One of the exercises I have my spiritual formation students do is a prayer exercise in which they are to spend 30 minutes in prayer however they wish, but with one specific instruction – they are not supposed to ask for anything, for themselves or anyone else.
I tell them that the reason for the exercise is that while we are certainly told to bring our requests to God (e.g., Matt. 7:7-11; Luke 11:9-13; Phil. 4:6; 1 John 5:15, etc.), prayer is much more than requesting things. However, sometimes we get so accustomed to filling our times of prayer with requests that we forget to leave room to wait on God and listen to His voice.
In many ways we already know how to ask God for things. What we are less adept at doing is spending time with God just being in communion with him. Therefore, the purpose of the exercise is to help the students see just how much requests can dominate their prayer time and to help them discipline their prayer time so that they are able to come before God in other ways.
By refraining from asking for a period of time, they are compelled to pray in a different way. Some of them are puzzled over what to do, and so I give examples. They can give praise, give adoration, or engage in thanksgiving. They can sing hymns, or they can journal. Or, they can simply be silent and wait in God’s presence.
There are also various helps that others have discovered. One is the ACTS method of praying, which is an acrostic that stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. This helps guide their prayer time so that supplication, or requesting, comes only after a period of adoration, confession and thanksgiving.
Richard Foster, in his book Prayer, describes three categories of prayer designated as Inward, Upward and Outward. Inward prayer is geared towards personal transformation, upward for intimacy with God, and outward for ministry. An example of inward prayer would be what he describes as “Simple Prayer,” or prayer in which we “bring ourselves before God just as we are, warts and all,” as Moses did in Num. 11:11-12 when he complained to God about bearing the burdens of the stiff-necked Israelites (p.9). Upward prayer could include adoration, while petitions and intercessions are considered outward prayers. Thus, our petitions are but one of multiple forms of prayers, and our prayer life would be greatly enriched by these other dimensions.
I ask my students to pay attention to their responses to their exercise. Was it refreshing? Challenging? Boring? Peaceful? Exhilarating? Usually I get a wide range of answers. Some of the answers are relatively common, though: “I didn’t realize how much time I spent in prayer just making requests!” “It was really difficult not to ask for anything” “After I got used to it, it was great just to spend time with God.”
We talk about prayer as a time of building our relationship with the Lord. After all, what kind of relationship would we have with our friends and family if we only asked them for things? Learning about someone requires spending time in their presence during which we listen as much as we talk. As a wise friend of mine has said, “Prayer is open, honest, and forthright conversation with God, Who has more to say to His people than His people have to say to Him.”