Rev. Kortering is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.
With eagerness I take this opportunity to motivate you to pray more often and with greater diligence.
What Is Personal Prayer?
Personal prayer is to be distinguished from public prayer or prayer time spent with others. It takes us into our “inner closet” or moves us to spend time alone with God. It is communion, one to one, with God. “My voice shalt thou hear in the morning, O Lord, in the morning will I direct my prayer unto thee, and will look up” (Ps. 5:3). The same psalmist added, “On thee do I wait all the day” (Ps. 25:5). He also included evening, “Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness…I will both lay me down in peace, and sleep for thou, Lord, only makest me to dwell in safety” (Ps. 4:1-8). In each of these instances the personal pronoun is used. We recall to mind how Daniel prayed three times a day, looking to Jerusalem (Dan. 6:10). One of his prayers is recorded in Daniel 9. No greater example is there than that of our Savior, who frequently spent all night in personal prayer with His Father (Luke 6:12, 13). The apostles knew personal prayer. Paul makes so many references to his prayer for others that we cannot quote them all. Let this suffice: “Without ceasing I make mention of you always in my prayers, making request … that I may impart unto you some spiritual gift, to the end that ye may be established” (Rom. 1:9-11).
Why Is Personal Prayer Important?
Experience tells me, and this experience is both personal and pastoral, that such personal prayer is vital to our spiritual health and yet so frequently neglected. Our prayer life is a clear reflection of our spiritual condition. The great hindrance to earnest prayer is formalism. We can hold to formal truth, go through the exercise of religion in a formal manner, conform our lives to a set of approved actions, and yet our hearts can be far from God. If we are guilty of this, it will have a direct effect upon our prayer life; we will pray either in a cold and sterile manner or neglect it terribly. Cultivating personal prayer begins right here. I agree with Andrew Murray when he writes in The Believer’s Prayer Life,
From a defective spiritual life nothing better can be expected than a defective prayer life. It is vain for us, with our defective spiritual life, to endeavor to pray more or better. It is an impossibility. It is essential that we experience that he who “is in Christ Jesus is a new creature; old things have passed away, behold all things are become new.” This is literally true for the man who understands and experiences what it is to be in Jesus Christ.
We can put this in the context of our beloved Heidelberg Catechism. We must know three things to live and die happily. The fervency and depth of this knowledge affects our spiritual life. The more we know of sin, the more our Savior means to us, and the more we are grateful to God. Prayer is the “chief part of thankfulness.”
If our prayer life lacks, we must examine our personal salvation. This is basic and the foundation of everything else we write in this article.
I ask you, is your personal prayer life what it ought to be? Before I give you any practical suggestions how you may cultivate it, I address these words to your heart: if you doubt the promises of God given in His Word in any way, if you are walking in any sin and making excuses for them rather than forsaking them, if you are so preoccupied with this world with its treasures and pleasures that you have little time for God, deal with those matters first of all. Honest spiritual self-assessment will contribute more than anything to your prayer life. It will move you to pray out of earnest necessity and will give to you spiritual blessings that only heaven can eclipse.
Why is personal prayer important for you? You may pray with your spouse, you may pray with your children, you may pray in school or in church, and all of this is wonderful and important, but nothing may replace your own quiet time with God. Why is this? Let me offer four reasons.
1.Salvation is personal, and none of us is able to enter heaven carried on the backs of others. You may have a godly wife who is very devout in her relationship with God, but her faith cannot become your faith. The church may be dedicated to uphold the Word of God and honor God in her worship, but mere association with the church cannot replace personal faith. In the broadest sense this is true of the entire covenant sphere of church, home, and Christian school. Being in such a wonderful environment of piety will not of itself make a person a Christian and one right with God. It all comes down to personal faith. God has ordained that He works and strengthens this faith by means of the Word and sacraments—this is the unique importance of public worship. Such personal faith comes to expression in our own personal relationship with God. Quiet time with God allows us to develop this relationship.
2.Our spending time alone with God is necessary for us to deal with personal sins. We can never do this adequately if we are always in the presence of others and never alone with God. Public confession of sin is always a general reference and lacks specific content. We give our confession of sin personal content when we pray alone with God. This is the importance of the “inner closet.” Here we come to terms with our own “besetting sins,” the knowledge of which cannot be shared with anyone else. “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me when I call” (Ps. 66:18). Here we measure our spiritual progress to overcome temptation in our lives. Here we taste the sweetness of divine forgiveness and the promise for renewed grace to overcome. If you lack personal prayer, you lack spiritual honesty with God.
3.We use this quiet time to make an evaluation of our progress in spiritual growth and in our doing the will of our heavenly Father. We cannot do that when we pray with others. We need to be alone. The same is true when we evaluate the spiritual progress of those who are closest and dearest to us. A husband reflects upon the spiritual progress of his wife and she of him in their quiet time. Fathers do this as fathers, and mothers as mothers. This helps us stay in touch with those areas of life where we have to help each other. Quiet reflection guides us into specific areas of need, and we make this the subject of our personal prayer and guideline for our actions. We can broaden out on this: quiet time includes evaluation of the needs of all those who cross our pathway and leads to our personal prayers of intercession.
4.Finally, personal prayers are the greatest help for us to develop the art of praying. If you struggle with family prayers or any time you are called upon to pray publicly, the greatest thing you can do to make this easier is to develop the godly practice of personal prayer. As you grow in the experience of your own personal prayers, you will develop a heart for God. Your relationship with God will be strengthened and you will learn that “conversation with Him” is important to you and you enjoy it and treasure the experience. This will motivate you to put forth the necessary effort to grow in this and in the blessings of spiritual honesty that always come with personal prayer. This will help you to pray publicly, since the formation of thoughts in prayer will become natural for you. Praying is a spiritual art to be sure, but it can also be cultivated.
How Can Personal Prayer Be Cultivated?
1.You must exercise self discipline to set aside time for this activity. The most common objection raised is, “I don’t have the time to do this.” If the Spirit of God is truly in your heart, you will give this such priority that you will make the time available. There are a few things to consider. I recall counseling a new convert who enthusiastically decided he would arise at 5 a.m. every morning and spend two hours with God. He had a long face at our next session together because he discovered it wasn’t working out. He fell asleep every morning. We talked a bit more and learned he was not a morning person. He was practically dysfunctional until about 9 a.m. He was a “night person.” He could stay awake at night. So he shifted his quiet time to the evening, which was much better.
More than that, you have to remove distractions as well. If you are a night person, you can develop a habit of watching television, playing with the computer, hobbies of all sorts, or falling to sleep on the couch out of boredom. Then you have to change that behavior and put away the distraction.
One more thing: you have to be consistent in setting aside the same time, or you will fail. There are enough things out there beckoning for our attention, but we ought to give top priority to our quiet time and personal prayer time with God. That is why you have to set aside the time that is least intrusive in your life. For many, this is early morning, when you can consistently arise before your work day begins and enter into personal fellowship with God. For stay-at-home moms, it can be when the children are off to school or taking their naps. For others it is just before bedtime. This is a personal choice, but the most significant one when it actually comes to praying.
2.You have to create a spiritual frame of mind for prayer. Most of us know we cannot punch some magical button to become spiritual with God. We are by nature focused upon earthly things. Prayer is a wonder of grace that transforms us into heavenly saints. This transition requires of us activity that will “tune our hearts toward God.” Here too, there are different possibilities. The reading of a Scripture passage is always helpful. Here you can include your systematic Scripture reading if you like. The danger of trying to finish the Bible every year is that you read with a view to finishing chapters rather than careful reflection. The need here is for reflection, devotional reading, pondering what God is saying and whether you understand it and know how to apply it to your life. Devotional writings also fall into this category. Psalms and hymns are very helpful in this connection. Some instrumental music quiets the soul. At other times it might be vocal singing that edifies through the message. Music can be very helpful to quiet your soul so you can enter the presence of God for prayer.
3.Take time to reflect upon your life. This includes many things—your personal sins and how you are dealing with them, is there progress? Are you conscious of areas of weakness in your life (your relationship with others, for example). What are you doing to correct and improve this? What afflictions are you dealing with, and how are you handling them? What blessings has God given to you, and are you mindful of them and thankful for them? Are there others who cross your pathway who have needs, and are you paying attention to how you can meet those needs in their life (this relates to both physical and spiritual needs). Journalizing is very helpful here. This is simply writing down the spiritual issues in your life, along with Scripture passages that are helpful, and how you are responding and dealing with them. The advantage of writing this down is for personal perusal later, as an assessment of your spiritual maturing and for a reminder of how to deal with issues when they recur.
4.This reflection ought to lead you to make a list of things for which you ought to pray to God. If you have a good memory, maybe you don’t need to do this. I know from my own experience that I enjoy writing down such things for two reasons: One, it helps me to keep them before my mind so that I can keep them in focus. You will discover that your list can become very long. The other is that, with such a list, you can take note of how God is dealing with your petitions and what changes are taking place regarding these needs. Soon, many of the items that were placed on the list as great burdens become occasions for petitions of thanksgiving. This keeps us in tune with God’s work in our lives. God’s sovereignty is never an excuse for fatalism and prayer-lessness. Rather we experience that God works wonders in our lives and in the lives of people for whom we care in the way of our praying.
5.Spend time in actual prayer. This, of course, is the goal and has to be given the emphasis. We are not simply meditating on life, we are doing these things with a view to personal prayer. Even then, we must remember that our personal prayers can be varied and need not be the same every day. Generally, it is helpful if we include certain categories in our prayer that will allow us variety and fervency. It is good to begin with praising God for who He is and for His wonderful works, also those in our lives. Thanksgiving is also fitting in this regard. We must include a time of confession of sin and of seeking forgiveness and renewal. We bring our own needs to God and the needs of others—the prayer of intercession. We conclude with the assertion of God’s faithfulness and holding to Jesus as our Savior and Lord.
Frequently the question arises how long ought I to pray? Never pray by the clock. Never measure your godliness by the length of your prayer (that will lead to Phariseeism). Rather, if this is new to you, you begin with a short time and learn the wonderful blessings of it, and you will soon understand how Jesus could spend all night in prayer with His Father.
May God give all of us a heart for prayer!