I really didn’t want to write this article. But I know you can’t talk about spiritual health without talking about this topic. In the past, when I preached about it or wrote about it, I always felt a gnawing inadequacy. If you were to chart my ministry and spiritual journey, there would be large gaps where this spiritual practice has been missing in action.
So, let me shoot straight with you. I struggle with my prayer life. When I hear guys like Jim Cymbala and read about prayer in his church at Brooklyn Tabernacle, I am both inspired and depressed all at the same time.
I know that too often I’ve relied only on plans, strategies, skills, and methods to build the ministry. When you’re a leader, you have a bent toward action, toward doing. And that’s where you get your strokes and sense of significance. Prayer places value on waiting, seeking, listening, and discerning. I know it’s not true theologically, but prayer has often felt passive.
While my prayer life is still not what I want it to be, it’s much different than it used to be. I remember the day my prayer life began to change. It was a Thursday. I know it was a Thursday because that’s when our church bulletin got printed.
I was sitting at my desk reading a passage of Scripture I’d read dozens of times before. It was the story of Jesus cleansing the temple.
It’s a stunning scene. I have this picture of the disciples standing with their mouths open, their eyes as big as saucers. I can see a couple of them thinking, Isn’t this a bit of an overreaction? Maybe one says to another, “This is not going to help his popularity.” Maybe Judas is embarrassed that Jesus is making such a big scene.
Picture this moment. Jesus marches in like he owns the place (and he does, but they don’t know it). He starts flipping tables and grabbing people by the collar, saying they can’t bring their merchandise through the temple. He gets into their faces and tells them to get out.
What happened to Jesus meek and mild? Why was he so ticked off? His house was being prostituted for purposes other than what he intended.
As feathers flew and coins clattered, the calm turned to chaos. Jesus angrily chastises them and basically says, “This place looks and feels more like a mall than a temple. There is more emphasis on purchases than on prayer.”
Each of the merchants would have vigorously defended his own right to be there. Actually, they were offering a legitimate service of providing animals for the sacrifices.
The moneychangers would also have defended their place in the temple. When people came to pay their temple tax, they had to use coins minted in Jerusalem. They needed someplace to exchange their foreign currency. But the merchants were tacking on big-time surcharges and turning the temple into a profit-making machine.
The first-century merchants and moneychangers were in the temple, but they didn’t have the spirit of the temple. The emphasis was on profit margin, not prayer meetings. The priority had become financial transaction rather than spiritual transformation.
Interestingly, Jesus “would not allow anyone to carry merchandise through the temple courts.” All their activity was violating the space that had been reserved for people to meet with God. The primary had been overrun by the secondary.
Jesus rebukes them and says the reputation of God’s house should be one of prayer. The heartbeat of a God-centered and healthy ministry is the heartbeat of prayer.
Notice that Jesus did not say this is primarily to be a house of preaching or teaching. Or worship, or ministry, or programs.
The Holy Spirit drew my focus to Jesus’ words, “My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.” I picked up the church bulletin lying on the corner of my desk. I thumbed through it and noticed how many things we had going on. It was chock full of opportunities, classes, and events. We were a full-service church and proud of it. But I remember thinking, No one would ever accuse us of being a house of prayer.
The Holy Spirit took the spotlight and shined it on my own life. My next thought pierced my spirit: and no one would ever accuse me of being a man of prayer. I repented. I knew something had to change.
I really had no idea how to change my impotent and sporadic prayer life. So I started reading books on prayer. As I read some of the classics as well as some contemporary authors, I was inspired and challenged. Little by little God began to intensify my desire. As I now look back on those days, I would tell you I read my way into a greater passion for prayer.
As God was rewiring my heart I knew I also needed to make some changes externally for prayer to become a priority in my life and ministry. So I began to structure prayer into my schedule with far more intentionality than ever before. I created a system that would modify my behavior and reinforce what God was doing in my heart.
I blocked time to be in our church’s prayer room. We structured prayer as a priority in our staff meeting rather than simply tacking it on at the beginning or end of the meeting. I developed a personal prayer team from a group of trusted individuals who interceded very personally on my behalf. I met biweekly during lunch with them so we could pray together. We also started prayer walking our city and having occasional nights of prayer for our small groups.
I don’t know what it looks like you to structure prayer into your world, but I do know that structuring these pieces into my weekly schedule made a huge difference in my passion for prayer. The most important thing was creating space in my week for me to be with God.