I am back at work now and looking forward to meeting people again at our prayer meeting tomorrow evening and church services on Sunday. I am very thankful to those who have been praying for me- I am coming back well rested and refreshed. We’ll see how long that lasts! One of the joys of a sabbatical is that it gives relief from challenges that all Christians face, but perhaps especially leaders. There are two challenges I have particularly in mind- the dangers of being an actor and the problem of mixed motives.

Regularly on Sunday I stand (literally!) on a stage. I speak about the Lord and the life that He calls us to live. Any of us who have done that will know the question in our hearts- am I acting? Am I simply playing a role here and then, when the audience disappears, will my life be very different from what I have just preached? The gap between a public role and a private reality can be difficult for all of us to face.

Likewise there is the question of mixed motives. Those of us who preach do long for God to be glorified and people helped. But, if we are at all honest, we also long for people to say nice things about us. And that’s not limited to preachers. Those of us who care for others will genuinely want the others to feel loved and valued but we also very much want to be told that we are wonderful people.

At one level, getting off the stage can help with these issues, which is why I was glad of the sabbatical. But that’s not a solution that is permanently available- presumably the church would wonder where I was at some point! The lasting antidote is actually found in Matthew 6:1-18. This is the one sermon that I ended up preaching at Woody Road (though the recording didn’t work so it isn’t available online) during the sabbatical period. I was grateful for the opportunity to look at it as it gave a helpful focus to my reflections during this time.

Jesus is warning about false motives- of pursuing righteousness in order to be praised by people. The basic gist of the section is that you will gain a reward from the audience for whom you are performing. If that is other people then will may well be praised by them but you won’t gain a lasting reward from God. Jesus is also warning about being an actor- he repeatedly refers to hypocrites, a word that has its origin in the theatre. For many of us this is challenging stuff. So how do we avoid these dangers?

We avoid falling into the deadly trap by prioritising secret righteousness. Jesus talks about giving and fasting in this context but the longest section is reserved for prayer. The point is clear- there is only way to avoid acting and having mixed motives. It is to prioritise secret prayer to our Father. This is the place of authenticity, the place where we are not performing for anybody or expecting praise from people. As such it is an absolute must. Without it, we will always live with a sense of hypocrisy in our hearts.

I have enjoyed reading Tim Keller’s book on Prayer over the last few weeks. He talks about a period when he and his wife, Kathy, were struggling to pray. Kathy made the point that if they had a medical condition and had to take a pill each night in order to carry on living then absolutely nothing would stop them taking it. Well, she commented, we must pray and make sure nothing stops us doing that. I found this convicting- many things that I think I must do are probably not essential (books or films that are described as “must-read” or “must-see” really aren’t) and I need to stop using them as an excuse not to pray.

But it may not just be a question of finding the time. For many of us, our prayer lives are struggling because we find the process of prayer dissatisfying. We set aside time to pray but end up mouthing platitudes and not really engaging with the Lord. I think Keller’s book is overly prescriptive in telling us how we should pray- at times I found it slightly overwhelming. However, if you turn his prescriptions into suggestions as to what could enrich your prayer life then I think his book is very helpful. Here are a few suggestions- some from Keller and some from elsewhere.

– Meditating on Scripture. It is good to spend some time in the Bible before we pray. However, it doesn’t need to be a deep study. Two simple questions can be helpful- What do I see about God to praise? What do I see about myself that could lead to confession and prayer for help? Often what we read will naturally lead to prayer for certain situations. This morning I was reading about the Lord setting us free from the fear of death in Hebrews 2. This naturally led on to praying for a family (not in Woody Road) with one member currently facing a terminal illness- that this text would be true in their experience.

– Using the Lord’s prayer (or other biblical prayers). Often our minds will be a blank when we come to pray. The prayer that Jesus taught in Matthew 6 and Luke 11 can be a huge help. In part that is because it reminds us that we are coming to a Father who wants to give good things to His children. But is can also be a springboard to pray for other things. I have found “Hallowed be your name” to be a great stir to pray for our witness. “Your will be done” has helped me to pray that we as a church would be pleasing to the Lord. It has been good to pray for those in need under the heading “Give us today our daily bread”. It is then appropriate to go on to confess sins and then to pray for any with whom there is a strain in the relationship that I might not hold a grudge against them. And, knowing the battle we are in, there are always things to pray under the heading of deliverance from the evil one. Using the Lord’s prayer as a series of headings can enrich our secret prayer lives hugely.

– Pouring out our hearts to the Lord. For some of us, our prayers just aren’t that honest. I find this bizarre but it dawned on me a while back that I just wasn’t praying about my anxieties. For some reason, I thought I had to sort things out rather than bringing them to the Lord. Some of us might be the same- we think our problems are too minor to bother the Lord. But He cares about anything that is causing us anxiety. So bring whatever it is to Him.

– Pray with thanksgiving. There are times when life has been tough and I found prayer slightly depressing as I’ve just listed my miseries before the Lord. I rise from prayer worse than I was before. It seems to me that is why Paul mentions the little phrase “with thanksgiving” in Philippians 4. Of course, we bring our burdens to the Lord. But don’t just do that. Discipline yourself (and it may be a battle) to consider things for which you can be thankful. This will help us to see the Lord as good and cause some joy to rise in our hearts.

These are simply suggestions for those finding prayer hard going at the moment. I am sure others could provide additional helpful ideas. What matters is that we pray rather than just being busy Christians. Keller writes this- “If we give priority to the outer life, our inner life will be dark and scary.”

In some ways I return to work with a degree of trepidation. As I lead a prayer meeting tomorrow night and preach on Sunday, can I resist the temptation to be an actor? For me- and for all of us- there’s only way to avoid that tragedy. Whatever else is going on, we need to fight to find time to be on our own before our Father.