how God prepares us for His service
Tom Landry, the legendary coach of the Dallas Cowboys, once said, “The job of a football coach is to make men do what they don’t want to do to achieve what they’ve always wanted to be.” Every successful athlete learns the importance of discipline. Sheer athletic talent is all it takes to succeed in the pee wee leagues and High School. By the time an athlete goes to college, however, the playing field is leveled. In college sports success or failure is decided as much by discipline as talent. Those who have both, usually succeed. Those who have talent but lack discipline will most often fail.
Our familiarity with prayer often leads to neglect. Half the remedy then is simple discipline. Spiritual growth does not happen by accident. If you want to grow, you must deliberately cultivate the disciplines that will help you mature. This is what Paul had in mind in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So, run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.” Just as an athlete disciplines him or herself to be ready when the game starts, so to must believers train themselves to always be ready. Things like setting a specific time and place for prayer, creating a prayer journal, and setting up a prayer/accountability partner are excellent ways of developing a more disciplined prayer life. But discipline is only half the equation — you also need focus.
One reason many believers never develop an effective prayer life is that they don’t understand how God works in prayer. When prayer is merely a habit it will quickly become monotonous and boring. But prayer takes on an entirely different dynamic when viewed as an experience with the Triune God. Saying that we pray to God the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit is more than just a doctrinal affirmation. It is a roadmap to keep us focused on the role each member of the Trinity plays in our prayer life. It reminds us that we have a loving Father who longs for us to come before Him with every need and concern. It focuses our attention on our King and brother, Jesus, whose sacrifice gives us access to the Father and who continues to plead our case before Him. But it also encourages us by assuring that we have a divine helper who knows the mind of God and teaches us how to pray when we’re not sure what to ask for.
I cannot overemphasize the need to find another believer or small group to help develop your prayer life. Obviously, this is helpful for accountability, but it can also help with focus. Meeting together to talk and pray together will deepen your experience. Praying with other believers also tends to have a different dynamic than when we pray alone. Often, I find the Holy Spirit uses other people to speak to me in ways I hadn’t thought about in private. Over the years, some of deepest and most intense spiritual experiences I’ve had have been in corporate prayer meetings. Try it and you’ll quickly see what I mean.