The start of the NFL football season reminds me how my high school football coach would always begin our season by holding up a football and use the words of Vince Lombardi, “This is a football!” Pretty basic, eh? The older I have become in my journey of faith and the more I have counseled and mentored others, the more I have found the basic things to be the most important to spiritual growth and maturity. For me, these basic things have been (and continue to be) the daily reading of Scripture and the discipline of private prayer.
The reading of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation each year (or year and a half), has increasingly become more enjoyable for me. I use a different Bible version each time and make marginal notes so that I will have a Bible to give to each of my kids and grandkids, if I live that long. The reason why I enjoy reading Scripture is because it engages my intellect and my feeds my desire for knowledge. The danger for me, however, especially when I was in local church ministry, was to read the Bible with the thought of preaching and preparing my sermons. I still have that tendency, but I have learned that I must read the Scripture for myself first- to feed my own soul- before I can feed others. Remember the warning we get during the pre-flight instruction whenever we fly? “Put the oxygen mask on yourself then on your child.” Likewise, Paul warned young Pastor Timothy to “take heed to yourself and to your teaching…because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers” (1 Tim 4:16).
The discipline of prayer engages something else in me – my heart, my emotions, the desire to experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. Rarely is it a “heady” experience. All of this is why I call prayer a discipline in my life because it doesn’t come as easy for me as reading the Bible. However, I have kept at it over a lifetime and the more I have prayed, the more I have learned to pray. And the more I have learned to pray, the more I have come to trust in the One who hears my prayers- he really hears my prayers. “I call on the Lord in my distress and he answers me” (Ps 120:1). “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call upon him in truth” (Ps 145:18). “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans” (Rom 8:26). I take this to mean that these groans are ours made at times of suffering when we really don’t know what to pray. The Holy Spirit takes those groans and articulates them before our Heavenly Father. I’ve experienced this while going through some of my cancer treatments when it was so hard for me to even think of the words by which to form a prayer. I could only groan, and I believe the Holy Spirit articulated that prayer and interceded on my behalf according to the will of God.
So, I want to challenge you in this area of prayer. “Dave, I’ve tried to be faithful at prayer, but I get so distracted and end up quitting because it seems so pointless to keep going.” Oh no, dear sister/brother, prayer is never pointless. It is difficult because our hearts are not naturally bent towards God. Even the Psalmist asks over and over again that his heart be inclined (bent) towards God. This is why you must keep at it, even when your mind wanders, ask God to incline your mind to him. Some people find it helpful to personalize the Scripture and pray it as a prayer back to God. This is easier to do with the Psalms, but you can pause while reading any passage and interact with God in prayer. Some have called this listening prayer, for as you communicate with God in this way you may hear him speak to you in a thought, in an impression, through the passage you are reading.
JC Ryle has said it well: But just as the first sign of life in a newborn is crying out in order to breathe, so the first sign of life in one who is born again is a desire, a need to cry out to God in prayer. The Holy Spirit is given to us to make us new creations but also to give us the disposition to cry out to God, “Abba, Father.” A hypocrite can preach from false motives, write books for personal gain, do good works to gain recognition for himself, but seldom will a hypocrite go into his [prayer] closet on a daily basis and cry out to his Heavenly Father. So, my dear brothers and sisters, if you have been born of God, you have within you both the capacity and desire to pray. If you do not, then you do not know God or share in his life.
What are you waiting for my dear ones? Get back to the basics!