Simplify Your Prayer Life

Donald S. Whitney

From: Simplify Your Spiritual Life: Spiritual Disciplines for the Overwhelmed. Copyright 2003. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved.

Ask and You Will Receive Something Good

One way to simplify your prayer life is to ask. Perhaps more often than we realize, we want God to do something for us or to give something to us, and yet we haven’t actually asked Him for it. “You do not have,” says James 4:2, “because you do not ask.” The failure to ask is not the only reason we do not have, for the Bible has many other things to say about what we should ask for and why we should ask. In fact, in the very next verse we read, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (verse 3).

Even so, Jesus made some remarkable promises about simply asking of God in prayer. In the Sermon on the Mount, He assured, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matthew 7:7-8).

While any passage on prayer needs to be placed in the context of the entire Bible’s teaching on the subject, it’s easy to add so many biblical qualifiers to this broad promise that we end up doubting it more than believing it. But rather discourage us from asking, Jesus emphasized three times what “will” result from asking, seeking, and knocking at the door of heaven. Then to further embolden us, He promises that “everyone who asks receives” (emphasis added).

Of course, we may not receive exactly what we ask for. (And I thank God for this when I remember some of the things I’ve requested.) But we will receive something good. For Jesus continued, “Or what man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask Him!” (Verses 9-11).

Because God is good, He will give “good things” to all who ask Him. We do not know what they are or when He will give them, for the good things given in answer to many prayers will be seen only in Heaven. But Jesus said, “Ask.” Simply ask, and you will receive something good.


Don’t Always Pray the Same Prayer

Some people always pray the same prayer, whether they pray it just once a day or repeat it many times. They may use words straight out of Scripture, even praying one of the prayers of the Bible word for word, or they may speak sentences of a merely human origin. Either way, in Heaven their prayers must sound like the unchanging voicemail recording.

But one prayer does not a prayer life make. Prayers without variety eventually become words without meaning. Jesus said that to pray this way is to pray in vain, for in the Sermon on the Mount, He warned, “And when you pray do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words” (Matthew 6:7).

What, then, about Jesus’ teaching in the Lord’s Prayer? Don’t His introductory words to the prayer in Luke 11:2, “When you pray, say . . . ,” indicate that He wants us to repeat the words of this prayer verbatim? And if so, how can doing this involve “vain repetitions” since these are inspired words Jesus specifically told us to pray?

While it’s true that this command of Jesus in Luke 11:2 justifies praying the exact words of the prayer, remember that when He taught this prayer to His hearers in Matthew 6, He began by saying, “In this manner, therefore pray” (emphasis added). That’s why, even though the prayer has been recited in unison by worshipers since the second century, it has been called the “Model” Prayer, because in it Jesus models all the elements we should include in our prayers. Not even the apostles understood the Lord’s words here to be the exact and only words we’re to use in prayer, for we never read in the New Testament of the Apostles repeating them nor of their teaching others to do so. The other prayers of the New Testament follow the model of this prayer, but not its form. Any prayer in the Bible consistent with the Model Prayer may also be prayed sincerely and/or used as a model, but none should be considered merely a script tot be repeated ritualistically.

Jesus also taught the importance of perseverance in prayer (see Matthew 7:7-8; Luke 18:1-8), meaning that it’s often necessary to pray many times (maybe even for years) for the same thing. But frequent prayer for the same thing is very different from vain repetition of the same prayer. We should never think that we have found “just the right words” and make them the sum total of our prayer life.

It may seem simpler to pray only one prayer all the time rather than learning to pray in accordance with all that the Bible teaches on prayer. But in reality, such praying is an oversimplification that reduces prayer to a magic formula designed to get God to do our bidding. The entire Bible is our guide to prayer and to willfully neglect what God says about it throughout Scripture in order to isolate our attention on one prayer is a waste of breath.

Besides, talking to God is too great a privilege to settle for “vain repetitions” when the Bible invites you to “pour out your heart before Him” (Psalm 62:8).


Pray Scripture

“Vain repetitions” are ruinous in any area of spirituality, but especially in prayer. One of the reasons Jesus prohibited the empty repetition of prayers is because that’s exactly the way we’re prone to pray. Although I don’t merely recite memorized prayers, my own tendency is to pray basically the same old things about the same old things. And it doesn’t take long before this fragments the attention span and freezes the heart of prayer. The problem is not our praying about the same old things, for Jesus taught us (in Luke 11:5-13; 18:1-8) to pray with persistence for good things. Our problem is in always praying about them with the same ritualistic, heartless expressions.

In my experience, the almost unfailing solution to this problem is to pray through a passage of Scripture — particularly one of the psalms — instead of making up my prayer as I go. Praying in this way is simply taking the words of Scripture and using them as my own words or as prompters for what I say to God.

For example, if I were praying through Psalm 27, I would begin by reading verse 1: “The LORD is my light and my salvation.” Then I would pray something like, “Thank You, Lord, that You are my light. Thank You for giving me the light to see my need for Jesus and Your forgiveness. Please light my way so that I will know which way to go in the big decision that is before me today. And thank You especially that You are my salvation. You saved me; I didn’t save myself. And now I ask You to save my children also, as well as those at work with whom I’ve shared the gospel.”

When I have nothing else to say, instead of my mind wandering, I have a place to go — the rest of verse 1: “Of whom shall I afraid?” Then I might pray along these lines: “I thank You that I do not have to fear anyone because You are my Father. But I confess that I have been fearful about__________.” I would continue in this way, praying about whatever is prompted verse by verse, until I either complete the psalm or run out of time.

Praying through a passage of Scripture was the uncomplicated method that transformed the daily experience of one of the most famous men of prayer in history. George Muller said:

Formerly when I rose, I began to pray as soon as possible, and generally spent all my time till breakfast in prayer. . . . What was the result? . . . Often, after having suffered much from wandering of mind for the first ten minutes, or quarter of an hour, or even half an hour, I only then began to pray.

I scarcely ever suffer now in this way. For my heart being nourished by the truth, being brought into experimental [that is experiential] fellowship with God, I speak to my Father . . . about the things that He has brought before me in His Precious Word (note 1).

Both Jesus (in Matthew 27:46) and His followers in the book of Acts (4:24-26) prayed words from the Psalms (from Psalm 22:1, and Psalm 146:6 and Psalm 2:1-2 respectively). Why not you? Although you’ll pray about “the same old things,” you’ll do so in brand-new ways. You’ll also find yourself praying about things you never thought to””things that are on the heart of God. You’ll concentrate better, and begin to experience prayer as a real conversation with a real Person. For the Bible really is God speaking to you, and now all you have to do is simply respond to what He says.


Take a Prayer Walk

One of the most common struggles in the practice of spirituality is maintaining mental focus in prayer. When I try to pray, I often find myself thinking about my to-do list or daydreaming instead of talking to God. But walking as I pray — either in a large place indoors (such as a church building) or more frequently, outdoors — usually keeps my mind from wandering as easily. In addition, I typically bring a small Bible to prompt my prayer periodically during the walk.

The walking and the weather invigorate my sluggish soul. Looking up into the blue or out to the horizon refreshes my sense of greatness of God. The sights, smells, and sounds of my Father’s world surround me with reminders of His presence. The cadence of my pace, or occasionally stopping to stare into the distance, often enables me to concentrate in prayer more easily than when I’m still and my eyes are closed.

Abraham’s son Isaac is an example from Scripture of walking while thinking on the things of God. Genesis 24:63 reports, “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field.” Four hundred years ago, an English Puritan named Joseph Hall wrote in his influential book The Art of Divine Meditation, “All our teachers of meditation have commended various positions of the body, according to their own disposition and practice. . . . But of all others, I think that Isaac’s choice was best, who meditated walking.” (note 2)

Perhaps no one in church history is more closely associated with a life of meditative prayer than George Muller. He lived during the nineteenth century in Bristol, England, where he founded an orphanage and a literature distribution ministry. Muller recorded more than fifty thousand specific answers to prayer, thirty thousand of which he said were answered the same day he prayed. Notice that his normal mode of prayer was a meditative prayer walk:

I find it very beneficial to my health to walk thus for meditation before breakfast and “¦generally take out a New Testament”¦and I find that I can profitably spend my time in the open air.

I used to consider the time spent in walking a loss, but now I find it to be profitable, not only to my body, but also to my soul”¦For”¦I speak to my Father”¦about the things that He has brought before me in His precious Word (note 3).

Simplify the struggle of staying focused in prayer, and refresh both body and soul with a leisurely walk in conversation with God from His Word.


Pray Without Filler

“And Father, we, um, just want to thank you for your blessings. And, uh, we just, Lord, want to, uh, just thank you, Lord, for just, really just being so good to us. And Father, we just ask that you just forgive us of our sins, Father. And, um, just bless us now Father, and just lead, guide and direct us, Lord. And we just ask all this in Jesus’ name, Father, amen.”

Although there are several problems with praying such soul deadening prayers, I want to point out two. Both have to do with using words purposelessly.

First, recall that in the Ten Commandments, God tells us, “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain, for the Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain” (Exodus 20:7). The original Hebrew here means that we should not use the Lord’s name emptily or without purpose. When we use God’s name like filler for our prayers, or when we address Him again and again without any real purpose in doing so, we take His name in vain.

Second, repeatedly using the name of the Lord or “um,” “uh,” or “just,” and the like, typically reflects thoughtless prayer. The person launches out into prayer, but drifts aimlessly from one random thought to another. He’s “just praying,” and not praying about much of anything in particular. This pattern tends toward heartless prayer as well. The words sound hollow. They convey no sense of urgency or importance about the prayer. And if our prayers do not even move us, how do we expect them to move God? None of the prayers in the Bible sound so pointless or flat. Instead, we read of men like Elijah who “prayed earnestly” (James 5:17).

Removing needless and meaningless verbal filler makes our prayers clearer, stronger, and more like purposeful conversation with God.


Have a Real Prayer Closet

As I sit writing these words with my old Swan fountain pen on an oak roll-top desk, my left forearm rests on a book called Writers’ Houses. On end in a cubbyhole to my right is another book of photographs called The Writer’s Desk. As a writer, I enjoy looking at pictures of the private places where famous authors practiced their craft.

We expect a writer to dedicate a room in his home for writing, or a musician to set aside space in her residence just for music, or an artist to use one of the rooms where he lives as a studio. Many people do all or part of their daily work from offices at home. Why then, shouldn’t a Christian have a place in the house devoted exclusively to the work of prayer?

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus spoke of how hypocrites love to pray so that people can see or hear them and be impressed. “But you,” He instructed, “when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:6).

In the King James Version of the Bible, the word translated here as room is rendered closet, giving rise to a now old-fashioned term, “prayer closet.” While the Lord’s primary emphasis in this verse is on the importance of sincere, humble, private prayer, why not have a place — a prayer closet — in your home set aside just for meeting with God?

While it’s true that many will not have the space to dedicate an area entirely for prayer, what does it say about the priorities of Christians who have a whole room for physical exercise, but no place only for spiritual exercises? What does it say when we allocate large space just for children to play, but none for Christians to pray? What does it say when we design the most spacious area in the home for our entertainment, filling it with a large TV, music system, and computer whereby we hear from the world, but make no plans for a place where we meet with God?

It’s not that we can’t use a desk both for work and prayer, or that we can’t read the Bible in the same chair where we watch TV. But why shouldn’t the home of a Christian demonstrate by design — whether a small room or a renovated closet — that prayer to God is important?


Pray through Today’s Plans

Have you realized that planning your day can be a part of your devotional life? The wise counsel of Proverbs 16:3 says, “Commit your works to the Lord, and your thoughts will be established.” The “thoughts” about the day before you generally include your “plans” for the day. These plans, according to this verse, “will be established” only as you “commit your works to the Lord.”

Moreover, the rest of the Bible teaches us that we can’t expect our plans to be established if they or our works are contrary to the Lord’s will. But this verse states another link between our plans and our works that execute those plans: We should commit our works to the Lord.

The Hebrew word here translated commit means “to roll,” as in to roll one’s burdens on the Lord. The same word is used at the beginning of Psalm 37:5: “Commit your way to the Lord, trust also in Him, and He shall bring it to pass.”

How do we do this? “This would be accomplished with a spirit of humility and by means of a diligent season of prayer,” says one Old Testament scholar (note 4).

One way I often try to flesh this out is to take my to-do list for the day and write a generous estimate beside each activity of how long I expect it to take. In light of my fixed commitments, usually I see that there aren’t enough hours in the day to accomplish everything on the list. But it’s always better for me to realize this in advance than to discover it in frustration toward the end of the day. Then I can look prayerfully over the list to determine which items get priority and which must be moved to tomorrow’s list. I commit the remaining items on the list to the Lord, asking for His guidance and blessing.

Rolling each anticipated event of the day upon the Lord simplifies my spiritual life by integrating my spirituality with daily living. Instead of segmenting the things of God from “real life,” or perceiving my devotional life as merely another part of my day, I look to Him regarding my entire day. And doing this at the outset usually results in a greater God-consciousness in the midst of the details and ordinary activities of the day as well.

To begin my day without any sense of the Lord’s will regarding my plans, or to begin my works without committing them to the Lord, reflects the same kind of independence that brought sin into the world. By contrast, dependence on God is at the heart of true spirituality. As Jesus was often found beginning His day in dependent prayer, and as acceptance with God comes only through dependence upon the work of Jesus on our behalf, so there is wisdom in a conscious Godward look of dependence about the details of life this day.


Use Prayer Prompts

Beside a highway that I travel several times each week sits a big signs that’s hard to ignore. Whenever I notice it, I use it as a reminder to pray for a particular person. At another point along that road in a panoramic view of my city. I use the sight to remind me to ask the Lord for reformation and revival upon His work in our area. Whenever I see a certain time on a digital clock, it’s a memory-jogger to pray for my wife and daughter.

I refer to these as “prayer prompts,” things I use to remind me to pray for specific people or situations.

Christians have always used commonplace things as ways to turn their thoughts heavenward. When dressing in the morning, many Puritans made a habit of praying briefly for a different matter with each article of clothing they pulled on. I know several believers who pray whenever they hear a siren.

All this is similar to a practice of the apostle Paul. Every time the thought of the church in Philippi popped into his head, he used that recollection as a reminder to pray for those brothers and sisters: “I thank my God upon every remembrance of you always in every prayer of mine making request for you all with joy” (Philippians 1:3-4).

Why not transform something from your routine into a prayer prompt? It can be a sight, smell, sound, thought, event, or experience. Find these cues in your home, at your job, on your commute, online, at your desk — anywhere.

Whenever you get up in the night you could pray for the salvation of your family. While brushing your teeth (you have to think about something!) you could intercede for your church. Every time you see or hear a particular commercial (perhaps one that’s especially annoying) on TV, radio, or the Internet, you could pray for unreached people groups. Certain billboards could prompt you to ask God to bring an end to abortion. Each email from a given source might serve as your cue to pray for your own faithfulness to the Lord.

I’m not suggesting that these would be the only times you pray for these matters. Instead, these prayer prompts could supply frequent reminders to pray additionally for things that are of special or ongoing importance.

Transform something mundane, even something negative, into something that will turn your thoughts to God.



1. Roger Steer, comp., Spiritual Secrets of George Muller, (Wheaton IL: Harold Shaw, 1985), pp. 61-62.

2. Joseph Hall, The Art of Divine Mediation, in The Fifty Greatest Christian Classics, vol. 3, (1607, reprint ed., Lafayette, IN: Sovereign Grace Trust Fund, 1990), p. 432.

3. Roger Steer, comp., Spiritual Secrets of George Muller, (Wheaton IL: Harold Shaw, 1985), pp. 61-62.

4. Frank E. Gaebalein, gen. ed., The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 5, Proverbs by Allen P. Ross (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1991), pp. 1002-1003.

From: Simplify Your Spiritual Life: Spiritual Disciplines for the Overwhelmed by Donald Whitney, copyright 2003. Used by permission of NavPress, All rights reserved.

Don Whitney has been Associate Professor of Biblical Spirituality and Senior Associate Dean at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY since 2005, and he’s the author of several books. For more information, please visit his Web site: