“You could pray about it,” a friend recently responded when I asked for advice about a work thing. (I might be using the term “brainstorming” to mean “frantically trying to come up with innovative and attractive programming in my ministry.” Brainstorming and innovation in work are normal, healthy, creative activities; but sometimes I get stuck in my head trying to discover the best way to design events.)
I used to resent reminders to pray. I thought that when someone said, “Keep praying,” or “Prayer helps” when I confided to them about a difficulty, what they were suggesting was that things weren’t working out the way I wanted because I wasn’t praying correctly or hard enough or long enough. I took their reminders of prayer to mean they thought that I was somehow to blame. It felt like another way of saying, “You’re not quite spiritual enough. Maybe if you prayed more, things would be better.”
But this recent reminder to pray didn’t feel like a guilt trip. Because of the tone and the context, I didn’t feel like I was being blamed; I felt like I was being invited to reorient my attitude, my thinking, my spirit. I can get so caught up in always trying to be better: a better mother, a better campus minister, a better neighbor, a better citizen, a better Christian. But the Christian life is not about better so much as surrender; surrender allows me to turn my eyes away from all my efforts and to turn toward a God of grace. When I stop all my trying and turn to prayer, I can reassess whether the things I’m striving after are actually where I should be investing my energy.
There was a time when I believed that the more I prayed, the more likely God was to give me all the things I was asking for. I read books on prayer and heard preachers and prayer warriors explain the proper techniques for successful prayer: “You need to be specific when you pray, to name the body part that needs to be healed, to visualize it.” “If you’re not praying for at least an hour a day, how can you even expect to know what God wants?” “You need to pray forward: thank God for what he’s going to give you when your prayer gets answered.” Sometimes these methods made God seem tricky or bureaucratic, like he expected me to check all the right boxes before he’d give me the desires of my heart. Still, these people were well-regarded, and so I tried to become a prayer expert, trying to learn all the right procedures to maximize the effectiveness of my petitions to God.
But I kept coming back to the Sermon on the Mount, how Jesus cautions that it isn’t about the performance of our prayers, or our “many words” but rather about approaching God who already knows our needs (Matt. 6:5-8). Jesus calls us not to hone our prayer skills but rather to step into the quiet stillness of time in the presence of a God who sees us just as we are.
As I look at the simplicity of the words that follow Jesus’s example of “this then is how you should pray” (Matt. 6:9-13), I see a gentle turning from the priorities of the world toward the priorities of God. Our default is to get sucked into patterns of trying to be better all the time: trying to accomplish more, to produce more, to consume more, to improve more, to learn more. But Jesus’s prayer life calls us to less, to strip away all the other stuff.
The Lord’s Prayer is often held up as a template, a formula where we move from address to adoration to submission to personal requests to confession and so on. This method can be a great tool, but if we’re not careful, it can become a cookie cutter model of prayer behaviors rather than a call to a particular attitude in prayer. In the prayer our Savior taught us to pray we are continually reminded to reorient our thinking toward God’s ways rather than the default ways of our culture. We begin in a position of awe, then move to a request for God’s kingdom and will. I’m reminded of how often I seek my kingdom and assume my will is the best one.
Prayer also can be a place of discerning where I need to let go of something and where I need to take action. People across the continent have become disillusioned with the phrase “thoughts and prayers” not because secular culture hates prayer, but because they see the hypocrisy of prayer without action (particularly when it is offered by people with the power to make substantial changes, like those with political power and wealth). If prayer calls us to a position of submission, it becomes a place where we can hear the Spirit beckoning us to use our resources to help bring God’s kingdom in this world, to bring healing and restoration through advocacy, service, and monetary gifts.
I no longer think prayer is so much about winning God over to my cause as much as it is about bringing my wants, needs, and hopes into God’s presence and knowing that I am not alone in my longings. Prayer brings us into a place of honesty with God and ourselves. Prayer allows us to reason with God the way Moses does, to argue with God the way the psalmist does, to thank God the way Paul does, to display the full range of our God-given emotions before the divine, and in so doing to come to a place of understanding and acceptance. In a sense, prayer reminds us that we do not need to bear our burdens, because God does it for us.