I wrote this as a part of my Prayer and Spirituality class, figured I’d share it if it could maybe bless someone. I do think it ironic though to read anything about “how to pray” – a book on prayer should perhaps be one page long and say, “put this book down and go pray.” Anyways, regardless of that, and the truth of the practical nature of learning how to pray, I hope this does contain something helpful… Enjoy!
You can download the PDF here: The Posture of Prayer – Assuming the Position
Prayer is the heartbeat of the Christian walk, but a lot of times we have such problems coming to the alter and approaching the throne of grace. We may be worried we don’t have the right words, proper verbiage is required after all, isn’t it? Or perhaps our posture isn’t quite pious enough? Maybe it’s the place, surely we must be in some sort of temple or holy ground to address the Most High right? It couldn’t be so simple as unlimited access, unrestricted communion and unabashed honesty… could it?
But this is precisely what is meant by Christian prayer. What is meant by effective prayer though? It is more of a posture of the heart, than a posture of the body. A disposition of the will to be subject to that of God. As simple as this may be though, it is often the hardest thing for us to achieve…
The posture of prayer is one of radical dependence. We come to God as the One who is strong and we are weak, He is rich and we are poor, He is inclined to be generous and we are needy of His grace, we are sinful and He is merciful. Mother Teresa is credited to have once said, “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.” So we throw ourselves into His open hands of love, knowing that His grip is sure. We can offer nothing to add to God, nothing to aid His insufficiency – for He has none. Our only offering then is that shown in Psalm 51:17, a broken and contrite heart which cries out, “I am weak and needy, would You have Your way in my life to make it that which I cannot.”
Assuming the Position:
How can one get to this position though? How does one go against their natural desires to puff one’s chest and grit the teeth, to struggle through clenched fists and white tipped fingers, to deny the heart’s rebellious cry ever since Eden, “No! I’ll do it my way…”? The irony of positioning ourselves in a posture of dependence is that even in this we are inadequate. Often times we will come to prayer, assuming the physical positions of the penitent – kneeling and bowing low – however our hearts beat to the rhythm of the proud. Far too many times, I have started at prayer only to struggle for the first half of the time to overcome this very battle with the self which rises up. Or perhaps this is just a struggle for me? At times the chest puffs up instead of the head bowing down… the voice brazenly ‘declares’ instead of quivering requesting… Other times it has been only after the overwhelming conviction that my own wisdom and all of me seemed insufficient for the day, with no where else to turn, that I have been driven to my knees. The journey to prayer sometimes proves longer than the prayer itself… How then can we short cut this process to humility of heart and poorness of spirit?
A Grace Filled Posture:
One of the biggest revelations was in the realization that our posture of the heart is directly dependent not on our physical positioning, or our earnest striving to earn favour. It is rather the natural response of the saved to the revelation of our own insufficiency and the reminder of the grace in which we already stand. Posturing our heart starts with refocusing on the mystery of the Gospel. In so doing – gazing into the beauty of Majesty revealed – God works a miracle again as our spirit responds to its Lover and our forgetful hearts are stirred once more. I will explore briefly some of these ‘positions of prayer’ we can use to prepare ourselves for this heart posture. The irony of this paper though is that even in so doing, I attempt a fools errand. For ultimately, as is also the case when we first came to saving faith, it is only a supernatural work of the Spirit which can re-posture a crooked heart. So even in writing this, I am painfully aware of my own inability but pray that God would take these words and breathe life into them.
The Knowledge of the Holy One:
I will start with what is most essential in prayer – knowing God. We cannot call upon One whom we do not know. God is transcendent. So our knowledge of Him must be situated in God’s own revelation of Himself. Therefore, even in our knowledge of Him – we are totally dependent on Him. It isn’t based on our search for God, our intellectual pursuit of Him or our passionate zeal for Him – all of which are good but pitifully flop humanly short on their own. Rather it is based on God’s desire to be known.
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:6 ESV)
Our prayer then is not based on how much we know about or of God so that we can come to Him. It is, “Oh God, show me how You’ve already revealed Yourself.” The revelation we see of God in both the Old and New Testament is not a revelation only in words and information, but rather experiential and transformative. He is revealed as merciful, abounding in steadfast love, gracious, slow to anger, patient and forgiving. His revelation is, more often than not, in response to human disobedience not obedience. God does not need to be placated or impressed for prayer to be effective. It is based upon His willingness already to be merciful. There is a direct correlation between our deficiency of knowing God and our not asking much of Him. A failure to know Him will also result in a failure in our prayer life which will be expressed in weak and timid prayers or worst of all, a total absence of any prayer.
Our position is one of expectation of God’s willingness to be known. How much time have you spent studying the character and attributes of God?
(2 great books on this topic are: “Knowing God” by JI Packer, and “Knowledge of the Holy” by AW Tozer… a third even better book is the Bible! Read it!)
Calling on His Name:
To pray to God is to call upon His name, for it is in His Name that we ask. In days past when a king would issue an edict, a herald would go forth and proclaim the message “in the name of the king.” He was charged with speaking the will of the king. It is much the same in prayers of petition. To pray in Jesus Name is to know what He stands for, and thereby to petition according to His will – for it is for His own Name’s sake that He answers. When we pray “in His Name”, we are essentially saying that we are already asking according to His will not ours… therefore, “in Jesus Name I pray” is not some magical phrase we use to get God to fulfill our desires, but rather a recognition of the submission of our desires to His.
Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it. (John 14:13-14 ESV)
You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:3 ESV)
Therefore it is less about us getting God to do our will, but rather us getting to know His will so that we can submit to it to be accomplished in us. “Let Your Kingdom come” serves as a prayer of repentance – that we have stood in stark contradiction to His reign – so we now yield ourselves freely to it. Prayer is our walkie-talkie for warfare, not our domestic intercom for our self-serving conveniences. Until we know that this Christian life is war, we cannot truly know what prayer is for. We are either in the process of resisting God’s truth or in the process of allowing ourselves to be moulded by His truth.
Our positioning then is one of submission.
Furthermore, we must know who God is revealed in relation to His redeemed – He is our Father. We are not the cause of our own conception, but rather we are the result of His work and good pleasure. We weren’t born of ourselves, and similarly neither were we born again because of ourselves. It is the right of those who have been adopted to ask. Therefore, we know how we ought to address God as sons – modeled by Jesus in Matthew 6:9-13 – He is “our Father.” The opening of the Lord’s prayer is a one without any preamble. Our ability to come boldly to the throne of God is primarily predicated upon Jesus’ relationship with God and our adoption into that relationship as co-heirs. We piggyback on to Jesus’ righteousness in God’s sight, not our own. We look to and mimic the example of our big brother in relating to God and thereby share in His experiences through practical means such as humble service, patient suffering, selfless ministry and proclaiming the word of God. We say, “Good morning Lord, what are You up to today and can I be a part of it?” Our position is that of younger siblings imitating Christ.
Our identity is intertwined with that of Jesus. It may be aptly expressed as the goal of the God-man – being fully Divine and fully human – to bridge the divide between God and man in the act of incarnation and reconciliation.
For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus… ( 1 Timothy 2:5 ESV)
It is this very concept the spiritual emulsion of our identity with that of Jesus’ which led Paul to refer primarily to believers as being “in Christ.” The question then is how does Jesus encounter the Father? We see an example in Gethsemane; that Jesus trusts the Father enough to ask even for that which He knows He isn’t going to get. This is because the point of prayer is not necessarily success – it is about relationship. The Father desires relationship with His Son, and by extension then, with us.
Our position is one of self-identifying relationship to God in Christ.
A Father’s Disposition and a Child’s Request:
It is important to realize that when a child comes to ask, it is the Father’s first disposition to be generous. We should not be afraid to ask or the sake of maintaining decorum, or rules of conduct – for God already knows how weak and wretched we are! It is the whole point of the Cross. Here is one of the biggest difficulties we will face in approaching prayer; to unlearn all our social upbringing to be independent. In maturing, we expend so much effort to become independent and self-sufficient. But the Kingdom of God is turned on its head, where increase in spiritual maturity actually means an increase in both the recognition and practice of our insufficiency and utter dependence. The heart of God’s glory is His grace which overflows in kindness to needy people.
One of the blessings of a child is the almost inexhaustible delight and wonder in the monotonous and repetitive. To squeal, “Daddy, do it again!” Even after the “umpteenth” time. As we age and senses dull, as the wonder of life’s small joys become too commonplace to entertain our ‘matured’ minds, the loss of wonder is besetting to our joy. Only in God are there infinite depths of wonder and delight to be found. As we seek and ask Him to do for us the impossible, to see His hand move and come back like tireless kids to Him asking, “Abba, one more time please.” Unless we become as one of these little children, we will not get far in our posture to prayer.
Our position is one of child-like faith and dependence.
The Helpless Servant:
Good service to God is more about receiving mercy and grace than it is about rendering assistance. We don’t serve by offering our power to God as if He needs it to do good, but we serve by doing what is necessary so that His power is made available to do that which we cannot.
“Prayer is the antidote for the disease of self-confidence, which opposes God’s goal of getting glory by working for those who wait for Him… God is not looking for people to work for Him, so much as He is looking for people who will let Him work for them. The gospel is not a help-wanted ad.” (Piper, Desiring God, pg 171)
What qualifies you for ministry is your need of Him. God is always the Giver and we are the beneficiaries, because it is the Giver who gets the glory. Often, to feel the weight of this, it may mean going where we do not wish to go, to step outside the bounds of our comfort zones past the limits of our own capabilities into unfamiliar territory where faith may become substance. To that place where, should God not come through for us, quite frankly – we’re screwed. These steps toward uncharted territories can be voluntary or we may be mercifully thrown unwillingly to wander the valley of the shadow of death for a season. However, it is precisely here, in the midst of our own despair of inadequacy that we are enabled for prayer, because it prevents us from thinking we can set the terms of the relationship between us and God. The cry of helplessness is your best asset in prayer.
Our position is one of desperate helplessness.
A Matter of the Heart:
Prayer is not about special technique, or superfluous verbiage. In fact we are warned against such prayer explicitly by Jesus.
“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words.” (Matthew 6:7 ESV)
Prayer is not about eloquence, but rather earnestness. It is that we would not merely define our helplessness but that it would be genuinely heartfelt, not just in figures of speech but in sincerity of soul.
But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7 ESV)
As we see in Samuel, God looks at the heart – which can be liberating and terrifying depending on which side of grace we stand. It is with this in mind, that we realize God desires real relationship without pretense with us rather than begrudging submission or pious lip service – we approach prayer unmasked.
Our position is one of honest transparency.
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. (Colossians 4:2 ESV)
We see that prayer must be coupled with thanksgiving. If it is an endless list of wants, prayer can become so self-centered that we end up not escaping our need, but rather becoming prisoners of our own discontent. However, when we add thanksgiving, our eyes are lifted to what He has already done, Who He presently is, and His faithful provision in the past of our needs above our wants. In so doing, our immediate desires seem less urgent, calm reassurance that our deepest needs will be met becomes our confidence, our satisfaction becomes present tense in all that He is now and our hearts overflow in thankfulness for the good that is yet to be received. Sometimes even in thankfulness, we may get lost in worship, and so great is our fulfillment in worship that we forget to petition for the thing which we needed – and God yet grants it just the same! To ask it, receive it and to recognize its Divine source are a single expression.
Our position is one of deep and sincere thankfulness.
Threat of Blessings:
Sometimes the biggest threats to God’s place of supremacy in our lives are the very blessings He gives. Saint Augustine said that;
“He loves Thee too little who loves anything together with Thee, which he loves not for Thy sake.” (Augustine, Confessions, pg 54)
We must realize the truth of what Jesus said in Matthew 4:4 that, “man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” Our deepest need is not in the trappings of this world, eternity has been set in our hearts and they will be restless until they find their rest in Him. If we seek from this world the pleasures and satisfaction which we should find ultimately in God, we are as an unfaithful bride. How wretched if we are to go to our heavenly Husband and ask for the resources by which we commit adultery with the world!? The point of our prayer should be that our souls would join in glorious harmony with David’s:
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.
(Psalm 27:4 ESV)
…that our magnificent obsession and soul satisfaction should be found not in the gifts but the Giver, to kneel in the presence of our King. The only way our hearts can be turned to such enraptured desire for Him is to gaze upon His face. To allow our hearts respond to love so amazing, so divine, demanding our soul, our life, our all. We open up His word, revealing Him to us, that we may drink deeply from the wells of His fountain. Our position is one of looking upon Him, so that we may desire Him not just firstly, but only.
Our position is one of desiring only God.
When Your Heart is Slow to Catch on:
This is all well and good, but what about the times when I know all of this? When my head knows these things intellectually, when my mind knows that I should delight in the love of my Beloved, I know factually the truth of His love, grace and mercy poured out, but in spite of all this – my heart remains dull? What then? When prayer becomes dry and ritual. When there is no heart behind the words. I would rather my heart be without words than my words be without heart – so what should I do? Should I stop praying until such zeal returns? To pray empty words without heart would be offensive to God would it not?
We’ve all been here. When our heart is slow to respond. No matter how deep the head knowledge, sometimes the longest journey is the one foot from our brains to our hearts. What do we do when our feelings and emotions aren’t logical, when we know better than we feel? Discipline – pure and simple. We do the disciplines in earnest hope for the desires to return to us in the doing… more on this later…
Our position is one of discipline.
The Battlefield of the Mind:
The biggest battle we face in the Christian walk is fought in the battlefield of the mind. this is what James 1:14-15 says:
But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.
There is a progression. Desire by itself isn’t sinful – our desires are God given. We can have those natural desires, but feed them with the wrong things… your thought patterns eventually determine your lifestyle/actions… repeated thought patterns turn into passions and desires.
And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:24 ESV)
Every sin starts as a thought. This is why the primary battle is for the mind and why the bible talks so much about doing things to train the mind. Dallas Willard says, “Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning.” It is for this reason that the Bible talks so much about training our minds and establishing thought habits.
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, THINK ABOUT THESE THINGS. (Philippians 4:8 ESV, emphasis mine)
The Bible continually and repeatedly tells us things like, “fix your eyes on Jesus” (Heb 12:2), “fix your eyes on the things which are unseen” (2 Cor 4:18), “capture every thought” (2 Cor 10:5), “renew your mind” (Rom 12:2)… all these things are different ways of saying the same thing; to train your thought patterns and develop thought habits. Our minds are malleable and God knows this, the things we think about most will pave new neuro-pathways, behaviours we do repeatedly create mental connections, and literally re-wire our brains. So our passions will follow what we feed most.
So we must strive! But it’s striving towards grace… not works… to be reminded of the grace in which we already stand so that your heart will then naturally abound in the works/thoughts that u know it should. That’s the proper focus of Christian “striving”. Otherwise – you’re just gritting your teeth to try to produce behaviour modification …in essence – it all comes back down to the gospel. We must move on from this thought that the gospel is elementary and other doctrines are superior… the gospel is everything! It permeates and is central to every aspect of the Christian’s life. We keep coming back to it over and over again as the source of strength for all Christian life – that beautiful truth: by grace, through faith, not of works.
Our position is Gospel saturated.
A Reversal of Delight and Duty:
But if I just do the disciplines without any delight, purely out of duty… isn’t that legalism? There’s and important difference between doing it out of legalism – which would be an insult – in which case you’re trying to earn favour with God as opposed to doing it from a point of grace – where you know you are already accepted – but your heart is slow to know it… Your desires don’t follow what your head knows, so you do the disciplines to align them to the truth that your head knows. The difference with Christian disciplines as opposed to legalism is that legalism is trying to earn favour, Christian discipline is trying to allow your heart to grasp the beauty of the favour Jesus has ALREADY earned FOR you. We’re already accepted… already redeemed, and the price for our sins are already paid…. but what we struggle with it to live in that reality: the “already, that is not yet” as some theologians put it. And the more we grasp of that reality, the more we will experience (imperfectly here) that perfect delight of grace which has been won for us and will be perfectly experienced in Heaven.
So to practically relate this back to prayer, when our heart doesn’t delight in prayer – what do we do? We pray. We pray for even the desire to pray. This is the most revealing fact we face about our own helplessness – we are dependent on God for even our desire for the thing which we need most! Also, we read His Word in order to “fix our eyes” – we read of His goodness, the history of His grace over sinful man, the glory of His gospel in our lives. The way we fight these thought habits is like you would with any other habit… stop it and replace it with another healthier habit. Sometimes you can do the service, do the things you know you need to: reading the word, praying, fasting, serving others, etc… even when your heart isn’t there… and in the doing, in the seeking, God moves on your heart and it aligns itself again to Him – because He is faithful to His promises:
“Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matthew 7:7-11 ESV)
Do you really think the prayer to God asking to increase your delight in Him will go unanswered? The question simply is though, how much do you actually want it? How many hours do you spend in the quiet place earnestly seeking? Are your knees bruised and your brow sweat stained? Or is it really that important to you? We would so easily rather be distracted than truly delighted…
Our position is one of utter desperation.
In conclusion, upon reflecting on the unconditional bounty of love, grace and mercy lavished upon us through Jesus Christ – such love without requirement enables us to be something different. To be trusted though we know we have proven ourselves untrustworthy time and time again should make us want to become trustworthy. It is a change which happens in us not to us. It is not behaviour modification, but heart transformation. And though these ‘positions of prayer’ I have outlined here may help serve as reminders and tools to establish the right attitude, ultimately we are called to a task we are ill-equipped for. We must depend on God for everything, even that which enables us to seek and cry out to Him. To make straight the crooked posture of our heart as only He can do. So we pray – even for the desire and capacity to pray.
1. Foster, Richard J., “Celebration of discipline: the path to spiritual growth.” Rev. 1st ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988.
2. Piper, John., “Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist”, 2013 Revised Edition, Colorado Springs, Multnomah Books, 2013.
3. St. Augustine, “The Confessions of St. Augustine, in Documents of the Christian Church“, ed. Henry Bettenson, London: Oxford University Press, 1967.
4. White, R.E.O, “In Him the Fullness: Homiletic Studies in Paul’s Epistle to the Colossians”, London, Pickering & Inglish Ltd, 1973.