So, if it’s your will, and if you will be glorified in it, and if it’s not going to feed my selfishness or draw me away from you, I pray that you’ll help this interview to go well, but only if I can glorify yo—
“I think I forgot my résumé. I gotta turn around.”
Oops! Sorry, God. Where was I . . .
This is basically my prayer life. I’m like a seven-year-old who’s had exactly three swim classes: I’m not drowning, I’m confident enough that I can doggy paddle, but there’s no grace or ease.
Some days I wish I could go diving for rings like the rest of the kids, but instead I get distracted by something shiny outside of the pool, and before I know it, my head’s under water and I’m panicking.
I haven’t always been this way. As a little girl who grew up in the heart of the Bible Belt, I actually used to pride myself on my prayers, at least in public. They were eloquent and moving, evoking my own tears and even tears from others. I felt spurred on by an “amen” or moans of approval, and the more people who felt moved by my words, the more moving and emotive they became, often stretching out as a theatrical monologue while pandering to the wishes of the crowd.
I was a dramatic child bolstered by the approval of others, and this, unfortunately, carried over into my prayer life. The worst part is that it worked: people complimented me for my prayers. I could feel the approval of the adults around me, and I knew that I had done something right.
From this young age I learned that, as much as we like to deny it, we do often judge others based on their prayers. Instead of prayer acting as a collective form of communication to God, too often they become something of a one-way mirror, giving us a glimpse into the inner-workings of someone’s heart and spiritual life. Instead of actively participating, the listeners become spectators to another person’s communion with the Lord, free to critique one’s form as they listen to the words unfold.
Thankfully, as I grew up and my walk with the Lord deepened, I shifted away from a performance-prayer mentality and drew towards Jesus’ convicting words in Matthew 6:5–7: “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites who love to pray publicly on street corners . . . When you pray, don’t babble on and on as people of other religions do.”
I found freedom and grace in focusing more on coming before the Lord vulnerably and privately rather than “reverently” and publicly, but this seemed to backfire as well. Instead of prayer serving as a tool by which I wanted others to spiritually evaluate me, it became a tool by which I wanted the Lord to measure me. I made fervent requests—especially for all of the truly selfless things one should ask for (wisdom, justice, peace, a love for God, and so on). I knew if I was focused and faithful, I would win favor with the Lord.
The Absence of Prayer
Around this time our Christian culture began to change, and discussions of God not being a “wish-granting factory” frequently peppered sermons and devotional materials. I didn’t want God to be my genie, but I just didn’t know how else (or why else) to pray. So I stopped praying altogether.
If I didn’t want to bother the Creator of the Universe with the petty concerns of passing my biology test, then I couldn’t figure out what to pray for. Suddenly my communication with God consisted of offering up praises and Psalms, and whenever some blessing came my way, I’d spend a few minutes in thankful reverie.
Even now, I have a hard time figuring out what prayer looks like. I desperately want God to be glorified in my life, and if his glory stems from some suffering I am going through, who am I to pray away that pain? If his glory is seen in taking an ailing grandparent (or even my perfectly healthy brother) to heaven, who am I to ask him to change his mind? If God is glorified in my heartbreak or my financial struggles or my singleness or my longing or my questioning, why would I pray for anything different?
My confidence in the Lord’s providence and sovereignty makes it difficult to request things from him. How can I possibly pray for something better or more fitting than what the Lord would already provide? I trust him completely.
For me, this tension is only magnified by the interaction between Job and God. After having his entire livelihood, family, and health stripped away, Job’s wife urged him to forsake God and blame him for all of the atrocities Job had to endure. In Job 40:1–5, Job and God begin to exchange words: “Then the LORD said to Job, ‘Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?’ Then Job replied to the LORD, ‘I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers? I will cover my mouth with my hand. I have said too much already.’”
My whole being relates to Job here. So often I sit before the Lord, covering my mouth, painfully aware of my own limitations, unable to question or even approach the Lord. This theme seems to be reinforced in Job’s response at the opening of Job 42: “I know that you can do anything, and no one can stop you. You asked, ‘Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?’ It is I—and I was talking about things I knew nothing about, things far too wonderful for me.”
The Lord is far too wonderful for me, and his plans are far too wonderful for me. God is awe-inspiring, loving, and gracious, and I am eternally grateful that none of these things are dependent on a few hurried prayers before bed.
Learning How to Pray
These days my requests are often couched in clauses of “If it’s your will,” “If it will glorify you,” or “If I can better serve and love you in this.” I feel like I have to add all of these amendments so the Lord understands I’m not demanding anything—I’m asking (as he commands us to do) in the most trusting, unassuming, and inoffensive way possible. I hope.
I understand that it’s not that I can either present the Lord with my list of “Honey-Dos” or not pray at all, but I’m still struggling to find that in-between. Just talking to the Lord “as you would a friend” has never felt natural to me, and I can’t pray merely out of obligation. I want my interactions with God to be genuine and spring up naturally out of my heart—but, at times, nothing grows.
T. S. Eliot once said, “A tradition without intelligence is not worth having.” As I struggle through understanding the purpose of prayer, I can embrace Eliot’s sentiment. While I don’t believe that the absence of prayer or a performance of prayer is the solution, I do believe that we should be thoughtful and intentional when approaching God. Perhaps one friend said it best with his take on a famous adage: “Pray always and, if necessary, use words.”
So when we’re all sitting in a small group, offering up prayer requests, and the time comes for “popcorn prayer,” just know that I probably won’t be speaking up. It’s not because I can’t remember the requests, and it’s only partially due to the fact that I’m scared you’ll judge my spirituality based on how many verses of Scripture I can allude to and how many times I nervously say “um” in the middle of each sentence. In reality, I probably won’t pray aloud because I’m still figuring out how to do so.
For now, I take great comfort in Romans 8:26: “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.” I often don’t know what to pray for or how to pray or why I’m even praying, but I know that God understands this. He anticipated and provided for this struggle. The Holy Spirit acts as my intercessor, interpreting the confused, muddled longings of my heart and bringing them before God.
Learning how to pray is a journey, one that I am struggling and stumbling through, but at least I am moving forward—toward answers and toward the Lord. He’s a far better mediator than I could ever be, and I have to trust that with his help, patience, and a healthy dose of humility, I will come to better understand prayer. (Until then, I’ll likely be squeezing the clammy hand next to mine, passing the chain on, when it’s my turn to pray for the group.)