15 ways to refresh a tired devotional life (Posts 1-5)

1. Tell God that you find prayer hard going

Here’s the first.  If prayer is a heart issue, then we need to start with our hearts.  If prayerlessness is our problem, then our first prayer is to start with that. We could do that every day for the next week, perhaps more.  

A first step, then is simply to talk to God about why we don’t want to talk to him in prayer, and to keep doing that. Talk about why you don’t want to pray. Be sorry, and ask for forgiveness. Ask for your heart to be changed. Ask that we might delight in the Lord, so that he would grant our hearts desire (Ps 37v4).

Our Father asks us and longs for us to pray, and honest prayer is scriptural.    It doesn’t need to be long, but do try and make it uninterrupted, even if only for five minutes.  In the loo, on a short walk. Wherever. Plan it in advance, perhaps setting an alarm for a quiet moment in the day.   

It’s a small start, but it’s a start.   And prayer begets prayer…  

2. Planned time with a loved one

An old friend of mine, Dave, has a delightful relationship with his two daughters – this has been a mark of their family life since they were very small.  They’re now grown up.  I once asked him what the secret was, and he said “going to the cafe with each of them in turn every week”.    Planned regular time with each daughter has led to where they are today.  I strongly suspect that many of those times in the cafe were unremarkable, but over the long term something truly special was built.  

It’s the same for all our relationships; where we put planned time in with friends, parents, children, and spouses, then over months and years something deeply valuable emerges.  It is no different with God – it cannot be!  Our life with God is fundamentally relational. We are children of God (John 1v12); we pray to the Father (Mathew 6v1-13); Jesus is brother to us (Hebrews 2v11); the Holy Spirit lives within us (John 14:17).   In Luke 11, on observing Jesus’ regular time with his Father, it seems that the disciples, wanted to learn how to do the same for themselves. It appears that Jesus pattern for us was planned time in conversation with God.  

So another way to refresh a tired devotional life is to plan in time with God, and do it regularly.  I’ve found no way around this, but over time it does become easier.   And better to plan something achievable that works.  Don’t start with planning in two hours of prayer before dawn every day.  If for instance you work two days a week, then 10 minutes or so on the five days you don’t work is probably a better place to start.  For others (like me) it’s got to be daily or it doesn’t work. If this is new, or if it’s been a while, the joys probably won’t emerge quickly, but in time they do come.  

3. Spiritual Riffing on the Lord’s prayer

Today’s post is some advice I have taken wholesale from Tim Keller’s excellent book on prayer (which you can find here).  He in turn borrowed it from Martin Luther, the 16th century reformer. So it comes with good credentials!    

It’s pretty straightforward.  After reading a part of scripture, we simply pray through the Lord’s prayer stopping after each line and turning that into a prayer of our own.  One of the benefits is that it helps us avoid distracting thoughts.   It doesn’t need to take a long time – you could easily pray this during a five minute walk – although, as Keller says, it might catch fire and last much longer! 

How does it work? It’s probably easiest to show you an example. Let’s say you’ve just read the first 14 verses of John’s gospel.   Riffing on the Lord’s prayer might go something like this:

Our Father in heaven…. Oh Lord, thank you so much that I can truly call you Father, and because Jesus the Word came, I can be counted a child of God, as I’ve just read in that passage in John’s gospel. 

Hallowed be your name… I pray for me, and my husband, at work today.  To be honest we’re both finding work a bit dull at the moment, but if we would remember that even there your name can be hallowed, that would be a great thing for us – I know that’s right.  Please help us to do that.

Your kingdom come… I think about my friends Jack and Ava. Lord. Thank you that they asked me about church yesterday – I pray they might see that Jesus is much more than a teacher, but he is both the Word made flesh, and their true and loving king…..

You get the idea.  Each day it will change, depending on what’s happening and what you have just read in the Bible.  It’s surprisingly powerful, I’ve found.  It makes me pray about other things than those on my mind at the moment (e.g. Hallowed be your name…). It reminds me that I can and should trust God in an area that I might be getting worked up about (“your will be done”).  It also gives me something to hang my prayers on, and keeps me on track.  

   Here’s Tim Keller again: Praying the Lord’s prayer is an “address to God -with the authority of Jesus’ own words. It brings boldness and comfort and, of course, warms up the heart to slide right into the most passionate prayer for our most urgent concerns”.

4. Every bit of Bible is a lesson, a song, a confession and a prayer

In the last post, we saw one way where Martin Luther was helped in prayer. It was recommended by Tim Keller in his book on prayer.  Here’s another aid from Martin Luther, via Tim Keller.   

This is how Keller describes it:  

After advising meditation, Luther describes how to do it. He uses the metaphor of a garland. “I divide each [biblical] command into four parts, thereby fashioning a garland of four strands. That is I think of each commandment as first, instruction, which is really what it is intended to be, and consider what the Lord God demands of me so earnestly. Second, I turn it into a thanksgiving; third, a confession; and fourth, a prayer.” This turns every biblical text into a “school text, a song book, a penitential book, and a prayer book.‘ (p90)

As with last time, let’s take an example to help see how this works. These are the very last words in 1 John:

Dear children, keep yourselves from idols’ (1 John 5:11 NIV). Here’s how it might work for me; I take that text and think of it in the four ways that Martin Luther suggests: 

A school text:  ‘Lord, it seems that even in this day and age, we can all be prone to idols, and not just one or two perhaps – I wonder which ones I tend to ‘worship’? But I also see that we are instructed in a loving a gentle way – as dear children.’

A thanksgiving: ‘I thank my Lord and Saviour Jesus that he has opened my eyes to how my heart can be drawn to other things. That he gently leads me to worship him – he who serves me rather than seeks to masters me.’ 

A confession: ‘Lord, I can see there are one or two areas where I spend a lot of my thoughts: I am prone to idolising other things.  Please forgive me and turn me back to you. 

A prayer: ‘Oh Lord, help me delight in you. Help me be truly satisfied by you. Help me see clearly where idols don’t deliver the benefits I think they might. Lord I’m reminded again that I’m saved and loved by you.’

You get the idea.  As last time, it helps avoid the mind wandering (which is all too easy these days)  and allows scripture to set the agenda for our prayers.   

The bible text drives my prayers, which are both a conversation with God about my thoughts and some requests to him in prayer.  These are a form of meditation.  As Tim Keller notes: “they are ways of inclining and preparing the heart for prayer by fully using the mind and taking the Scripture with utmost seriousness–all at the same time.”

5. Prayer generates more prayer    

Julian Hardyman’s little book on prayer (there’s a review here) yields many ways to refresh the way we natter with the Lord, and the next few bits of advice come from this book.

One comment he makes is simply this: “the less you pray, the harder it is”.   

This is true for many good practices in life.  Think about something you used to do regularly – let’s say you used to go on a run three times a week for 20 minutes.  The motivation to go each time was fairly easy – in fact if you keep running long enough it becomes just a good habit.  But if you haven’t run for three months, then the inclination to go now is much, much lower.  The less you run, the harder it is to go next time.   Similarly, the less you pray the harder it is to pray next time. 

Julian Hardyman notes how important it is to grasp this insight:

if you are struggling to pray, you may be the victim of your own vicious circle; in fact you almost certainly have been because we all do this. This insight won’t solve the problem but you need to realise it. The great thing is that the opposite is also true: the more you pray, the more natural it will become.

(Fresh Pathways in Prayer, p.8)

Praying little and often is much more likely to yield a rich devotional life with the Lord than resolving with every fibre of your body to pray long and often, and then failing in a weeks time.  We all know that whenever we think about adopting any good habit – regular and often is the key, and is much more important than length.  Prayer is the most important habit we can ever adopt.

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