“Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?”

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.
Philippians 3:8-10 

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.

Prayer series:

“Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?” [see above]

Prayer: Learning from the pros

Pray without ceasing?

Prayer: Expecting an answer

Persevering prayer: Always pray and never give up

13 thoughts on ““Why is prayer sometimes so . . . strange?”

  1. Thank you, Curt! I don’t think I’ve ever known a believer who is truly satisfied with his or her prayer life. We know we should pray more. And better. And we want to. We want to be more intimately acquainted with our Lord, we want to pray more effectively, and we want to see more of God’s power displayed. So why is it that we seem so easily distracted? Is it because we have so much “stuff” to distract us? Is it because we try to crowd so many other things into our days in pursuit of … something else?

  2. Wow! I never thought about the story of Elijah quite like that before! I have read it before and it spoke to me about God’s power but I hadn’t seen the passion of man in it. Where does that passion come from? Is is inherent in some men and not so much in others? Is the passion for God actually a gift that comes from God? I am thinking that it is a decision, like love is a decision, rather than an emotion, to be passionate for God. Of course, God himself says to put no other god before Him. He also says to seek first the Kingdom of God so He is pretty direct about how much of our attention (focus, love, passion) and He desires of us!

    Thank you for this study. Just reading and thinking about this stirs my heart!

  3. Thanks, Cale! I think you’ve hit on something important regarding the distractions we deal with (and seek). A friend of mine once decided that he was going to stop listening to music and Christian teaching in the car, but use the time for prayer and to just clear his head. He was amazed at how difficult it was for him to not have constant sensory input. At first it felt like a void that needed to be filled—with something, anything, some sound, some sight. Eventually the time in the car came to be a sweet time of communion with God, but it required a transformed way of thinking. We live in probably the most challenging generation when it comes to facing constant distraction. Many of the early Christians followed a spiritual discipline of solitude, and I think that’s something many of us desperately need in our lives today.

  4. Hi, Lori! When you think about new believers (and when we were new believers), it seems that we all begin our Christian lives with a real passion for God. But, just as in human relationships, that passion can wane. I don’t think it’s an accident that Jesus said the most important command is to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. This is a command that we need to be consistently intentional about pursuing. We know, psychologically, that feelings follow commitment. The more we commit ourselves to God, and the more we choose to pursue him, the more the feelings of passion will follow. It becomes an upward spiral that keeps building on itself. Of course, this is our side of the equation. Ultimately, even our passion for God is a gift from him. It’s the Holy Spirit who draws us to God. But we must respond. So, though God is sovereign, the ball is always in our court, so to speak.

  5. Hi All! Loved the analogy of speaking to Kelley in a wants and needs kind of way. I never truly ever thought of it that way, that really spoke to me! thank you! I am finding that my prayer life is taking me into areas that I haven’t experienced before. For those of you who don’t know, the church that I always attended while on vacation and then started attending after we moved to Ohio is under attack. Although this church is way to traditional me and knew it would not be a permanent home, the folks I knew that attended always seemed to be very strong in their beliefs and knew without a doubt the path they wanted to take. In recent months the Presbytery has changed much of their wording which has allow much controversy and strife among its members. Lately my prayers seem to be around this subject. I find myself praying for God, rather than to God, like a warrior trying to get his army ready for battle. It absolutely amazes me how the word of the Bible can be twisted and changed so much that it becomes meaningless, so to speak. My point, which took me a while to get to…..never before have I really felt that the Lord is hearing me and answering me back! Everywhere I turn is confirmation the BIBLE IS THE ONE TRUTH! I am really looking forward to the next Taking Root study!

  6. Thanks, Francia! My heart goes out to the church there, and the other churches in that denomination. I know it must be incredibly painful, and confusing for the people in the congregation who don’t understand what’s happening with their church. I’ve been praying about the whole mess, and for you guys in particular.

  7. I am still thinking about this study….which I think is really good…and it means a lot to me as I ask myself, “How devoted to God am I?”. We tell him that we will give our all to Him alone, but in reality, we give our all in bits and pieces,not really all at once. So, it seems that I am continually coming to crossroads in my Christian walk and finding that I have to stop, focus on God intensely and then go on walking. Right now in my life is a time of one of those crossroads. The scripture of Elijah and the altar with water poured on it is a good illustration for me. He simply waited on God and knew God would come through. And come through He did! With fire! Love it!

  8. Hi Lori,
    I know, it doesn’t matter how committed we are, we still fall short….as Nick reminded us in his prayer corner. Constant prayer…..how do you pray constantly? Curt, God knows we can’t hold a thought long enough to achieve this, so this can’t be meant literally, can it? Are we just meant to be mindful? trying to achieve this goal? is this like sinning? a goal we can never achieve? a goal that is humanly impossible? I guess I better go and start praying about praying!

  9. Yes, Lori, I think we have to be continually inentional about this because it’s so easy to slip out of regular intimacy with God. But he lovingly keeps pulling us back on track!

    Francia, I’m going to write soon about what exactly “pray without ceasing” means. It’s not what people often think!

  10. Oh good! I will be eagerly anticipating the “pray without ceasing” topic. And I am glad that God himself is helping us along our way but I am thinking a lot about the “ball always being in our court” so to speak that you mentioned, Curt, because God is always the Faithful One. I have really been in some turmoil lately – it is not very comfortable – I imagine God is trying to get me to learn something new spiritually because I know as I teach the kids at school, I don’t leave them “comfortable” but rather push them to get through the difficult process of really leaning something, and then, in the end there is a nice reward (for a moment) and we go through the entire process again!

  11. I think you have a good handle on the teaching/learning process! I sometimes think of God as a coach. He’s going to push me beyond what I think I can handle, but he knows what I’m really capable of (with his strength operating in me, of course). Just remember, to the student, it’s all new, uncharted territory. To a toddler, learning to walk probably seems like the strangest, most unnatural thing. “What is this? I’ve never gone through this before? Something must be wrong. I must not be called to walk.” But the parent is there—even when it may not seem like it to the child—and they patiently keep making the child learn what they are perfectly capable of learning. That’s what God does with us. Sometimes it will feel like we can’t go any farther, that we’ve done all we can. But a good coach or a good teacher knows how to keep drawing their student on to where they need to be.

    I’m just thankful that God is so patient and gentle with us—and that he’s also strong enough to not give into us and let us just slide! The ‘ball is in our court’ in the sense that we have to keep trusting God and putting everything we have into doing what he calls us to do. He requires a response from us. But just as with that child learning to walk, our Father will make sure that we’re safe and that we learn just what we need to learn.

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