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July 11, 2020Culture

One on One with John Starke on Having a Deeper Prayer Life

We need a deep, hidden life for a fruitful, public life.
One on One with John Starke on Having a Deeper Prayer Life
Image: IVP Books

Ed: Why a book on prayer? Have you noticed deficiencies in how we are doing in the church in regards to prayer life?

John: We live in a performative age. “Performative individualism” is how Sophie Gilbert describes our society, where the performance of the self is more important than the reality of it. The most obvious place this shows up is in social media, where we curate our image to give the impression that we are okay and that we’re successful.

But there are also forms of performative individualism in our vocations, relationships, and even our families. Jesus warns against this in “performing your righteousness before others” in a kind of performative spirituality. The fruit of that is a culture of hyper-insecurity, a lack of self-awareness, and deep status anxiety.

We are likely all shaped by this culture in more subconscious ways than we think.

The answer to this performative life is to have a regular, hidden life with God. For many people, that’s intimidating. Oftentimes, when we hear of a “deep prayer life,” they imagine the one or two people in their church who are mature, or pastors, or folks made of different spiritual stuff.

I wrote this book because the Bible imagines prayer to be a very ordinary thing for very ordinary people. The whole first half of the book is aimed at showing that a satisfying and vibrant prayer life is for all who are in Christ.

Ed: What are some of the regular pathways and rhythms of a life of prayer?

John: After we grasp that prayer is possible for us, we learn the pathways. That’s the concern of the second half of the book, where I look at six main disciplines: communion, mediation, solitude, feasting and fasting, and corporate worship. These aren’t complex, but ordinary things.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the most transformative thing you can do is to begin to spend unhurried time with God on a regular basis for the rest of your life. What I try to show in the book is that it’s possible.

Ed: Who have you found to be key people in scripture who have modeled what our prayer life should look like? How can we model these patterns?

John: Jesus gives us a pattern of prayer in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6. That’s a good place to begin. But Jesus talks quite a bit on prayer. He teaches us we ought to come to God like a father who likes to give good gifts (Matt. 7:7-11); that we ought to pray with faith (Mark 11:23-26); we ought to pray in private (Mark 12:38-40); we ought to plead to God like a persistent widow coming to a reluctant judge for justice or like a tax collector longing for mercy (Luke 18).

But the prayer book of the church is the book of Psalms. Eugene Peterson says somewhere that since the church’s beginning, Christians have learned to pray by praying the Psalms each day. The Psalms contain every human emotion.

They teach us how to pray when we are angry, desperate, joyful, depressed, afflicted, and hopeful. They teach us how to feel or what to say when our lives are falling apart or when we’ve just been delivered.

The easiest way to allow the Psalms to shape your prayer life is to read a psalm a day and ask how this psalm teaches me to talk to God.

Ed: Let’s talk about prayer during these times of Covid-19 and racial injustice. How do we press into prayer now?

John: Covid-19 has taken away a lot of the public and therefore performative elements of our lives, leaving much of it hidden, which can be strategic for our spiritual growth. It might be helpful to imagine ourselves like a seed, buried in the ground.

So much happens to a seed, when buried. It dies, as Jesus says, in John 12. But in doing so, it opens itself up to all the resources of the soil and becomes something greater than it was.

But it had to be hidden to do so. I think there’s a lot to that imagery that we haven’t been able to see and grasp until now.

With racial injustice, there’s a danger of performative justice. In other words, right now, Christians are tempted to say the right things on social media to ensure we are on the “right side” or we don’t have any work to do on ourselves.

Then, once our culture is done being concerned about it, so are we. Having right conclusions about racial injustice is one thing, but to be working against it for only as long as the culture is paying attention is worldliness. We will need something deeper than “cultural support” to be people of justice.

Justice, especially racial justice, is a long road that often takes many hidden acts of sacrifice and suffering. So much is needed that is unseen. That means we will need to know how to work and pray in hidden ways. For many of us, it’s hard to even imagine what that kind of life and work looks like. We need a deep, hidden life for a fruitful, public life.

Ed Stetzer is executive director of the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center, serves as a dean at Wheaton College, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group. The Exchange Team contributed to this article.

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One on One with John Starke on Having a Deeper Prayer Life