Carol Gelderman says, “writing is the most exact form of thinking.” That’s proved true for me when making a prayer list. Before writing out my prayers, I often erupted to God out of the emotion of the moment. In saying that, I’m not saying our prayers should be emotionless. David’s prayers (as we see examples of them recorded in David’s psalms) show otherwise. In those psalms, David articulates his feeling and explains what he needs from God. And somewhere in the prayer, you also see him reflecting on God’s faithfulness. He praises God and rests in God, even as he offers, at times, a panicked plea. I’ve experienced some of what David illustrates in his prayers—especially when I take time to write out my prayers to God—when making a prayer list.
As I stressed in the article “Should You Keep a Prayer List?,” if you make a prayer list solely to feel or be seen as disciplined, it won’t last. But, if you have a prayer list because it helps you express your heart to God and understand his will better, writing a prayer list can be fruitful. That’s why, over the years, my prayer lists have taken many forms. It seemed the form fit my season in life. I explain below the forms and the seasons they addressed. Hopefully, you can identify a form that fits your current season.
The Prayer Journal
A prayer journal helps me most when I’m feeling overwhelmed. Multiple emotions can collide from various experiences. Some are from past experiences. Others are from the present. Some emotions come from the fear of the future. They all seem to carry equal weight, though I’m not sure they should. They can paralyze me because I don’t know how to sort them. Where do I put them? Writing out my prayers helps.
Opening a notebook, I write down the date and begin writing. The address to God is essential. Like writing a letter to God, I open by addressing him. I usually start by writing, “Father.” This reminds me of his care. But when needing to remind myself to submit to him or rest in his authority, I address him as “My Lord” or “My King.” Addressing him this way causes me to reflect on his nature before getting to my needs. And before listing my needs, I’ll unpack what I’m experiencing and feeling. It’s not for God’s benefit; he already knows. Writing out the prayer is for my benefit. Writing out my prayers influences what I ask for and how I ask for it. I then end the journal entry by thanking him for who he is and for lovingly hearing me.
The benefit of a prayer journal is also true for the other types of prayer lists. I can go back to my journal and re-read it. When I do, I see the prayers God has answered. Some of those prayers involve “defining reality.” In his book Leadership Is an Art, Max Depree says the primary job of a leader is to define reality for an organization.1 God does that for me when I’m emotionally overwhelmed and I write out my prayers. Working through it with him in prayer, he reminds me what is true about him, me, my fallen world, and my experiences, both past and present. Seeing them on paper and processing them with God, my journaled prayers change over time. Soon my requests turn into answered prayers, and I praise him for what he’s done. And for unanswered requests, I write them out again or edit them as God changes my understanding of what I truly need or how I should ask for it.
The Prayer List
I use a prayer journal when I am emotionally overwhelmed. But, when I feel busy—smothered by multiple responsibilities—I use a different prayer list. After identifying my responsibilities, I make a prayer list for each. During one demanding season, I had a list for each day. Praying through it assured me each responsibility was covered with prayer. I also included Scripture references with each request. And if I wanted to memorize a passage, I wrote it out with the request. This not only checked my heart with what I was asking. It also attached Scripture to my prayers, Scripture I knew I’d need to recall while praying.
“Regardless of the season or prayer lists I’ve used, one outcome has been the same: I realized how present, active, loving, and faithful God is.”—Mark Becton
This particular prayer list helped me address a tension that surfaced early in ministry. Becoming the new pastor of a church while in seminary, I called the church’s former pastor. I wanted to know if the congregants would understand the time demands of pastoring while working through seminary. The pastor told me the church would be fine with it. The problem would be with me and my frustration with it all. He explained,
The moment you feel good about the church, you’re struggling at school. When church and school are good, you feel your family needs you more. And even when church, school, and family are well, you realize your time with God has disappeared. The real question is how will you deal with the frustration that there’s always a responsibility needing your attention.
Having a responsibility-shaped prayer list helped me in the seasons when I felt I could never get ahead. Praying through it, I knew each responsibility was being covered with prayer.
The Scripture-Guided Prayer List
The first two forms helped when I was overwhelmed emotionally or with responsibilities. However, using a Scripture-guided prayer list has transformed me and how I pray. I saw this after preaching through the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9–13. Nine sermons opened my eyes to that prayer’s comprehensive beauty. I saw a prayer list with five parts.
Using the Lord’s Prayer as a template, I open prayer first by picturing God. It helps me look beyond my stresses when I write out how caring (my Father), well-resourced (in heaven), and holy (hallowed) God is. And before bringing my wants or needs to God, I force myself to pray for God’s kingdom to come and for his will to be done. When struggling over what to pray here, I recall passages where Jesus talks about God’s kingdom (Luke 13:18–21; 17:20–21; Matthew 6:33) and prays for God’s will (John 17). They inspire me to pray for the same.
I then list and pray over what’s stressing me. But instead of letting fearful what-ifs consume my time and energy in prayer, I pray for my daily bread—the provision I’ll need throughout the day ahead of me. I pray for my fears, concerns, and needs over the next twenty-four hours. Realizing only God truly knows what the day holds for me, I also pray through 2 Corinthians 9:8. It says, “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.” And when surprises surface in the day, I pause, even smile at times, remembering I’ve already prayed about them.
The final two parts of the prayer list are hard to pray but crucial. Though I don’t want to, I address my relationships, both with God and others. None of us want to see our sin, nor do we want to deal with it rightly. But by writing them out and praying through them, we can experience a lightness knowing that God forgives us through Christ. It’s easy to grow accustomed to the weight of holding back the forgiveness of others or refusing to ask for forgiveness from God. Praying through this section of the Lord’s prayer provides me a peace I can’t attain any other way.
And in conclusion, I pray for God’s protection. He is still sanctifying me while I live in a fallen world. I am regularly tempted to sin in ways that affect my relationships. I know my susceptibilities, my chronic temptations. I have to ask for God’s protection from those sins and temptations and others that surprise me.
No Matter What the Form
If you decide to use a prayer list to guide your prayers, I hope one of these forms helps you in your current season. Regardless of the season or prayer lists I’ve used, one outcome has been the same: I realized how present, active, loving, and faithful God is. I pray that you will realize the same.