Ever since I was a younger Christian I’ve heard many godly men exhort me to spend long periods in prayer. Some recommended waking up early to pray (from 5-6 AM), others recommended taking a day off each month to pray. I’ve also read many accounts of great Christians who have spent hours upon hours in prayer – which has no doubt benefited Christ’s church. I have to confess: though I do pray fervent prayers quite often, I find it very difficult to spend hours in uninterrupted prayer. But I don’t despair for reasons that follow.
As wonderful and beneficial as longer prayers are, I think we have to be careful when it comes to this topic. We’ve always got to remember not to judge prayers based on how long they are. The essence of true prayer is a believing heart calling upon the Father through Christ by the Holy Spirit (see Heidelberg Catechism LD 45). In fact, Jesus told us not to heap up empty phrases when we pray, thinking that we will be heard for our many words (Matt. 6:7). And the pattern for prayer that he gave us is pretty short (Matt. 6:9-13). I appreciate how Philip Ryken discussed this in When You Pray.
“Knowing God as Father means…you can keep prayer simple. When children need something from their fathers, they do not hire a lawyer, draft a formal petition, or get down on their knees, they just ask. That is why Christian prayers are straightforward. The prayers of pagans tend to be overly complicated, but when Christians pray, they pray to their Father.”
“As a general rule, the prayers of God’s children are short and sweet. Martin Luther (1483-1546) once said, ‘Our prayer must have few words, but be great and profound in content and meaning…Few words and richness of meaning is Christian; many words and lack of meaning is pagan.’ Indeed, one of the striking things about most biblical prayers is their brevity. It is hard to find a prayer anywhere in the Bible that when read aloud would be more than five minutes long.”
“Some Christians measure spirituality by the amount of time a person prays. True, there is plenty of teaching in Scripture about being devoted to the life of prayer. Jesus himself spent a great deal of time in prayer, and the apostle Paul tells us to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17, KJV). However, the effectiveness of our prayers does not depend on the length of our prayers.”
Ryken goes on to discuss Elijah’s short, fervent prayer in contrast to the long-winded prayers of Baal’s prophets (1 Ki. 18). Elijah’s prayer was brief and simple. Or consider Isaiah’s prayer in which he confessed his sin (Is. 6:5). Think about the publican’s prayer: God be merciful to me, a sinner (Luke 18:13). Thomas’ confession-prayer also comes to mind: My Lord and my God! (John 20:28). Ecclesiastes even says, Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few (Ecc. 5:2 NIV).
God’s people all have different personalities and temperaments. Some can pray for hours on end with great fervency. Others pray short fervent prayers throughout the day. The point is that we pray often, from the heart, to our Father in heaven. The saint that prays for hours is not more spiritual than the saint that prays frequent, brief, heart-felt prayers. My own prayer life has grown since I’ve come to understand what Ryken means in this closing paragraph. You may want to read it a few times if you’ve struggled in this area.
“God does not need any lengthy explanations. If you find that your prayer life is too weak, is it possibly that you are trying to make things too complicated? Our prayers must be fervent, of course, and they ought to be frequent, but they do not need to be fancy” (p. 30-31).
Philip Ryken, When You Pray.