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“The best way to learn how to pray is to pray with people who know how to pray.”
I do know know whether my friend originated this quote or passed it along, but I have not forgotten it since our weekly prayer meetings during college. We can read books about prayer, attend seminars on prayer, and talk with one another about prayer, but the primary way we nurture our prayer life is to pray. And the most effective way we grow in this area is to pray with those who already have deep, rich prayer lives.
In his kindness, God has recorded numerous prayers of individuals and groups that model how we should interact with him. Of course, there is the book of Psalms that could simply be called a collection of prayers. Along with these there are, throughout the narrative of God’s people, examples of Godward pleas embedded in the messiness of life. This guide aims to explore the prayers of the returned exiles in Jerusalem (Nehemiah 9-10), Daniel (Daniel 9), Jehoshaphat (2 Chronicles 20), and Jesus (Matthew 6).
The contexts in which these prayers are found are as diverse as the circumstances of our lives today. One involves a group of people recommitting themselves to walk in God’s ways after a season of disobedience. Another comes from a man confessing not only his own sins but also the sins of his people. In another, a sudden, unexpected event causes fear and alarm, driving God’s people to their knees. Yet, as distinct as these circumstances are from one another, the prayers that emerge from them are strikingly similar. It is no coincidence that this pattern is reinforced by Jesus when he teaches his disciples to pray.
All four prayers have another common component. Not only do they share similar content, they are also accompanied by the common context of fasting. In all three Old Testament texts, the prayers emerge out of a season of fasting and seeking God’s face. Jesus’ teaching about prayer is immediately followed by his instructions about “when you fast” (Matthew 6:16).
Fasting is a clearing of the schedule, a removal of all distractions that would keep us from throwing ourselves wholly on God’s mercy. In Biblical times it primarily concerned abstinence from eating. In our day, many of us would gladly skip a meal or two before giving up other distracting factors in our lives, whether a hobby or, most likely, something to do with a screen or social media. So as this new year begins, ask God to direct you in the what and when of your fasting. It could be skipping breakfast and lunch every Tuesday, staying off of your devices after work each evening, or perhaps listening to Scripture instead of the radio in the car. Whatever it is, this is not abstinence for its own sake. Rather, this is creating space in which you can, without distraction, seek the Lord using the prayers from his word.
My hope for this month of prayer and fasting is that it would set a trajectory for the rest of the year. If you are like me, your prayer life needs deepening and increased consistency. You need a break from the bustle–much of it self-induced–to be still before the Lord. You need to recommit yourself to walking faithfully with the God who is always faithful to his people.
For these reasons and more, I ask you to join me in seeking God through prayer and fasting this January. Make space in your schedule. Strip down your distractions. Work slowly through the pages in this guide. Write down what God teaches you and chronicle your questions, doubts, and fears. Begin the year nurturing a heart that responds to both external events and indwelling sin by looking to God for help. Join these saints of old in all their imperfections and desperation. Pursue God with all your heart.