Christian

Some thoughts on prayer and if/when/why it works

My interaction with God has been a little anemic lately. On reflection, I’m finding some patterns that are probably at the root of this. Here’s what most of my conversation with God looks like lately:

  • vague spontaneous thanks for generally nice things
  • vague spontaneous requests for fairly specific (but unlikely) last-minute interventions, without much expectation or follow-up
  • vague requests for insight or guidance or help, without much time spent waiting/watching/listening for an answer
  • most critically, a tendency to ask for things that will get me out of having to care or engage

Now that I’m starting to pay attention, I’m remembering what I’ve learned in the past. God seems much more responsive, and more consciously present to me, when my communication with him is basically the opposite of those patterns. Specifically, I want to get back to communication with God that is:

  • Specific, not vague. My rule of thumb on this one: if God does what I’m asking, will I be able to tell? Similarly, when thanking God, I find it helpful to try to thank him for something I’ve never thanked him for before (even if it’s just a new phrasing/angle on a longstanding gratitude).
  • Intentional, not (just) spontaneous. Spontaneous is actually great, but it needs to be built on a history of real, focused communication. I tried this today by setting aside some time to talk with God about my to-do list, outstanding projects, daughters, wife, friends, and a few other issues that came to mind in the process. It was pretty abbreviated in form, but I’m already feeling the difference between proactively asking for God’s help with the things I care about and randomly winging a prayer his way if something looks like it’s about to go south.
  • Listening, not just asking. When I think about it, it’s so dumb when I ask God for guidance and then pay zero attention to what happens next. I’m trying to start acting like I think he might respond if I ask him something, and pause for a moment to see if I experience any noteworthy shifts in my attention and desires, new thoughts or ideas, or a new gut sense of what’s the wise or foolish way to proceed.
  • Willing to engage with pain, discomfort, effort, and sacrifice. This is the huge one. I typically haven’t been a fan of the aphorism that God helps those who help themselves (which, as far as I can tell, has no discernible connection to most actual Christian theology). That said, I’m realizing that there’s a profound difference between asking God to help me enter into beneficial sacrificial effort and asking God to help me dodge it.

To expand that last one a little, I’m realizing that a lot-a-lot of the times I ask God to help, it’s basically me trying to get out of having to do anything. Please calm my girls down (so that I don’t have to get up from my dumb phone game). Please make sure that panhandler gets something to eat (so that I don’t have to, because I really don’t feel like making eye contact this time). That sort of thing.

But that’s contrary to the whole heart of what I believe God’s doing in the world. The entire point is that Jesus (who was showing us exactly what God is like and how he works) entered straight into the center of the messy, dangerous, painful, complicated guts of the broken world, depending fiercely on God to give him everything he needed to get through it. He was the one who entered so deeply into the pain and depended so fully on God that he made it straight through death and out the other side, blazing the trail for the rest of us.

So if I’m following Jesus on the trail he has blazed, I should be walking straight into the heart of the pain and complication, exactly where I won’t be able to handle it, asking as I go that God keep giving me the strength to dig deeper in, the love I need for the people I meet there, the provision they (and I) still need even after I’ve given the shirt off my back, the forgiveness that lets me unjustly take the blame and stay quiet, the peace I need to enter the chaos without freaking out and giving up.

In sum, I should only be asking God to show up if I’m willing to be the body he shows up in.


PS – There’s a risk, after that glorious crescendo of self-sacrifice, to feel like you should go out and give everything you own and save everyone you see and take up every cause immediately all the way on the spot. Going back to the “listening” point, I’ve found great balance to this urge in the practice of asking God which people/needs/causes I should be serving and caring about at any given moment.

This lets me take on the ones that he directs me to and freely not worry about the rest, trusting that other people also serve him and he knows what will be the best, most beautiful, and most freeing way for each of us to join him.

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