“How’s your prayer life?”

It’s a simple question, but it can be tough to answer. “How is your Bible reading going?” is by comparison a clearer and much more objective question to answer. How many pages? How far along in your plan? Which books have you been reading? What have you learned? But evaluating my prayer life isn’t quite as easy.
Prayer can be, at the same time, the most pivotal and most puzzling activity in the Christian life. We know we need to pray, but we know we don’t pray enough. And we’re not always sure we’re even doing it right when we do pray. Should I even be asking God for this? Should I still be asking God for this? Do I even know what I need?

Conscious, Personal Communion
Prayer is conscious, personal communication with the God of the universe. Prayer is real — a real God, real communication, real work, real answers. So a better question than “How’s your prayer life?” might be, “Has your relationship with him been real — not a box to check, not just a hurried place for help, not some abstract idea hovering over your head and life? Has your prayer life been tying you to him in your heart? Have you been leaning on him, and not yourself?

So how is your prayer life? If you (like me) are not happy or content with your answer, here are five ways to grow in your time alone with our God.

1. Pick a time and place.
You can pray anytime and anywhere. Jesus met a woman beside a well who was convinced that we all had to go to a particular place to pray and worship, as God’s people had prayed in the Old Testament (John 4:20). But Jesus says to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. . . . The hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:21–23). No longer in a place, but in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18).

One problem with the freedom to pray anywhere is that it often leads to praying nowhere. We should absolutely pray spontaneously whenever and wherever prayers arise in our hearts — during a break at work, before a test, standing in line with our groceries. But our lives are fueled by prayer, so we shouldn’t leave it up to spontaneity (we wouldn’t do that with fuel for our cars). Pick a consistent time and place when you can be alone. It might be in the morning at home, or during a long commute, or over your lunch break, or at a convenient time in the evening. The times and places can be different for different people — but it should still be consistent for you. And Jesus is also clear that it should be consistently alone (Matthew 6:6) — not exclusively, but consistently.

2. Listen before you speak.
For some people, setting aside time to be alone with God is intimidating. In fact, for many people, any time alone at all — no friends, no television, no phones — is unnerving. We are speaking to almighty God here. He already knows everything we need and everything we are going to say. So what can we even say?
One important thing to learn early on about prayer is that it truly is a conversation. Just as God really does speak to us in his word, he is also really listening when we pray. It may just feel like journaling out loud at times, but there is always someone on the other side of prayer. Jesus 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” (Matthew 7:7–8).

On any given day, God may choose to move or “speak” in some unexpected way through his Spirit — bringing something to our mind, altering some circumstance, saying something through a friend. The most trustworthy way we hear his voice. “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). Read something from the Bible (even just a verse) before you pray. Those words from God are “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).

When you pray, let God speak first. Let him have the first word. Put his living and active words into your ears, and let them shape and inspire what you say back to him. If you learn something new about him and his ways, tell him. If the verses raise questions, ask him. Eventually, you can move on to today’s burdens, but begin by worshiping him over and through his word. Enjoy the relationship. With reverence and awe, be a son or a daughter, and listen well.

3. Prioritize the spiritual over the circumstantial.
Often when people ask, “How can I pray for you?”, I immediately try to think about any needs I might have right now (like, this minute). If I don’t, I start to think about people close to me that do. “Pray for my friend whose dad passed away last week.” Or, “Pray for my mom who is back in the hospital, again.” It’s not wrong by any means (we should be praying for these things, and asking others to pray, too). But if we take that mentality into prayer, we limit our prayer to physical or circumstantial needs. Physical needs are important, but they pale in comparison to our spiritual-emotional and eternal needs.

Paul says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). Does that mean we will never have to worry about or spend time on our physical needs — food, work, cancer? Absolutely not. “Give us this day our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). It means life is mainly about unseen realities. At the end of each day, what matters most happens at the spiritual and emotional level, not the physical and circumstantial. That reality should be lived out in our prayer lives. We should spend as much time praying for our souls, for the salvation of our loved ones, for the spread of the gospel, and for the establishment of God’s glory and his kingdom as we pray about anything. Those prayers shouldn’t be tacked on to the end of our “real” needs. They are our deepest and most enduring needs.

4. Don’t be afraid to stop and pray now.
Prayer should be prioritized and scheduled, but the beauty of our freedom in Christ is that prayer can happen anywhere. It should start alone with God, but it never needs to stay there. In fact, it must not stay there. And I don’t just mean before meals. When you feel the impulse to pray, seize it. Take it as the prompting of the Spirit (for sure Satan won’t encourage you to pray!).

A few years ago, I was talking to a friend on the phone and as we finished our conversation I asked him if he would pray for something that I had shared with him. I assumed that he would pray after we hang up, but to my surprise, he responded, “Sure! Can we pray right now?” To be honest, it felt a little awkward, but I learned an important lesson. One way to ensure that you do pray for someone is to pray right there in the moment. It only takes a minute or two, and more than just meeting an immediate need, it draws God into your conversation right in the middle of a day. It can be a brief and unexpected (and needed) meeting with the Almighty.

5. Ask whatever you wish — literally anything.
If we’re honest, many of us lack courage and imagination in our prayer lives. We have a tiny little box of routine things we’re willing to ask God for, and then we take on everything else — our questions, our frustrations, our dreams — we do it all on our own. I guess that we assume God isn’t interested in or doesn’t have time for the small details of our day. So we settle for middle-of-the-road mediocre requests. We wait to pray about something until it becomes “serious enough” for God to care about, and we don’t pray for something unless we expect him to do something in the next 24 hours. And so we deprive ourselves of his mercy and power in massive areas of our life and world.

Do we have enough faith to think God cares about another Monday morning at work or with the kids? God cares about everything in your heart and life, down to the very smallest things. Paul says, “Do not be anxious about anything” — your random conversation with that friend, your sleep tonight, this month’s budget — “but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Philippians 4:6). Anything and everything, every day. Don’t be afraid to pray big prayers, and small ones.