Week 6, Day 3: Praying Your Own Words
To reach for God is to reach God. I will have to remind myself of this whenever I feel tempted to believe that God will only come to me
if I find the magic book, say the magic formula and become
the perfect pray-er. I should trust that God is present to me
any time I stretch out my feeble little spiritual arms.
- Mark Thibodeaux
There’s an occupational hazard, being a pastor, of becoming a professional ‘pray-er’; in other words, being one who prays publicly quite often, it can be tempting to focus on how the prayer comes across to others as opposed to the heart of the prayer.
A few years ago, I was asked to pray at a gathering with a lot of well-known attendees. As I was preparing in the weeks prior to the event, I found myself unable to come up with what felt like the right words. So I tried praying about it, and God revealed to me that I was thinking about what my prayer would sound like to all of the famous people rather than articulating to my heavenly Father what was on my heart. Once I was able to name that barrier, the words came easily.
In Matthew 6:6 (The Message), Jesus says,
Here’s what I want you to do [when you pray]: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.
Jesus’ point here is not that we should never pray in public or in front of others — he did that himself! Rather, he is reminding his listeners of the importance of simple, honest conversation and communion with God.
We are invited to pray using our own words — however fumbled or inarticulate they may seem to us. A romantic relationship wouldn’t work if one person only used song lyrics or snippets of poetry (however funny it might be to imagine it!). Similarly, as we grow in our relationship with God, we must also learn to use our own words, to express ourselves as honestly as we can. And as we grow in confidence in knowing the One we love and knowing how our conversation goes, we may also grow in confidence in how we pray — this too is a spiritual muscle that needs building up.
Pete Greig, founder of 24-7 Prayer, offers three tips for the asking, requesting element of prayer. These are characteristics we see even in Jesus’ prayer life.
1. Keep it simple. Prayer doesn’t have to be full of eloquent words. It’s having a conversation with God, not putting on a show for others. In fact, Jesus pointed out people who were praying loudly and with many words, trying to impress others, and he told his disciples not to follow their example (Matthew 6:7). As Dom John Chapman once said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.
2. Keep it real. Just as we should never try to impress others with our prayers, Jesus teaches that we should not try to impress God either. We don’t need to put on a front for God, to pretend we’re someone or something we’re not, or that God doesn’t know everything about us already!
We need to be honest before God, expressing our thoughts and feelings, our doubts and struggles, our triumphs and sorrows, and laying them out before God. Why should we do this when God already knows anyway? One of the main reasons we pray is because as we do so, we put ourselves in a posture of dependence on God. We align ourselves to the truth that we need God’s intervention in our lives. And in the process, we find ourselves more and more connected to God, more receptive to God’s will for our lives and to God’s answers to our prayers.
The psalmists offer a great example of keeping it real — they didn’t hide their feelings when they came to God, but laid themselves bare, expressing fear, regret, anxiety, anger, trust, joy, and hope as they brought their lives to God.
3. Keep it up. As with any area in which we seek to grow, consistent effort must be put forward. A musician needs to practice every day to stay sharp, an athlete needs to work out regularly to stay on their game, a person learning a language needs to consistently build on the previous day’s lessons and to practice speaking the unfamiliar words. Similarly, if we desire to grow in our awareness of the presence of God, in a life of prayer, we need to make prayer not only part of our daily routine but a habitual response in every moment. During the day, we should practice speaking to God silently in our hearts about the different situations we are facing at that moment. Remember, prayer is an aspect of a vibrant, loving relationship, not just a ritual! No happily married person says, “I talked to my spouse for fifteen minutes this morning, so I don’t have to talk to them again until tomorrow morning!”
Monastic communities observe what is called the Daily Office, or the Divine Hours, coming together several times a day to interrupt whatever work they may be doing to pray together, a literal break to stop and to remember and celebrate the presence of God with them. I have an alarm on my watch that goes off several times a day to approximate this experience.
Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history,
we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together
before we show up. The opposite may be true:
We may not be able to get it together
until after we show up in such miserable shape.
- Anne Lamott
REFLECT & RESPOND
Head: Which of Pete Greig’s three tips (keep it simple, keep it real, keep it up) is the most challenging for you? Why do you think this is?
Heart: What hesitations do you have about prayer?
Hands / Pray: Have a blank page of paper in front of you. Whether you speak it out or write it down, spend a few moments reflecting on what you want to say to God. And then do it.
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We are invited to pray using our own words — however fumbled or inarticulate they may seem to us.