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As you know, I am always pushing for more "desperate prayer". But maybe that phrase gives the impression that we should approach prayer a bit like most of us approach fasting, i.e. we pray desperately for a period of time until we get the "answer" and then we assume that everything has been fixed up until the next crisis. And we don't even know when the next crisis has come in our own spiritual walk until it is irrefutably pointed out to us by others. If this is how we approach prayer, then our whole life will be full of dramatic ups and downs, as we move from one crisis to the next.

Perhaps better terms for what we need are "a relationship with God" or "a conscience". These emphasise the long-term spiritual commitment that is required to stay on the rails, without so many serious crises.

I like the term "self awareness". It's one trait that distinguishes humans from other animals. Self awareness is linked to "imagining" how you look to others, or to God, and from this constant awareness of how you are coming across, you develop the ability to see yourself in other people as well.

In other words, you see someone else in a stubborn pose, with their lower lip sticking out and saying, "I said I'm sorry. What more do you want?" and you immediately know that they are out of the spirit, even if they did say they were sorry. Then you use that information to assess yourself. When you see yourself behaving in the same way, you say, "Obviously, I'm still out of the spirit, and I'm not fooling anyone, even if I did say I was sorry."

This is just one of many examples we could give of how self awareness works. It's a constant thing that should be happening all the time, whether it's an awareness of whether our hair is combed, or an awareness of how much sense we are making in what we say, or an awareness of whether we are singing out of tune. If we can spot such traits in others, then we should be able to spot them in ourselves. That is part of being truly human.

There are a long list of clues that can tell us when we are missing the mark spiritually, and that we need to improve. Spotting these clues doesn't come from a book of rules; it comes from life itself. I'll illustrate this with regard to driving a car. There isn't a book long enough to tell you exactly where and when to focus your attention when driving, exactly when to apply pressure to the brake and how much, or when to start turning the wheel, etc. And yet, through simple experience we learn to co-ordinate all of these things, and to eventually become reasonable drivers. We also know that if someone were to actually try to refer to a book for each eye movement, hand movement, foot movement, etc. they would almost certainly end up in a crash. There isn't time to find a rule for everything that we do. We have to develop a feel for what we are doing, and to make decisions based on something that we have internalised.

In the same way, we need to internalise certain spiritual values, and then use our self-awareness to constantly check on whether we are following them. That's what I mean by "constant prayer" as opposed to desperate prayer. And it's why I compare constant prayer to having a conscience.

Another way to describe it is through the saying by Socrates: "know yourself". Part of being fully human is to know when something is not right in our spirit, and then to find an answer for it. As soon as we start feeling panicky or frustrated or horny (for example), we recognise that adjustments need to be made to come up with truly Christian solutions to these problems.

The article, Fasting Without Ceasing touches on some of this, although it's more specifically praying that I am talking about now, or perhaps, to be even more specific, it's listening... listening to warning signs in our own bodies, which indicate that we are getting out of the spirit. If we are doing this in tandem with a continual awareness of God, then we will be shocked and embarrassed each time we spot sin creeping up into our lives... whether or not anyone else ever sees it. Call it constant prayer, a conscience, a relationship with God, or whatever... the point is that it needs to operate continually. Yesterday's relationship, conscience, or prayer is not good enough for today.

Some of you have lived for so many years with problems like selfishness or fear of rejection, that there is no way that even forty days of 'fasting' would make it go away. You will need to work on changing those habits for the rest of your life. It's not so much a matter of desperate prayer for something to hit you like a bolt of lightning from outside, but rather it's a matter of accepting personal responsibility for what is going on inside, and taking steps to change it.

By all means, pray desperately for more strength to make those changes; but in the end, you are still the one who is going to have to do it, and it is not going to be easy.

You may, as a result of desperate prayer, find some helpful rules, just as I am trying to drive more slowly as one way to improve my driving. But the rules that you may choose to apply will only work if they are used in conjunction with an overall vigilance about where you are going spiritually. It's like the rules on our personal empowerment charts. At some stage you have to re-examine them, and when you do, you'll find some things that either are no longer needed or that have become internalised to the point where you will probably continue doing them even if you drop them from the chart. And you will find other things that need to be added to take their place. Constantly updating the chart will lead to greater growth than would happen if you just kept one chart for the rest of your life.

Summing up, what I am pushing for with regard to constant prayer, is habitual self-examination, and a constant attitude of sincerity, which means hungering and thirsting after improvement. Forget about "arriving", and work on improvement, and you won't think of criticism as "failure" but merely as an aid to getting where you want to get.

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