Prayer is hard for me. I’ve been struggling for years to establish a schedule for daily prayer, but it just isn’t happening. I even had a wonderful friend share with me her prayer journaling plan, complete with different prayer categories for different days. That helped, because it gave me some structure, but if you look at my entries you’ll see I’m still very sporadic. I was doing pretty well for about a week, with entries on January 2, 3, 4, 5, and 7, but then there’s a huge gap until the 27th. The same pattern holds true for February. I’m so much better at sticking with a devotional or Bible reading plan. Working through a Bible study or reading through the Bible is tangible. I can update my progress on Goodreads as I go. (And trust me, I do just that! Check out my profile to see what I mean.) But prayer isn’t like that. I can’t update my progress or gauge how far I’ve come. I need to think of prayer differently. So I find it helpful to keep in mind a few things about prayer. Specifically, what prayer isn’t.

A quick fix. I’m sure you’ve heard stories about the amazing power of prayer. Someone was having a hard time in life, they prayed about it, and boom! Suddenly their life turned around, they got a new job, their marriage improved, or their illness  magically went away. Now, that *can* happen, and sometimes it does, but we dare not think it always works this way. In fact, I often find that when I’m praying for something, it usually gets worse before it gets better. Let’s say I’m praying for my children to be kind to one another. Usually, they get even meaner or more snarky toward one another, leaving me wondering if my prayers are being answered at all. When you pray, you’ve gotta be in it for the long haul, because very seldom is prayer a quick fix.

Tangible. This is another hard one for me. I like to see results. I like seeing my progress bar move up each time I update my page number for the Book of Concord on Goodreads (19% done with my yearly reading plan already!). But prayer is almost impossible to measure results. If I’m praying for more patience, how on earth can I measure progress? Is my prayer not being answered if I yell at my kids three times in one day, or should I be grateful that there was one time that day I was able to control my temper? Should I be discouraged that my kids still argue and call each other names even after I’ve been praying for months that they learn to get along, or is my prayer being answered when they all laugh together at the dinner table? We have to believe by faith that God is answering our prayers in His time and in the way He sees fit, and in ways only He may ever be able to tell. We must trust that God is working on our own hearts and attitudes, as well as those for whom we pray, even when we can’t see it.

Easy. It’s easy to say a quick prayer. Anyone can scroll through Facebook and see a prayer request, pause, rattle off a ten-second prayer, and move on without giving the prayer request a second thought. What isn’t easy is committing to pray for a situation, checking back in with people we add to our prayer lists, or even keeping a prayer list in the first place! It’s so much easier for me to say, “Lord, please bless Jonathan, Benjamin, Timothy, Miriam, Sarah, Sam, and all my extended family,” than to sit down and pray individually for each one of them, bringing concerns before Almighty God. Prayer is rightly called a spiritual “discipline,” because it is a training for the Christian, an “activity, exercise, or regimen that develops or improves a skill,” as defines discipline. One must be disciplined in order to develop a regular prayer life. It doesn’t just happen. In a world of constant distractions, it takes focus and a great deal of personal discipline to shut out those distractions and pray.

One-size-fits-all. My prayer life will look different from yours, and that’s another struggle for me. I’m really, really good at following directions or a specific program, like the one-year Bible plans. Give me an exercise program to follow, and I’ll follow it to the letter, but if you tell me to come up with my own exercise regimen, I’m clueless. It’s the same principle for prayer. Even with the structure of my prayer journal, my prayers are different from those of my dear friend who shared her journaling plan with me. You might have more prayer requests than I do, or you might have less. You will certainly pray for different things. Perhaps you like to pray printed collects, like those from the Lutheran Book of Prayer. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. Maybe you pray first thing in the morning, or maybe you pray right before you go to bed. I tried that, but found that by the end of the day, I was usually too tired, or at least I was more likely to make excuses at the end of the day, so now I try to do my prayer time in the mornings. If you struggle to maintain focus (like me!),  you might find the open-ended nature of prayer a bit unnerving, so perhaps setting a timer helps you stay focused during that time. Whatever you find works for you, do that. It’s customizable to your own needs and schedule.

Law. All this talk about prayer might lead one to despair. I’m not praying well enough, you might think. I’m not a good enough Christian. That sort of doubt is from the devil. He wants to discourage you. But as in any area of the Christian life, you will fall short. You will fail. You might go through three weeks of little to no prayer at all. Don’t despair. While prayer should be part of every Christian’s life, it’s Gospel rather than Law. God gives us prayer as a tool in our Christian walk. It is a gift. Once we start making this gift into a “must do,” we are turning it into Law. Yes, strive to maintain a regular prayer life, but once you turn it into Law, you might become resentful of the gift in the first place. Remember that this is a gift from a gracious God, who promises to answer prayer and strengthen your faith in the process.

Prayer is still difficult for me. I will probably struggle with a prayer schedule my entire life. But I won’t give up. God is growing me through the process. I have already seen many prayers answered in my life, and I look forward to seeing how God answers my prayers in the future. I pray the same holds true for you.