She said she really needed to talk to me after the meeting. So after the Bible study and some fellowship with the rest of the group, we found a quiet corner of the room away from the others and sat down at a table. She was struggling with her relationship with God, and she wanted help. I could tell there was something she wanted to say, but she seemed embarrassed about expressing her real problem. Finally, after some gentle encouragement, she blurted out, “Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?”
That was many years ago, but I still recall the question because I think it’s an important one. There’s a bit of a paradox to the way we experience prayer. In some ways, prayer is instinctual. When we’re suddenly faced with an overwhelming situation in our lives, there’s something within us that cries out to the Someone out there, “God help me!” That seems natural to most of us, and it’s something everyone has done at one time or another. But when we try to pursue prayer much beyond that simple cry for help, it can become surprisingly awkward—even for committed Christians. Why doesn’t rich, meaningful prayer come more naturally to all of us?
For many, if not most, prayer is something we do when we’re dealing with an emergency or urgent need. Other than during these times of crisis, prayer is often superficial—if it’s practiced at all. Even for people who have been believers for years, prayer can become routine, another chore to be crossed off the list. That’s why when people talk to me about struggling with their prayer life, I’m usually encouraged. It shows that the person is beginning to understand what prayer really is. They’re no longer happy with the routine and superficial, they want something that’s real in their experience of prayer—and they’re not going to be satisfied with less.
When you think about it, prayer is one of the most foreign things we do as Christians. We read other things besides the Bible and Christian books. It’s common for us to socialize with others, sing songs together and even occasionally discuss ethics and morality—even in non-religious settings. But prayer is exclusively a spiritual practice. Think about it. We’re talking (sometimes out loud) to someone we don’t see, usually don’t hear, and often don’t even sense or feel. And yet, we know this is supposed to be very important for our Christian lives. No wonder it feels strange to some people! They’re just recognizing how unnatural real prayer can be. It’s the most explicitly spiritual thing we do as Christians. Because of this, it can be the most challenging aspect of our spiritual lives, but also one of the most rewarding. And the good news is that deep, significant prayer can become not only natural to us, but an integral, vital part of our daily lives.
A real relationship
Everything else is worthless when compared
with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
For his sake I have discarded everything else,
counting it all as garbage,
so that I could gain Christ and become one with him.
. . . I want to know Christ.
One of the first things we have to realize about prayer is that it’s an essential ingredient in our relationship with God. A few years ago, I was with some friends talking about prayer, and one man shared how he usually prayed for an hour a day. (I’m not suggesting this as a standard; this is just what this fellow did.) Another man seemed shocked. “I don’t think I could pray for an hour. I don’t have that much to ask for!” This reveals a common misunderstand about prayer. While it’s perfectly legitimate to petition God in our prayers, prayer is much more than ‘asking God for stuff.’
Imagine if I came in once a day, stood in front of my wife, and said: ‘Dear Kelley, please take care of this, and this, and help me with that, and please help so-and-so with this other thing. Amen.’ And then turned around and walked out, not to speak to her again until the next day when I did the same thing! What kind of relationship would I have with my wife? And yet, this is the very concept that many of us have of prayer. (We even teach our kids to pray this way.) We’d feel pretty good about ourselves if we prayed like this once a day, especially if we made requests for others more than for ourselves. Yet real prayer, real communication, goes so far beyond this.
If you go to any conference or workshop on relationships, what is one of the first things they emphasize? Communication, right? We’re taught that communication is an essential component of any healthy relationship. Absolutely vital! We’re all savvy enough to know this by now. Well, if anything, this need for healthy, deep communication is even more true of our relationship with God. The more we come to understand that God calls us into a relationship with him, the closer we’ll actually grow to him in this relationship.
In the third chapter of Philippians, the apostle Paul wrote that he considered everything else garbage (note: that’s everything, not just the bad stuff), compared to his one, primary passion: “I want to know Christ.” Are we satisfied with just knowing about Christ? Are we okay with just going through the motions and following the routines? Or are we driven to truly know Christ? To be one with him. And if we long to really know Christ, then real communication is vital, isn’t it?
What kind of prayer do we see in Scripture? Do we see the perfunctory prayers of the religious, or the heart-cries of those who desire to truly know God? Consider these words of David from Psalm 63:
O God, you are my God;
I earnestly search for you.
My soul thirsts for you;
my whole body longs for you
. . . Your unfailing love is better than life itself;
. . . I will praise you as long as I live,
lifting up my hands to you in prayer.
You satisfy me more than the richest feast.
I will praise you with songs of joy.
I lie awake thinking of you,
meditating on you through the night.
. . . I sing for joy in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you.
Do you sense any passion in these words?
So how can our own prayer time grow deeper and more meaningful? We’ll be exploring this in the next few studies. Next week, we’ll take a closer look at some of the wonderful examples for us in the Bible, and what they can teach us about our own prayer lives. But it begins with a hunger and thirst for more. A God-given desire to grow closer to him and to truly know him.
When I was just beginning in church leadership, a pastor friend gave me some wonderful advice on prayer. I was sharing with him that I was dissatisfied with my prayer life. He asked what I was doing about it, and I listed for him all of the books on prayer that I had been reading. He nodded appreciatively, and then he asked, “Have you prayed about it?” Hmm. Praying about my prayer life. I hadn’t thought of that! But it sure made sense. Who better to tell of my desire for more intimacy with God than . . . God. One of the best things we can do when we’re struggling with prayer is to simply talk to God about our struggles and desires. We can even ask God to give us the desire to know him more deeply.
Many years ago, in his classic book The Pursuit of God, AW Tozer compared the church of his day to Elijah on Mt Carmel. If you remember the story (in 1 Kings 18), Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to a contest. Both sides would offer their sacrifices, and whichever god answered by fire, he was the true God. When his turn came, Elijah built a simple altar out of twelve stones. He drenched it over and over again with water. And when he cried out to God, fire came down and consumed not only the sacrifice, but the water and stones as well. Tozer’s words about his contemporaries ring out to us today too:
[The current church] has laid the altar and divided the sacrifice into parts, but now seems satisfied to count the stones and rearrange the pieces with never a care that there is not a sign of fire upon the top of lofty Carmel. But God be thanked that there are a few who care. They are those who, while they love the altar and delight in the sacrifice, are yet unable to reconcile themselves to the continued absence of fire. They desire God above all. They are athirst to taste for themselves the “piercing sweetness” of the love of Christ about Whom all the holy prophets did write and the psalmists did sing.
Let’s never lose our passion to truly know God.
“Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?” [see above]