Are you one of those people who find prayer difficult? I am. It has always been easier for me to spend hours reading, studying and journaling, than to spend less time on my knees. I know some who experience the opposite, but most of my friends share my weakness. And it is a weakness. There is no propping ourselves up with "I can study for hours!" when prayer is such a struggle. Study will always be fruitless if it is not a prayerful study. If communion with God is not an inherent part of our time in a book, or the Book, then we are most likely engaging in an impotent discipline. When it comes to struggling with prayer I often hear things like:
"I don’t know what to say." "I run out of things to pray about." "My prayers amount to little more than a laundry list of requests." "I feel like my prayers just bounce off the ceiling." "My praying feels artificial."
There are a number of things I recommend to people who are learning, or re-learning, to pray. The simplest is the ACTS acronym. Most of you know what it is, but just in case - it is the model of prayer that encourages us to begin with Adoration (praise), and then continue with Confession of our sin, moving on to Thanksgiving for all God is and has done for us, and concludes with Supplication (specific requests for self and others). I like this model, and it typically structures my prayer time even when I am not thinking about it. There are some great books I encourage people to read and use as well. Reading and praying through the Valley of Vision is a great aid to learning to pray more theologically. The Bible and the Closet by Thomas Watson and Samuel Lee was instrumental in altering my prayer life forever. Herman Witsius' Sacred Dissertations on The Lord's Prayer should be read by every pastor. But the best advice I can give someone who wants to deepen their prayer life, is typically the most unexpected. I am convinced that one of the best things to help your prayer life is systematic theology.
I know Sys Theo fell out of vogue, even in many of our evangelical seminaries, over the past few decades, but apart from systematic theology your prayer life will be weak, short, and frustrating.
The brief explanation is that unless you know God and his works praise will be limited, confession will be shallow, thanksgiving will be narrow and supplication will be chained to uncertainty. I'll go into more detail using that old ACTS model of prayer.
Without a robust theology a Christian is crippled in lifting up, blessing and praising the name of God because we do not know what his names mean. To adore God is to marvel at his character and work and express this to him with our own voice. The more we know of God, the better equipped we are to praise him for who he is. For example, good theology teaches us that God is both sovereign and good. This is truly praiseworthy and should elicit singing and blessing. The mystery of his tri-unity, the wonder of his creation, the depths of his mercy, the covenant the Father made with the Son for our salvation, the gift of his perfect and trustworthy Scripture - all of it and more is cause for adoration. How many ways can we adore God? We are only limited to the breadth and depth of our theology. The weaker your theology, the weaker your praise.
The more we know of God (theology) the more we may know God personally (theology's end) and the more clearly we will see ourselves. Good theology gives birth to good conviction and confession because at every point of God's character we see the antithesis in our own. Even the imago dei condemns us since it too is corrupt, a shell of what it was in the beginning. Though we are made in his image we often reflect the world before we do God. Do you feel like you run out of things to confess? The knowledge of God will remedy that. Are you not sufficiently grieved over your sins? Good theological meditation of both the glory of God and the heinousness of our corruption will be of great assistance in both knowing and mortifying your sins.
Let's be honest. Your thanksgiving is weak. I am sure you thank God daily for things that we should in fact be thankful for, but I also know that for many of us our thanks is offered with too little conviction and passion. We thank God for things like food or the weather so often because we can think of little else. Our thanksgiving will only be as weak as our theology. God's work, gifts, promises and presence are all things for which a Christian should be immeasurably thankful. You should run out of time before you run out of reasons to thank God. Systematic theology is a great help here, because through it we can see much more of God's giving, and our unworthiness.
Supplication is pleading with God for grace concerning specific needs both for ourselves and others. I have heard from a number of Christians (and in the past have felt this myself) that "my prayers feel like a simple list of needs that I recite. It doesn't seem like prayer." That's because often it isn't. God isn't a computer who simply needs data in order to perform certain functions. He is the Person who made us for his own glory, who invites us into a relationship with himself despite our sin and corruption. God invites us to dialog! To "reason" with him. Good theology can change our stale list of requests into a more meaningful interaction with God. How? At the very least, good theology teaches us to what we may appeal in God when making our requests. Because God is righteous, we can appeal to him to vindicate the oppressed and persecuted. Because God desires his glory to be known in the world we can plead for his grace to extend to the unconverted. Know who God is and on what grounds he operates gives us confidence in praying to him. We are not praying to a God who different from day to day; inconsistent in his character and attitude. Good theology provides a Christian with a healthy humility and confidence while on our knees before God.
In the end, I believe prayer is impossible without systematic theology. It is the secret of a healthy prayer life. Theology of course is inherent in any prayer, but systematic theology helps us to develop a more holistic, comprehensive and detailed picture of God, self and the world. Therefore, it allows us to connect our needs, thoughts and desires to God with greater precision and hopefully, a more confident and joyous faith. So is you're new to (or not fond of) sys theo, start small and read it with an aim of learning to know God, not just facts. Read it prayerfully with the understanding that this will equip you to communicate better with the God who has revealed himself to us.