How to Keep Your Spontaneous Prayers from Sounding Aimless and Shallow
The author would first like to publicly distance himself from the title. I have no doubt that I have at times been heard and evaluated as aimless and shallow! So rather than regarding this article as coming from a self-professed teacher, consider it as counsel from a friend who is himself eager to flee shallowness in order to be more useful for others’ edification.
There seems to be two extremes as we consider preparedness in prayer. On the one hand, some seem so tethered to their manuscript that you aren’t sure if they are making a petition or giving a presentation. You admire the rhetoric, but you don’t necessarily “amen” the requests.
On the other hand, some prayers are so riddled with “uhs” and “ums”—as the person searches for things to say—you wonder if they know what they’re trying to pray for. Richard Sibbes may be correct: “God can pick sense out of a confused prayer.” But God may not have shared that ability with the majority of the people present in a corporate gathering. We would benefit from a little more sense!
It is that second group I seek to encourage with this article. We want to keep our spontaneous prayers from sounding “aimless” and “shallow.”
1. Pray the Bible.
If we’re found silent and sloppy at times of spontaneous prayer, it’s often because we have been seldom prostrated before the Word of God. This is especially true for those of us who preach. If we can talk to a congregation for an hour on a single verse—and sometimes a single phrase!—then we should be able to talk for 10 minutes to God about what we’re reading in his Word.
We should never be left without thoughts to bring before God because he has given us a book loaded with worthy words to have on our lips. Consider Psalm 119: “With my lips I declare all the rules of your mouth” (119:13). A man who does not know his Bible cannot pray well because he does not know his God.
But if the words of Christ are dwelling in us richly, if his testimonies are our delight, if we meditate on his precepts and fix our eyes on his ways, then it is his Word that should flow from us in prayer. For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks.
2. Pray like Jesus.
Sometimes, our lack of ability to pray spontaneously is just an evidence for our lack of consistency in prayer. We can’t converse with God easily if we don’t converse with God regularly.
Consider a few aspects of Jesus’ example in this. He prayed regularly. He spoke to His Father regularly. People would look for Jesus, but couldn’t find him because he was off praying (Mark 1:35–37). He even repeated his requests. Jesus didn’t always feel the need to ask for new things; sometimes he sought the same things over and over again. Modeling what he described in the parable of the persistent widow (Luke 18:1-18), Jesus was found praying—and even praying the same thing again!
One of the prayers Scripture records for us is Jesus praying, with sorrowful soul, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36).
But if you keep reading, you’ll get to Mark 14:39: “And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words.” Sometimes we act as if each time of prayer is supposed to be a fresh request, as if Jesus hasn’t taught and modeled that we should pray the right things over and over again. In fact, he’s even provided a prayer for us to use in Matthew 6:9–13.
Isn’t it wonderful that we don’t have to wonder what Jesus would say if we asked him how we should pray? We would do well to take our Lord’s advice more frequently, especially when operating spontaneously.
3. Lastly, Pray to God.
Jesus has told us we’re not heard for our many words, yet we frequently test the truthfulness of this instruction. Too often, we’re like the hypocrites who were more mindful of the ears and eyes of sinners, than the ears and eyes of God. In our corporate prayers, we should make it crystal clear we’re not praying to the congregation—we’re praying for them.
We do not pray to man, we pray to our Father in heaven. Be it seven people or 7,000, our congregation’s accumulative ear is far inferior and infinitely less special than the excellent ear of our Father in heaven. Our brothers and sisters in Christ hear our prayers and say “amen” with us, but it is our Father in heaven who hears our prayers and answers.
Many would do well, and would pray more comfortably in spontaneous prayer, if they were solely concerned with their Father in heaven. We should be confident with the Psalmist who says, “Truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer” (Psalm 66:19).
If someone thinks that fruitfulness in spontaneous speaking is an incubator for laziness of the soul, then they’d have an entirely different understanding of spontaneous, faith-filled activity than I do. And if there is such a reader, allow me to direct your attention to Charles Spurgeon and his comments on “The Faculty of Impromptu Speech.” I trust you will heartily agree with him:
If a man would speak without any present study, he must usually study much. This is a paradox perhaps, but its explanation lies upon the surface. If I am a miller, and I have a sack brought to my door, and am asked to fill that sack with good fine flour within the next five minutes, the only way in which I can do it, is by keeping the flour bin of my mill always full, so that I can at once open the mouth of the sack, fill it, and deliver it. I do not happen to be grinding at that time, and so far the delivery is extemporary; but I have been grinding before, and so have the flour to serve out to the customer. So, brethren, you must have been grinding, or you will not have the flour. You will not be able to extemporize good thinking unless you have been in the habit of thinking and feeding your mind with abundant and nourishing food. Work hard at every available moment. Store your minds very richly, and then, like merchants with crowded warehouses, you will have goods ready for your customers, and having arranged your good things upon the shelves of your mind, you will be able to hand them down at any time without the laborious process of going to market, sorting, folding, and preparing. I do not believe that any man can be successful in continuously maintaining the gift of extemporaneous speech, except by ordinarily using far more labor than is usual with those who write and commit their discourses to memory. Take it as a rule without exception, that to be able to overflow spontaneously you must be full.
Praying without preparation should be as natural to us as sharing the gospel with someone. It is simply what we do as Christians. No Christian should need a manuscript to share the gospel, and no Christian should need a manuscript to pray!
To be sure, it takes constant labor and diligence to be filled with his Word, and careful intentionality to be led by his Spirit. But our confidence in prayer is not in the presentation of our prayers, but the promises of God Jesus has secured for us in the gospel. Listen to his words to us: “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you” (John 15:7).
May we, with faith in Christ and minds filled with his words, ask whatever we wish . . . even without a script.
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Editor’s note: For a similar article, read Dave Comeau’s «How to Keep Your Scripted Prayers from Sounding Stiff and Robotic.»