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The Inner and Outer Fruit of Prayer

The Inner and Outer Fruit of Prayer

Recently I was standing in line at Heart Coffee. Portland, Oregon is home for me, and while our city’s most broadly read press clippings haven’t been particularly favorable these last few years, we still have the best coffee in the country, hands down.

I’m normally a “brew at home” kind of guy, but on Sundays, I often indulge in the second cup buzz from one of our city’s many offerings on my way into church for a full day of worship gatherings.

So there I am in a particularly long line among the weekend crowd at Heart, and I noticed something interesting: I was the only person in line not looking at my phone. Every single person—man and woman, old and young—when presented with a moment of waiting, pulled a little handheld screen out of their pocket and took to scrolling.

Psychologists have coined the term “negative rumination” to describe the magnetic pull of the idle mind. When you first wake up at the beginning of the day, where does your mind go? Or as you lay your head down at night, what thoughts begin to pop? The little moments throughout your day when your mind is free to drift —waiting in line, stuck in traffic, seated at the cafe table but your friend’s running a few minutes late—what is the current of your mental drift? For most people the unoccupied human mind tends toward fear. We are pulled into past regret—re-hashing what I should’ve said or how I should’ve responded in this or that moment. Or we are propelled into future anxiety—the project I’m behind on or the meeting I’m dreading. Simply put: the human mind has a magnetic pull toward fear, or, to state psychologically what we all know experientially—the idle mind drifts toward negative rumination.

As I stood there in line, it occurred to me, that I felt no impulse to reach for my phone. At the beginning of another full Sunday, I was not haunted by the past or anxious about the future. As I waited in line, I did not reach for distraction because my mind was not polluted by fear I wanted to fend off. My mind, my emotions, my body was at peace. Somewhere along the way, my default settings had changed, reversing the magnetic pull of my idle mind from fear to peace. What was it that turned the tide? In a word: prayer.

The Extrinsic and Intrinsic Fruit of Prayer

Psychologist Ed Deci is credited with the discovery that every human being derives motivation extrinsically or intrinsically. Take exercise for example. Some people exercise aiming for some sort of outward, visible result, like six pack abs or the ability to play with your grandchildren into old age. Those are “extrinsic” motivations. Others exercise for a personal, inner result, such as the positive emotions or endorphin rush that accompanies a good sweat. Those are “intrinsic”

Prayer is a spiritual practice that results in both extrinsic and intrinsic fruit.

Extrinsic Prayer

Prayer is, in my opinion, the subject of Jesus’ most audacious promises.

“Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours.” (Mark 11:24)

“Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)

“If you remain in me and my words remain in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.” (John 15:7)

“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.” (Matthew 21:22)

Jesus is bold in his promise of real, visible change as a result of prayer. This kind of praying is voiced in requests for God’s divine action and is technically called “intercessory prayer.” Jesus isn’t describing some real life version of wishes to a cosmic genie that occasionally come true if you figure out the formula. He's talking about the kind of prayers that start with love for someone else and end inviting God’s activity into places where that love is lacking. To utter even a syllable of intercessory prayer is a profound act of human love, resulting in an even more profound act of divine power.

“If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer. Intercession is a way of loving others, writes Richard Foster. “Intercessory prayer is selfless prayer, even self-giving prayer. In the ongoing work of the Kingdom of God, nothing is more important than Intercessory Prayer.”1

Intrinsic Prayer

The Christian Philosopher Dallas Willard was once asked, “What is the one thing a modern person could do to deepen spiritual life and become more like Jesus?” After a long pause, he offered this (now infamous) response, “You must ruthlessly eliminate hurry from your life.”3

Carl Jung, the Swiss Psychiatrist whose research is the basis of the Meyers Briggs personality test, infamously put it bluntly, “Hurry isn’t of the devil. It is the devil.”4

A journalist once asked theologian Thomas Merton to diagnose the leading spiritual disease of our time. Merton gave a one-word answer, “Efficiency.”5

We tend to attribute the complexity and busyness of our lives to a false culprit. We blame it on our environment. The pace of our cities, our workload or office culture, our stage in life, and the current demands on our time are the chief causes of our overwhelmed lives.

The Quaker missionary Thomas Kelly, writing in 1941, made a different observation after spending a full year “slowing down” and “simplifying” on a twelve-month sabbatical in Hawaii. He carried the “mad-cap, feverish life” he knew on the mainland with him to the tropics.6 Your inner life is not a mirror image of your environment. If anything, the opposite is true. We create an environment that mirrors our inner life. Kelly concludes, “Strained by the very mad pace of our daily outer burdens, we are further strained by an inward uneasiness, because
we have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power. If only we could slip over into that Center! If only we could find the Silence which is the source of sound!"7

All these teachers are circling around the same thing: hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day. Alongside well-known and broadly practiced “intercessor prayer,” aimed at extrinsic fruit, we in the modern church must become re-acquainted with an equally ancient and distinctly Christian form of “listening prayer” aimed at intrinsic fruit.

It’s an important step, in the life of prayer, when we grow from talking at God to talking with God. In my experience, few people mature into this stage of prayer, but it’s not for lack of desire but misconception. We want to hear God’s voice, to get acquainted with his whisper, and to talk with him conversationally. The misconception that holds us back is that when God speaks, it’ll be revelatory—like a lightning strike, out-of-body experience. And occasionally, it is that. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

In the life of the praying person, who learns to know and walk with God conversationally in prayer, something begins to happen. Not immediately. Not predictably. But for those willing to keep showing up, day after day, the magnetic pull of the mind shifts from fear, the emotional response that plunged into the gut of Adam and Eve with original sin, to peace, a fruit of the Spirit.8

Prayer quiets us in a culture of noise. Prayer internally stills us in a fast-paced world. Prayer does not insulate us from fear, but it does reset our mental and emotional consciousness to peace, turning fear into the exception, not the rule.

Prayer is the subject of Jesus’ most audacious extrinsic promises and the source of the Spirit’s most subtle intrinsic fruit.

-Tyler Staton

Help Your Congregation Better Understand Prayer

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1 Richard Foster, Prayer
2 Michael Zigarelli, “Distracted from God: A Five-Year, Worldwide Study,” Christianity 9 to 5, 2008,
3 John Ortberg, The Life You’ve Always Wanted
4 John Mark Comer, The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry
5 Ibid. (Check to be sure)
6 Thomas Kelly, A Testament of Devotion

7 Ibid.
8 Galatians 5:22-23