The Problem with Prayer
JUNE 16, 2021
I told God today what he did wrong yesterday.
Yeah, sometimes I grade God. Sometimes I cuss, spit, rant and complain.
You’re probably not saved! I always had my doubts.
Actually, I am saved and that’s the reason I pray the way I do. I don’t wear masks. In fact, prayer is about the only place where I can be honest, say what I think, and know I won’t be kicked out. I don’t tell God I love him when I don’t nor do I use religious phrases that aren’t true. (It really isn’t a good thing to lie to God because he knows exactly what we’re thinking.) If it weren’t for that honest time with my Father each morning, I’m not sure I would survive.
Let me tell you about prayer and why it’s such a pain for many of us. You don’t fool me. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I know me and I know people. We use spiritual words (“quiet time,” “devotion,” etc.) to mask the reality that we would rather do something religious to ameliorate our guilt than pray. Most of us don’t like praying because 1) we’ve listened to “testimonies” from others about prayer (they’re generally lying but you don’t know that) and there is no way their experience comes close to matching our own, 2) we’re really busy doing God’s work and don’t have time to pray, 3) we really don’t believe that it does any good, and 4) frankly, we’re not sure that God will show, and it’s better to hope that he’s around than to check and find out that it was all a fantasy and then have nothing.
So we nod in God’s direction and get busy…always hoping that maybe God will show. It’s a kind of “waiting for Godot” without the waiting. More a “looking for Godot/God” thing while doing stuff for him, and hoping that he will be pleased and show up.
All of us have been convicted at one time or another about our lack of commitment to prayer. When that happens, we promise God and ourselves that we’ll do better. Then we go about creating an “effective prayer life.” We think a “season of prayer” will reflect our seriousness and commitment. Then in our new “hour of prayer” each morning, we hit a wall. After the first five or ten minutes, we find that we said all we meant to say, worshiped all we knew how to worship, and prayed for everybody we’ve known since the third grade. That’s when our minds begin to wander…followed by the inevitable guilt. The guilt pushes us to “try harder” with no more success than the first time around. Eventually prayer becomes the proverbial “hot stove” the cat sat on—he won’t ever sit on a hot stove again, but he won’t sit on a cold one either. The very seriousness with which we take prayer becomes the reason we give up “serious” prayer.
So stop it! Just stop it!
Let me give you a biblical base (these aren’t my ideas) for what I plan to say and then…just say it.
The book of Psalms is, among other things, one of the most honest religious books ever written. It is a book of human emotions—all of them. As Dan Allender and Tremper Longman pointed out in their book, The Cry of the Soul, there is anger, hatred, doubt, fear, complaint and worship, always with an awareness that God is in charge of the whole show. In other words, if you get beyond Psalm 23 (a great Psalm, by the way, but not the only one), there is praise, worship, joy in God…and “cussing and spitting.” The writer of Hebrews says, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence [“boldness” in KJV] draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16). After talking about how the mystery of the Gospel has been revealed, Paul says, “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him” (Ephesians 3:11-12).
Most of us know (but need to be reminded) that the term “Abba” in the Bible is a term of endearment…the way a beloved small child would address his doting father, not altogether dissimilar to our term “daddy.” Jesus addressed God as “Abba Father” (Mark 14:36). We are told it’s the way we address God (Romans 8:15). And Paul says that the Holy Spirit in us cries out to “Abba! Father!” (Galatians 4:6).
Almost every Christian teacher, preacher and leader (I include myself) urges us to pray more. There is nothing wrong with that and it’s probably a good idea. We get into trouble, though, when they (me included) tell us our problem is that we don’t take prayer seriously enough. There is nothing wrong with that either…except it’s not true.
Let me tell you what is true:
The problem with prayer isn’t that we don’t take it seriously enough, but that we take it too seriously…way too seriously.
We’ve been taught to follow certain formulas and rules that are a part of proper prayer. We think that real prayer is a very sacred action and totally separate from the secular world. We’re sure that there is a proper position for prayer, a proper place for prayer, a proper way to address God, and a proper set of words that constitute prayer. We have schools of prayer, prayer retreats and courses on prayer in our churches. We design certain liturgical forms of prayer to make sure we cover all the bases; and everybody knows that if you don’t close your prayer with the name of Jesus then your prayer won’t “work.”
Do it right, we imply, and you’ll find that there is great power in prayer.
Let me suggest that you should do it wrong…and then you’ll discover the power of prayer.
I have a close friend who asked me to help him with his poor prayer life. He expected me to teach him techniques and methodologies of prayer to make him into a “prayer warrior.” Instead I told him to allow only five minutes a day for prayer. “Not only that,” I told him, “You don’t have to do it on Saturday because God will want a break and you don’t have to do it on Sunday because going to church will be sufficient. So take five minutes and only five minutes. If you take more than that, I’ll pray you get the hives.”
He asked me what he should do in those five minutes. “Whatever you want to do,” I replied. “Just take the five minutes and show. You can dance or laugh or tell God jokes if you want to. You can cry or complain if you need to. God will be glad to see you. But don’t increase the five minutes until you come back to me and ask permission to increase it.”
Do you know what happened? It changed his prayer life. He found that the time with God was one of the best parts of his day. While my friend didn’t ask permission, he found that his prayer time increased naturally and so did his looking forward to that time with his Father.
Do you remember when Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them how to pray? They expected far more than he gave them. In fact, before Jesus taught them, he said, “And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need [or think] before you ask him [and before you express it]” (Matthew 6:7-8).
Then to their surprise, Jesus gave them a very short and to the point prayer. In fact, it was so short that ever since he taught them, Christian teachers have been trying to correct Jesus’ “mistake” by saying that The Lord’s Prayer is a “pattern prayer” or a “formula” for serious prayer. No, it isn’t. It’s a “cover the bases” prayer that, once you’ve prayed it, you can do what you want in his presence.
So for God’s sake (and yours), don’t do it right. Do it wrong. Just show. Getting it right is so much a part of our DNA (one of the major repercussions of the fall) that we see God’s primary goal in dealing with his creatures is to get us to “do it right.” Prayer isn’t the exception. There is no “right position.” There are no “right words” (a pastor said that when he fell down a well it was the best praying he ever did…on his head shouting, “Help!”). There isn’t a “right formula.” And there isn’t a “right way” to do it.
I once went to dinner at a friend’s house. He picked me up on his way home from work and when we went through the front door his two children (a little boy and a little girl) completely ignored me and practically knocked me over getting to their father. They jumped into their father’s arms and, to my surprise, they all started dancing and laughing. I remember the little girl shouting in between her giggles, “Daddy, daddy, listen to what happened to me today!”
So my time of prayer each morning is not very religious. Sometimes I am prostrate on the floor, sometimes I play solitaire on the computer with him looking over my shoulder, sometimes I just quietly sit in his presence, sometimes I tell him where it hurts or plead with him to help, sometimes I confess my sins (those prayers are very long), and at other times I “cuss and spit” or tell him where I think he did it wrong or, maybe even, tell him a joke that I know he’s already heard…all the time in his arms shouting, “Daddy, Daddy!”
When you’re dancing with someone who likes you a lot, that person doesn’t generally care if you dance properly.
He asked me to remind you.