A System for Praying in 2012

The New Year is a great time to reconfigure the way we do things. And it can be a bit overwhelming.

Diet, exercise, memorization habits, reading lists, time management — all this is good. But perhaps the best place to start — and the foundation to all the rest — is the primary means of grace in the Christian life, the Word and prayer.

For the Word, Justin Taylor has put together a great list of Bible reading plans to consider. As for prayer, you might also find that some systematic approaches are helpful.

A Few Systems to Consider

Paul Miller warns us that systems can become rote, making us mechanical and mindless in our praying. They can desensitize our communing with God as a person. But he continues, "Remember, life is both holding hands and scrubbing floors. It is both being and doing. Prayer journals or prayer cards are on the 'scrubbing floors' side of life. Praying like a child is on the 'holding hands' side of life. We need both."

Prayer Cards

Adapted from Paul Miller, A Praying Life, (NavPress, 2009), 225-233.

Using a stack of 3x5 index cards, Miller creates cards for people in varous relationships: family members, people in suffering, non-Christians, and friends.

Guidelines:

  1. The card functions like a prayer snapshot of a person's life, so I use short phrases to describe what I want.
  2. When praying, I usually don't linger over a card for more than a few seconds. I just pick out one or two key area and pray for them.
  3. I put the Word to work by writing a Scripture verse on the card that expresses my desire for that particular person or situation.
  4. The card doesn't change much. Maybe once a year I will add another line. These are just the ongoing areas in a person's life that I am praying for.
  5. I usually don't write down answers. They are obvious to me since I see the card almost every day.
  6. I will sometimes date a prayer request by putting the month/year as in 08/07.

He concludes, "Write out your prayer requests; don't mindlessly drift through life on the America narcotic of busyness. If you try to seize the day, the day will eventually break you. Seize the corner of [Jesus'] garment and don't let him go until he blesses you. He will reshape the day" (233).

Lists and Memorium

Adapted from D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation, (Baker Books, 1992), 27-29.

Apart from any printed guides I may use, I keep a manila folder in my study, where I pray, and usually I take it with me when I am traveling. The first sheet in that folder is a list of people for whom I ought to pray regularly: they are bound up with me, with who I am. My wife heads the list, followed by my children and a number of relatives, followed in turn by a number of close friends in various parts of the world. . . .

The second sheet in my folder lists short-range and intermediate-range concerns that will not remain there indefinitely. They include forthcoming responsibilities in ministry and various crises or opportunities that I have heard about, often among Christians I scarcely know. Either they are the sort of thing that will soon pass into history (like the project of writing this book!), or they concern people or situations too remote for me to remember indefinitely. In other words, the first sheet focuses on people for whom I pray constantly; the second includes people and situations for whom I may pray for a short or an extended period of time, but probably not indefinitely. . . .

The next item in my manila folder is the list of my advisees — the students for whom I am particularly responsible. This list includes some notes on their background, academic program, families, personal concerns and the like, and of course this list changes from year to year.

The rest of the folder is filled with letters — prayer letters, personal letters, occasionally independent notes with someone's name at the top. These are filed in alphabetical order. When a new letter comes in, I highlight any matters in it that ought to be the subject of prayer, and then file it in the appropriate place in the folder. The letter it replaces is pulled out at the same time, with the result that the prayer folder is always up to date. I try to set aside time to intercede with God on behalf of the people and situations represented by these letters, taking the one on the top, then the next one, and the next one, and so forth, putting the top ones, as I finish with them, on the bottom of the pile. Thus although the list is alphabetized, on any day a different letter of the alphabet may confront me.

Update: Formerly I listed Lectio Divina as a third system for prayer. I've since removed it for the confusion it has caused. We do not endorse contemplative spirituality. The main point I'd like to recommend is using the text of Scripture as an organizer for our prayers — prayers that are exegetically faithful and gospel rich. I'm sorry for introducing the category.

Jonathan Parnell (@jonathanparnell) is a writer and content strategist at Desiring God, and is the lead planter of Cities Church in Minneapolis–Saint Paul, where he lives with his wife, Melissa, and their four children. He is also the co-author of How to Stay Christian in Seminary.