Over the last few months, I have been learning to pray.
That sounds like a pretty basic part of being a Christian, yet it’s amazing how little it’s actually done. Or how little I actually do it. And how little I did it throughout seminary.
I’m not counting, “Oh, God, how am I going to get these papers done,” sort of prayers.
The last few months, however, have been difficult. I’ve used the metaphor of a vise—like God is just increasing the pressure on me with progressively tightening suffering. Without delving into specifics, I have been experiencing some of the most painful and disorienting months of my life.
In his love and mercy—for the sake of his glory and my joy—God has been twisting my arm and forcing me to my knees.
Prayer is hard. Really really hard. No one really talks about it much in church, except maybe in the abstract as something that we’re supposed to be doing. But when it comes to specifics—how do you start?, what do you do?, do you feel like a fool talking to the ceiling?, etc.—we tend to shy away. Maybe because we don’t pray much and don’t want to be found out. Maybe because we suspect that no one else prays that much and we don’t want to talk about something so awkward. Or maybe we’re pretty sure there’s nothing going on with prayer (and, therefore, with God) but we don’t want to leave the friendships of church-world.
Whatever the reason, the specifics of prayer are not something we tend to talk about in polite company.
But prayer is progressively becoming the only thing I have to lean on. There’s nothing abstract or theoretical about the circumstances of my life right now. They are painfully, unavoidably real right now. So prayer in the specific—in those awkward questions of “how?”, “what?”, and “feel like a fool?”—is what I’m learning to do. And I’ve taken comfort in Richard Foster’s words from his masterful Celebration of Discipline: “For now, do not worry about `proper’ praying, just talk to God. By praying we learn to pray.”
Praying is just talking to God.
It’s exactly that easy. And exactly that hard.
And you learn to do it by doing it.
One thing that I’ve found particularly perplexing in my prayers is how difficult it is to be honest with God. I don’t say what I really think. I’ll phrase things with a “religious” polish that politely pull my punches, saying what I think God wants to hear rather than what I actually think or believe and how I actually hurt and doubt.
And I fool no one but myself.
The strange thing is, if we read the psalms—take your pick, though Psalm 88 is a particularly dark one—Scripture does not shy away from accusing and questioning God, despairing and lamenting life, or admitting and allowing doubt. My prayers (and there have been a lot of them) that say something like, “Are you even there? I need faith,” are a sign of faith—a sign that I believe enough to ask for help with my unbelief (Mk 9:24).
The kind of talk that God wants is the straight-shooting kind. And take the challenge: it’s extraordinarily difficult to pray this way, because it requires us to get honest with ourselves—and we have a staggering ability to self-deceive. It’s difficult for me understand what I’m thinking, feeling, wanting, fearing—much less to actually have the courage to believe that God is patient, loving, wise and good enough to hear all that mess and work for my joy.
It’s difficult to learn to pray. Because it requires me to be brutally honest.
I think that’s why I’m so averse to it much of the time. I’d rather pretend that the emperor isn’t really naked—that I don’t really think this, desire that, or need to change those things.
But the emperor really is naked—behold him shivering, bleeding, naked and suffering on the cross. The most surprising and self-giving king the world has ever known. And his invitation for all who would follow him—in life, in prayer, in everything—is to join him in his naked and honest suffering to be transformed into what we were always meant to be.
Honest to God, that’s the way the universe is.
Let’s pray that we’ll be honest enough to say, “Help my dishonesty.”
Because then we’ll be learning to pray.