The Discipline of Praying the Scriptures
About the Guest
Don Whitney, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, coaches Christians not to forget to pray the words of Scripture as they seek the Lord, and then shows us how using Ephesians 5:21: "Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ."
Don Whitney coaches Christians not to forget to pray the words of Scripture as they seek the Lord, and then shows us how using Ephesians 5:21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
The Discipline of Praying the Scriptures
Bob: Could your prayer life use a jump start?—time to refresh things a little bit? Don Whitney says you need to learn how to pray the Bible, and he says it’s easy to do.
Don: A person who is led to Christ this morning—he’s never been in church a day in his life / he’s never read one verse of the Bible before in his life—he could do this. You show him, with the 23rd Psalm, and he goes, “Lord, shepherd me as I grow as a Christian.” Well, he got it! He may not understand many of the rest of the verses—but he’s going to skip those, and that is fine—he’s going to pray about the things he does understand. Yes, he may not pray about them perfectly; but you know what? It’s going to be more biblically-sound than if he tried to pray without the Bible.
When you pray the Bible, the Bible shapes your prayers. You are edified by the Word of God when you are praying / you are taught by the word of God when you are praying—that doesn’t happen when you make up your own prayers.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, January 3rd. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine.
If you would like to pray more effectively, more passionately, and more regularly in 2017 than you did in 2016, we’ve got some thoughts for you. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I am about to ask you a question that I hope you won’t ask me in return; okay?
Dennis: No promises.
Bob: I would like to know, on a scale from one to ten, if you were rating your prayer life—ten being, “I could teach George Mueller a few things about prayer,”—and—
Dennis: That’s a nice standard. [Laughter] In case our listeners wonder about him [George], he only had over 50,000 specific answers to prayer.
Bob: He kept a journal of that. So that’s a ten; okay? And a one would be: “I need to go back to kindergarten on prayer.” So where would you put your prayer life on that scale?
Dennis: Well, north of one—[Laughter]—but way south of George Mueller—[Laughter] —four or five. I am working on it here, recently.
Barbara is much more of prayer warrior than I am. It’s both convicting and comforting to be married to somebody who sets a high standard. She’s not George Mueller, but it would be interesting to hear how she would answer that question as well.
Let’s ask our guest on the program.
So you [Bob] don’t want—
Bob: Thank you; just leave me—
Dennis: —you don’t want—
Bob: Keep me off the hook here; will you?
Dennis: I love it that you would ask me that question, but—[Laughter]
Dr. Don Whitney joins us on FamilyLife Today. Dr. Whitney, you teach Spiritual Life at The Southern Baptist Seminary, in Louisville, Kentucky.
Don: It’s called Biblical Spirituality—Professor of Biblical Spirituality.
Dennis: That’s right; and an Associate Dean there—
Dennis: —so you ought to be right up there with George Mueller—
Bob: —knocking on George Mueller’s door; right?
Dennis: Where are you?
Don: You know, I don’t know anyone—that I really admire for their godliness—who feels good about their prayer life. I think everyone says, “I aspire to be so much better than I am.” I think we are all aware of our lack of prayer—prayer-less-ness—and wonder about the number of unanswered prayers.
I don’t know anyone who said they couldn’t pray more. What was Billy Graham famous for saying?—you know: “I wished I’d prayed more,” as he looked back over his life and ministry. What was his one regret?—“I wished I’d prayed more.”
Dennis: Yes; you know, Dr. Whitney, here is what I want you to do at the beginning of this broadcast. If you had to share with our listeners the most important lesson you have learned in walking with God and about prayer—you have been doing this now for how long?—I am not talking about how long you have been teaching—just tell them about how long you have been walking with God.
Don: Since I was nine years old.
Bob: That’s fifty-plus years.
Dennis: So what would you say is the most important lesson you could pass on to our listeners about prayer?
Don: It would be the lessons I’ve put into the little book called, Praying the Bible—that to pray the words of Scripture is the safest ground of prayer and the way to eliminate the almost universal problem in prayer, which is to say the same old things about the same old things; and that’s boring.
When prayer is boring, you don’t feel like praying. If you don’t feel like praying, you don’t pray with any fervency / with any consistency. The simple permanent biblical solution to this almost universal problem is: “When you pray, pray the words of Scripture / pray the Bible.”
Bob: Is this something that you have come to recently?—or how did this discipline emerge in your life?
Don: Yes; I have pastored for about 24 years—15 years in one particular church, in the suburbs of Chicago, before I became a seminary professor. We had a series of meetings in our church—a man was preaching—you know, Sunday through Wednesday night—and on the weekday mornings, he was doing a Bible study. He was going through the prayers of the Apostle Paul. Many of us have heard that kind of teaching before, and it was very good—he was encouraging us to pray the prayers of the Apostle Paul.
At one point, he held up his Bible and said, “Folks, when you pray, use the Prayer Book.”
It just suddenly dawned on me—the whole Bible was a prayer book. We could pray, not just the prayers in Ephesians; we could pray the whole letter of Ephesians. From that point, I began to pray the Bible; and I then centered pretty much on praying the Psalms. It was years later before I discovered this was an ancient Christian practice. Then I discovered the places in the Bible, in the New Testament, where Jesus and the Apostles prayed Psalms. That was transformational for me.
Dennis: It just so happens that my Bible opened to Ephesians, Chapter 5—I had something about prayer in that section of my Bible.
Bob: Well, and he also had some ministry on marriage and family—so Ephesians, Chapter 5—you”d think it might flip open to that one.
Dennis: Yes; I want you to go to verse 22 of Ephesians 5. I want you to demonstrate what you are talking about, because you just said the most important lesson you could pass on to our listeners is to be more intentional about praying the words of Scripture.
I could almost hear a mom, a dad, a single person, listening to this broadcast, going, “Say what?”
Bob: “How do you do that?”
Dennis: “What does that sound like? What does that mean?” I am kind of teeing it up for you—I’m sure you know what to do.
Bob: Can he go back to [verse] 21?—because I think, if you are going to start this, you ought to start in 21. Isn’t that where it says, “Submit yourselves one to another”?
Dennis: You can go back there if you want, Bob.
Bob: Okay; if I’m going to start this prayer, I’d start at 21.
Don: This isn’t the place where I normally illustrate it for people the first time.
Don: But I’m happy to—
Bob: But we’ve put you on the spot.
Don: Hey, you’ve put me on the spot. I—usually after illustrating it in one of the Psalms, usually the 23rd Psalm—then go to one of the Epistles. I think that is the second-best place in Scripture from which to pray Scripture. Turning the words of Scripture into prayer really is just talking to God about what comes to mind when you read the text.
Verse 21 says,” Submitting to one another out of reverence for Christ.”
First of all, I would pray something about: “Lord, I do want to show reverence for You. You are my Lord; You are my Savior / my King, Lord Jesus Christ. I want myself / I want my spouse to have a reverence for You in my life / in our home. This text tells us to submit to one other. I want to do that / we want to do that. As Christians, help us to understand fully what that means in our home and to submit to one another.”
What we are doing here, mainly, is praying. We’re praying, while secondarily, we are glancing at the text. My argument is: “Whatever comes to mind, turn it God-ward; because the Bible teaches us to pray about everything”; right? So everything that comes to mind is something worthy of prayer. I do know this—that if people make up their own prayers, which is what they usually do, and they pray without the Bible—they are certainly going to pray off base and some strange things.
Dennis: You know, I am listening to you and I’m going, “I need to be more intentional about doing that.”
When I read the Bible—instead of just pondering what the Bible says—but instead, begin to express it back to God about how it applies to my life and what I want to take away. You said this isn’t Bible study—but in a way, it is the ultimate Bible study—because you are calling on God to apply what you are hearing and reading to your own life.
Dennis I am reflecting back, now, to back last summer. We are, here, at the beginning of a new year—this is a time when people do a lot of reflecting on things. Well, back last summer, I was reflecting on FamilyLife’s 40 years of ministry. I had a number of hours—Bob and I would sit down here in the studio—we reflected back upon God’s goodness over the past 40 years. Barbara had been in here with us / we’d done video. I actually had the privilege of probably doing 15-20 hours of reflection, verbally, of the goodness of God.
After our 40th was over, back last summer, I read the last verse of Psalm 45, which says this:
“I will cause Your name to be remembered in all generations. Therefore, nations will praise you forever and ever.” I sat there reading that—I’m going: “I don’t know all of what that means, but I have just had the privilege”—because there were people from 20 nations, here in our offices, celebrating 40 years. There were a number of other nations, from five continents / 3,900 people who watched, online, our 40th celebration—I felt like: “You know what? I will cause Your name to be remembered in all generations.” When you pass on the reality of Jesus Christ to a family, you are making an impact in generations.
Bob: I can imagine, Don, there are times when, as you are praying a passage of Scripture, you wind up with one verse—maybe even a phrase from a verse—
—and that is really where the meditation takes you / that is where your prayer is focused. It’s not like you have to pray through a chapter or even a whole Psalm.
Don: Yes; that’s right. I was teaching this once out in Santa Rosa, California, and gave people an opportunity to try it—and suggested they do so with the 23rd Psalm because that is where I like to go first to show people how to do it with a few verses. I then gave them a chance to try it, and they carried it on through. A woman came back; and she had prayed 25 minutes and never got past, “The Lord is my shepherd.”
I don’t think the Lord was up, there, going, “You didn’t finish that Psalm!” I think He was delighted she could find so much delight in Him as her shepherd / she could talk to Him 25 minutes about being her shepherd. But, Bob, the very next day, she may have been up in Psalm 22—that has 31 verses—maybe only half a dozen things came to mind that prompted prayer—that’s fine. The great thing about this method is: “If you have more time, just turn the page.”
You never run out of anything to say. And here’s the best part—you never again say the same old things about the same old things.
I have discovered, in teaching this, literally, over 500 times, that people will find themselves praying much longer than they are used to / they intended to; whereas, often, they might struggle for five to seven minutes—their mind is wandering half the time. They’ll suddenly come to themselves and say:”Wait a minute! Where was I? I haven’t been thinking of God for the last several minutes.” They find themselves with these reminders in the text—that if their minds do wander, and we are human, eventually we will / we are tired or whatever—that we got something to come back to—the next verse. Because it’s fresh—it’s not the same old words we always say—it tends to keep our attention and our focus longer and continue the prayer.
This week, when I was teaching the class, I gave students an opportunity to pray for 20 minutes. They all said they could have kept going.
In fact, I give them an assignment, as I do in all my classes, where the students are to spend four consecutive hours alone with God. At first, they kind of gulp and think, “What am I going to do for four hours?” But after I have taught this—and about how to meditate on Scripture—most of them will simply alternate between the two. Almost every student always writes that they spent more than four hours, not because they had to—they were enjoying it so much.
If you have four hours to pray, you just keep turning the page and you never run out of anything to say, and you don’t repeat yourself. But another good thing about this method is—if you only have four minutes to pray,which is going to be closer to reality for most people most days, this still works. You just don’t get as far in the text.
Dennis: And as you are reading the text, if God brings to mind a person—
Dennis: —a family member—
Dennis: —maybe an enemy—
Dennis: —there is an opportunity to take that person and that relationship before Almighty God and say to Him: “You know, God, You have said here that You cause my enemies to be at peace with me. I don’t know how You are going to do that—
Dennis: —“but I ask You to bring two friends of mine, whom I know quite well, who are really in a major disagreement with each other. I ask You to work out this Scripture between them.” Use the prompting of those people, who come to mind, as you are reading the Bible, to, as you pray the Bible—pray for them.
Don: Yes; here’s what happens—people always discover that they will pray about things they would never have thought to pray about. If they had a prayer list as big as the New York City phone directory, they would have never thought to pray for this particular thing. But it’s on God’s heart, and it’s prompted by the text. On the other hand, people find that they pray about the things they normally do pray about, but in fresh ways.
My argument is that we pray about the same old things all the time.That’s not the problem—the problem is we say the same old things about the same old things. I find most people pray about six things every time.
If I ask them to go pray, and do not prompt them, they will pray about the same six things: their family, some broad sense or another; their future, some decision maybe that’s before them—their family; their future; their finances, God’s provision for bills or whatever; their work, or if they are students, their schoolwork; their church, or ministry, or Christian concern; and the current crisis in their life, the thing they don’t need any reminder to pray about. Well, if those six things dominate your prayer life, that’s normal; because, thankfully, those things don’t change dramatically very often.
Dennis: Those are the areas where life is coming at us.
Bob: That’s where we live; yes.
Don: There is almost nothing in your life that is not related to those six. Thank the Lord they don’t change dramatically very often. If you are going to pray about your life—and these six things are your life and these six things don’t change dramatically very often—it means you are going to pray about the same old things all the time. That’s not the problem—the problem is that we say the same old things. But when you pray the Scripture, those things will come to your mind; because that’s your life. But when you pray them through a different passage of Scripture, it’s a different prayer. Instead of just “Bless my family,”—if I pray through Psalm 23—it comes out as: “Shepherd my family today.”
The shepherding imagery just changes everything.
If it is Psalm 139: “Lord may my family sense your presence wherever they go today.” See, it’s still the same prayer, “Bless my family”; but it’s a different prayer when you pray it through a different passage.
Dennis: You are coaching men—husbands/dads—to know how to pray for their wives and for their children. I know there’s got to be dads right now, listening to us, going, “One of the most threatening things I do is pray with my wife.”
Dennis: Can you tee it up, almost like a golf ball on a wooden tee, for a husband to go home tonight—-
Dennis: —maybe it is at the dinner table, maybe it is when they go to bed / maybe it’s as they are lying there in bed, about to doze off and go to sleep—could you give a husband a great prayer to pray over his wife that comes out of Scripture?
Don: There are a number I suppose, like Ephesians 5, we could mention and so forth—passages particularly on being a husband / on being a father—on those family kinds of texts—
—but, really, this method will work with almost any text in the Bible. Even like you said—if you are lying there in bed, you don’t want to reach over and get your Bible—almost any text that comes to mind. You are lying there—and you want to pray something or before the meal: “Lord, Your Word tells us to seek first Your kingdom and Your righteousness. Help us to do that, as a couple. Amen,” or “Lord, help us to use this food at this meal to strengthen us to better seek Your Kingdom and Your righteousness.” Almost any verse—you can pray that prayer—that whether it is for the family or whatever—through the lens of that verse.
Dennis: Back to the 23rd Psalm?
Dennis: A husband is called to be the shepherd of his family.
Don: That’s right.
Dennis: So pull that out—
Dennis: —23rd Psalm / look at it—
Dennis: —“Lord, thank You for my wife. I pray that I would be a good shepherd, as You are over us.”
Dennis: “For my wife—-
Dennis: —“I pray that she would fear no evil.”
Dennis: “Help me to know how to understand what her fears are—
Dennis: —and meet her needs.” I like this because you are providing—
Don: “And I pray for our children to love You, as their shepherd, as we do—cause they’re soon to be your sheep too.” I mean, it’s just almost unlimited!
Bob: So I would just say—if a guy said: “Okay; I am going to try this. I’ll just start in Matthew, Chapter 1, and start praying the Bible.”
Dennis: That’s the genealogies.
Bob: That’s right. Maybe you jump to Matthew 2 to get started. Would you do this?
Don: Maybe so; but, I can take Matthew 1 [Laughter] and say: “Like some of these examples,” or “Lord, may our ancestors—I mean, our heirs—may they be pointed toward Christ. I mean, for all of our descendants, for a thousand generations, may they come to You.”
Bob: You know, that would work; won’t it? We should try just to stump him—throw some Scripture out—
Dennis: Oh, yes. [Laughter]
Bob: —and see if he can turn it into a prayer. [Laughter]
Here’s what I am thinking—many of our listeners will be familiar with the acrostic that a lot of us have heard about prayer—the A-C-T-S acrostic.
Don: Yes; that’s right.
Bob: So pray with “A”doration, then with “C”onfession, and then with “T”hanksgiving, and then “S”upplication or make your requests known to God. You can take—a verse, a passage, a paragraph—and you can say, “How can I pray a prayer of adoration from this?”
Bob: “How can I confess from this? How can I give thanks in this? And what can I ask for in this?”
Don: Yes; you know, Bob,I have taught the ACTS acrostic. I think it is good as far as it goes. But you know what? After a while, that can become the thing—the same old thing.
Don: A person can say: “Okay; I am going to begin with that adoration. How will I adore the Lord today? Well, I guess I will adore Him the same way I did yesterday; because I don’t have the time or the creative energy to think of new ways to adore the Lord.” Good news! You don’t have to come up with new ways to adore the Lord. He has given us 150 chapters of how He wants to be adored in the Book of Psalms. You can’t do any better than that.
A man who may feel as though his wife is his spiritual—more spiritually-mature / whose wife knows the Bible better than he does—you can’t do any better than praying the words of Scripture like that. Anyone can do this. A six-year-old, who can read, can do this! Anyone can do this.
A person who is led to Christ this morning—he’s never been in church a day in his life / he’s never read one verse of the Bible before in his life—he could do this.
You show him, with the 23rd Psalm, and he goes, “Lord, shepherd me as I grow as a Christian.” Well, he got it! He may not understand many of the rest of the verses—but he’s going to skip those—and that’s fine. He’s going to pray about the things he does understand. Yes, he may not pray about them perfectly; but, you know what? It’s going to be more biblically-sound than if he tried to pray without the Bible. When you pray the Bible, the Bible shapes your prayers. You are edified by the Word of God when you are praying / you are taught by the Word of God when you are praying; and that doesn’t happen when you make up your own prayers.
Dennis: I want you to speak to this for a moment—as you talk about prayer, I got to tell you, I collide with my Self—the capital “S” Self—I am selfish. I tend to be self-sufficient. I have to deal with pride. Prayer, in its essence, believes that God is.
Dennis: It bends our wills before Almighty God to say, “You are my Maker, my Redeemer, my Master; and I yield to You.”
It seems to me, at the heart of prayer, is finally coming to the end of yourself and admitting you are not in control; but there’s a God who is.
Don: Yes; when you pray the Bible, it’s a more God-centered way of praying and weans you away from self. It doesn’t eliminate the fact that you are still going to pray about your family, your future, your finances / the things you normally want to pray about—but you do so more in a God-centered way—and less in a way of: “Lord, here I am, again, to ask You to do for me what I want on this list here.”
Dennis: I got to go back to our 40th anniversary. Bryan Loritts, a good friend of mine, spoke at our 40th anniversary, back last summer. During his message on prayer, he asked the question: “How would your world be better?” and then he said, “You know the problem is—is a lot of our prayers are around our world.” He said: “The real question is: ‘How would the world be better, or be different, if God answered all your prayers over the past six/twelve months?”
I was convicted about that, because I do think we get into a rut—
Don: Yes; yes.
Dennis: —of just praying for ourselves and our small sphere of just my world. There are some issues taking place—in people’s communities, in our country, in our world—that demand that we take them before God and we ask Him: “Would You go to work on behalf of what we see taking place, here, in America?—the racial strife that seems to continue to rear its ugly head—would You heal our country? Would you be merciful upon us, as a nation?”
Don: Yes; when you pray the Scripture, you pray more kingdom-centered prayers, more gospel-centered prayers, more God-exalting prayers and not just those that relate to your own little life. We are told in 1 John, that we must pray in accordance with His will or He will not hear us. Do you have any greater assurance that you are praying the will of God than when you are praying the Word of God?
Dennis: That’s a good point. The Scriptures reveal what God wants to do, both in us and through us.
Bob: Well, this is a time of yearwhen people look at some of their spiritual disciplines and think, “Okay; how do I want things in the new year to be different than they were in the previous year?” It’s a good opportunity for people to develop some new habits / some new patterns in their lives, spiritually. One of those new patterns may be this pattern of praying the Bible. You can go to our website, FamilyLifeToday.com; and you can order a copy of Don Whitney’s book by that title, Praying the Bible. Our website is FamilyLifeToday.com—just order from us online—or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to request the book. Again, the toll-free number is 1-800-358-6329.
Now, as we start a new year, we would like for some of you to consider a new habit, as well, as it relates to FamilyLife. Our program is heard on about 1100 stations and outlets, all across the country.
If you divided things up evenly, we have somewhere between four or five families in each of those communities who support FamilyLife Today as Legacy Partners, monthly donors to this ministry. As you can imagine, it’s our monthly donors who provide the financial stability / the backbone for this program and keep us functioning throughout the year.
Can we ask you to join that team?—become one of our Legacy Partners in the year, 2017, and be partners with us in what God is doing through this ministry by making a regular monthly contribution. You can find out more about becoming a Legacy Partner when you go to our website, FamilyLife.com. We would love to have you join the team.
If God has used FamilyLife Today in your life / if you are in alignment with the mission and vision of this ministry—to help effectively develop godly marriages and families who change the world, one home at a time—then become a Legacy Partner today. You can do that, online, at FamilyLifeToday.com; or call and say, “I’d like to become a Legacy Partner. Our toll-free number is 1-800-FL-TODAY.
Tomorrow, we are going to talk more with Dr. Whitney about how we can practice a new discipline in the new year—learning to pray the Bible each day. I hope you can tune in for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
FamilyLife Today is a production of FamilyLife of Little Rock, Arkansas.
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