Slowing down and making space for prayer has never come easily for me. By nature, I like to “do.” I find great satisfaction, probably too much, in crossing things off my list and accomplishing tasks. While there are spiritual disciplines, like service and Bible study, that fit nicely with this personality of mine, I sense that my busyness and hesitancy to stop and pray indicates I need it that much more.
Just as being more disciplined about drinking water is the best way to get myself to want to drink more water, I’ve found that when I don’t want to pray, the best thing to do is… pray. Having a method to build on can get me back into the habit of praying and help reorient what I prioritize. No matter how many “important” things are going on, I will once again long to be with God.
One of the more helpful prayer models I’ve gone back to through the years was one I first learned during my college years: lectio divina. Although the name may sound strange to our modern ears, it’s actually a simple tool that can jumpstart a heart that is struggling to rest in God and pray. The name lectio divina means “sacred reading” and it was developed in the 3rd century by early Christians. In short, it is a method of prayer and Bible reading composed of 4 steps: (1) lectio or reading, (2) meditatio or reflecting, (3) oratio or praying, (4) contemplatio or resting.
Lectio divina works best if you intentionally carve out time to be alone with God. It’s important to find a place that is quiet, comfortable, and free from distractions. Then, begin by asking God to speak to you through His Word and to help you notice what He has for you in this moment. If you’re new to lectio divina it’s helpful to start with a shorter passage of Scripture, a biblical story (one of Jesus’ parables, for example), or a few verses God has been bringing to your mind lately.
Once you have selected a portion of the Bible to focus on, practice the first step (lectio) by slowly reading through the passage. Pay attention to words that are repeated often or any word or phrase you think God is drawing to your attention. For example, as I was recently reading Philippians 1 I was struck by how many times in the first eleven verses that Paul noted he was praying for this church. Seeing the word “pray” repeated several times in just a few verses caused me to stop and pay attention to why Paul was telling them he was praying for them as well as what he was asking God to do for them.
Step two or meditatio asks us to think and reflect on the passage. Read through it a second time and ask questions; ponder the words you’re examining. Journaling your responses can help you get more out of this step and it allows you to go back to your thoughts later. Writing your thoughts down can also help you stay focused if you find your mind wandering. Examples of questions you can ask during this time include: What is this passage really saying? What do I learn about God from these verses? What would I possibly be experiencing (seeing, hearing, smelling, or thinking) if I was there in that moment of history?
After you’ve thoughtfully reflected on the passage, it’s time to move to the next step and prayerfully respond (oratio). Once again start by asking questions. However, this time the question should be ones that lead you into conversation with God. For example: “What is the Holy Spirit inviting me to pray after what I’ve just read? How is this passage leading me to thank or worship God? What secrets of my heart has this passage exposed? What do I want to communicate to God right now?” If this step leads you back to the oratio and meditatio steps that’s great! We don’t have to be rigid with lectio divina. The most important thing here is that we are responding to God.
The fourth step is called contemplatio, meaning “rest.” As wonderful as it sounds, this can be a difficult step for many of us who have a hard time being still and one we are tempted to skip. However, God promises to restore us when we come to Him seeking rest (Psalm 23:2-3 and Matthew 11:28). In fact, He is our rest. So, give yourself a few moments as you conclude this prayerful exercise and take a deep breath. Be with God. Soak in what the Holy Spirit has taught you over the last few minutes. Know God’s love and his forgiveness all over again. Experience the joy and freedom in following him.
John Wesley, one of the most productive ministers in history, traveled over 250,000 miles on horseback (that’s equivalent to 10 times around the earth) and preached 40,000 sermons. Despite all Wesley accomplished each day, he was absolutely dedicated to prayer. In fact, he vigorously depended on prayer and attributed his ability to fulfill his calling, to his regular habit of prayer. He said: “I have so much to do that I spend several hours in prayer before I am able to do it.” What a challenge his words are to those of us who are busy doing so many good things! Regardless of whether you try lectio divina (and I hope you will) or begin cultivating a regular habit of prayer another way, my prayer is that we become people who are steadfast—determined, fixed, unwavering—in prayer. People who come to God daily with open hands saying, “Teach me O God. Mold me into your servant and lead me on my way.”