I’ve never been much of a prayer warrior. I find it virtually impossible to concentrate during silent, prolonged prayer, and by prolonged I mean more than two minutes. My attempts often sound something like this: “God, thank you for Your grace….I wonder what I should make for dinner…” Such prayers are far from Paul’s exhortations to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). In reality I’m more likely to cease without praying.
With my involvement in ministry there was no way I could survive spiritually on lightning-speed prayers alone. If Jesus spent long periods talking with the Father (Luke 5:16), surely I need to do the same. Over time my desperate need to pray increased, yet I still felt defeated in this most foundational area of my relationship with God.
I explored other forms of prayer to compensate for my weakness. Praying aloud with others helped me focus on what I was saying to God. But corporate prayer is meant to supplement one-on-one time with God and it didn’t solve the problem when I was alone. So I tried praying aloud on my own, but still found myself trailing off as my mind wandered. Prayer lists also held limited effectiveness because my distractibility kept my praises and requests superficial. Though I was disciplined in many other areas, my prayer life continually frustrated and baffled me.
So I prayed about prayer: “God, please teach me to pray.” This short request was all I was capable of, but God answered. He showed me how to use one of my strengths to compensate for my shortcomings in prayer. I’ve always enjoyed writing; in fact, I express myself best this way. “So why not converse with Me through written language?” God subtly suggested. Once He revealed this idea I started a prayer journal, where once a day I write out my prayers word-for-word.
God knew I would be distractible when it came to prayer and He graciously provided a way for me to communicate. But even if prayer isn’t particularly difficult for you or writing isn’t your gift, a prayer journal can benefit your relationship with God. Educators agree that writing clarifies thinking—often people don’t know exactly what they think about a topic until they write about it. So writing about our gratitude, emotions, requests, and questions to God can help us see His insights about ourselves, His character, and His will. For example, it wasn’t until I saw my thoughts about trying harder and doing better in black and white that I realized I wasn’t really trusting God to transform my character.
If you’d like to try writing in a prayer journal then consider the following suggestions. There’s no one right way to write to God, but these ideas can help you get started.
1. Choose your medium. After a few days of writing my prayers on paper, I knew this method could work for me. I was expressing myself more clearly and fully to God and my mind didn’t wander much at all. But the medium wasn’t ideal. I had so much to talk to God about but my hand cramped as it tried to keep up with my thoughts. So I switched to typing in a word-processing program, which allowed me to pour out my heart to God before I forgot what I wanted to say. If you try a prayer journal, choose the form which makes it easiest for you to commune with your Creator.
2. Start each entry with gratitude for God. Ephesians 5:20 says we should be “always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” A prayer journal is a good place to foster such a grateful attitude by reflecting on God’s goodness. My gratitude grows as I spend time each day thanking God for who He is, what He’s done throughout history, and/or what He’s currently doing in my life and ministry. In your prayer journal you might consider praying through a Psalm of thanksgiving, reflecting on one of God’s attributes, or listing ways His grace is evident in your life.
3. Intercede with interaction. Using my prayer journal transformed my intercessory prayer into a dynamic interaction with God. In the past I might’ve prayed, “God, please lead Jane into a saving relationship with You.” The content of the prayer was biblical but I wasn’t listening for godly wisdom and discernment. Now I would add to the request above, “Please show me how You want to use me to help Jane know You.” Often God shows me specific steps such as broaching the topic of eternity with Jane, asking a more mature Christian for advice about the situation, or reading a relevant passage of Scripture.
Philippians 4:6 offers pointers regarding intercessory prayer: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Prayer should be our antidote to worry because we can trust God. Relying on God is a challenge for me as I’m a nasty combination of control-freak and worrywart. But when I’m anxious I can pray through a situation and express my dependence on God, affirming my desire to do His will and my belief in His trustworthiness.
This verse also says we should express gratitude as we petition God, meaning our thanksgiving doesn’t stop after the first paragraph in an entry. For example, when praying about a conflict I might thank God for His forgiveness, which is my basis for forgiving others and thus resolving arguments.
Through the more detailed intercession my prayer journal made possible, I’m able to spell out my thoughts and feelings about a situation to God, and then ask questions, write down possible answers, and wait for His wisdom. I encourage you to try the same in your prayer journal. Feel free to brainstorm ideas and ask God which are from Him. Try to determine whether your entry reflects what you know of God’s will.
4. Organize your prayer requests. Even with the speed of typing I still found it difficult to present my requests to God without my prayer journal resembling a to-do list. I didn’t want to approach God as if He was Santa Claus, just there to give me the items on my wish list. At the same time I longed to lift up many people’s needs to him. So I wrote a list and assigned different topics to different days of the week. Afterward my daily prayer list contained about four topics, which gave me room to add more as they arose. You can organize your prayer requests however you want: by urgency, importance, frequency, or another method. Just remember to approach writing in your journal as a relational time with God. Don’t pressure yourself to make it through a catalog of requests, especially when a different concern is weighing on your heart.
5. Review older entries. Rereading old journal entries is an encouraging way to see how God answers prayer. Remembering what God has done cultivates gratitude and reminds us of prayer’s role in God accomplishing His will. Sometimes our prayers aren’t answered, or not as we hoped. God can give us wisdom as we reflect on unanswered prayer. Perhaps we weren’t persistent in prayer, the request went against God’s will, or a person’s free choice prevented it from happening. As you mourn a petition not granted, allow God to comfort you and help you understand His wisdom.
One of the unexpected benefits I experienced from typing my prayer journal was the search function of my text editor. If I want to know what I prayed about Jane’s salvation I can find every instance of the word “Jane” and review what I wrote. This is another opportunity to remember how God led me. Sometimes I remember old insights or convictions which move me to take a different approach with a person or situation. For example, after my friend struggled spiritually for months, I wasn’t sure how else to help her. So I looked back on old entries and noticed a pattern: her priorities were all mixed up. Instead of continuing to address the problem one case at a time, I was able to present the big picture which God showed me.
As writing offered me a newfound ability to focus on talking with God, I established a deeper prayer life than I ever experienced before. I still struggle to continue the day with an attitude of prayer after closing my journal, but it’s helped my prayer life grow immeasurably. I’m learning to depend on God more by praying about difficult situations. My gratitude for Him is growing as I spend time in thanksgiving. As my thoughts become more concrete on paper I’m better able to pray within His will and I’m gaining discernment by asking questions and listening for answers. Starting a prayer journal revolutionized my spiritual life, and it can do the same for yours. There’s no one right way to pray, but I hope you’ll try the write way.