Writer and founder of the 24-7 global prayer movement, Pete Greig has just published his latest book How to Pray, so Ruth Bushyager, Vicar at St Paul's Dorking, was keen to get answers to some big questions on prayer.
Many who saw the new year in with a resolution to pray more, will already have failed at that goal. Why do you think that is?
I don't think it's possible to fail at prayer. Sometimes my kids talk to me less than other times, but I don't consider them failing or succeeding; it’s a relationship. Life is incredibly busy – one journalist said ‘atheism is the religion of the busy’. Remember that, every word you say to God, every time you turn your face towards him, he responds with love. He's not angry, he's not bored. He's pleased to see you. And so if you feel you've failed, just resume your living conversation with God.
"Remember that, every word you say to God, he responds with love. He's not angry, he's not bored. He's pleased to see you."
Why do you think people find prayer hard to do?
A lot of people aren't praying in the way God made them. We have to work out what is our natural language, then prayer can become a lot more enjoyable and sustainable. There are lots of ways of praying – so find ways that fit with the way you’re wired. Some people love silent contemplation, but if you're an extrovert your brain is like a goldfish circling the bowl. You don't know what you're thinking until you speak or write, so you probably need to journal and pray with other people. Most of the great literature on prayer has been written by introverts, and lots of the teaching is about how to shut everything out. Prayer is much more about allowing life in, and finding Christ there, rather than trying to shut Christ out or find Christ in some secret place within yourself. I don't believe that prayer is a journey of self-discovery; it's about finding Christ in all things.
Can prayer be fun?
Yes, absolutely! One example is that in my family, before meals, we spin an old landline cordless phone. Doesn't matter who's at the table, whether they're Christians or not. Whoever one end of it points to gets two great privileges. The first is they get to say grace – giving thanks to God for the ordinary stuff of life – but they also get to ask anyone at the table any question at all, about anything. It means that everyone, of all ages, around the table, is drawn into conversation, with God and each other.
It’s a silly idea, but we’ve got find ways of making prayer normal and real for children and for all sorts of different people.
Prayer doesn’t always feel like a two-way conversation. Why is it so hard to hear from God? And how do we know it’s not just our imagination?
Most people struggle to hear God – not because he's not speaking but because he sounds too normal. We've got to teach people to hear God in the ordinary, but we relegate God to weirdness. If you think about it, God made everything that's normal - so expect God’s voice to be quite normal. One Franciscan writer says God comes to us disguised as our own lives. How do we know it is not just our imagination? I ask myself simply is this the sort of thing Jesus would say and does it lead me to do the sort of thing Jesus would do? What's the worst that could happen if I'm wrong?
"Most people struggle to hear God – not because he's not speaking but because he sounds too normal. We've got to teach people to hear God in the ordinary."
Do you have an example of a time God spoke to you?
Years back I was stranded in Chicago because of the volcanic ash cloud. I was desperate to get home and grumbling at God. Then I thought – maybe God's got some purpose for me being in Chicago this week, so I changed the way I prayed. I asked God – what do you want me to do while I'm here? And I had a thought, that I thought might be God, but I wasn't sure. I remembered a friend called Joe who lived 150 miles west of Chicago and thought maybe I should go see him. So I emailed him – hey Joe, I'm in Chicago, can I come and crash on your couch, Pete. What I didn't know, was that Joe had that very day had some of the worst news of his life and his wife had just said to him – who do you wish was on your couch right now? And he said – this is crazy, because he's never been to our house and he lives in England, but I wish Pete was on my couch right now and within a few hours I've emailed. So I knew that the ordinary thought I'd had was actually the voice of God. I applied the test – is this something Jesus would do? Yeah. Jesus was into going and hanging out with friends. What's the worst that could happen? I have some time with my friend. So I tried it. And it was God.
What is the link between our spiritual confidence and our prayerfulness?
It is a pretty insecure thing to be a human being alone on a rock spinning in an empty universe. The greatest confidence we can have in life is to know that the God who made us, loves us, and is with us. So to live prayerfully is to live with an extraordinary level of confidence. Not just confidence when circumstances are good, but confidence even in the most difficult times. Why is the writer of psalm 23 so confident in difficult times? He says – though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil. Why? Because thou are with me. It is the presence of God , with us in life, that enables us to live with confidence. We always want God to airlift us out of our problems, so we pray for miracles. And sometimes God does miracles. But more often he parachutes in and joins us in the valley of the shadow of death, in the midst of difficulties and problems.
"We always want God to airlift us out of our problems, so we pray for miracles. And sometimes God does miracles. But more often he parachutes in and joins us in the midst of problems."
What are your top tips to churches to grow a passionate culture of prayer?
Firstly you have to inspire desire. Pastor Bill Johnson says – if you've only got one story of answered prayer, keep telling it until you've got two. I've been doing this for 20 years and I can't think of a single church where I haven’t found lots of people with examples of answered prayer. Then you can have a great time just saying, come and tell us your stories, and by the end everyone is inspired to pray.
Secondly, invest your best. People put a lot of money into mission and worship. When you ask them ‘what's your budget for prayer?’ they look at you blankly. The truth is there's lots of ways that we can spend money on equipping people, and on creating environments where it's easier to talk to God. It doesn't have to be a circle of adults on plastic chairs in a drafty church hall giving long speeches to God on a Wednesday night.
Lastly, bless success . Find out what's working, where are people encouraged and find ways of blessing that: send the prayer team on a conference, buy them all a book, get them really great coffee. In John 15 Jesus says you have trees that are bearing fruit and those are pruned and you have branches that are not bearing fruit and those are chopped off. So stop doing things that are not fruitful,
and then where there is fruit, find ways to bless it.
Pete is the instigator of the 24-7 Prayer movement: 24-7prayer.com