As the school year starts, we are once again inundated with activities large and small. We plan outreaches, meet with leaders, welcome new students, and start small groups. At busy times like this, I can find myself doing what I think Jesus would do, rather than first focusing on being who Jesus wants me to be. I may, in fact, be called to do lots of ministry activities, but I am often tempted to do them “for Jesus” rather than “in Jesus”. Jesus tells us quite directly that apart from him we can do nothing (John 15). Only when we are branches directly connected to the vine can we bear fruit.
The relationship of branches to the vine is one of complete dependency. The branch gets its life from the vine in a continuous and constant fashion. If we are isolated from Jesus in our busyness, then all our efforts will amount to little. Worse yet, if by God's grace we still bear some fruit apart from the vine, our own hearts will wilt and it will become more difficult for us to discern God's will in our lives.
The answer for many of us has always been to make sure that we prioritize our quiet times. That is a good answer. Unfortunately, those quiet times have sometimes been so dry for so long, that we end up praying out of duty. In this situation, we approach prayer like another item on the “to- do” list, and it becomes one more thing that is added to our overwhelming schedules and makes us feel stressed.
What if our time with God was exactly the opposite? What if we looked forward to it more than anything else? I find that there are three things that often get in the way of making the transition from a quiet time that feels boring and duty-bound to one that is life-giving and joyful. First is the action of grace, second is the problem of expectation, and third is the number of water drops (yes, keep reading).
First, we need to recognize that prayer is a gift; a grace that is given to us, not something to grit our teeth and make happen. Our first step, then, is to ask for the grace to pray. My suggestion is to ask for grace for a specific time. If you sense that God is calling you to pray for 10 minutes, ask for the grace to do just that.
Second, let go of all the expectations that have built up in your head about what prayer should feel like and look like. Most of us have an idealized version of what a quiet time should be, probably left over from a good season that we experienced in prayer. Many people feel discouraged because they get distracted by these expectations. Try telling yourself instead: "Prayer does not have to feel any certain way. No feelings are necessary at all, and all my thoughts are welcome to God.” Start your conversation with God telling him how you feel at that moment, even if it is, "Jesus, I am having difficulty concentrating for this quiet time” and repeat as needed if you are distracted again and again.
Third, it takes a certain number of drops to make a shower. I like to ask folks struggling with prayer the following question: "If you met someone for coffee every morning at Starbucks, what is the minimum amount of time you would want to give the conversation? How much time would you need for a meaningful interaction that made you want to come back every day?" The answer may differ by person, but for me, any level of relational connection does not happen in less than half an hour. Consider applying that minimum amount of relational interaction to your daily time alone with God.
However, let's not run and add this to our “legalistic issues bucket.” Let us instead ask Jesus to help us get to that half hour. Let us ask him for the grace to do this, and as we get a bit of grace and see the fruit, we can ask for more.
Shannon wrote this blog with the help of his friend and ministry partner, Nader Sahyouni, who is a source of constant encouragement. Nader is a Christian counselor and spiritual director. He has a passion for spiritual formation and leads guided retreats which focus on addressing the blocks or obstacles that people have in their relationships with God.