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As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.

Three and a half years ago I began a job I felt called to. After I accepted the job, I told the hiring committee that I had prayed this campus ministry position into existence, and I was only half joking. As a writer, mother of young children, and former university chaplain, I was longing for something very specific: part-time campus ministry employment. I knew the chaplain in the city I lived in was splitting his time between the college and university, and I prayed specifically that the churches that supported his ministry would allow him to focus on the university and turn the college ministry into a part-time position. I’m not a name-it-and-claim-it prayer warrior, but when I saw a job posting for the exact job I had prayed for, beginning about a year after my baby’s birth just when my maternity leave funding would be ending, I suddenly questioned a lot of my beliefs about prayer. Could it be I just hadn’t been praying specifically enough all those previous times? I had had moments in the past of a very strong sense of God leading me in a certain direction. But I’d also had moments of praying so hard and so long for something that seemed, by all accounts, to be nothing but good—my mom’s healing from cancer, for instance—that did not come to pass.

As a teenager, I spent a lot of time learning about and practicing prayer. I attended conferences on prayer, prayer services, read books, bought sermon series from the Upper Room Christian bookstore. A few “prayer experts” explained that people pray too generally and then are upset when God doesn’t answer their prayers. At one prayer conference a pastor explained, “A man told me he kept praying for healing. I said, ‘So what specifically are you asking for healing for? How is God gonna know what you want healed unless you tell him what needs to be healed?’” He explained that when one is praying for healing from cancer, they need to pray that the tumors would shrink (and name their locations), that malignant cells would stop multiplying, that the white blood cells would increase. You have to tell God specifically what to do if you want God to know what you want, and you need to command the body to cooperate, in Jesus’ name.

I doubt the first Christians to witness answered prayers would have had this scientific language for what they were asking God for. While this is an extreme example, others taught similarly prescriptive prayer tactics: you have to pray just this way; you have to stay up late and wake up early to pray; you have to pray with fasting; you need to pray out loud so the devil can hear you; you have to pray a specific Scripture passage God brings to mind and pray it over and over again until you get what you want. Sadly, most of these prayer teachings reduce prayer to simply a means of getting what you want in life. Regardless of how righteous and benevolent our requests are, petition is still just one small aspect of prayer that often gets treated as the whole.

Miroslav Volf, in his book Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, describes two false images of God that are particularly “irresistible” in our culture: that of God the negotiator, and God the Santa Claus. “With one, we want to make advantageous deals,” Volf says. “From the other, we want to get warm smiles and bagfuls of goodies. We run from one to the other ... we’ve drawn these images to God mostly from two currents of the culture in which we swim—the current of hard and unforgiving economic realities, in which we exchange goods to maximize benefits, and the current of soft, even infantile, desires, in which we long to be showered with gifts simply because we exist.”

I’ve found these implicit attitudes about God are communicated by televangelists, megachurch pastors, Christian writers, and songwriters, and influence the way we understand what it means to communicate with God. So we write our Christmas lists of all the things we want. (As a teen I heard a pastor recall that, when a congregant shared her grief about being unable to find a spouse, he instructed her to write a list of all the specific things she wanted in a husband and ask God for this person. Sure enough, God brought someone along who met all her requirements.) Or we convey to God through the intensity and frequency of our prayers that we need or deserve the things we are asking for. (Another pastor told me that reserved, quiet prayers don’t go very far. We need to show God that we actually want what we’re asking for.)

I came across a New York Times bestselling book that outlines how to pray in circles—after praying for months that they could sell their house, the author then transitioned to praying blessings over the people who would someday move in. When the house sold immediately after they began changing their prayer, the author began changing their entire approach to prayer. I’ve incorporated elements of “praying in circles” into my prayer life—I appreciate that in this house-selling example the author began to think beyond just their own hopes and began to think about the hopes of others—but I also need to check myself that this doesn’t develop into an attitude of negotiating with a legalistic judge, figuring out the right techniques to win God over to our cause.

All of these rules and obligations around prayer sit in contrast to the simple and generic prayer Jesus taught us to pray (Matt. 6:9-13). When Jesus tells his followers how to pray, he cautions against performative prayers. He points out that we aren’t heard because of our many words (Matt. 6:5-8). Instead he provides a beautiful prayer that is enough on its own, but can also be used as an outline, a series of categories through which to pray. Petition (“give us this day our daily bread”) comprises about an eighth of the Lord’s prayer—when it came to teaching us how to pray, Jesus did not focus primarily on prayers that God answers in specific ways.

There is great value in praying out loud, in fasting, in praying scripture. But when we turn these things into rule and obligations in order to get what you want or need, we create an image of a tricky god, a Greco-Romanesque deity who treats people like naïve little creatures who need to appease him just so. We live in the anxiety of figuring out the correct formulas to follow and treat Scripture as incantations to achieve what we want. We imagine we are connected to a withholding heavenly parent who only rewards his children if they can determine what he wants on any given day. Sometimes these specific petitions are answered in ways we would like and sometimes they are not. But the times when they are can lead us to develop entire theologies or ways of living out our faith that are based on shallow concepts of who God is and what it means to follow Jesus. And then, when our prayers aren’t answered—even prayers for important, necessary, and healthy things—we conclude the problem was with our lack of praying just right, not the broken world we inhabit.

This is not the kind of communication with the father Jesus describes. “Which of you,” he asks in the Sermon on the Mount, “if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” God does not play mind games. “How much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7: 9-11). We do not need to win God over. God has already won us over, and we can pray in the assurance of God’s love and desire to give us good things.

Recently I was invited to visit the Greater Ontario House of Prayer in Hamilton. I’ll be honest—I was a little nervous to sit around a room with a bunch of people who are passionate about prayer because sadly, in my experience, often people who are passionate about prayer are passionate about a very specific and rigid form of prayer. But as I sat down with the staff team, they explained to me that their community explores together all different kinds of prayer: artistic prayer, soaking, fire prayer, common prayer, breath prayer, listening prayer. A couple weeks later I took students from my campus ministry to visit the prayer stations in GOHOP’s prayer room. Individually we walked a labyrinth, knelt in a tent to pray for people in encampments, explored prayerfully inspired paintings, sat in a garden station surrounded by plants, and listened to music while praying. Several students said they had never experienced so many different interactive ways to pray. We asked for things, but we also just sat in God’s presence. We left refreshed, with a renewed awareness of God’s presence around us.

Scripture shows us a complexity of forms of prayer, and a variety of prayers that go answered and unanswered. Prayer is a place of the expected as well as the unexpected. Prayer is a place where we ask God for our daily bread, for our needs and healthy desires, but it is also a place where we learn, grow, develop and explore. We can gain a great deal from learning new ways to pray, but we must ensure that as we do so, we are not trying to uncover the composite key to unlocking God’s door, but rather communing with God in fresh and new ways, growing deeper in our knowledge of who our mysterious God is, and who we are in God.

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