I've been thinking a lot about prayer in this new year. Like most Christians, I have a desire to pray more, and to pray better. Prayer is a struggle for a lot of Christians. We find it difficult to find the time to pray intentionally, and then when we do have the time, we don't know what to pray about or what to pray for. Prayer is a struggle, but then again that's kind of the point. Prayer is an act of dependence.
Throughout my study of 1 Samuel 1.1-2.11 and seeing how Hannah "poured out her soul" in prayer, I've been thinking a lot about how I can pray better. Not that some prayers have more value than others, but I want to be more intentional about my praying, and more intentional about watching God answer my prayers and work in my life according to what I've been praying about.
This made me think about SMART goals. I first learned about SMART goals in college. It's a time management and organizational tool that can be used to help you stay focused on tasks and to set realistic expectations for yourself in school, work, business, or really for any part of life. The word "SMART" is an acronym that stands for "Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound." As I've thought about it, these are also great guides for us in prayer.
1. Pray Specifically. Too often, I think, I find myself praying about broad, nebulous ideas rather than for specific things. Perhaps we think that we can just take a shortcut and ask God for the big picture and assume the specific details will all be worked out. This is certainly true, but I think the more specifically we pray, the more we will be aware of God's work in our lives. For example, I might pray that God would give me a general spirit of trust, but not that God would help me trust him for something specific. Or that God would provide for my needs, but I rarely bring to him a specific need. This year I'm going to try to pray more specifically, for the little things, the details. That way, when I see God answer my specific prayers, I can glorify him all the more for his provision.
2. Pray for results that are Measurable. This is not to say that we should put God to the test, such as saying, "Give me this, or else..." but rather that if we are able to measurably observe God's working in our lives, we'll be all the more aware of what he is doing and glorify and praise him better. This is a big one for me. Too often I take God's work in my life for granted, or I don't pray specifically enough to even have measurable results to see him working! The more we pray specifically, the more we can observably see what God is doing and "measure" his activity in our lives in response to our prayers.
3. Pray for things that are Achievable. This is the fun one, because there is literally nothing that isn't achievable for God. He is able to do for more than we could ever ask or think. Too often, though, I get caught up in the realm of the possible and my prayers are limited by my puny, temporal existence. I need to start praying for things that are achievable, which is anything I can think of.
4. Pray for things that are Relevant. When I look at the content of many of my prayers, it seems that my focus is mostly in the here and now, the immediate need, or the physical circumstances rather than the spiritual side of things. For instance, as a pastor, many people ask me to pray for their various physical needs: health, finances, job interviews, etc., and to the best of my ability, I do offer up their needs to God in prayer. However, I think sometimes we get so caught up in the immediacy of our physical needs that we fail to address the very real and relevant spiritual aspect of our needs. Although our physical needs are important and relevant to our everyday lives, certainly our spiritual needs are even more relevant. When I pray for the sick, I want to pray for their healing and simultaneously for their even more relevant provision: that they would lean into God and his provision, care, and comfort, during their time of illness.
5. Pray with a sense of Time in mind. I believe it is biblically sound and spiritually healthy to ask God to respond to our prayers within a certain window of time, or perhaps stated more bluntly, with a deadline attached. Not that we are forcing God's hand or demanding that he operate on our time schedule, but as a sign that we are faithfully anticipating his provision. Indeed, God works according to his will and in his perfect timing - not ours. But this is similar to praying specifically: if we ask God to respond to a certain request within a certain period of time, we will be more sensitive to his working in our lives, because we can see him answering specifically within the time frame we allotted in prayer. Again, we should not be surprised or disturbed when God answers our prayers according to his timeframe rather than ours. Either way, we should glorify God for his provision. But when appropriate, ask God to answer your prayers with a certain time in mind. Perhaps you have a more general, less immediate need you're praying about. Ask God to give it to you in 2019. Perhaps you have an immediate need. Ask God to respond this month, this week - today, even. And when he answers according to what you have requested, glorify him for his faithfulness.
In all of this, I don't intend that we should pray for anything we want. As Christians, our goal is to pray within the will of God, revealed through his word. And in doing so, he has promised to give us anything we ask (John 14.13-14). May we ask effectively, pray well, deepen our dependence, and believe our good and gracious Father who gives good gifts.