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What Ruth Graham Taught Me About Prayer

A powerful way to make God's words your own.

If you find your stomach knotting, your head pounding, and your teeth clenched, discover the simple remedy of bending your knees.

Many years ago several young college students sat around the old oak table in Ruth Bell Graham's kitchen, listening to her stories. We were lonely and homesick. College life had been rougher than expected. Ruth's eyes glowed as she told us of her own bouts with loneliness, particularly of an unsparing incident that once laid her low.

"When I was 13," she said, "my parents, missionaries in China, enrolled me in boarding school in what is now Pyongyang, North Korea. It was a difficult parting, and on my last night home, I earnestly prayed that I would die." Ruth didn't die, but arriving in Korea, she reeled under pounding waves of homesickness. Every night, she buried her head in her pillow and cried herself to sleep. Finally in desperation, she went to her sister, Rosa, also enrolled in Pyongyang.

"I don't know what to tell you to do," Rosa replied bluntly, "unless you take some verse and put your own name in it. See if that helps." Ruth picked up her Bible and turned to a favorite chapter, Isaiah 53, and put her name in it: "He was pierced for Ruth's transgressions, he was crushed for my iniquities; the punishment that brought Ruth peace was upon him, and by his wounds I am healed" (v. 5).

"I claimed that verse and knew then," Ruth told us, "that I would make it."

Cure for a knotted stomach

I have often remembered Mrs. Graham's words, and have developed a variation of that technique. For several years now, I've devoted a portion of my daily prayer time to taking various passages of Scripture and putting my name in them?or the names of others. I record these prayers in a journal as petitions to the Lord.

"God loves to be reminded of his promises," Ruth went on to tell us on that autumn evening in 1971. "He never rebukes us for asking too much."

Worriers like me must frequently remember that. We often suffer knotted stomachs, pounding heads, and spastic colons, when our real need is bent knees. James 5:16 teaches that the prayers of a righteous person are "powerful and effective." They can keep us and our loved ones from danger, spare us from evil, instill us with wisdom, and nudge us toward God.

But what exactly should we pray? Romans 8:26 warns that sometimes we "do not know what we ought to pray for." But when we pray using the words of Scripture, we can be confident of praying acceptably before God.

For example, I found a passage in Ephesians 4 that I adapted for my daughter Hannah. I wrote it in my prayer notebook, then offered it aloud to the Lord: Dear Lord, I pray today for Hannah, that you will help her avoid unwholesome talk, and teach her to speak only what is helpful in building others up according to their needs. Keep her from grieving your Holy Spirit.

Concerned for a struggling young friend, I prayed for him along the lines of Luke 11:1 and Hebrews 4:16?Heavenly Father, teach James to pray. May he learn to approach your throne of grace with confidence so that he can receive mercy and find grace to help him in his time of need.

In praying for my missionary friend in the Ivory Coast of West Africa, I've leaned on Ephesians 6:19: God, I pray whenever Clint opens his mouth, words may be given him so that he will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel.

And praying for my church, I have sometimes taken my cue from the Lord Jesus in John 17:23?Father, may we be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent us and have loved us.

Habits worth forming

Keeping a prayer journal helps keep my habits on track, but those uncomfortable keeping a notebook can use the margins of their Bibles for the same purposes. As meaningful verses are found, they can be switched into prayers and offered aloud. A record of the person prayed for and the date can be jotted alongside the text with a fine-point pen.

Another version of this technique involves memorized Scripture. When retiring at night or while driving down the highway, reflect on a beloved verse and transform it into a prayer. Just the other day, after having said exactly the wrong thing to someone, I drove off while earnestly praying Psalm 141:3?Set a guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.

This habit can also be extended to the hymnbook. Want to pray a special prayer for your mother? Adapt Frances Ridley Havergal's famous hymn to say: Take Mom's life and let it be/Consecrated, Lord, to thee;/Take her moments and her days?/Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Instead of listening to the radio, use your drive time to pray for family and friends by singing your way down the highway, punching their names into the stanzas.

A remarkable prayer time

Some time ago, my wife and I took in a troubled young man with a long history of drug and alcohol abuse. We loved him dearly and beamed at his progress. But after several months of sobriety, he suddenly relapsed into a vicious world of beer and cocaine.

The next six months were a nightmare, but he eventually consented to let us enroll him in a drug rehab program. He entered just before his birthday and I told him that in lieu of a present, I would pray for him for an hour when the day came.

When his birthday arrived, I wondered how I could pray so long for one person. Late in the evening after everyone else was in bed, I slipped to the living room and knelt by the sofa.

I opened my Bible to Genesis and thumbed through page after page. Before me were well-worn chapters, underlined verses, highlighted passages. One-by-one I adapted them into prayers for Mark.

I have seldom felt such power in prayer, and the hour went quickly. I ran out of time long before running out of verses. Meanwhile in the rehab center, Mark turned the corner. That was seven years ago, and he is still doing great. We can trace his turn-around to the very week of his birthday.

If you find your stomach knotting, your head pounding, and your teeth clenched, discover the simple remedy of bending your knees. Remember the advice that pulled Ruth Graham from depression. Find a portion of Scripture, and put a name in it.

A Christian Reader original article.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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