By Gilbert W. Stafford
I received a letter from a local church leader in which he told me a few of the people in his congregation disagreed with some of the policies of the pastor; consequently, they were boycotting the church. The difficulties had nothing to do with moral, ethical, or doctrinal issues; rather, they had to do with personality conflicts, differences about stylistic matters, and programmatic issues.
Since I am not in the business of dealing with local church conflicts and knew nothing whatsoever about the concerns in that local church, I had no specific advice. Anyway, that is not my calling; others are charged with that special responsibility. I did feel free, however, to share with this Christian brother three convictions growing out of the New Testament.
One of these convictions is that when we have disagreements that threaten the harmony of either a church or a family, we need to talk, keep on talking, and not stop talking with the person with whom we are in conflict. Usually, we fail to talk directly to the person or persons involved, we resort to manipulative actions, such as boycotting the church. So we need to improve our talk life.
A second admonition that I gave my troubled brother in Christ was to love, keep on loving, and never stop loving. Love discovers the good in persons with whom we have serious disagreements. When genuine love is expressed, something miraculous happens to them and us. Love is what the church is about, and if it does not work among us, we might as well close our doors, because it will be evident that we do not know the power of the Christian gospel. We need to improve our love life.
The third word of counsel is the one I want to concentrate on, and that is to pray, keep on praying, and never stop praying. So often, when we run into difficulties in the church, all of our talk about prayer is treated as little more than empty piety; we simply do not pray. We act as though we really do not believe changes are possible as the result of prayer.
Let us not forget that we were both created and redeemed to be praying people. That does not mean we were created to keep our eyes closed all the time, that we are supposed to live on our knees, or that we are supposed to exist only in church buildings or in prayer rooms. Contrary to all this, to be a praying person, in the best sense, is to be plugged into that which far surpasses church buildings and prayer rooms; it is to have a sensitivity to the whole of reality that goes beyond the limits of closed eyes, religious words, and the bodily positions into which we put ourselves when we pray.
To be a praying person is to have one’s eyes opened to the glory of God; it is to care about God’s whole world; it is to be connected with powers greater than our human powers; it is to be united with both God and with person far beyond our immediate locations. Praying persons are in the position of being surprised all the time by God; as Paul prayed in Ephesians 3:20–21: “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen” (NRSV).
But how does one go about improving one’s prayer life? I have four suggestions.
First, get alone and begin talking with God uninhibitedly. Say whatever comes to your mind. Do not try to organize it in some neat order. Be free to start anywhere you want to start; it might be a complaint, a feeling, a hurt, a confession, a review of who you think yourself to be. Whatever comes to mind, say it to God.
Be free to go from one subject to another without any fancy transitional sentences. Do not worry about getting the words exactly right. Just begin talking to God. Let the words and the feelings flow freely. Whenever I have done that, I have discovered hurts I did not know I had, attitudes with which I was not in touch, joys about which I had not thought, agendas for action I needed to adopt, help for decisions I needed to make, and new delights from being in the presence of God—which I had been missing.
My second suggestion from improving your prayer life is to talk with someone else who prays. Your conversation partner may be a spouse, a family member, a work associate, a dear friend, or a special person in the church. Talk about your own and the other person’s prayer life. My wife and I do this. We talk about our struggles in prayer, our answers to prayer, helpful material that each of us has read or heard from others about prayer, and new discoveries we ourselves are making. That is our way of supporting each other in prayer.
A third suggestion for the improvement of your prayer life is to keep some kind of record of your prayer concerns. Some people keep what they call prayer journals in which they record, if not whole prayers, at least summaries of them, and then periodically review them. Some may prefer simply making a few short notes concerning prayer concerns, which they can review from time to time.
The value of keeping some kind of written record is that when the answer comes, it serves to substantiate in your own mind and heart the relation between prayers of an earlier time and the events of the present. No, we are not talking here about scientific proofs or legal evidence, or about trying to convince someone else that prayer works. What we are talking about is a means of reminding ourselves of the mighty power of God. In my own case, it also serves to remind me of the seriousness with which God takes us as praying persons. Prayer does make a difference. The difference prayer makes is always on God’s time table and according to God’s agenda, but it does make a difference, and we can celebrate even more when we have a written record about our prayer life.
A fourth suggestion for improving your prayer life is to be flexible. One of the biggest mistakes we make is to think that our prayer life has to be exactly like someone else’s prayer life. As one who likes to pray early in the morning, I certainly see much value in praying at that time, but I do it because it fits me, not because I am trying to follow someone else’s practice.
The same goes for length of prayers and kinds of praying. Be flexible. Sometimes your prayer life is going to be primarily an overflowing fountain of praise, adoration, and thanksgiving to God. Sometimes your prayer life may be predominately a matter of disciplined communion with the Lord. At other times it may be predominately a matter of the wordless yearning of the heart in the Lord’s presence. It is all right for your prayers to be of one kind at one time, and another kind at another. The important matter is that each of us be the prayer person we are called to be at the present time and under the existing set of circumstances.
Be flexible to the Holy Spirit in your prayer life and see how remarkably it will improve. Your prayers are not in vain. You do not have to pray like Paul or anyone else. Pray like you, and see what God will do. Through our faithful prayers in the name of Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit, God will be at work within us, who, as we have already heard from Scripture, “is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine.”
The late Gilbert W. Stafford filled many influential roles in the Church of God, including, but not limited to, serving as speaker for CBH and dean of the Anderson University School of Theology. This article was originally published in the March 1992 issue of Vital Christianity. Republished by permission.
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