How to Develop Your Prayer Life

Prayer is the growth of a soul as we come in contact with God. As the soul grows, the prayer life deepens.

I remember a poem in the Ladies Home Journal where a group of men argued around the cracker barrel about the best way to pray. Some said the best way to pray was standing up with eyes open to heaven. Others argued that it was best to pray with head bowed; others said prostrate, or kneeling, and so on. But then Jeff Brown, the well driller, spoke up. He told how he had been drilling a well over at the widow Jones’ property, and it had caved in, and he had fallen down the shaft. And he said, “The prayinest prayer I ever made, I was standing on my head.”

Now there is no doubt that God is not interested in the physical attitude of prayer. How did they pray in the Bible? I believe you can find nine different physical positions in the Bible. Jesus prayed with His eyes lifted to heaven; He prayed prostrate on the ground. Hezekiah prayed in bed with his face turned to the wall. But it doesn’t make any difference in what horizontal, vertical, or oblong direction your carcass happens to be; if your soul is not down before God, you are not praying. Your body can be in any condition, but if your soul is bold, upright, defiant against God, you know nothing about prayer.

First of all, chronologically, a prayer is nothing more than petition. When you were first taught to pray as children, your prayers were primarily to ask God for things. “Bless Papa and Mama, and make me a good little boy.” And then, “I pray the Lord my soul to keep.”

Some time ago, a school teacher in New York taught the Lord’s Prayer to her class, and they all learned it. Then one time she called up her pupils one by one and asked each one to repeat the Lord’s Prayer. One of the boys said, “Harold be Thy name” instead of “Hallowed be Thy name.” Another said, “Give us this day our jelly bread.” Another said, “Lead us not into Penn Station.” Another said, “Deliver us from eagles.”

Now this is understandable because little children do not know these words. And I’m quite sure that God is able, if the heart is right, to give us this day our jelly bread. It is possible to say things that are theologically wrong, and yet if the heart is right toward God, He can sort out the difficulties.

But this is baby prayer. When you’re asking for something, your praying is the lowest form of prayer. As your prayer life develops, it should go beyond this.

Now secondly, as a child develops a little, he’s taught to say “thank you,” and he’s taught not only to say it to his parents, but he’s taught to say to God, “Father, we thank Thee for this food.”

The child then learns about Thanksgiving Day in school. It’s associated with the image of a pumpkin with a cut-out face, or the picture of the Puritans hunting turkeys in the fields, or the Puritans bowing their heads in thanksgiving.

Third comes intercession. Intercession is where we stop asking for something just for ourselves and our little circle and begin to plead with God for blessings for others.

Many people have been taught that prayer is a cheap way to get anything. When they find themselves in desperate need they pray, and they do not get an answer. A boy prays, “Oh God, I want to pass that examination,” or a girl prays, “Oh God, don’t let me be the only girl who doesn’t get asked by a boy to the basketball game.” And if she happens to be the only one who doesn’t get the invitation, she may say in despair, “Oh, I don’t believe in prayer; it just doesn’t work.” As a result, her whole spiritual life may become a mess because she has not been taught the true nature of prayer. Prayer is not saying to a distant God, “Do this and that,” but prayer is basically getting to know God.

Much of the difficulty of spiritually growing up is the shifting of gears that takes a child out of spiritual childhood into a spiritual maturity. When we are children, we live largely on our parents’ faith. We say what they say; we have what they have, and we do what they do. But then comes the time when we have to shift gears, and we have to know God alone. For it is only when we know God that we begin to develop into the higher brackets, the higher attitudes of prayer.

The first three steps that I have spoken of — petition, thanksgiving, and intercession — can be entered into by almost anybody. In fact, even among the heathen there is this much knowledge about prayer.

When Mrs. Barnhouse and I were in Japan, we went to the great shrine of Ise, one of the most beautiful places in the world. And when we came to the inner sacred precincts we saw the specially robed priests. But what saddened us most of all was to see these people, with such agony and emptiness in their faces, bow in front of the shrine and then clap their hands as if to say, “God, wake up! Can’t you hear us?”

Well, much of our prayer is like this, too. There must come a time in our spiritual development when, beyond recognizing that God is the One Who can give us what we want, we learn to pray for the purpose of knowing Him better. In fact, there is no real prayer until we get beyond petition and pray for the purpose of knowing the Lord.

So the fourth step in prayer is worship. Worship, of course, comes from the old English word for worth-ship — the recognition of the worth of God, to look upon Him in wonder and see Who He really is. That is worship. To say with the men of the Old Testament, “There is none like unto thee, thou alone art our God” — that is worship (see Psalms 86:8; Jeremiah 10:6-7). To recognize His sovereignty and His majesty, to long to know Him and to reach out to Him — that is worship. Jesus says in John 4:24-25, “The Father seeketh such to worship him.” There is no true prayer unless we worship Him in spirit, in the Holy Spirit, and in truth, and that means we must come through Him Who is truth, the Lord Jesus Christ.

I remember hearing a hymn in England written by Frederick Faber that brings out this meaning.

My God, how wonderful Thou art, Thy majesty how bright!
How beautiful Thy mercy-seat, in depths of burning light!
Oh, how I fear Thee, living God, with deepest tenderest fears;
And worship Thee with trembling hope, and penitential tears.

Yet I may love Thee too, O Lord, Almighty as Thou art;
For Thou has stooped to ask of me the love of my poor heart.
No earthly father loves like Thee, no mother half so mild
Bears and forbears, as Thou hast done with me, Thy sinful child.

Father of Jesus, love’s Reward! What rapture will it be,
Prostrate before Thy throne to lie, and gaze and gaze on Thee.

When Faber wrote that, I think he was spiritually coming to that place that a young man comes to when he’s fallen in love with a girl. No matter where he is, in what company, he just sits and gazes at her. Well, there is a phase in the Christian life when we begin to get to know the Lord that way.

There are two things left in the development of a prayer life. There is judgment in prayer, prayer when you know God well enough and know His holiness well enough that you can ask Him to curse something that is evil. One must advance in the Christian experience by a very long step before he has come to the place where he is directed by the Holy Spirit to partake in imprecatory prayer. Now the Psalms hold many such prayers: “Let them be confounded and put to shame who seek after my soul; let them be turned back and brought to confusion who devise my hurt” (see Psalms 35:4; Psalms 40:14; Psalms 83:17). The more that you know of the holiness of God the more you can enter into this judgment and hatred of sin, and ask the Lord to confound those that are misleading the children of God.

As I know God better and as I come close to Him, there wells in my heart a great desire that that day will come when God Almighty will crush all of the things that would lead people into false doctrines, that would take them away from the simplicity that is in Jesus Christ. I believe that when you read of some great evil that has been done, you must take sides with God and say, “Oh, God, I’m not going to take the matter into my own hands. I don’t want to destroy the man who has done evil. I pray for him, and I leave this in Your hands, but, Oh God, I do thank You that the day will come when You will send out the angels, and they will pluck out of Your kingdom the things that offend and all people that offend.” Paul said to the Corinthians, regarding the fornicator among their membership, “Deliver such as one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus” (1 Corinthians 5:5).

And now the last and most delightful part of prayer is what I call conversation. Mrs. Barnhouse and I probably have as abnormal a life as anybody in America. One summer we traveled for three months of preaching engagements all across the country. For three months, Mrs. Barnhouse and I were together no more than 25 feet apart at any moment day and night. We were together at night and in the morning as we went down to the church. She sat there while I preached, and then we went back to the coffee shop and then back in a motel room where I sat at my typewriter. I realize that such a life is abnormal, humanly speaking, and yet, it may be applied spiritually. With God this is normal. We live in closer contact with Him than being cooped up together in a motel room. When Mrs. Barnhouse and I are both concentrating on something, I may begin to say something, and if she is busy, she will respond, “Wait a minute.” When she’s through with what she’s doing, she then will ask, “What is it?” But with God things are quite different; He is never interrupted. God is always leaning toward us with both ears. He’s always intent for us; He’s ready to listen to us.

Now recently I was asked how much time a day I spent in prayer. So I began to analyze it. I would jot down on a memo pad the moments at the beginning of the day, the family worship, the times definitely spent in prayer. The times I pray for missions, for all the radio listeners, and for all the readers of my books and magazine. Then I realize that if you add up all of this time, it might not make too great a show in point of time spent in prayer. But yet to me the greatest amount of time spent with God is conversation.

Now this is the highest part of prayer, when you delight yourself in the Lord. You see, He’s always with you. Your body is His temple; your whole life is His. Any time you say, “Lord,” He’s there. Even when you hear a good joke, you laugh, and say, “Thank you, Lord, for a good sense of humor.” And all of these glories are joys.

When my sons were growing up, I first knew them as babies, and they knew me as their father who came and played with them. They got to know me better as they grew up, and there were times of struggles when their will was set against my will. This is the way I was in my growth with the Lord. As time went on and these boys grew into men and began to enter into maturity, a new relationship developed, so that I would rather sit down and talk with them on serious problems of theology, the Christian life, and the Bible than I would with even my closest friends. We have now come over the hump of all stresses and tensions that we knew when they were in their teens and have become the closest of friends.

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