ACTS: A Tried and True Method of Prayer
Why is it so hard to pray? For those of us in Christ, we know praying to our Father is not only a good gift but one purchased by the shed blood of Jesus. The reality that we have direct access to the Creator of the cosmos and redeemer of our souls should astound us. And yet, prayer is hard. Our faith is often weak. Our hearts are quick to wander, and instead of a gift we joyfully partake in, prayer can feel more like a chore to accomplish or a performance to be given. Even when my theology is more properly calibrated to glimpse the magnitude of prayer, I can still feel overwhelmed, not knowing where to begin.
Do you also struggle with private prayer? We want to pray and want to love to pray, but we share the disciples’ need to be taught. Mercifully, Jesus does teach us (along with His first followers) in what we know as the Lord’s Prayer (Mt 6:9-13). Today, I would love to share a tool I believe accurately guides us to the same priorities Jesus highlights in His exemplary prayer. This tool is called Seeing Jesus Together/Solitude. For the past five years, I have used the Seeing Jesus Together journal (to be referred to as SJT henceforth) to engage in prayer during private worship.
Before I highlight this tool’s method of prayer specifically, here are two points to keep in mind for a fruitful prayer time. These crucial aspects are also incorporated into each day’s journal entry in the SJT plan.
Prayer is hard because we cannot do anything ‘spiritual’ in our own strength. We are not natural pray-ers. We cannot hope to pray without God Himself directing our prayers. Practically, this means that even before we pray, we ask God to help us pray, which might look like this:
Lord, I come to you in desperate need of your Spirit. Please show me wondrous things in your word today. Show me who you are and who I am. Convict me of sin that I may repent and show me, my Saviour, that I may look to him for mercy. Help me to understand your Word and be changed by your Spirit today.
The Word of God
God’s Word and prayer are inseparable. Over the years, I have had the most joyful communion when my prayers have been preceded by and interspersed with reading God’s word. A fruitful relationship is one in which both parties engage. God has spoken in His word, so, as I read and meditate, I naturally respond in praise and supplication.
Now, it is time to pray. For my prayer time I use the general pattern given in the SJT tool, the ACTS method. This is not a new tool but one that has been advocated in multiple Christian circles as beneficial for a life of prayer. This method includes adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication, all elements expressed in the prayers we find in God’s Word.
Let us dive into each of these aspects assuming we have just read the following psalm in our time of private worship.
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up;
My eyes are not raised too high;
I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvellous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
Like a weaned child with its mother,
Like a weaned child is my soul within me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord
From this time forth and forevermore.
After reading and meditating on God’s word, we take a few minutes to simply adore God. In adoration, we admire Him for both his communicable and incommunicable attributes. A short prayer of adoration based on this psalm might look like this:
Oh God, I adore you, because you are the God who is occupied with great and marvellous things. Though we are easily overwhelmed, nothing is “too much” or “too hard” for you. You possess all knowledge and wisdom, and there is nothing beyond your ability. Who can counsel you, Oh God? You are the God on high, full of glory. You are eternal in your perfection, the one upon whom all of our hope can be placed. You are marvellous and great, and yet you are also compassionate, stooping to your beloved children as a mother stoops to their needy child. You are so incredibly powerful and yet so intimately acquainted with our needs and merciful in your dealings with us.
Upon seeing God clearly, we then take a look at ourselves. Though it can be painful, seeing our sin is a mercy that we might repent and believe. As we ponder Psalm 131, a prayer of confession may look like this:
Father, I confess to you that I am a sinner, and though you have saved me, I see the sin that remains in my heart today. I have tried to occupy myself with things that are too great and too marvellous for me. I have sought to control instead of to trust you. I have given myself to anxiety when I could have cried out to you in dependency upon you. I have not calmed and quieted my soul with your promises, but I have sought to fix my situation in my own strength and have given myself to restless toil. I have hope in myself and the affirmation of others instead of hope in you. I have not been like a weaned child with its mother but have sought to live independently of your mercy and direction. Please forgive me, Lord. I am desperate for your mercy!
*Keep in mind that confession can involve both general and specific needs for forgiveness, and my prayer will focus more on the general. Yet, we should also seek to see how we have broken God’s word specifically (i.e. not just, “I am constantly seeking my own interests,” but “I sought my interests yesterday over my husband’s when I snapped at him”).
Robert Murray M’Cheyne famously says, “For every look at yourself, take ten looks at Christ.” As we confess our sin, we realise our desperation for mercy and are enabled to repent. The “thanksgiving” portion of prayer time occurs when the medicinal balm of the gospel is applied to our sinful, weary souls! Thus, a prayer of thanksgiving from Psalm 131 might look like this:
Oh my God, I cannot even need you or hope in you like I ought without you showing me my need. And my Father, having shown me my need, you have saved me! I have not depended on you as I ought, but there is a man who perfectly trusted you and never sinned. That man, Jesus, has come for me. He lived his whole life hoping in you alone and never wavering. Though he, being God for all eternity, had rightly occupied himself with great and marvellous things, he took on the nature of a servant, a man in every way like us and yet without sin. He lived the life I have not. Having lived a perfect life of submission to you, he took on the punishment my sins deserve. He died for my lack of hope in you, for my attempts to be “God” myself. He took my sinful pride and became it on the cross, that I might become his righteousness! Oh Father, Oh Son, O Holy Spirit! My heart is set free to depend on you because of your great mercy! I praise you that Israel’s hope has culminated in the person and work of Christ and that we can truly hope in him for now and forever!
Finally, we come to the portion that we most often associate with prayer: supplication, or expressing our needs and longings to our Father. So, a prayer of supplication from Psalm 131 could read like this:
Holy Spirit, I need your help. I know my heart is prone to wander, and without your help, I will again begin to occupy myself with things that I have no business occupying myself with. Help me today to remember that I am not sovereign but that you are (and that this is a very good thing!) Make me like a child in my dependence on you. When I am anxious today, may I cast my cares upon you, knowing you care for me. When I am tempted to fix situations in my own strength, help me to see the unreasonableness of this and again find refuge in your arms. Give me a quiet heart that trusts you. Make me more like Jesus in this today.
*From this point, be encouraged to come to the Father with more specific needs of the day for self and for others. For instance, my desire is to take a few minutes to pray for events of the day that I am thinking about, for my husband and daughter, church family, city, and for the world or a particular place in it.
A final note
These categories are not meant to be binding but to be exactly that: helpful categories. For instance, our heart may be directed to immediate confession upon reading God’s word, followed by thanksgiving for Christ’s mercy. We might in a time of confession also move immediately to asking for God’s mercy to avoid this sin in the future. We may then move from expressing our needs to adoration at the God of mercy who has promised to give us all we need for life and godliness. It is the Spirit of God who leads us, and He takes us by the hand as we pray. Let us then come before His throne with freedom, reverence, and joy!