I typically end my morning devotional time with prayer.
Prayer’s always been really difficult for me. I find it hard to have a real conversation with someone who’s invisible, and my tendency toward something resembling ADHD means that my thoughts in that situation are all over the place.
I’ve found that a couple of practices help me a lot. First, I have a plan. I was brought up in a culture where liturgy was suspect, but I’ve found that a certain amount of structure and even recitation helps keep me focused and contributes to my sense of purpose and goal.
Second, I usually pray with my eyes open. That seems counterintuitive, but during my morning prayer time I’m typically the only person up, and there aren’t distracting things going on around me. And opening my eyes enables me to focus on the written plan that I’m using.
There are lots of ways to structure prayer; most books on prayer offer suggestions. Most recently I’ve been using the well-known ACTS acronym: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. It’s been working well.
I begin with exalting God (Adoration). In Theology Proper (the doctrine of God) the standard organizational structure is 1) Person (characteristics) and 2) Works (activities). My prayer “script” lays out the standard points under these two headings. For Person I’m currently using the classic description from the Westminster Shorter Confession, Question 4: “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” For Works I’m using the standard list: Creation, Providence (consisting of Preservation and Government), and Miracles. Each day I focus on one item in this list.
Next comes Confession. I structure this in a standard way: Sins of Omission (failure to love God, and failure to love my neighbor) and Sins of Commission (in thought, word, and deed). Over time I’ve asked God to make me more sensitive to my sin as I’m committing it, so I can pause throughout the day to seek (and receive) forgiveness. I’ve found that waiting for daily devotions to confess the previous day’s “batch” encourages me to forget a lot of stuff. Lots of Christian teachers say we ought to “keep current accounts” with God. They’re right.
Next is Thanksgiving. This has always come easily to me; I’m just a generally happy and thankful guy. Currently I’m structuring this section on the great description of God in Exodus 34.6-7, praying through one characteristic per day. Then I add three areas in which God has been good to me: physical, providential, and spiritual. There’s plenty of fuel there for gratitude, and I find that thinking through some of these things every day does wonders for my devotion—and, incidentally, for my mental health as well.
It’s worth pausing here to make an observation. At this point we’re 75% of the way through the daily prayer, and we haven’t asked for anything—but forgiveness. Many years ago it occurred to me that I was coming to God in prayer as though he were my personal assistant or butler—expressing thanks, yes, because that is, after all, a polite thing to do for those who work for you—but almost immediately getting to a list of demands. Prayer was more about me than about him. After studying biblical prayers, I realized that I was missing the whole point. I didn’t talk that way to anyone else that I loved; how could I be so brusque and efficient with my Creator, Father, and Shepherd? So I’ve developed the practice of beginning with fellowship.
Next time I’ll describe my plan for the final section of my daily prayer practice—requests—and we’ll wrap up this series with some closing thoughts.