Being With God, Part 3
This was my first heartfelt prayer: “God, I don’t want to serve you, but I will.”
I was seventeen and finally gave in to God. I knew that I couldn’t run from him anymore. So I said it. Those were my exact words. Sounds real spiritual, doesn’t it? For years I ridiculed that prayer. But I’ve come to realize that it was about as pure a prayer as I have ever prayed in my entire life. That prayer was an expression of my truest self - my deep, lifelong wrestling with God up to that point. It was me in front of God in my rawest form. It was pure, broken Chris Bennett.
But as the years went on, I “learned” to pray another way. I was implicitly taught by my unique Christian sub-culture that in order to pray “effectively,” I had to be aggressive. Loud even. My prayers were like a rocket sitting on a launch pad. They needed ample thrust to create the needed force to get them off the ground, through the pull of gravity, and into heaven to “the throne of God.” That thrust, I was told, was volume and passion.
The longer these ideas were nurtured in me, the more phony my prayers felt. Also, I felt worn out. Prayer, along with church services and just about every other spiritual act in my life, became laborious and emotionally draining. Sure, there were times that I genuinely sensed the presence of God. But for every one of those times, there were a hundred that totally exhausted me and left me feeling empty.
Now, I’m not saying that praying loud and aggressively is incorrect. By all means, if you desire to pray that way, then knock yourself out. What I am questioning - attacking even - is the idea that tone, volume, and aggression legitimize prayer. I know, I know…we must be persevering in prayer (Luke 18:1; Romans 12:12; Colossians 4:2). But perseverance is not the same thing as volume and aggression. Perseverance can be loud, but it can also be quiet and contemplative. And, true, many times, the Psalter “cries out” to God. But these cries are usually the desperate pleas of someone in the throes of dire circumstances. They are the natural expression of a person in pain, not a prescription for the proper form of prayer. (Note Psalm 40:1-3. What begins as a cry for help turns into a sweet song because of God’s salvation.)
Also, I’m picking a fight with the idea that we have to audition for an audience with God by rustling up our passion and increasing our volume. It’s pretty legalistic and quite frankly, anti-gospel, to believe that our prayers must have a certain intensity about them in order for God to hear them and then to act. (Maybe we should simply pray persistently with humility and avoid trying to control him.)
Your upbringing may not have been like this at all. You may have been trained to pray with a more refined precision. Maybe you were implicitly taught to separate your emotions from your prayers; that rather than praying your heart, you were to offer up theologically sterile petitions. Maybe emotion seems like a contradiction to prayer, as though it would undermine prayer. In the name of “reverence,” emotion is checked at the door of God’s throne room. But all these assumptions are also faulty. A cursory read through the Psalms reveals worshipers who poured their guts out before God. They often weren’t refined, dignified prayers.
They were raw.
“God, I don’t want to serve you, but I will.”
Or maybe you are a nonbeliever, or were one until recently, and you have little or no experience communing with God. (I really like the word, “commune,” by the way. I often use it instead of “prayer” because it suggests more of a gentle interaction with God’s Spirit rather than a mechanical chore.) If so, don’t assume you’re off the hook. You, too, bring baggage. Remember, you’ve grown up in a culture that believes there’s no such thing as a spiritual realm. And if the language of “spirit” is ever used, it likely refers to things concerning mere emotion or the psyche. For instance, Oprah Winfrey once had a segment on her show called “Remembering Your Spirit,” which had nothing to do with the realm of the spirit whatsoever. Rather, it was brief vignette in which she told a heartwarming or inspirational story.
The point is that we all import a lot of baggage into prayer. And for me, I was only able to begin gaining some momentum in my relationship with God when I began pealing the onion. I had to challenge every assumption I had about prayer.
“Where in the Bible does it say that I have to pray a certain amount of time?”
“Where in the Bible am I commanded to pray aggressively and loudly?”
“Where in the Bible does it say that I must close my eyes or kneel down?”
“Where in the Bible does it say that I’ve sinned if my mind wanders during prayer?”
The answer to all of these questions is the same: nowhere.
Chances are that you struggle with prayer. If this is the case for you, it’s not because prayer is dull and you just need to deal with it. The problem, I think, is the baggage we bring to prayer. Baggage that is heavy. And once you begin to unpack your baggage, you’ll see that what makes prayer hard at times is that you simply aren’t living up to rules that people made up. And when you realize that, a whole world opens before you.
Vast fields await you to just run with God. And he wants to run with you. You may be asking how to pray…what to say. That’s for next week. In the mean time, you have some bags to unpack.