No respect for the clergy. I looked up from the book I was reading and asked her if I could help her.

“No,” she said, grinning, “I’m going to help you. I have something that you will use in a sermon sometime. Last night I went to a Bible study, and the Bible teacher said something that you will like. She said, ‘It is hard to hug a stiff kid.’”

“That’s good,” I said, remembering how difficult it was to hug our teenage daughters, especially when they were angry and sullen—sort of like hugging a telephone pole.

“But ­that’s not all. Last night after the Bible study, I went to baby-­sit a two-­year-old boy. He had been playing in the dirt all day and was the dirtiest kid I’ve ever seen. When I went into his room, he lifted up his arms to be hugged. Do you know,” she asked, “what I learned?”

“What?”

“That it is easier to hug a dirty kid than it is to hug a stiff kid.”

Almost always when I talk to people about prayer, they tell me that they don’t pray because they ­aren’t good enough and that God ­doesn’t want to hear from someone as sinful as they are.

Listen to me and never forget what I’m going to tell you: It ­isn’t your sin that causes God to be far away. The vicarious atonement of Christ takes care of sin. But stiffness—now that will kill your prayer life every time. You say, “But you ­don’t know what I’ve done.” I ­don’t care what you’ve done. That is never the problem.

I’ve been a pastor for a whole bunch of years, and there ­isn’t much (if anything) that you can tell me that I ­haven’t heard before or that will shock me. I’ve heard it all. I’ve cleaned up after more suicides than I can remember and listened to more confessions than a district attorney, and sin is hardly ever the real problem. The real problem is stiffness.

I have noticed that those who would like to pray but ­can’t have something like cosmic claustrophobia: They believe that God is holy and righteous (and he is) and that going into his presence requires that we be holy and righteous (also true). But they feel extremely uncomfortable as they approach God in prayer. You can fool your friends, your wife, or your husband, but not God. God knows. He knows your actions, your thoughts and your secrets—and that is pretty scary.

I have noticed that those who would like to pray but ­can’t have something like cosmic claustrophobia

Some, because of their guilt, decide to become unbelievers. Those are the folks who, because of the discomfort in the presence of a holy and righteous God, say they doubt that God exists. Others, who have tried and tried to be holy and righteous, have stopped praying because they have decided that whatever it is that makes people righteous and holy, they ­don’t have. They think, I’ve asked God to forgive me and change me so many times that he is getting tired of hearing from me. I’m ashamed to go into his presence again with the same old stuff so I’m not going to do it anymore.

Or we pray to God and we feel uncomfortable in his presence because he is holy and righteous, and so sometimes we simply make another God who is more comfortable. God ceases to be the God revealed in the Bible and becomes a sort of cosmic Santa who would never be angry, never question, and never make us feel uncomfortable. It is a way to deal with guilt, but a very superficial way to deal with it.

But, again, the real problem here isn’t sin. It’s stiffness. And stiffness can kill our prayers.

The Scriptures assure us: “A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench” (Isa. 42:3). David, in the midst of the most horrible of sins, understood that “a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (Ps. 51:17).

What does it mean to be stiff before God?

Our Arrogance

First, of course, it means that we think we bring to God the qualifications of goodness, purity, and ability. It means that we suppose that God has need of our goodness, our purity, and our ability.

Let me give you both some good news and some bad news.

The bad news first: God doesn’t need you. He was doing fine before we came along, and he will do fine long after we have left the ­world’s scene. Ever wonder what people think about you? The truth is that most of them ­aren’t thinking about you at all. Paranoia is the false assumption that we are important enough for people to organize their lives around destroying us. Cosmic paranoia assumes that God has organized his life around his need for us and that his wrath is the result of our refusal to meet his need.

I teach at a seminary. I have come to love seminary students, to learn from them, and to have my cynical soul washed out with the freshness of their commitment and the joy of their calling. However, there is a bit of arrogance in seminary students. They rarely see any “gray” anywhere, and they tend to be quite disapproving of any aberration in what they consider ­God’s standard of human behavior or wavering on what they consider orthodox doctrine.

Sometimes, after a particularly scathing attack by a student on some individual whose doctrinal position is not orthodox or whose lifestyle seems less than Christian, I will say, “Ladies and gentlemen, you ­haven’t lived long enough nor sinned big enough to even have an opinion on that subject.” When I say something like that, the students often become silent. In the silence there is an understanding that this old guy might be right.

How do they know what I said was true? They have been before God, and although they are young in years and often young in the faith, they are learning that arrogance is the stiffness that would destroy their ministry. It was an arrogant priest who prayed when he was in his twenties: “Lord, enable me to save the world.” It was a humbled priest who prayed in his forties: “Lord, enable me to save my church.” It was a wise priest who prayed in his sixties: “Lord, help me not to lose too many.”

Our Agenda

Stiffness is made up of the agenda we bring to God. I have learned that God really does know better than I do. It was the confessor of Augustine’s mother who told her not to worry so much about her son. “The child of so many prayers,” he said, “cannot be lost.” But she continued to pray and to tell God exactly what He should do about her son.

One of the great fears that Monica had for her son was that he would visit Rome. She was afraid that her son would fall to the fleshly and theological temptations of that city. But regardless of the fervency of her prayers, Augustine went to Rome. It was there that Augustine fell under the influence of Ambrose and committed his life to Christ.

Thousands of illustrations could be given of ­God’s love and the bounties given to those who knew their agenda was unimportant in comparison to ­God’s agenda. I’m often asked about the purpose of prayer before a sovereign God. “If God knows what I’m going to ask before I ask it, why pray?” ­It’s a good question, but it misses the point. We pray not to get what we want but to want what God wants, and we do that with the awareness that he is sovereign and that he knows best.

Not too long ago I was flying back from a Canadian Key Life board meeting in Toronto. Our plane landed in Pittsburgh one week after another plane (the same airline) had crashed in Pittsburgh. We went through some of the most horrible turbulence I’ve ever experienced. I thought we were going to die. In fact, I was sure of it. Now that kind of experience has a tendency to make ­one’s prayers intense. The irritating part about my praying on that occasion was the snores of the sleeping woman next to me. When we finally landed safely, she woke up and was stretching. I said to her, “Lady, we almost died and you were sleeping. It seems to me that a person ought to be awake for ­her death.”

She laughed, and said, “Mister, I ­can’t fly this plane!”

Profound point about flying . . . and about life too.

God likes to say yes to our requests, but he never accedes to demands. “As a father pities his children, so the Lord pities those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13–14). When the stiffness of our agenda is brought before God, he laughs.

Our “Maturity”

Finally, stiffness is often the mark of an adult who has learned in the school of “hard knocks.” A lack of stiffness is the mark of a child. Jesus said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3–4).

Those who are seniors in the school of prayer ­aren’t usually those who pray the best prayers, who understand the doctrinal truths surrounding prayer, or who have spent a lifetime in monasteries. Those who “have ­God’s ear” are often the children, as well as those who have learned to “grow down” and become childlike.

I have a friend whose father, when my friend was a small boy, placed him on top of a kitchen counter and said, “Son, jump and I’ll catch you.” When my friend jumped, his father turned his back and let him hit the floor. Then his father said, “Son, you have just learned an important lesson. Never trust anybody . . . ever.”

God says, “Jump and I’ll catch you.” When we do, we find that we are caught in the arms of a Father who has never broken a promise, never abused his children, never let us go.

Adapted from Steve’s book on prayer, Approaching God.