As far as I can see there are three pieces that make up our prayer-life.
- One is the actual practice of prayer. Without this, you can’t really speak of having a prayer life.
- Second is knowledge about how to pray. Words, methods, prayer practices. This is where much preaching about prayer and books about prayer focus their attention. And it is not unimportant.
- The final piece is what we believe about prayer. We might call this the theology of prayer. How does prayer work? What is prayer for? How should I think about prayer.
If I were going to give you an illustration, I would say that the theology, what we believe about prayer, is like the foundation of our house of prayer, the methods and knowledge about how to pray are the raw materials of our house, and the praying itself is the actual hammering together of the raw materials of prayer into a house.
Many books and sermons about prayer focus on the middle category: ways of praying, structuring your prayer, prayer lists, praying Scripture, how much to pray, etc. So far this summer our messages from the book of Psalms have primarily been about the 2nd category, the raw materials of prayer. We have spoken from specific psalms about how to incorporate things such as anger and sadness in our prayers. Further, I have been suggesting that these psalms themselves offer excellent raw materials for prayer. That is, you can build your house of prayer directly out of psalms or pieces of psalms with little or no modification.
I think this focus on the materials of prayer is perhaps because it is the easiest for us to get our minds around. Unfortunately, I don’t think most of our prayer problems are a result of ignorance about the raw materials of prayer. Returning to our illustration, anyone can go to the hardware store and buy a pile of materials for building a house. They may not have the right amounts or quality of materials, but our common experience of houses means that most of us have at least a general idea about what houses are made of. So too with prayer. Most of us have heard enough prayers to have some idea of their basic construction. And Scripture provides many examples as well.
Most of our prayer problems lie with parts 1 and 3–the practice of prayer and the foundation of prayer. To have a house we must build. No amassing of materials will ever amount to a house. One must put those materials to good use. If one is a novice, there will be trial and error and some of the early efforts may seem unimpressive. But this is a house that no one can build for you. So too with prayer. To have a prayer life, one must pray.
Additionally, many of our thoughts and assumptions about what prayer is for and how it ‘works’ go completely unexamined. Then we’re disappointed when our prayer lives don’t seem to be coming together. This is akin to trying to build your house without examining the ground on which you build or laying some sort of foundation. Many people succeed in building something of a prayer life only to have it washed away when circumstances come that their prayer foundations can’t account for.
So how do I shore up the foundation of my prayer house? One’s “theology” of prayer may have any number of facets. But as suggested in a recent sermon, our most fundamental prayer problems tend to be gospel problems. Our grasp of God’s gracious extension of salvation to us through the cross work of Jesus Christ is the cement of any foundation of prayer. To make a firm foundation for your house of prayer, deepen your understanding of the gospel.