How’s your prayer life? you ask a random Christian. Nine times out of ten, he’ll respond, Uh… not as good as it should be… and then lower his eyes with a guilty look.
Personally, my prayer life took a massive hit when I moved to Bucharest, Romania. Besides the natural factors of moving from a slower-paced small town in rural Wisconsin to a large, fast-paced European capital city, there is also the spiritual factor of an enemy who wants to keep me from the presence of the One who gives life, direction, power, anointing. I was still reading the Bible, but not every day, and I regularly rushed through it so I could get something practical done… My heart wasn’t connecting with God, the spring of living water.
I could feel my heart getting colder towards God, but I hadn’t realized how bad I had let things get until I took a week off to go to Turkey. In my mind, I thought, Yes! I finally can get some time to rest and recuperate spiritually. I’m gonna read so much of the Bible and spend so much time with God. It’s going to be awesome! But when I got to Turkey, I didn’t want to read the Bible! I didn’t want to pray. I didn’t want to play music and worship God. I didn’t want to make art for him. I didn’t even really feel guilty for this!
It was a rude wake up call! But I responded quickly, made some changes in my life, and have been fighting this cold, dead heart ever since I recognized the problem. Already, I can see a drastic change in my attitude and desire towards prayer and the presence of God.
I want to share with you some tips from my experience. All of these tips are pretty basic, but they’re things that I had let slide, things that can make the difference between a religious, dry, dead prayer life and a life-giving, abundant, empowering, relationship with God.
Let’s look at Moses’ life, perhaps one of the best examples we have of a man who kept a sustained and intense intimacy with God despite incredible demands on his time and a number of serious weaknesses. Turn to Exodus 24…
After 400 years of silence, the God of the Hebrews has finally spoken again! He proves his supremacy in a great contest we call the Ten Plagues of Egypt and triumphantly leads the nation out of slavery. After three months in the desert, the people are finally gathered at Mount Sinai to meet the One whom they have thus far only seen in his wrath against Egypt. God reveals himself to the nation, settling on Mount Sinai in a great cloud of fire and smoke, with trumpets blasting and an earthquake shaking the mountain to its core. It’s terrifying, and the Hebrews understandably cower, requesting Moses speak to God on their behalf. He agrees, and so does God.
In Exodus 24, God tells Moses that he wants the leaders of the community to come together to worship him on the mountain. Early the next day, Moses gathers the people, they offer a number of sacrifices, and then he takes the leaders up the mountain with him to worship God.
Halfway up, they stop, have a feast, and worship God together. (By the way, I think we need to implement this very biblical style of worship more often! Move aside the guitars, and give me some hamburgers! Hallelujah!) Then God tells Moses to come closer, but to leave the rest behind. So Moses tells the leaders to wait for him while he goes with Joshua further into God’s presence.
After six days of waiting, God finally speaks to him, and he stays there another 34 days in the presence of God.
(1) Trust in Jesus
Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the LORD. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. (Exodus 24:4-6)
In verses 4-6, we read that Moses, before taking the leaders to worship God, offers a number of animals as a sacrifice. Why does he do this? Because man, stained by sin, cannot approach God without dying. Sin cannot exist in the presence of God; being holy, man would naturally die. Thankfully, God provided an alternative; rather than men dying, an animal would die. (Thankfully, that is, for men; Bambi was not so grateful.)
Today, we approach God freely because God himself offered his own life as a sacrifice for our sins 2000 years ago. Through him , we have free and unhindered access into the very presence of God.
Because of Christ and our faith in Him, we can now come boldly and confidently into God’s presence. (Ephesians 3:12)
This is the foundation of intimacy with God, the blood that Jesus shed for us on the cross. I get an intimate, vibrant, life-filled relationship with God only through the grace given in Jesus. It never comes through my own determination to have it or through trying to convince God that I’m worthy to receive it.
Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:16)
I can’t trust in my own determination because I know how easily I give up. I can’t trust in my own worth because even my best days are far short of the perfection required and because good behavior can never undo the sins that have already been done. An intimate friendship with God starts and is maintained here, in the power of Jesus’ sacrifice, the offering that makes us into beloved, accepted children of God.
(2) Close the Door
Where does God call Moses to take the leaders in order to worship him? Up the mountain! He leaves the camp, even though God’s presence is everywhere and even though he could see the fire and the smoke from the camp just fine. And even though he’d spoken with God many times in many other, far more convenient places.
Mount Sinai is 2,285 meters high, almost the exact same height as the cross at Buşteni. Today, it takes most people around 3 hours to hike the 7 kilometers to the peak but it probably took Moses longer (being over 80 years old by this time and blazing the trail by himself). The town of Pantelimon is about 7 kilometers from Eroilor subway station, where Biserica Piatra Vie meets. The top of Mount Sinai is not just down the street! It’s far away!
On top of this, Moses is the leader of the entire nation. He’s a busy man. Until just recently, in fact, he was so busy that his father-in-law told him he needed to change his schedule before he went insane (Exodus 18:13-24). He changed his schedule, but President Moses is still very much in demand.
But Moses leaves all those demands and obligations, takes the leaders of the community, and brings them 7 kilometers away to sit down and eat a big meal with God.
But then God calls Moses to go even further than the rest of the leaders.
Now the LORD said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandment which I have written for their instruction.” (Exodus 24:12).
So Moses turns to the leaders and tells them that Aaron and Hur will handle all the decisions while he’s gone. Just in case you think this is a smart decision, Aaron ends up leading the Israelites to build a golden cow and worship it while his brother Moses is gone; this is a big mistake! A BIG mistake! And it all happens because Moses was up on the mountain… doing… nothing.
But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. (Matthew 6:6)
It’s really hard to have a satisfying relationship with God if you’re checking facebook every few minutes or answering the phone all the time or trying to remember what you have to get done at work today. If we want to meet with him, we need to get away, close the door, and be alone with him. To close the door means moving away from those things that distract you, like a cell phone or the internet or a roommate.
Right now, for me, this means getting up from my bed and going into the bathroom where I know I can pray and make noise and not bother Derick or the neighbors, and where I don’t worry about being overheard. I don’t take my computer or my tablet or new songs I’m trying to learn on the guitar.
You may not be able to walk seven kilometers away and climb up a mountain to spend your quiet time with God, but you need to find a way to close the door, to remove those things that distract your attention.
(3) Come to Worship
Why does God tell Moses to bring the leaders up to the mountain? For teaching, of which they are surely in desperate need? (Remember what Aaron’s going to do in just a few days? Mount sinai Leadership Conference, Seminar 1: The Dangers of Golden Cows.) But God doesn’t call them to gather for teaching. No, he calls them for worship!
Then He said to Moses, “Come up to the LORD, you and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu and seventy of the elders of Israel, and you shall worship at a distance.” (Exodus 24:1)
While the Bible and correct understanding has a vital, even critical, role to play, our primary need is not for knowing more about God, for memorizing more Scriptures. This intellectual knowledge is incredibly valuable, but our primary need is for our hearts to connect with God, not merely to learn more. In the West, after all, we already know far too much about a God we spend far too little time experiencing.
In my life, I had convinced myself that merely reading the Bible was a good substitute for heart connection, for loving and being loved, for worship. The two are intricately related, but neither is a substitute for the other.
When we say worship, we often think about music because it helps us to worship, but the primary point here in worship is loving and being loved. So to approach him in worship means approaching God to love him and to be loved by him, not primarily to learn from him (which is good) or to request things from him (which is also good).
Come to God expecting to love him and be loved by him. Your heart will connect with him, and he will lead you into truth that becomes more than mere head knowledge.
Our hearts are like cups. Yesterday, I poured fresh Coca Cola into a cup, but it’s flat now. If I want to get fresh Coca Cola, I have to pour out the old stuff. Worship is pouring out our hearts, then turning it up again to be filled afresh. If I never pour out, I can’t get filled afresh.
How do you pour out your heart to God? The simplest way is to tell him how much you love him and why you love him! (This is where music comes in; for many of us, it’s a great tool that helps us to express our love for God and for what he’s done for us.)
(4) Wait on Him
Now the LORD said to Moses, “Come up to Me on the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the law and the commandments which I have written for their instruction.” (Exodus 24:12)
How long does God tell Moses to wait? He never tells him a specific time, but we can understand God wants to give something to Moses, namely, the stone tablets. So he should wait until he gets those stone tablets, until he receives something from God.
How many days did Moses have to wait? He ended up waiting 6 days! And we get impatient and give up if we don’t hear him in 5 minutes!
This is perhaps the most difficult thing but the most necessary when it comes to developing and maintaining intimacy with God. We simply cannot skip waiting on God. We can’t rush him to speak more quickly to us.
Can you imagine being in Moses’ shoes? Imagine how hard it would have been to sit there alone with Joshua for six days expecting to hear God but hearing nothing, knowing you have all sorts of work that’s not getting done, worrying about how your brother Aaron is doing leading the people, wondering if he’s building a golden cow or doing something else ridiculously stupid, not eating or drinking anything at all and getting hungrier every day, answering Joshua’s nagging question, Are we there yet? For six entire days, he heard nothing at all.
What if Moses had only waited thirty minutes? What if he waited those six days, got the stone tablets, the bare minimum he needed, and then left?
How long you wait is between you and God, but I personally need about 30 minutes for my heart to settle down, so at least an hour for the relationship to grow; currently, I’ve committed the first two hours of my morning. My advice for you is to pray and ask God how much time you can give to him, then commit to doing this faithfully every day until Jesus comes back. For some of you, he’ll say to give 30 minutes. For others, he’ll say to give 3 hours. Each of us is different, needs a different amount of time to hear, and can afford a different amount of time in your schedule.
Regardless of how long you wait, don’t leave until you know your heart has connected with his. This is the point, after all, not the number of minutes but to have an intimate relationship with God, for your heart to connect with his.
(5) Give Your Best
After he hears God’s call to worship on the mountain, Moses gets up early in the morning to prepare. He has some work to do (building an altar, offering a couple sacrifices, and teaching the people) but he starts it all early in the morning.
Moses wrote down all the words of the LORD. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. (Exodus 24:4)
I recommend everyone get up early to meet with God, but the main point is that you give him quality time, meaning undistracted and alert.
You want to give him an undistracted mind, and for most that means early morning. In my case, if I wait until the afternoon, I still have a good time with God, but it’s usually quite distracted. I read the Bible, check facebook, pray, write down something I have to do later, read the Bible, pray, check facebook, check tomorrow’s weather, check how much time is left, read the Bible, get some work done…
Have you ever been telling something really important to someone, and then you notice he’s not even paying attention to you? Your voice drifts off awkwardly and you stop talking. This happens all the time when I speak Romanian because I speak so slowly. I start saying something, the person is making eye contact and nodding his head in understanding, then I stumble over some words and points of grammar, and pretty soon he’s on his cell phone checking the time, looking out the window… It definitely does not make me want to continue speaking. And yet, this is how we often spend our time with God!
You want to give him an alert mind, and we’re more alert earlier in the day, even if tired. (I remember reading somewhere that this is why most American math classes try to meet in the morning rather than the afternoon. Your mind is more alert and ready for things like math.)
If I try to read my Bible in the afternoon or evening, I almost always fall asleep. Why? Because my mind and body are tired from having finished a full and busy day. Instead, I get up early and meet with him when my mind and body are fresh and alert.
In the early morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house, and went away to a secluded place, and was praying there. (Mark 1:35)
Early in the morning He came again into the temple, and all the people were coming to Him; and He sat down and began to teach them. (John 8:2)
Now during the day He was teaching in the temple, but at evening He would go out and spend the night on the mount that is called Olivet. And all the people would get up early in the morning to come to Him in the temple to listen to Him. (Luke 21:37-38)
Why do all the people go to the temple early in the morning? To hear Jesus, who was there in the temple speaking even early in the morning.
Now after He had risen early on the first day of the week, He first appeared to Mary Magdalene, from whom He had cast out seven demons. (Mark 16:9)
I like this! Jesus even got up early to be resurrected! He had just been crucified, carried the burden of the entire world’s sins from the dawn of creation to the end of time, spent the weekend in hell preaching and rescuing captives, and still he manages to get up early for his resurrection!
Some things are great as leftovers. I love leftover pizza. But leftover scrambled eggs are nasty. If I have a guest in my house, there’s no way I’d give him leftovers, even if it’s pizza! He gets fresh because I want to honor him. And if the guest is really important, he gets really good fresh food. If the President is visiting, I’m making him my best pot of chili, all with fresh ingredients. (Why? Besides the fact that chili in general is just plain awesome, it’s one of the few things I can make of which I’m most proud.) Yet we often give God merely the leftovers of our time and energy, after we’ve spent the day working hard, watched a few TV shows, liked some facebook posts…
God doesn’t want our leftovers, he wants a fresh meal!
When the Israelites were commanded to give sacrifices, they were told to give the very best, a year old (meaning it’s unused!) and unblemished (meaning it’s perfect!) animal.
The point is not the specific time but to give God the best of our day, the best of our time, the best of our minds, and not just the tired leftovers. For many, this means getting up early, much earlier than we would prefer.
(6) Keep Going
Then Moses went up to the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD rested on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; and on the seventh day He called to Moses from the midst of the cloud. And to the eyes of the sons of Israel the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a consuming fire on the mountain top. Moses entered the midst of the cloud as he went up to the mountain; and Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights. (Exodus 24:15-18)
Where does Moses go? Onto the mountain. What’s on the mountain? The glory of God. How does the glory of God appear to the Israelites? Like a consuming fire, maybe like an atomic bomb. In fact, it looks so dangerous to them that they think Moses is dead when he doesn’t come back quickly enough.
How do you think Moses felt when he looked up and saw the mountain, and then heard God say to come up into the fire? I think he was scared. He probably was wondering if he’d really heard God correctly. I don’t know anybody who thinks walking into a roiling, seething mass of consuming fire sounds nice and peaceful, like walking into green mountain meadow full of daisies and frolicking bunnies.
Moses walks into a freakin’ cloud of fire. (Can I say that on a Christian blog?)
Some days, when you meet with God, it’s like a glass of refreshing water; your heart connects right away, the Word comes alive, and you sense love all around you. But other days, it’s like drinking vinegar; you’re drinking, but it tastes bad and you just want to quit. But vinegar does have health benefits! (The internet told me this, so it has to be true!)
There will be some days when you’re tired, don’t want to get up, and haven’t sensed anything from God in a long time. There will be other days when you get up all full of anticipation to meet God, and then he doesn’t say a thing, your heart is never stirred, and you start to question whether you might be better to cut the time in half and do something useful tomorrow… The temptation will be to give up, to assume this is just how things are going to be, and so you read a book, you get work done, you do something productive and useful.
But stay there in the fire and discomfort, in the boredom. Put in the time. It will get better as God works in your heart. Developing intimacy takes time. So don’t quit, no matter how bad your prayer time seems.
I had grown accustomed to a hurried time in the Bible where I didn’t really hear God and didn’t feel my heart connect with him. I had grown so accustomed to it that when I finally had the freedom for more time with God, I really didn’t even want to take it.
What had happened? My heart had grown cold.
We cannot allow our hearts to grow cold towards God. We are called to be light and life to this world, and if we get disconnected from the vine, we’re no good to anyone.
(1) Trust in Jesus – It’s not your strength or dedication but it’s the grace of Jesus that makes you able to come into God’s presence.
(2) Close the Door – Remove those things that cause distractions or move yourself away from them; God is worthy of your undivided attention.
(3) Come to Worship – Set your heart to love God and be loved by him rather than merely asking for things or getting more information.
(4) Wait on Him – Be content to wait as long as it takes for your heart to connect with his, even if that means you don’t say or do as much as you’d like
(5) Give Your Best – Get up early and give God your time before your mind is tired and occupied with all that happened during your day.
(6) Keep Going – Don’t quit or leave when it’s difficult and tasteless, and don’t be satisfied with merely a mediocre prayer life but keep going until you reach that place of intimacy.