As we continue to bring our leadership focus onto the theme of prayer this month, I thought it might be helpful for us to spend some time reflecting on our need to hear from God in prayer. This is not so much the activist prayer of agenda, but the submissive prayer of listening, of being still, of paying attention.
When I was young, I was taught that the acronym ACTS represented a well-rounded agenda of prayer: Adoration sets the stage, Confession clears the pathway of communication, Thanksgiving is appropriate as a response for God’s blessing, and Supplication is our opportunity to lift our needs and desires.
Although the scriptures are very clear that each one of these aspects of prayer is important and appropriate, it is possible that this acronym might be a distortion that hurts us in at least two ways. First, it could imply that the reason we do Adoration, Confession, and Thanksgiving is so that we create the right conditions for Supplication. We do the first three to get to the important stuff, the asking; we confess so that God will answer when we ask. I understand that this type of thinking is not explicit in the acronym, but I do recall being mentored down this pragmatic path of praying to get what I want.
A second weakness is what it omits. It unintentionally communicates that by praying in these four areas we have all the bases covered. To expand on the baseball analogy, we have only played half an inning—we have had our turn at pitching, and now it is time for the roles to reverse and for God to pitch.
The second half of the inning is when God speaks His agenda. We are the ones listening to His expression of love for us, receiving His forgiveness, and then listening for the things He wants to address in our lives. We aspire to experience prayer as a two-way conversation, but we have been conditioned to leave the conversation as soon as we have spoken our piece.
I have found that praying scripture slows me down in a way that allows God to speak to me. What I am about to share is simply my experience. I am not trying to prescribe a formula; I am just sharing some of my learnings in this area of growth.
- I start with scripture. Whatever I am reading, I read it slowly. I find I need to read a passage at least twice, and my goal is to read without getting distracted halfway through. If I am reading a psalm, I want to concentrate hard on tracking with what the psalmist is saying throughout. I often have to backtrack by a verse or two because my mind has an amazing capacity to wander.
- I pay attention. Something is going to grab my attention. It may be the theme of the psalm. It may be that I am empathizing through an emotion. Sometimes I find myself getting frustrated that God is allowing a situation to persist and I find myself resonating with the words of David: “How long, O Lord.” I pay attention to my response to the passage.On my first reading of the passage, I will note at least one thing going on that has struck a chord with me. On my second reading of the psalm, I become a little more intentional about looking for this element. If there is a sore spot in me, I probe it a bit to see how deeply I feel my response.
- I interact with my observation. In my prayer I now get vulnerable with God. I ask God to reveal to me why I am so frustrated by David’s circumstances. Why did I notice this particular dynamic of the psalm, and why did it get my juices flowing? What does this say about me?This is where God begins to speak to me. In His gentle way, the Spirit of God touches wounds, corrects my thinking, or points to things that I need to confess. I journal the things God is revealing in me, and I acknowledge that I have heard Him.
The irony in all of this is that by the time I am done, I have confessed sin, I have asked for help in the things God has revealed, I have thanked God for being patient with me, and I leave with a deep sense of adoration for God. I have come full circle to the ACTS way of praying, but this time it has served God’s agenda, not mine.