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.