Being With God, Part 2
I used to hate prayer. But that was before I became a new kind of person. It all started back in 1997. I thought the most important day in my life was January 3 that year, when I said, “I do,” to my wife. But when a preacher in Waco, Georgia took us aside for a few hours, just a month later on February 5 (long story), and explained the gospel to us, our eyes were opened. I was raised from the dead.
Verse-by-verse, this extraordinary country preacher walked Becky and I through Romans 4. It was the first time in my life that God himself was speaking directly to me through his word. My numb, sin-infected, shame-filled soul was revived that day. I don’t think anyone, including my wife, knew how tormented I felt. But the Spirit used the gospel to open my eyes to Jesus, as he actually is. No more was he the religious caricature that I quietly grew to despise. Consequently, I couldn’t help but want to follow him. Because he's wonderful. Once you’ve seen him as he really is, how can you not lay your life at his feet? How can you not fully trust him? The Spirit used the gospel to show me that Jesus is the greatest treasure in the universe. And he gave himself to me. Without condition. I hope and pray this has happened to you, too.
It’s been seventeen-years since that day. And ever since then, I’ve felt like the character, Eustace, as the great lion, Aslan, tears away my stubborn, scaly flesh with his wonderfully horrible claws.1 Layer by layer, he removes the dragon’s hide, slowly turning me into a little child in the kingdom of heaven.2 He painfully, but lovingly strips me of every sinful layer, conforming me into his image.3 And despite all the sin that was incubating in my life over the years, the part of me that has most disrupted my relationship with Jesus before February 5, 1997 and ever since is my religious legalism.
Being raised in the Protestant South (the Bible Belt) was the perfect context for learning how to practice the faith without ever coming to faith. Yeah, I prayed the sinner’s prayer when I was a little kid, but only because I wanted to be like everyone else in my life and because I didn’t want to go to hell when I died. Add to my life the expectation to read the bible and pray every day, and we have the makings of a good old fashioned legalist. Keep the rules. Be a good boy. And be sure to say, “I’m sorry,” to God when I mess up.
That, in essence, was how I perceived Christianity.
Is it any wonder I found prayer to be so lousy? Talking to God was a chore. It gave me no joy or peace. On the contrary, when I did stop to pray, I had to face myself and I didn’t like what I saw. Prayer confronted me with a broken soul. So I left prayer feeling more inadequate and guilty than when I started. As a religious legalist, it was easier for me to just skip the whole prayer-thing altogether than to feel tortured by weaknesses in my life that I just couldn’t change.
I wish I could tell you that these feelings went away after I experienced renewal in the gospel, but they didn’t. As a matter of fact, they lingered for a long time. Don’t get me wrong. I had legitimate faith in Christ and, though spiritual growth was initially very slow - almost imperceptible, I knew that I belonged to him. But it took time for God to redeem my view of prayer. The mere mention of it stirred up feelings of guilt and shame for a long time, not to mention the fact that I had no idea how to pray. (We’ll talk about that next week.)
The word “prayer” is now beautiful to me. These days, it feels more like an invitation to simply be with God rather than mowing the grass or changing out the cat’s litter. When I think of prayer, images of a warm fire in my living room, my plush blanket, a hot cup of coffee, and quiet solitude come to mind. It conjures up feelings of peace, stillness, and relief. Yes, relief, because I know that communion with God is the safest place to be in the universe. I really do believe that now.
I’m sharing this with you because chances are you also have some negative emotions related to prayer. Prayer might be an absolute drudgery to you. It may be a dry exercise that rarely yields anything that feels remotely profitable to your Christian growth. If that’s the case, I want you to know it’s okay that you feel that way. I want you to know that if prayer sucks the life out of you rather than giving you life, it won’t always be that way. It simply sounds like you’re in the beginning stages of recovery like I was all those years ago, emerging from the cesspool of legalism into the ocean of grace.
So continue to wash under the gospel. Continue to remind yourself that you don’t have to pray because that’s what “good Christians do.” You get to pray because prayer, in essence, is to be with God. And God is the greatest friend that you will ever have. He accepts you, loves you, and desires to be with you. Remind yourself that prayer isn’t about saying the right words or feeling the right feelings. Remind yourself that you’re not on the clock when you pray, as though you have to log in a minimum amount of time in order to be accepted. And there’s no maximum amount of time that will make God love you more. And here’s the real kicker: You can completely be yourself when you pray because God already knows everything about you - even things you don’t know about yourself.4
There isn’t a more authentic place to be than in prayer. With God.
1 Lewis, C.S. The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader.
2 Matthew 18:3
3 Romans 8:29
4 Jeremiah 17:9