It seems that each time I have written or taught on prayer, many people feel challenged to pray, but struggle to actually spend time in prayer. It would appear that the disciples had the same challenge as they all asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” [Luke 4:1]; I remember dealing with the same thing several years ago. I would sit down to pray, but felt like I only had a few things to say, and they were always repeats of the day before. Two things happened that helped transform my time in prayer. One was the A.C.T.S. acronym as a guide for prayer, and the other was Isaiah 6.
First, the acronym A.C.T.S.:
Before we look at each piece individually, let me first read you the passage that helped it all make sense for me.
1 In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” 4 And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6 Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 And he touched my mouth and said: “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” 8 And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” Then I said, “Here I am! Send me.” 9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people…” [Isaiah 6:1–9a]
Isaiah invites us into his time with the Lord. It also gives us an idea of how we might spend time in prayer. Let me now work through the acronym.
Adoration is defined as “deep love and respect”. The definition of worship is the feeling or expression of reverence and adoration for [God]. The idea of starting with adoration (or worship) in prayer, is for us to start by focusing our hearts on God. Way too often our prayers are our so focused on what we want from God, that we forget to give God what he is due - our worship!
Just as Scripture begins with “In the beginning, God…”, so all good theology starts with God. Our Reformed liturgy begins with God, preferably in a trinitarian proclamation. Isaiah begins his time focused on God, and so our prayers should begin with God. I can say this with some emphasis, as Jesus started his famous prayer with, “Our God in Heaven, hallowed by your name.” Jesus called God’s name holy (hallowed), before he began anything else.
Beginning our time by worshiping God not only focuses our hearts, but also sets our priority on God. I would rather give God his due worship before asking him to meet my needs. Isaiah spends more time on this portion than any other (see vs. 1-3).
Beginning in worship sets us with a right view of God. We remember he is all powerful (omnipotent), before we seek to ask him to intervene in our lives. We remember he is all knowing (omniscient) before we seek him for answers.
Also, by getting our view of God right, by worshiping him in Spirit and truth, we get a right view of ourselves. That leads us to our next phase, “confession”.
Let me say this as a final thought on worship before moving on: adoration is different than thanksgiving, though many people confuse these. When we are thankful, it is for something done (an act or service). When we worship (adore) it is for an attribute. I often explain it in this way: if I were to ascribe worth to my wife (adore) for washing the dishes and making me dinner, would she feel loved? If I am to adore my wife, it needs to be for her character, her beauty, and her amazing heart. I adore her for these things, and I appreciate her for the things she does - separately. That will be in “thanksgiving” (more on that in a minute). What we are doing in worship and adoration is giving God worship for who he is, not just for what he has done. We worship God for his holiness and his justice, not just for him giving us a job when we needed it.
Confession is simply admitting our guilt and sin before God. All of us have things we need to confess whether we like to admit it or not (1 John 1:10, Romans 3:23). We are called to confess our sins in prayer (James 5:16), and we are taught that this is a part of the forgiveness process (1 John 1:9). Since I think most people get this, let me offer a challenge to this: corporate confession.
Isaiah not only confesses his own sin, but confesses the sin of people in his day. He writes, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (vs. 5) I see the same thing in Nehemiah:
5 And I said, “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, 6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses. [Nehemiah 1:5–7]
God does amazing things through Isaiah and Nehemiah. I am challenged by both these men of God to confess the sins not only that I have committed, but the sins of my community, nation, generation, and church. I am compelled to believe that corporate confession has great merit, as even Jesus did so from the cross, saying “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” [Luke 23:34]
Thanksgiving flows naturally out of confession because we know God has forgiven us, and removed our sin from us “as far as the east is from the west” (Psalm 103:12). Being forgiven prompts us to being thankful, but we can be thankful for so much more.
It is a great moment in Isaiah’s passage, where he hears, “Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.” He knows his sinfulness is gone. What a miserable existence it would be if we had to confess sin and just leave it there stinking before God! This is not so in Christ. We are forgiven! And, we should show our thankfulness to God for his mercy and grace.
Just as God is deserving of our thankfulness for forgiveness, what are the other things we thank God for? How about our families, or our church? How about the ministry he has given us to serve in? What about the prayers God has already answered for us? There is so much to thank God for, this should be a long list of gratitude.
When talking about worship being about character, and not actions done, I used the example of adoring my wife for her attributes. It is true that once I have adored her, she loves to know what I appreciate. Our God is the same way. He is due our worship and adoration, but he also is to be appreciated and thanked for all he does for us.
Supplication is defined as the action of asking for something earnestly or humbly. When we bring our needs to God, it is to done with both an earnest and humble heart. We all have needs, and we all have desires. To seek God for all that we need or desire him to “supply” in our life is the easiest part of prayer for most people. Let me offer some suggestions for this time.
Pray for others first, and yourself last. If you are married and have kids, let your prayers be about your family first. If you are a pastor, pray for your church and their needs before yourself. It is always a good practice to seek God on behalf of others before yourself. What is the worst thing that can happen, you run out of time and can’t pray for yourself? God knows your needs! He will care for you.
Most importantly, leave room for God to speak. It is during the time after worship, confession, and thanksgiving that Isaiah hears from God, and writes, “I heard the voice of the Lord saying…” (vs. 9). Bring a journal and a Bible, and allow for room in your prayer time to listen. We all too often make prayer time a monologue, and not a dialogue.