Earlier this summer, our family made a pilgrimage to the ultimate summer vacation destination, Disneyland. As we navigated the crowds, I noticed a common trait among our fellow mouse-eared tourists. With the exception of a few overstimulated toddlers and stressed-out parents, everyone around us was smiling and laughing. The strangers...
I used to think I was bad at prayer. It may sound funny to say it like that; after all, is prayer some kind of accomplishment? Do they hand out trophies for praying? Nevertheless, that’s how I felt.
If I was in a small group, and someone needed to read Scripture, my hand would go up quickly. Certainly if there was something to be said on the passage at hand, I would say it. But the moment someone had to pray, I would sink into the floorboards. I didn’t want to be that exposed. What if I said something weird? What if I couldn’t think of anything to say? What if I forgot someone’s request?
A watershed moment in my life came one evening at the end of a small group session I was leading. I enjoyed leading a group, but the problem with leading is that you really can’t beg off praying. At some point, the leader is going to have to pray for the group.
So my turn came, and on this particular night, I found that I simply had nothing to say. I just couldn’t do it. None of the prepackaged phrases that we pick up in church seemed right. I couldn’t pray them honestly, and I didn’t want to be a phony. I punted to my wife, and she prayed. Seriously, the silence in my mind was so complete that I couldn’t pray.
You see, I was quick to do the things I was good at. Bible study and analysis, memorization of facts and data, making connections between different passages of Scripture—all this came very naturally to me, and it still does. So when it was time to utilize those abilities, I was first in line.
But prayer? No way.
Learning from Biblical Pray-ers
Sure, I knew all those phrases we all say on a regular basis: “Lord, if it is your will…,” “Please bless this food to our bodies,” “God, we just want to lift up ____ in prayer tonight…,” and so on. And I’m not saying we can’t use those phrases. But that was pretty much my entire vocabulary in prayer.
My actual feelings at the time were far more tumultuous, even (or maybe especially) my feelings toward God. I had all kinds of doubts and questions about the direction of my life, and about whether God could really understand what I was going through. I even had a few choice words for him about where he had led me. But those certainly weren’t things I could pray about or share with the group. No, there are things you just can’t say to God. You have to be reverent. You’re supposed to rejoice in suffering. The leader of the group needs to have it all together.
Consider the prayer of the prophet Jeremiah in the twentieth chapter of his book:
O LORD, you have deceived me,
and I was deceived;
you are stronger than I,
and you have prevailed.
I have become a laughingstock all the day;
everyone mocks me.
For whenever I speak, I cry out,
I shout, “Violence and destruction!”
For the word of the LORD has become for me
a reproach and derision all day long…
Cursed be the day
on which I was born!
The day when my mother bore me,
let it not be blessed!
Cursed be the man who brought the news to my father,
“A son is born to you,”
making him very glad…
Why did I come out from the womb
to see toil and sorrow,
and spend my days in shame? (vv. 7-8, 14-15, 18)
That’s pretty dark, folks. I’m not saying that everyone should rue the day they were born, I’m just saying that the writers of Scripture did not sanitize their emotions before God. We find similar passages in the Psalms and some by the other prophets. And the amazing thing is, we find the following declaration in the same prayer:
But the LORD is with me as a dread warrior;
therefore my persecutors will stumble;
they will not overcome me.
They will be greatly shamed,
for they will not succeed…
Sing to the LORD;
praise the LORD!
For he has delivered the life of the needy
from the hand of evildoers. (vv. 11, 13)
Do you find it odd that two such very dark and disturbing passages should sandwich such a statement of praise and trust? I used to, until my own faith was tested to the breaking point. It’s a long story, but God led me down a certain path in life for nearly three decades and then, just when it looked like everything was going to come to fruition, the ground fell out beneath my feet and I had nothing.
Three Lessons on Prayer
Well, let me tell you, right then I stopped worrying about whether or not I was praying “the right words.” I was angry, hurt, confused, and frightened, and there was no hiding it behind some well-worn Christianese prayer language. I prayed exactly what I felt, and I found that I had plenty to say. Seemingly overnight, I went from praying a half-hearted two minutes once in a while to praying for an hour or so every morning—a habit which has stayed with me—and I learned a few things about prayer.
1. God knows you, so be honest.
God already knows how you feel anyway, so you might as well be honest. You may be able to fool your friends and your small group, but he knows.
Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O Lord, you know it altogether. (Psalm 139:4)
Think of it this way: The Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus died for us while we were still sinners (Romans 5:8). Christ didn’t wait until we got ourselves all cleaned up and spotless. So don’t pretend to be better than you are. Like the old hymn says,
Just as I am, though tossed about / With many a conflict, many a doubt / Fightings within and fears without / Oh Lamb of God, I come!
2. God can handle your honesty.
He is big enough and strong enough to handle whatever you throw at him. Expressing anger with God in prayer is like a baby beating its fists on its father’s chest. He can handle it, and he will wait for you to say what you need to say. Paul also wrote in the letter to the Romans:
He who did not spare his own Son, but delivered him over for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things?…For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:32, 38-39)
If all that cannot stand between you and the love of God, do you really think God will reject you if the phrasing of your prayer isn’t just right? I sure don’t.
3. God uses prayer to shape you.
…the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groaning too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
All that time spent in prayer, even if you spend a fair amount of it in anger or frustration, is time with God, and that’s time he can use to shape your life. Jeremiah’s woeful prayer nonetheless contains words of praise and worship for the simple reason that, no matter how awful his circumstances may be, he knows the God he is praying to.
Praying to Know God
That’s the key, isn’t it? Knowing God.
It’s been awhile since I prayed all those angry prayers. It’s been almost exactly two years since God showed me that I had not missed his plan for my life. I now spend an hour praying in the morning, not in anger, but just to be with him.
I’m not saying that honesty means that everyone should be angry and irreverent. I just mean that everyone should be authentic before him because he knows all things anyway. God used that reality to draw me much closer to himself. In order to come to know him, I had to come out from behind the shield of “churchy-ness” that I had erected around myself.
In spite of how painful it was to get there, it was the best thing that could have happened.