Sometimes it is possible to read too many books on one subject. One’s head gets filled with all theory and no practice. I found myself in this position a number of years ago when I had read as many books on prayer as I could get my hands on. I became very sensitive to the various approaches to prayer and observed carefully the people around me as they prayed. Some seemed to be in earnest, actually too earnest, as if trying to prove their sincerity. Others shouted at the devil, and still others read long and eloquent prayers out loud. The cool pastors were all very casual as if talking to a buddy at the coffee shop. At a prayer meeting, I was asked to pray and did so. When I finished, the person next to me elbowed me and said, “That was really good.” My first response was pride because someone thought I prayed well. But then I began to question my response. Those words of praise began a crisis in prayer for me. To be complimented on the quality of my prayer, the eloquence of my words, or the emotion stirred in others because of my prayer was disturbing.
What was more disturbing was that I could not tell if I was praying or just saying formulas.
Did I mean what I was saying? All those books gave me an arsenal of words, but did I understand what I was saying? Were the words, In Jesus’ name, the magic ticket?
Formulaic prayer has its purpose. After all the Lord’s Prayer is the go to formula of formulas. But it seemed every book I read had a magic formula. I was instructed to begin with praise, enter into intercession, bind up the enemy, release people from the enemy, name things and claim them, prophesy, bless others, and end with thanksgiving. If you forgot a step, the enemy was going to capitalize on it. So prayer was, in a sense, a competition with the devil. Or worse, a competition with other petitioners. Don’t get me wrong. All of those methods have a time and a purpose. But it is easy to rely on correct methods and ignore relationship. One prayer meeting I went to kept a list of needs, but that list could have been used for blackmail. Every bad thing a few chosen unfortunates had done was on that list, and at the end of the prayer meeting, after vetting candidates for the prize of worst Christian ever, we proceeded to pray for them. The self-righteousness was palpable, and I felt uncomfortable confessing other people’s sins. Heck, I find it uncomfortable confessing my own sins.
Even in my own prayer time, I found myself struggling between the two fears of getting it right and doing it wrong. And then there was the repetition. I don’t really like repeating myself, and prayer somehow became one long exercise in repeating every request for every person I was praying for, over and over.
I became convinced that if I were to speak to others the way I spoke to God, I would have no friends.
They would have long since become bored with me. So I did what any sane person would do. I quit praying. If I couldn’t tell if what I was saying was coming from me, I wasn’t going to say it.
I began a year of silence. I spent time with God but differently. Instead of repeating the same requests, I just sat in His presence and thought of them, felt my love and concern for them with God, and in the process, became convinced of His love and concern for my loved ones. Instead of trying to fix the many things I perceived as wrong with me, I sat in silence and just exposed my weaknesses to him. He did not criticize, and in the process, my focus shifted from myself and my flaws, to God and His all-encompassing love. I learned to be still and know He is God. I learned to listen, not with my ears, but with my heart. I found relief from anxiety and guilt. He did not speak to me either, in that time. At least not in words. Rather He demonstrated affection. He communicated His presence and that was what I had been looking for. I had been looking for a father, a friend, a savior, a healer, a provider. And He was there in the stillness, without the show, without the formula.
If you find yourself frustrated with your prayer life, try seeking Him in solitude. He, Himself, is the answer you seek. He won’t tell you the answer to all your questions necessarily (although sometimes He does), but He will be the answer for you. He will answer your heart.
But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. Psalms 131:2