The Prayer Matrix: Resurrect your Prayer Life in the Age of Distraction

How do you create a structured and spontaneous prayer life?

When I pray, I fall into one of two ditches.

On one hand, when I try to be spontaneous in my prayer, I get distracted. In the age of the smartphone, our minds don’t know what to do with open-ended time. Most of us can’t fill silence with prayer because our minds are hardwired to seek distraction. Our thoughts wander and we find it difficult to maintain a conscious stream of prayer.

The other ditch is rote prayer. I used to have a list of prayer items I would go through each morning. However, over time this list became hollow to me. I prayed the same thing every day, and eventually, the words lost their meaning.

Enter the Prayer Matrix

Several months ago I realized a need to revitalize my prayer life. I was swinging between overly rote time with God and unstructured, unfruitful time in prayer. So I created a prayer matrix.

I started by taking the long list of prayer requests I had created.

I broke this list into many categories—family, friends, church, youth ministry, personal, martial, and many more. These categories became my vertical column.

Most of us can’t fill silence with prayer because our minds are hardwired to seek distraction.

For each point, I listed five prayer requests I regularly lift up. For example, under family, I included my parents, my three sisters, and my brother-in-law. These prayer requests filled my horizontal rows.

Across the top, I put the five weekdays. This strategy allows me to use Saturday to make up for one day a week if needed. Sunday could be more contemplative.

To complete it, I included an “everyday” row on top with prayer points I counted too important to pray every day (points like “Thank God,” “Confess sin” and “Receive forgiveness”).

On the bottom, I included a note to end with the Lord’s Prayer.

The prayer matrix model really has given me great benefits. Using it daily has allowed me to consistently pray every week for every area of my life.

I encourage you to try the prayer matrix for yourself. It’s easy to create yourself, but if you’d like a template, you can sign up for my weekly updates below and I’ll send it immediately to your inbox (and if you’re already signed up, it should be in your inbox already!).

The Most Important Mark of Spiritual Health

Last week, I wrote about my friend and what to do when God feels distant. One important question helped me determine if she was on the right track:

Do you have a regular time and space to spend time with God?

Look around you. Our world is filled with patterns and rhythms.

Rhythms of Grace

In general, our lives run on rhythms. We wake up, get ready, go to school or work, come back, go to weekly evening activities, and go to bed.

These rhythms in our lives satisfy both our need for sustenance and our desire for order. We observe daily, weekly, monthly, and annual rhythms to regulate our lives.

Rhythm is no accident. The same God who made the world made the Sabbath and commanded annual observances. He made day and night to regulate our lives and the phases of the moon to regulate months.

Consider the most basic of our daily rhythms: eating and sleeping. Most of us eat three meals a day. When we miss a meal (or a night of sleep!), we feel the effects.

The same is true of our spiritual lives. Our spiritual appetite is much like our natural appetite—with one key difference. When we miss our natural rhythms, our body lets us know through physical signals—hunger and pain. When we neglect spiritual rhythms, the pang of hunger is usually manifested spiritually—either by a lack of fruit or the presence of sin.

Rhythm is no accident.

Regulating our Bipolar Tendencies

I’ve known a couple people who struggle with bipolar. Medication helps them regulate two emotional extremes—toward either manic highs or depressing lows.

Both these carry temptations. When depressed, those struggling with bipolar hardly want to move, much less take medication. And when they feel great, why do they need it?

“The Word of God is like a pill,” my friend Daniel used to tell me. “We don’t always think we need it, but we always need the effects of it.”

We all have the same fluctuating tendencies in our spiritual lives. Some days, after a conference or worship night, we feel incredibly close to God. But the very next day we could feel like God is impossibly far away.

We are all spiritually bipolar, torn between our selfish, sinful desires and the ambition to prove to God how much we love Him. God’s Word reins us in and gives us a foundation to return to each day. We need God’s Word in our lives because we need the effect of God’s Word in our lives.

Promises + Practice = Power

2 Peter 1 is one of my favorite chapters in the Bible. In it, Peter paints this beautiful picture of the power of God’s Word. Summarizing the first part of the chapter, Peter says this:

  1. The knowledge of God through His Word gives us the power to live for Him and escape evil desires (vv. 3-4).
  2. Because of this, we should make every effort to add Christ-like qualities so our knowledge of Him is not ineffective (vv. 5-8).
  3. Whoever does not have these qualities is “so nearsighted he is blind” (v. 9).
  4. If we practice these qualities, we will never stumble and will receive a rich welcome into the heavenly Kingdom (v. 10-11).

God’s “precious and very great promises” (1:3) is the foundation for our practice of love, which ends in a “rich welcome into the heavenly kingdom.”

It sounds so simple only because we forget about our own spiritual blindness. If we aren’t intentional about reading, digesting, and applying God’s Word (His promises), then Peter says it’s like we’re so nearsighted we’re blind. God’s Word helps us see our lives rightly.

So let’s recap where we’ve been. We see God made rhythms as part of creation and intends for us to partake in them. We see the danger of following Jesus based on our feelings and our need to daily recenter ourselves. And finally, we see the promise of heaven, if only we can hold fast and practice God’s promises.

This all brings me back to the question at the start: Do you have a regular time and space to spend time with God?

Whoever you are and whatever season of life you’re in, you daily need God’s promises to regulate your life. You may not always feel the affects of God’s Word, but trust and believe God is able to transform you from the inside out if only you’ll take the time to ground yourself in Him.

3 Truths to Help When God Feels Distant

She’s in tears. “I just want to feel close to God.”

When God Feels Distant

What do you do when your desire to experience God is met by silence?

My friend approaches me after church. In the last year, she’s made incredible strides in her spiritual life. Coming from a broken family, my friend discovered a relationship with Jesus, and she was in the process of being healed and restored.

And then she asks, “What do I do when I desperately need God but can’t feel Him?” This is a girl who has tasted and seen that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8). She knows the sweet, comforting embrace of His presence.

But not now. Now the heavens are made of iron, and her prayers float up with no chance of reaching God.

I listen. We talk. We pray. Out of our conversation comes three truths to give her peace when God feels distant.

“What do I do when I desperately need God but can’t feel Him?”

1. You’re not alone in your struggle.

Read the book of Psalms, and you’ll find many people who felt far from God (6:2-3; 13:1-2; 90:13-14). They didn’t hide their emotions; they freely expressed them.

When we feel God is far away, we’re in good company. Even Jesus cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken Me?” The Son of God knows what it’s like to feel distant from God.

2. The recognition of distance is a gift.

The world is filled with people who are far from God and have no desire for Him. Out of this comes a simple truth: God’s mercy is seen in our longing for Him.

For my friend to express her sadness was beautiful because she said, in essence, “I know how good it is to be loved by God, and I’m not willing to let go.”

3. Trust promises, not perceptions.

The world tells us to trust our heart, but the Bible tells us, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it” (Jeremiah 17:9)?

Our hearts reflect our feelings, but our feelings don’t always reflect reality.

The Bible always reflects reality. Therefore, we need to understand what it says and trust it to guide us. I’ll write more on this next week, but I found this list of promises about God’s nearness helpful.

“You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.” Jeremiah 29:13

A Strange Kind of Evangelism

When my friend looked at me with tears in her eyes, she said, “I just want my life to shine for Jesus. I want others to see Him in me.”

I’m thankful for Desiring God for pointing out this entire story arc in Psalm 40. This whole post can be summarized in the first three verses of Psalm 40.

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the pit of destruction,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

Breaking this down:

  • “I waited patiently for the Lord.” We don’t know how long, but David committed to the waiting.
  • “He drew me… out of the miry bog.” To be drawn out of a miry bog, you have to be in it. David was facing some incredible suffering, yet he waited until God rescued him.
  • “He put a new song in my mouth.” David could praise God in a new way because he had personally experienced God’s saving power.
  • “Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the Lord.” Suffering is a strange kind of evangelism. As a result of David’s suffering, people saw God’s work in his life. It’s wrong for us to think God can only work through our lives when things are going well. Often God speaks loudest to ourselves and others in our pain.

When God feels distant, we need to know we’re not alone, thank God for the desire we feel for Him, and press on to believe His promises rather than our perceptions. When we hold on, God will deliver us.

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What Egyptian Copts Teach us about Love

I want what they have.

Graffiti
A wall of graffiti in Cairo, Egypt, which reads, "The Return of the Spirit."

Most of us gathered are young adults in our twenties. We sit in an oblong rectangle, one girl sitting on a wooden swing suspended from the ceiling. The air smells like leather.

“If we want to change the culture, we need a change in perspective.” Our speaker is a professor from the University of Minnesota, about 60, with a bald head and a relaxed smile. “Discipleship must become our key focus. We need people who are willing to lay down their lives for the Gospel.”

It’s easy to say that, but so hard to live it. We didn’t know it at the time, but hours after we would finish our meeting on Thursday night, three black SUVs in Egypt would surround a bus filled with Coptic Christians and open fire.

Disciplines and the Practice of Love

Last week I talked about how to maintain joy in developing spiritual disciplines. Taking a step back, we need to understand the practice of disciplines as spiritual formation in discipleship.

The Coptic Christians in Egypt have faced incredible persecution over the last several months. In December of last year, an attack killed 29 people. Another 47 died this year after two suicide bombings on Palm Sunday. And on Thursday, 28 Christians were killed.

Luke 14:33
In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be My disciples.

Why does it matter that we give up everything we have? Why did Jesus talk about picking up our cross? Why would He use such strong language?

After hearing about the ambush, I sit at my computer at work and read articles. A story from Christianity Today run after the Palm Sunday attacks leads me to this video. The speaker is Amr Adeeb, a prominent talk show host in Egypt.

Being a disciple means following in the path of someone else—emulating their life. The most dedicated Muslims follow in the way of Muhammad, who was a warrior and conqueror. The most dedicated Christians follow in the way of Jesus, who was unjustly put to death and loved His enemies.

Jesus asks us to give up everything because He knew the truth of His own death: Only unconditional surrender creates the capacity for unconditional love.

While I sat in the leather shop on Thursday and considered discipleship, I had no idea what was about to happen on the other side of the world. I still don’t know what it will take for Christians in America to model this kind of love.

In my reading, I come across a new piece by Keller on The Gospel Coalition. He’s talking about cultural transformation and summarizing how Christians can effectively engage our culture while maintaining our identity as a counterculture. This bit stands out to me:

We should be pioneers in civility, in building bridges to those who oppose us. The earliest Christians were viciously persecuted and put to death, but the church practiced forgiveness and non-retaliation. Nowhere in the West are Christians facing this, yet many respond to even verbal criticism with like-toned disdain and attacks. Christians should be peacemakers instead of pouring scorn on our critics and ‘sitting in the seat of mockers’ (Ps. 1:1).

Our lives are meant to model a countercultural love. Yet this unconditional love isn’t formed overnight.

Think about a pianist. When they know a recital is coming, they practice consistently. They practice until they know their piece by memory. When it comes time to perform, everything is muscle memory. They don’t have to strain to remember in the moment; whatever is inside them simply comes out through the keys.

Only unconditional surrender creates the capacity for unconditional love.

The Egyptian Copts were prepared for martyrdom before it came. After persecution rebounded in 2010, the Copts had to ask whether they were willing to follow Jesus, even if it meant following Him to an unjust death.

They considered. They talked. They taught. They learned. They grew. They prepared themselves, so if the time came for them, they were ready.

I’m not saying we should prepare ourselves for martyrdom. However, we should recognize this: The strength of our foundation today will determine the strength of our love tomorrow. The forgiveness shown by these Copts shows their foundation was firm.

When they were broken open, love and forgiveness flowed out.

Sitting in the leather shop, we didn’t come to any miraculous conclusions. We didn’t unlock the secret to transforming culture. But we did recognize the need for transformative relationships to prepare one another for faithfulness in the present age.

I challenge you to consider, as I do myself, whether the habits you’re developing now are preparing you to be a sacrificial disciple or only a “fair weather” Christian.

By learning unconditional love and preparing ourselves now, I hope and pray the world can be shocked by the love and forgiveness they see in followers of Jesus in my country, too.

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6 Ways We Find Joy in Spiritual Disciplines

This weekend I read the cover story of Christianity Today, and honestly, it gave me anxiety.

The article is called “Can You Control Yourself?” It dives into the topic of self-control and spiritual discipline, filled with revealing statistics and suggestions for cultivating self-control in our lives.

So why the anxiety? I feel anxiety because I feel pressure to be faithful with all God has given me.

  • I need to tend to my marriage and family.
  • I need to take care of my physical body.
  • I need to cultivate Scripture reading and prayer.
  • I need to remain a diligent employee.
  • I need to practice my gift of writing.
  • I need to expand my mind by reading.
  • I need to remember daily and weekly chores.
  • I need to invest in my church community.

All these areas require daily discipline to maintain and grow. The thought of striving to be faithful in each of these areas every day overwhelms me. Additionally, by focusing only on being “faithful,” my life is deprived of joy, and stewardship becomes a chore.

So how do we maintain and grow habits of faithfulness through self-control and spiritual disciplines without becoming anxious or joy-deprived? Here are six points to help us along the way:

How do we maintain and grow habits of faithfulness through self-control and spiritual disciplines without becoming anxious or joy-deprived?

1. By knowing our righteousness was already secured for us in Jesus Christ.

2 Corinthians 5:21
He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.

If our righteousness is in Christ, then that means we aren’t fighting FOR approval with God, but we fight FROM a place of approval with God. The verdict in already in and all who trust in Jesus are declared righteous.

2. By embracing grace to fill the space between who we are and who God has called us to be.

2 Corinthians 8:9
And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

God will always give us the grace we need to walk uprightly with Him. And even when we do fail, “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).

3. By committing to the hard work of daily picking up our cross.

Luke 9:23
And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”

In some ways, following Jesus will never cease to be a burden because it will never cease to be lifestyle of self-denial.

As Bradley Wright shares in his CT article, “the idea that we are to substitute one response for another, regulating our desires and impulses, lies behind every biblical command to obey when we are tempted. We want to worry, but we are to pray. We want to curse, but we are to bless. We want to hate, but we are to love.”

4. By realizing we don’t have to do it alone.

John 14:18
“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.”

If we were left to struggle for righteousness on our own, we would be a lost cause. Yet we have the Holy Spirit with us to help us through each day. This companionship gives us to courage to say with Paul, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Corinthians 15:10).

5. By realizing God’s expectation of us is not for instant sanctification but for the process.

1 Thessalonians 4:1, 3
“We ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to walk and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more…. For this is the will of God, your sanctification.”

Sanctification is not an inconvenience to God. If He wanted, He could beam us off the earth the moment we gave our lives to Christ.

Instead of zapping you with perfection, God desires you to wrestle and walk in such a way that sanctification comes through struggle. His will is your sanctification—that we would participate in the process of becoming more like Christ each day.

6. By keeping our eyes on the future and on the promise of renewed life.

1 Corinthians 13:10
“but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.”

In all our struggles, this is the hope—a day is coming when obedience and self-control will come to us as naturally as breathing. This is the promise of eternity.

God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.

Even in our struggle with sanctification, spiritual disciplines, and self-control, we can trust in God for His promise, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6).

I wonder: When you do find it easiest to practice spiritual disciplines? When do you find it most difficult? I’d love to hear in the comments below.

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