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What is Prayer? Dr. Kyle DiRoberts

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Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. DiRoberts about prayer.

Topics of conversation include:

  • A definition of prayer
  • Common barriers/obstacles to prayer
  • How to use Scripture as a guide for prayer
  • What it means to pray without ceasing
  • Resources for further reading on prayer.

Dr. Kyle DiRoberts is Department Chair and associate professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Arizona Christian University. He also serves as adjunct faculty at Phoenix Seminary and as the Director of the Minister in Residence and Internship programs at Scottsdale Bible Church. Dr. DiRoberts holds a PhD from Dallas Theological Seminary and is the author of The Secret to Prayer: 31 Days to a More Intimate Relationship with God (B&H Books, 2021).


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Intro (00:00):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:16):

How’s your prayer life? That is a question that often gets met with some level of embarrassment and shuffling of the feet for Christians. I’ve known very few followers of Jesus who spend as much time in prayer as they know they should. But prayer is oxygen for the Christian life. What breathing is to sustain our physical life, should be prayer to sustain our spiritual life. But if we’re honest, so many Christians struggle to pray. Why is this? Why is talking to God such a chore for people? Why, when we have total access to the God of the universe, do we find it difficult to pause, quiet our hearts, and commune with the Lord? Well, I think there’s several reasons for this. Part of it is that we like to think we’re self-sufficient. We can do without God’s help. For others, I think it’s simply about time and priorities.

Brian Arnold (01:01):

We say that God is our top priority, but then we pray so little. Our lives are too crowded with other things. And then there’s a group of people who don’t pray as they should, because they don’t feel like they know how to pray. And if that’s you, take heart. The disciples felt that way, and asked Jesus how to pray. Well, today we’re going to talk about prayer. And here to help us understand prayer is Dr. Kyle DiRoberts. Dr. DiRoberts is Department Chair and associate professor of Biblical and Theological Studies at Arizona Christian University in Glendale, Arizona, and serves as adjunct professor at Phoenix Seminary. He also serves as the Director of the Minister in Residence and Internship programs at Scottsdale Bible Church. Dr. DiRoberts has a new book out titled The Secret to Prayer: 31 Days to a More Intimate Relationship with God. Dr. DiRoberts, welcome to the podcast.

Kyle DiRoberts (01:46):

Thanks for having me. Good to be here.

Brian Arnold (01:48):

So we always ask our guests one big question, today that question is—what is prayer? So I like to start off with definitions often. So let’s just ask that—what is prayer? How do you define prayer?

Kyle DiRoberts (01:58):

Prayer to me is simply when a creature—I like creature, the language creature—is just simply talking to their Creator. And to me, this automatically builds the correct barrier between us and the Lord, as we speak to God. And so I simply just say—look, anytime we are praying, this means that what we are doing is we are embarking on an adventure just to talk to God.

Brian Arnold (02:21):

So I’ll be honest, the first…when you said creature, I was thinking Harry Potter, and creature, the house elf, or whatever he is, Dobby or one of them. But I love that distinction, because that’s a deeply historical one. The early church fathers often put things in the context of Creator and creature. And when we see ourselves in that context of creature, we’re reminded pretty quickly that we have a Creator, and that he has preeminence over all things.

Kyle DiRoberts (02:48):

Yeah, and you think back to Genesis, when Eve is speaking with the serpent. And the serpent, the big appeal, the big sales pitch to Eve, is that Eve would become like God. And yet, ultimately, that ends up being the demise, right? Is that they actually want to strive to be more like God, meaning equal with God. And yet they never remained in that humble posture where they were simply the creature, they were created by the Creator. And so just rest in that.

Brian Arnold (03:15):

It’s the essence of sin, is that usurpation of—I want to be in God’s place. Would you say that that’s part of the reason why there’s so much prayerlessness? Of people saying—I kind of want to be in the place of God, and so if I’m in submission to God, and praying to God, that means I can’t kind of do it on my own?

Kyle DiRoberts (03:32):

Absolutely. And if we’re all honest, I mean myself included, especially when it matters, when something—whatever it is that we’re thinking about, or we want to pray about—if it really means something, we probably have an idea as to how it should be resolved, when it should be resolved, what would be the deciding factors of how it is resolved. And so yeah, I think that’s always just underlying most of how we operate. And I would even say, too, a lot of that probably has to do a lot of where we live—in the West, in America. I mean this is part of—and I’m pro-America, I love the country with which I live in. But if we’re honest with that as well, I mean we pride ourselves in self-sufficiency. I mean, that’s really when you’ve made it. And so for us, sometimes, I think to take off that hat of self-sufficiency, and then put on this completely just the heart of a beggar, right, needing something from the Lord—that that’s a very odd thing. Especially if you are able to provide for yourself.

Brian Arnold (04:25):

So I mentioned some of these at the beginning. We just even mentioned pride. But what are some of these barriers and obstacles between people and prayer?

Kyle DiRoberts (04:33):

Well, one, I think they don’t know, probably they’ve never heard it modeled for them. I mean, other than the pulpit, and maybe if they’re in a small group. But even then, if somebody’s taking ownership or leadership of that, there might not be as many opportunities, too. But even inside, we all long to pray. I mean, we will be with brothers and sisters in Christ, and they’ll be going through something, and internally we want to pray with them. But instead, we’re just like—well, I’ll be praying for you. I’ll be thinking about you. And so we might send them a text message, or something like this. But I think there’s just this almost spiritual paralysis to this tall task of—well, what the heck do I do if I actually want to talk to God? Or what am I supposed to say to God? What kind of words do I use when I am speaking to God? I saw this one person close their eyes, but am I supposed to close my eyes? Maybe I don’t want to close my eyes. Maybe I can’t. So it’s very easy for Satan, I think, to deceive us to think that we are less than. To the point to where—why even bother?

Brian Arnold (05:30):

Yeah. And even how you mentioned the words that people use. I was at a church in Kentucky where a guy—he spoke normal, everyday, current English—but when he prayed, it sounded like he opened the KJV up. And it was all these thees and thous. And people are being trained how to pray when they hear other people praying. And then it seems almost too formal. And too distant. And there’s not that intimacy that should be happening in the life of prayer.

Kyle DiRoberts (05:56):

Yeah, and it’s funny. Even…so one of the things, especially during the summer, because this is our kind of time to travel, and we’ll do things as a family. So on road trips, Lolly will—this is my wife, Lolly—she’ll always say—okay, let’s pray for our trip. And so I’ll just…I’ll pray for our trip. But it might be just kind of a short prayer of protection on our trip, and then it just—”okay, amen.” And then it’s done. And sometimes she’ll look at me and be like—that’s it?

Brian Arnold (06:17):

<laugh>

Kyle DiRoberts (06:18):

That’s all? Or we’ll be talking and driving, and she’ll be like—well, let’s pray about such and such. And so then we’ll pray about such and such, and—”that’s it?” And so I think sometimes, too, we think that our prayers have to have these long introductions, and then this main body of the prayer, and then this conclusion, and then…well, honestly, if that’s what prayer is, good luck trying to get me to do that on a regular basis throughout the day, because I might only have a few minutes. And so I think part of that praying without ceasing kind of mentality is embracing just the simplicity of this. And that’s why, again, I think, down to its most foundational level, prayer is just us simply going before God and just asking, and seeking, and then ultimately, finding.

Brian Arnold (06:55):

So at this point, do you tell her—honey, I’ve written a book on this. “So is that it?” I mean, I kind of have a book about this. I kind of know what I’m talking about! But Jesus—and I know she’s not saying it in this kind of way—but Jesus talks about this, of how the Pharisees will pray, and they’ll lift their hands, and they want to make sure they’re seen by other people praying, because it makes them look more spiritual. But Jesus says—when you pray, go into your closet. Hide away. Get intimate with God. Right? That’s what this is really about. It is nothing more than just conversation with the Lord. So I’ve seen an obstacle for people—it’s just that they say the same thing, in the same way, every time they pray, and they just feel like they’re not getting anywhere. How do you help people get unstuck from that rut?

Kyle DiRoberts (07:41):

Yeah, that’s great. The only way I think to get unstuck in those scenarios, is it takes time. And I don’t know how patient people are, or how much time they’re willing to devote to this. And this is what I mean by that—the time it takes just to be introspective enough to try to figure out—what am I putting…what kind of pressure—unduly—pressure am I putting on my prayers? So that, as I’m praying, am I really—in the back of my head, or in my heart—am I putting a timetable on this? Am I putting a circumstantial, so that I know that if this prayer is answered, it will be answered like this, and not like that? So oftentimes what I think is…or just from my own experience, is I end up being the one in the way in the midst of that prayer. As opposed to just sitting back and humbly saying—okay, Lord, what are you up to?

Kyle DiRoberts (08:28):

How might you reveal yourself to me? And clearly, it’s going to be in a myriad of ways, because God has a myriad of ways to reveal himself to us. And so now I’m just in this humble posture, wondering, almost anxiously—well, was this the Lord? Maybe not, right? Was this the Lord? Maybe, but maybe not. But maybe this was, right? And I think there’s a sweetness, relationally, between the one praying and the Lord through the revelatory process, as God just slowly and patiently shows up just when it’s the right time. But again, I think if we’re coming to that, it can become a hindrance if we think—well, it’s got to be our way. It’s got to be my way. It’s got to be my wife and I’s way. We know what’s best for our children. We know what’s best for our friends. As opposed to just humbly submitting that, and then just waiting and watching and seeing. And so there’s an excitement to when the Lord reveals. But that’s more difficult to do if we’re the ones putting the parameters.

Brian Arnold (09:24):

Well, it’s—be still and know that I’m God. Right? The formula’s there, if you will, even in Scripture. And it’s a learned discipline. I mean, we call this one of the spiritual disciplines. Where at times, you’ve got to get over the hump of it being uncomfortable and give yourself over to it—to wait on the Lord till he lights that fire and you move forward. So how do you help people and coach them through Scripture as a guide for prayer? Because I have found in my own prayer life this was revolutionary for me in seminary, was learning even to pray through Scripture. So Don Whitney has famously done the Psalms of the Day, where there’s 150 Psalms, 30 days in most months. And so if it was the seventh, it’d be Psalm 7, 37, 67, 97, 127. I did it. Wow. Okay. So that’s the math there of just praying Scripture. So it’s not always just my words and my mind, or this huge list I have of people, I told them I’d pray for them. But Scripture itself becomes the guide. So how do you help people think through Scripture as the guide for prayer?

Kyle DiRoberts (10:25):

Yeah. So I think…well, Scripture becomes this great authority for prayer. And what it does is it reveals a sovereign and providential God. And so for me, the baseline for prayer is humility. Humility is the soul of true prayer. And really, all humility is, is when the one praying knows who God is, in light of who they are. And there’s no greater way to understand who God is, than to go seek out and see how God has revealed himself in his Word, through the Scriptures. And so for me, if you really truly want to have a humble heart, or a humble posture in prayer, and if you’re asking yourself this question—well I don’t really know who God is, that’s okay. But I can also show you where to find who God is, right? And so we can discover his attributes, we can read through the Psalms, we can find his wisdom, we can find all of these things in his Word. And as we do, and as we become more familiar with who God is—whether we’re aware of it or not—it’s grounding our heart in that humble posture to fully embrace who we are as the creature. So that we fully know, then, who we’re talking to as the Creator. And at that point in time, I think some wonderful, supernatural things happen between the one praying and the Lord. And so Scripture ends up becoming the baseline for how God revealed himself to us.

Brian Arnold (11:39):

I love that you focus on humility and placing ourselves in that posture. Because if we really believed—my next breath is dependent on the Lord, and he may not give it…I can’t lead this seminary without the Lord. I can’t have the family that I have without the Lord. I mean, all these things. We truly are dependent. So all of our self-sufficiency is kind of a scam. We really don’t have that. We are ultimately, every moment dependent on the Lord. We used to sing that hymn in church growing up—”I Need Thee Every Hour.” And that’s the posture of prayer, of recognizing dependency.

Kyle DiRoberts (12:18):

Absolutely. And so I just think that is…when you understand the attributes of God, when you understand that God is all-knowing—now it’s much easier to submit to God’s ways and to his plan. When you know that God is all powerful, it now places you in a humble posture before the Lord just to say—Lord, I’m going to trust you and your power in this circumstance, or with these loved ones, or whomever this might be that you want to be praying for or about. And so these kinds of things that we know to be true about God, that we find in the Word of God, become this great moment, spiritual moment, of just saying—oh my gosh, I’ve just met…I can now tell you a little bit more about who God is. And when you can start doing that, it’s going to automatically change your prayer life, because now you know who you want to go to to ask questions, and to seek wisdom, and to seek answers.

Brian Arnold (13:12):

And there’s the circularity of Scripture and prayer, in terms of God talking to us, us talking to God. And the more I know him, the more I want to talk to him. And the more I talk to him, the more I want to know him. And like you said, it just kind of serves as rocket fuel for our spiritual lives with God. And so many people just don’t get to that point.

Kyle DiRoberts (13:32):

And I think it’s even this podcast—Faith Seeking Understanding. I mean, that’s what fuels this whole thing. The more faith you have, all of a sudden this odd thing happens, the more I understand. And then the more I understand, this odd thing happens, the more faith I have. And then this odd thing happens. And so it just starts this animal, this spiritual animal, and it awakens it within us. And I think…

Brian Arnold (13:55):

And God just keeps stirring it up. And it actually continues on in our own hearts and lives as we go deeper. That’s what it means to go deeper in with the Lord, right? Is this sense of dependency. So one of the verses you mentioned even earlier is First Thessalonians five—pray without ceasing. How do we understand that? How do you understand that verse?

Kyle DiRoberts (14:16):

For me if…again, if it’s…I think conversing with God is far more simple than we’ve made it to be. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a simplistic faith, or that it doesn’t challenge your brain or your mind, but that God wants to hear you speak. God wants to hear your words. You don’t have to have a different prayer language. You don’t have to speak in the New King James or the King James Version when you pray, but then talk normal when you’re not. That’s okay, I guess, if that’s what you do. But what I’m trying to say is—there’s a lot more freedom within the way in which God’s made us. If we truly believe in the imago dei, that we’re created in the image of God—you are unique. You’re not just a unique something, but you’re a unique someone. And so you’ve got these experiences that are unique to you.

Kyle DiRoberts (15:06):

So in a very real way, you and I use common English language to speak and to converse with one another. But you don’t have my experiences, nor do I have yours. So that, in a significant way—my words are unique to me, just like they’re unique to you. But what’s beautiful about God, is that God meets me and you individually, right where we are. And then in this really crazy way, then God meets us as a church when we gather on Sundays, right where we are. And so he hears us. And he understands, not only our words, but our experiences behind our words. Which again, I think, plays into the sovereignty of God and his providential care of this world. And then, as a result of that, I think that’s where the freedom is—hopefully—for we can just say—look, I’m just going to talk to God.

Kyle DiRoberts (15:48):

I might fumble through, I might mess up, mix up words all over the place. That’s okay. God is able to understand, because what he understands most of all is your heart. And the heart producing those words. And so when I think of something like praying without ceasing, I think that just means—are you talking to God? And how often are you talking to God? What kind of freedom do you have in talking to God? I sin a lot. And so throughout a day, confession, confessionary prayer, becomes a significant way in which I pray without ceasing. So I’m not just walking around asking God for things all day long. But as I’m aware of my sin and my sin nature—oh boy, Lord, forgive me for that. Forgive me for that. It becomes a habitual…a regular thing. And here’s what’s crazy—as I pray without ceasing, and I confess my sin, what it does is it puts me back in that humble posture. Because now, with my wife and with my kids, I’m far more willing and quick to admit my wrongdoing as a husband and as a father and as a friend, as I’ve just came out of a time of confessing my sin to God. Now—

Brian Arnold (16:53):

Boy, that’s hard, isn’t it? Oh man. And yeah, I find—especially with kids—is you are in a constant need of forgiveness. For me, impatience, right? Of where I expect them to be, and things that maybe I’ve said to them before that they’re still not doing. And I had an opportunity the other day to ask for their forgiveness for being a little too short with them. And wouldn’t you know it, like five minutes later, I’m asking again. <laugh> because…but to be sensitive to the Spirit, right? Is the more we’re with God, the more we’re sensitive to those things, and the more that we’re actually catching ourselves on the front side, because we’re walking in humility, in prayerfulness before the Lord.

Kyle DiRoberts (17:32):

Yeah. And so…absolutely. So confessionary prayer is a great way, at least just personally, praying without ceasing. And then discovering who God is. Look, God has revealed himself in this world, through his Word, as we interact with one another. First John four tells us this. And so I think there’s also great moments to just acknowledge the greatness. And as we discover something new about God, we don’t go to God in order to inform him of something new about himself. But what we can do, is thank him for revealing something yet new about himself, which causes us just to worship him and love him even more. And so these…there’s so many different ways in which we can constantly talk to God. I just think for too many, they’ve just surmised that prayer is just this one long—if I’m going to pray without ceasing, it’s just from morning, noon, and night, it’s just one long prayer. And it’s got to be long, and it’s got to be eloquent, and it’s got that introduction, and that conclusion. And that’s just not the case. A simple, “I’m sorry, Lord.” “Wow, you’re beautiful, Lord.” “Thank you, Lord.” I mean, these are things all throughout the day, you’re mindful.

Brian Arnold (18:40):

Yeah. I had somebody tell me—pray without ceasing, yeah, isn’t just this one long, super-duper prayer that you’re just in this constant conversation, necessarily. But it is—don’t give up on praying. Don’t give up. So some of you have prayed for things for a long time. It could be salvation of a child. It could be overcoming a sin. It could be in the midst of suffering. Brother and sister, do not give up! Pray without ceasing. Our God…I love the illustration Jesus uses about the unrighteous judge and the widow who wants to plead her case. And she just wears him down. And finally he says, “Okay, I’ll do it.” And Jesus says—how much more will the Father who loves you answer you? And so I think so often we demonstrate either our own pride, or our just lack of perseverance, because we’re not just at heaven’s throne room, continually asking of the Lord, who wants to move in these ways, to move.

Kyle DiRoberts (19:41):

Absolutely. And I think there’s a sanctification—I’ll just add that to what you just said so well—I think there’s a sanctification process to continually praying, and praying without ceasing. So that as even in my life, I will begin praying for something regularly, and not give up on it, because I’m told not to give up or not to lose heart. But then, as a result of that, maybe 3, 4, 5, 6 months down the road, I find myself praying about the same thing—but for a different thing. And sometimes I sit back, and as I’m contemplating that with the Lord, I often wonder—I wonder if I would’ve arrived at this new prayer—which I think was the correct prayer all along—I wonder if I would’ve arrived there, if I would’ve given up, because I didn’t get it initially, or I didn’t get it as quick as I was hoping. And I think part of that sanctification process is just sticking with it. And the Lord just does something so gracious and so kind in the midst of that repetitive prayer. He never once tells us to stop praying. If anything, just like you had said, right? He uses these outlandish cultural examples, which would’ve been shocking to the audience, instead says—pray like them. He doesn’t say don’t pray like them. He says—that’s your model for prayer.

Brian Arnold (20:52):

One of my favorite theologians is Garth Brooks. And he has the song “Unanswered Prayers,” which I think is really helpful. Even as you just said—if God had answered you two months in, it would have been the wrong prayer. But by just continually praying, and then God is starting to mold your heart and shape your desires, so that when he answers in the way that he’s going to answer, he’s prepared our heart for it. So much of prayer is simply asking God to change us, to have his desires, right? Is—Lord, I want heaven here, as the Lord’s Prayer says. Forgiveness is in there. And then just shaping our desires, so that they’ll be God’s desires as well. And how often I’ve done the same thing. You keep praying until you realize—you know what? I don’t know if my heart’s in the right place on this. And that’s the point.

Brian Arnold (21:41):

Right? God is using it to shape us in that way. So, I mean, obviously you’ve written a book on prayer, which is excellent. I appreciate this gift to the church. I think I told you this, I was—this is probably just in the last couple months—at home over the summer, and I get a text from my mother-in-law, and she’s preparing a women’s Bible study at her church in Hickman, Kentucky. And I love that place, but it feels like you’re in the edge of the world. And she says—do you know this guy? I said—yeah, Kyle’s a friend of mine. And she says—well, I’m working through this to prepare for my Bible study. Had no idea of the connection there. So brother, you’re making a huge impact through this book. I know it’s helped so many people in the church. So—The Secret to Prayer: 31 Days to a More Intimate Relationship with God. Obviously, to write a book like this, you’ve reflected a lot, you’ve read a lot. What are some of the best works you could point our listeners to on prayer?

Kyle DiRoberts (22:37):

So one of my favorites, especially if we’re talking about creature and Creator, I love Anselm’s Proslogion. It’s a little bit heavier lifting, but it’s still worth it, whatever you can glean from it. In addition to that, I love John Calvin’s Institutes and his chapters on prayer. I mean, they are so rich and so valuable. And they’re timeless, really.

Brian Arnold (22:57):

And I appreciate you saying that. Because I think most people think John Calvin is just basically saying, on every page of his works, like—”you are predestined,” or something. They have a such a truncated view of who John Calvin is. But his Institutes, there’s a reason why they’re a classic. They’re pastorally written. They aim at the heart. And yes, his sections on prayer are magisterial.

Kyle DiRoberts (23:16):

Sixty-six pages devoted to prayer. And so I would love for your readers and listeners to listen to that as well.

Brian Arnold (23:22):

Yeah. And then anything else? Even more modern?

Kyle DiRoberts (23:25):

I’m a big Philip Yancey fan. I think Yancey’s book on prayer is wonderful. I really like Timmy—Timothy—Keller’s.

Brian Arnold (23:35):

Yep.

Kyle DiRoberts (23:36):

I don’t know why I called him Timmy <laugh>. Timothy.

Brian Arnold (23:38):

Oh, my old buddy, Timmy.

Kyle DiRoberts (23:40):

Timothy Keller. I did it again! Tim Keller’s book—I’m going to do that—on prayer. That would probably be another one that I’d point to—

Brian Arnold (23:46):

Yeah. Well, those are great. And more than anything else, I think what we’d encourage our listeners to do is, after listening, pray. Spend time with the Lord. Pray, and just see what God will do in and through that to shape you, and to transform you into the image of Christ. And you just to sit back and watch him, as the Creator, work.

Kyle DiRoberts (24:05):

Absolutely. Yep.

Brian Arnold (24:06):

Kyle, thanks for joining us today.

Kyle DiRoberts (24:07):

Thanks for having me.

Outro (24:08):

Thank you for listening to Faith Seeking Understanding. It means so much to us that this content is helping you grow in your understanding of the faith. I want to take a moment to tell you about our new online learning experience at Phoenix Seminary. Over the last year, we’ve been creating what we believe to be the highest quality of online courses for ministry training. If you’re called to train for a lifetime of faithful service, but can’t join us on campus, I’d like you to invite you to join us online. Take courses featuring some of the guests you’ve heard on Faith Seeking Understanding, including Wayne Grudem, Mike Thigpen, Steve Duby, myself, and more. Learn more about Phoenix seminary online, and even access the entire online lecture content for my church history course at ps.edu/online.

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