Wednesday with Michael Spencer
My Problem with Prayer
Ok. I have this problem with prayer.
I’m not sure it’s a problem with prayer as much as it’s a problem with prayer as it is practiced in the revivalistic tradition that dominates much of my side of evangelicalism.
How can I describe that tradition? It’s a tradition of lengthy, eloquent prayers. Prayers using long-held recognizable code words about prayer. Spontaneous prayer. Pentecostal-Christmatic-Baptist prayer. Prayers of intercession that go on and on. Detailed prayers for missionaries. Wrestling in prayer. Being a prayer warrior. Spiritual warfare prayer. Prayer meetings that go on for an hour or more. Spiritual giants in prayer. Prayer athletes. Praying till revival comes. Praying till God breaks through and saves the lost.
This isn’t me and never has been. I’m such a loser at this kind of prayer that it’s comic. I respect this tradition, but it intimidates me. It leaves me behind. It often frustrates me into anger. I don’t feel this way when I’m praying with monks, and I don’t even agree with a bunch of their theology.
I used to feel bad about this disconnect from evangelical praying. When I was a young Christian, someone gave me a book called The Kneeling Christian, a call to intense prayer in the Christian life, and it about drove me nuts. I’ve listened to tape series on “prayerlessness” that I couldn’t finish out of guilt and hopelessness. When I am around “prayer warriors” and “intercessors,” I want to leave the room, and I often do.
I feel badly for some of my co-workers who are very oriented towards this approach to prayer. They are a lot more like Jesus than I am if this is the way Jesus wants his disciples to pray. They come to the worship and Bible studies I lead and they want to hear more about prayer than they hear. They want to pray more and differently than I do.
In other words, I’m the guy who is really glad the Lord’s Prayer is short.
Frankly, if it weren’t for the liturgy of the church, I’d have serious trouble in this area. Extended, spontaneous conversations with God aren’t my forté. I love the words of the Psalms translated into the prayers of the church. I can deal with prayers of silence better than listening to Christians make up spontaneous prayers. And if you want to torture me, put me in the standard revival prayer meeting or concert of prayer..
Is there something wrong with me? I am unspiritual, that’s for sure. A regular Luther who hangs out in the Boar’s Head Tavern when he should be in a prayer closet.
Am I a bad person? A bad Christian? A proof that American Christians are notably modernistic and rational, despising prayer because, in my heart, I doubt spiritual reality entirely?
Actually, I’m probably extremely normal. I’m convicted of my need to grow in prayer as a Jesus-follower, but I’m just through feeling bad about not being what evangelicals say I should be. I’m not in the prayer Olympics. I don’t have anything to prove by how many hours a week I log in prayer. I’m not seeking the applause of the prayer lobby or anyone else with a spiritual measuring stick handy. If someone wants to say that love for Christ and love for people is measured in prayer, then I may be a loser, but Jesus is for losers.
My prayers reflect my temperament. I need structure and regularity. Spontaneity needs to be minimal. The words of scripture need to be my guide. If I start trying to be someone I’m not or to “work up” a temperament that is “prayerful,” I’m going to be a phony, no matter how impressive my prayers sound.
My prayers will be greatly helped by using daily Psalms and guides for daily prayer. I’ll do better if I write down the things I most want to pray for and if I pray for them RIGHT THEN. In fact, all prayer requests will do much better with me if I pray as soon as I hear them, and then say “I have prayed for this” rather than “I will pray for this.”
I need to be careful with the contemporary models of Olympic prayer that are everywhere in evangelicalism. Much of it is faux spirituality. Some of it buys deeply into errant movements of spiritual warfare and prosperity. Prayer isn’t the wielding of a magical force. While God gives some people temperaments and gifts for prayer, he doesn’t give those to everyone any more than he gives the gifts and temperaments of preaching and leadership to every Christian. The prayers of the people of God are an expression of God’s faithfulness and our dependence on him, not a demonstration of our ability to make things “happen” through prayer.
Those who are convinced that the answer to the needs of the church lie in prayer are partially right, but not entirely right. Prayer stirred by the Holy Spirit need not resemble the latest prayer gathering outline sent from denominational headquarters. Being able to boast in the length and intensity of a prayer meeting is like any other kind of religious boasting: it’s the opposite of the “pray in your closet” approach of Jesus. It sounds a lot more like Jesus’ many critiques of lengthy prayer and showy prayer. But prayer must be real, a true expression of a living faith. It can’t be neglected and it can’t be devalued.
Every church needs to be prayerful, but every praying Christian doesn’t need to be measured by the athletes of prayer any more than the average person’s exercise program needs to be measured against a marathon runner. We need to be taught the simple ways of Jesus’ own model prayers and the reality of the prayers modeled by Paul.
All of us need to grow in prayer, but that growth needs to be in Christlikeness, not in Christianlikeness. Jesus laid out a model for prayer in his teachings and example that will occupy us for a lifetime. Those teachings create in us a need for radical dependence on the Holy Spirit, and never take us into the games and postures of the religious actor. Jesus teaches a way of prayer, but it is the way of reality; a way that takes root in an honest and vulnerable human personality.
I’m not satisfied with who I am in prayer. I am thirsty for more of the Spirit and of true spiritual experience. But I’ve lost my appetite for the pretended spirituality of much evangelical prayer gaming.
The truths that the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness and intercedes for us with groanings to deep to utter are precious and important to me as I move into the second half of life. My prayer is that the spirit of “Abba Father!” will consistently take the form of true prayer, praise and intercession.
23 thoughts on “Wednesday with Michael Spencer: My Problem with Prayer”
That is a beautiful haiku, and a lovely way of moving through the world…thank you.
Jonathan Merritt published an interview yesterday about Christian meditation and prayer. It fits in well with this discussion.
anytime I say
two words that are true and kind
I count it as prayer
And then there are those times when it’s the “Woe!”, or the “Whoa!”
Correction: When I try to pray the psalter….
I have started singing and writing after a 30 year hiatus and I wish always and at every moment to be serenading the Lord directly. That’s not what I always do but I’m working on it. Anyway, with that thought in mind, I have found at times that even if I am doing vocal exercises, a bunch of La La La, it is a distinct expression of prayer.
I love it !
Indeed! The “Wow” is there, too!
Christiane, don’t forget the, “Wow!”, “Wow!”, “Wow!”
beautiful comment, Dana
I hear what you (and Christiane) are saying. I just think there would’ve been a better way to convey “Be careful how you pray” and “Don’t let unhealthy views of ‘proper prayer’ affect your prayer life” better than throwing a robust prayer life and prayer-warriors under the bus. In fact, Michael pretty much admits he’s not as spiritual as he should be, then gives himself grace that he doesn’t like to pray. Where was the conviction that maybe he should amp his prayer life up a bit rather than be satisfied with mediocrity?
I should note: I never feel I pray as much as Jesus would like me to, or as much as he did. I’m certainly not trying to hold myself up as holier-than-thou.
Fr Thomas Hopko of blessed memory, a very pastoral man and also Dean Emeritus of St Vladimir’s Seminary, wrote a little list that others have published as his 55 Maxims. Number 2 is, “Pray as you can, not as you think you must.” The only caveat with this is that your prayer is regular – or as regular as you can make it, anyhow. Once a day? Fine.
My first encounters with Orthodox prayer were really mind-blowing for me, having come from 30 years in the tradition Michael describes. You mean, I don’t have to wrestle something appropriate out of my brain while at the same time making sure that my prayer sounds like it’s “from my heart”? That “Lord, have mercy” is enough? That silence – attentive as I can bring myself to be in it – is just as acceptable to God as many words? That the Sign of the Cross is itself a prayer? This, and having returned in my private prayers to using prayer books for a few years beforehand, saved me from the craziness.
Gratitude and humility are what are most important, no matter what or how long one prays.
Rick, I was going to comment that the best takeaway line is Michael’s “In other words, I’m the guy who is really glad the Lord’s Prayer is short.” I think we’re looking at it from different perspectives.
I don’t think short is necessarily bad. We are called to be in a state of constant prayer (1 Thess 5:16-18, rejoice always, pray constantly…) and this needn’t involve lots of words. In Luke 18 Jesus pointed to a tax collector whose prayer “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” was far above the long and loud prayings of the Pharisees. And one of Michael Spencer’s favorite prayers was Mark 9:24, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief.” This may be what he was getting at.
I give Michael a lot of slack, even when he could be obnoxious. He pushed the boundaries but his heart was in the right place.
Anne Lamott’s book on prayer is one of my faves.
Hi Rick Ro.
you wrote, ” there are certainly times when the “I don’t know what to pray any more” leads me to short prayers like “Help!” or the Lord’s Prayer, but I hope I never get to the point when I view prayer as “the shorter, the better.””
I think God knows our needs before we ask, and He knows our hearts also, and sometimes, He, as the Holy Spirit,
‘intercedes’ for us when we cannot pray. . . . so I think He KNOWS before we speak, which cuts down on the need for ‘length’ . . . . just a thought
a lot of my own prayers are short. . . . . I receive communion and it’s ‘Domine non sum dignus’ . . . . I look at the Crucifix, and its the ‘Kyrie’ . . . . and always a kind of appeal for Him to ‘stay near’ when grief overwhelms at times.
OTOH, I pray vigil prayers when someone asks for prayer . . . these prayers are at intervals through the night and through the day, on behalf of someone in need . . . a lot of people do this and I think it does help that the person is remembered to God through the night or the day they are in crisis. . . . I don’t doubt for a moment that it helps
and sitting in ‘silence’ as prayer in Church . . . that is also something worth doing and I recommend it if one hasn’t tried this . . . the ‘silence’ can be observed out in the forests or in nature where it increases our awareness of God’s Presence, yes
A favorite quote about prayer comes from Annie Lamott, this:
““Here are the two best prayers I know:
‘Help me, help me, help me’ and ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.””
we are pretty good at ‘help me’, but we could all take more time with ‘thank you’, I think 🙂
Hmm… this is one of the few Michael Spencer posts that I find myself wincing at a little bit, thinking he kinda missed the mark. While I agree that the kinds of evangelical circus prayers he criticized here are unhealthy, I’m not sure I’d agree with some the angles in this post. He seemed to be defending “minimal prayer life is okay” a little too much for my liking.
–> “In other words, I’m the guy who is really glad the Lord’s Prayer is short.”
Really? In terms of prayer life, it boils down to “the shorter, the better”…? Yes, there are certainly times when the “I don’t know what to pray any more” leads me to short prayers like “Help!” or the Lord’s Prayer, but I hope I never get to the point when I view prayer as “the shorter, the better.”
–> “All of us need to grow in prayer, but that growth needs to be in Christlikeness, not in Christianlikeness.”
Jesus modeled prayer many, many times, so much so that being in prayer IS being Christ-like. Again, in Michael’s hammering unhealthy prayer as “Christianlike,” he seemed to be giving a pass to a minimal prayer life, which I don’t think is Christ-like at all.
My wife is very comfortable in prayer. She will start conversing with me mid- prayer about the thing we are praying about. She figures the Lord is present and part of the conversation. She will also joke sometimes like, “…could you also make the Yankees lose because we hate the Yankees. Just sports hate, not real people hate. Thank you so much and all the people said amen.” There is a healthy mix of reverence and ease.
And when teamed with the SCRIPTURE command to “Pray Without Ceasing” and “More In Prayer Than Thou” one-upmanship…
Those are called “WeeJus” prayers —
“LORD We Jus… LOORD We Jus… LOOORD We Jus…”
And don’t forget the “In JESUS’ Name Amen” ending.
“In my daily life, the practice of approaching other people and everyday situations with compassion and love (to the best of my ability) seems to me a lofty and spiritual enough goal, and its own form of prayer, and this is what I commit to, with God’s help. It will have to do.”
very well said, Robert
I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, but I’m afraid liturgical prayer never took with me, aside from my fondness for the Lord’s Prayer, which I say at Sunday services and a few times during the week. When I try to pray the Psaltery, I tend to fall asleep; when this happens on rare occasions when my wife and I are praying Morning or Evening prayer together, it really pisses her off. Forget extemporaneous prayer — I’m as bad at it as Michael Spencer. At this point, quick prayers on the fly are my technique (if you want to call it that), but those happen fairly infrequently — I really don’t attempt much more than that. In my daily life, the practice of approaching other people and everyday situations with compassion and love (to the best of my ability) seems to me a lofty and spiritual enough goal, and its own form of prayer, and this is what I commit to, with God’s help. It will have to do.
Matthew 6: 5-9, Luke 18:9-14
Coming from this tradition myself, I know that ‘vain repetitions’ were often thought as repeating the words of the ‘magic Prayer Book’. I know quite a few ministers who, given an Order of Service of some sort will deliberately deviate from it for no appparent reason, but the vainest repetition to my mind is “and Lord we just….”