A big milestone in your walk as a Christian is when you are able to say that you genuinely feel your prayer life is life-giving. Sadly, many of us let prayer take a backseat in our daily routines until something happens or we need something. Kathryn Kilner, community outreach coordinator for 4word: San Francisco, has focused on growing and nurturing her prayer life and offers her tips for giving prayer the priority it deserves.
What has prayer looked like to you over the years?
I accepted Christ into my life as a small child with a prayer because it seemed like the right thing to do. Over the years, I’ve learned more about what it means to follow Jesus and the role that prayer plays in walking with God. One of my earliest memories of learning the power of prayer happened backstage at a dance recital. I felt nervous right before going on stage for the first time and started reciting Psalm 23. My nervousness shifted to a still quiet peace, and I mustered the courage to step out on stage.
My parents taught me the habit of prayer and shared with me their practice of seeking God for discernment. We said grace before dinner, even in restaurants, and prayed together at bedtime throughout my childhood. When I was finishing up elementary school, my parents invited me into the process of discerning God’s will for where I would continue my education: at one of the local private, Christian schools, or the public school in our new neighborhood. My friends from my private Christian elementary school didn’t understand how God could want anything other than for me to go to private Christian junior high with them, but I kneeled with my parents in prayer and asked God whether private school or public school was in my future. Together we made the decision that I would go to public school.
In junior high, my faith became my own apart from my parents, but my prayers were mostly focused on praying for things I wanted. ‘Lord, help me do well on this test,’ or ‘Help me be a good friend to Sally.’ When I reflect back on my prayer life, I would say petition—and some confession—was the central themes of my prayers, when I remembered to do them, which varied over the years, except for when I really wanted something and wasn’t sure whether I was going to get it.
What led you to want to deepen the role prayer had in your life?
I reached a point a couple years ago where I realized I really couldn’t live on my own strength. I’ve had health issues following a car accident that sometimes make just getting up a struggle. The pain and other challenging symptoms make doing things I used to do easily much harder. Sometimes I just pray for the strength to get through the day. Acknowledging what I cannot do on my own strength has been key for me to begin to transform through my recovery.
About a year ago, my Bible study decided collectively to read Tim Keller’s book on prayer and it profoundly changed my life. I had known that my prayers should extend beyond asking for things but didn’t fully grasp how prayers that focus on praising God, thanking Him, or confessing sin could make way for God to transform my heart. By focusing on each of the different types of prayers from adoration to thanksgiving to confession and even petition, Keller explains the role different ways of praying play in building a relationship with God and why they matter. He also provides practical exercises to use to practice them. It was the structure I needed to transform my prayer life.
It was also during this time that I had an experience that felt like a complete answer to prayer, which encouraged me to deepen my prayer life further. I was filled with fear and anxiety while preparing for a stressful meeting—like hyperventilating levels of stress. There was a lot at stake personally for me in this meeting, so I asked a couple dozen friends and family members to pray for me. On my way to the meeting, my fear melted away. One of the other people at the meeting described my mood as buoyant. That is a miracle. It convinced me that there is power in prayer and I needed to invest more in cultivating my relationship with God through prayer.
Why do you think Christians sometimes struggle to pray “well?”
It is easy to think we can do things on our own and in turn forget to pray. The very act of praying requires acknowledging that we don’t want to live our lives purely on our own. At the heart of prayer is a relationship with God and just as with any other relationship, it takes nurturing and commitment. Praying at all, let alone well, takes time and effort.
When things are going well in our lives, it is easy to forget to pray if we don’t have habits in place encouraging us to keep our commitment to our relationship with God. When things aren’t going well and we’ve exhausted all other options, we come crawling back to God to rescue us. Cultivating a daily prayer practice has been foundational for me to learn more about how to pray and rely more on God when things are going well and when they aren’t.
The blessing of the morning is the stillness that invites contemplation and provides the space to hear God’s voice, but it requires us to be intentional. I used to always start my day by reaching for my cell phone to turn off my alarm and then I would be immediately sucked into the demands of my day and the distractions of the highlight reels from other people’s lives displayed on social media. I made a conscious choice to use an old-fashioned clock for my alarm (it’s actually super high tech and lights up in a way to mimic the sun rising with birds chirping!) and then start my day with time in prayer. It’s my own way of giving my day to God and reorganizing my priorities to honor Him. It’s become my non-negotiable in the morning, but I also recognize that my prayer practices may change over time. Just as we need to bring novelty into our human relationships, we need to bring fresh practices to our prayer lives to continue cultivating our relationship with God and that is also key to praying well.
How have you been able to grow your prayer life with others?
After reading Tim Keller’s book, I realized that I needed to practice more and I needed accountability to do it. Around that time, one of my friends mentioned that God had placed on her heart to pray for her job search expectantly for two months. An idea was placed on my heart to invite a small group of friends into a two-month commitment to prayer in which we would each put forward one petition for the group to pray for during that time and we would use exercises found in Keller’s book to practice praying for each other. I distilled down Keller’s book into nine prayer exercises to practice, so we could focus on one per week.
Six friends from different parts of my life committed to this season of prayer, forming what I lovingly call my prayer club. We kicked it off with an in-person meeting for everyone to get to know each other and then checked in weekly through a shared Google document that included the prayer exercise for the week and a spot for each person to share a reflection. We didn’t meet in person again until the end of the two months, but we did also share updates more regularly through a WhatsApp group.
Having a group to be accountable to was crucial for me to create new habits and commit to my own prayer journey. It also was incredibly powerful to have the support of these friends in moments that were unexpectedly hard and to be able to support them in their prayer journeys and lives. When one person struggled, another could jump in with encouragement. We have laughed together, cried together, celebrated together and prayed together. It has been a beautiful glimpse of heaven on earth and taught me so much about community and relationships in addition to prayer.
Should we pray expectantly? Or leave our prayers more open-ended?
In my experiences with prayer, the more specifically I have asked for something, the clearer it is to see God at work in my life. I started keeping a prayer journal and each morning I write down my prayer to God and listen for His guidance. Then in the evening, I read back through my morning prayer and underline prayers that I feel like were answered that day. Sometimes it takes more than a day for a prayer to be answered, so once a month or once a quarter I read back through my prayer journal and note the prayers that I feel like were answered. This practice emboldens me to pray with more expectancy. It also helps me focus on the present moment. While some of my prayers may take a lifetime to answer, I also take a moment each morning to focus on the day ahead of me and pray for it—my own version of the daily bread Jesus instructed us to pray for in the Lord’s prayer.
Where there is value in keeping our prayers more open-ended is keeping open the space for God’s direction and guidance. The Westminster Shorter Catechism defines prayer as ‘an offering up of our desires unto God, for things agreeable to his will, in the name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgement of his mercies.’ If we pray for things to happen according to God’s will, we can’t go wrong. It also builds our trust in Him and creates the space for Him to work in our lives for our good, beyond our understanding of what that is. Another practice I’ve found helpful is reflecting on what I want in light of all we know from the Scripture about things that delight and grieve God, how salvation works, and what God wants for the world. That helps me to begin to align what I want with what God wants, which is always a better place to be. Then I conclude my prayers with ‘In Jesus’ name’ in order to acknowledge the role Jesus plays in interceding for us.
Anything else you’d like to share?
Cultivating a prayer practice is an ongoing, deeply personal journey with God. It remains one of the great mysteries to me that God is simultaneously infinite and personal as Paul Miller writes about in A Praying Life. He is completely holy and yet wants a unique relationship with each of us. I have no idea what exactly that looks like for you, but I would encourage you to reflect on your own prayer practice and think about what one habit you could build to bolster your prayer life, whether it’s finding a consistent time of day to pray or starting a prayer journal or reading a book on prayer or something completely different. I am convinced there is power in prayer and invite you to explore that with God.
Kathryn Kilner is a technology marketer with a passion for creating innovative experiences and building global brands. She currently leads strategy and operations for the Industries Marketing team at Salesforce. Previously, she led content marketing programs and marketing strategy initiatives at GE Digital and built four different marketing teams at webinar provider BrightTALK. Kathryn holds a B.A. in history and human biology from Stanford University. A devotee to the arts, Kathryn enjoys choreographing wedding dances, wandering art museums, and plotting her next travel adventures. Next up: Egypt… someday…