Here’s a game.
Start by imagining all your conversations, but in a heap, a huge heap. Ok. Now, remove every single one in which you give someone new information. You know, information about yourself--where you go to school or what you like--or about algebra, sausages, about disco in the 1980s. Whatever. It’s gone. No informing of any kind.
Is the heap somewhat smaller? A lot smaller? More like a pile? Ok.
Next, take out every conversation in which you try to prove your superiority. (Hopefully that wasn’t too many.) Next, every conversation in which you’re trying to give someone a new experience. (Weren’t those lovely?) And every conversation in which you’re trying to persuade someone who’s made a mistake. Ok? Ok.
Um, no offense, but do you need a dust broom for that...mound you’ve got there? I mean, don’t blow too hard, or you might spread it all over the place.
I had this problem with prayer. It felt stifling. In a life of talking, talking, talking, it seemed like very few of my words or ideas qualified. I’d kneel down, say my mound’s worth of words, and move on. When God’s omniscient, I don’t need to keep him informed. When God’s perfect, omnipotent, blessed, etc., there’s nothing for me to prove or improve. What’s left to say? Just that mound’s worth, right?
“Hi. Thanks again for everything, again. I could use your help with... everything. Still.” Pause. “Ok. That was great. K. Bye. Bye.”
Less than the mound, usually. Did you catch the pause? I didn’t typically hear responses. Start with your little mound of conversations, then take out all in which you hear someone else say anything. You can only keep ones in which you aren’t informing or proving, but you don’t hear anything either. That's it.
And that's where I was stuck. My understanding of God's eternity, power, goodness, and knowledge blocked a prayerful life. Prayers were reduced to forced beggary. God's perfection kept him distant, and kept my opinions on how things should work insignificant. God's eternity made him seem like a big cat to my tiny mouse: he already knew how everything would turn out, and just wanted to see how I would squirm around in the meantime.
Of course, I knew that couldn’t be right. I wouldn't have described my situation this starkly. Yet the fact remained: my prayers were dry, repetitive, and forced, and my understanding of God was at fault.
Now, I knew my prayer life couldn't be right, because of the Scriptures. The Psalms are full of crys to inform God or sway God. They include some of the most beautiful, varied language anywhere. I wished I could pray like that.
I knew it couldn't be right because of the mature Christians in my life. Prayer came to them like breaths, while I kept needing "Dear God, Thank you for this day..." to even begin.
But those examples--of the Psalms and older saints--weren't enough to get me praying, because my efforts to imitate them were merely that: formal adjustments. I didn't need to adjust my form, I needed to know God better. The God I understood wasn't the God of prayer.
But how could I know the God of prayer?
Well, I stumbled into him, and my dryness died out, broke into lively springs. I met the God of prayer in the simplest, clearest way: by paying attention to Christ. Which makes sense. He's the revelation of God that is God, the Word who's with God and the Word who is God. The messenger and the message. He is theology--both Theos and Logos--and in the end he's the answer to every spiritual question. I met the God of prayer by looking to him.
Here's the thing: Jesus prays. If that doesn't strike you as weird, you should look again. The Holy Son of God, who was before the world began, who is eternal as God is eternal, who is powerful as God is powerful, who is perfect, prays. That fact went smack against my sense of prayer as limited, weak, forced words to a good but unmoving master. If God prayed to God, then the language of prayer was as deep as the language of creation. The Word who made the world also spoke in prayer. Maybe creation itself was a prayer. Maybe prayer was a kind of creation.
That’s lovely, but, yes, a little abstract. Here’s what I began to realize it could mean in my life: that I could begin to pray along with Christ, in the way he prays. I could offer myself for God’s glory, and actively receive God as he offers himself to me. I could actively receive myself as he gives me myself. I could give myself to God as he welcomes me and shows me who I should be. I could recognize that God and I share a mission in the world, that we’re co-workers for the gospel, that God will allow me a to have part in the mission, and that he'll allow me to help him shape it. I could pray like Christ had prayed since before the beginning of the world.
That, I think, is some of what “praise” and “thanksgiving” and “presenting requests” really mean. Prayer is not a system of required exchange with an unmovable, far-off God, it's an entry into his very life and community. Christ prays, so when I pray, I'm right beside him.
Let me put this clearly. If your prayers feel stifled, like mine did, try to see the truth: that the God to whom you're praying is a God who prays. When you pray, you aren't performing a ritual for a needy or demanding deity. You're entering into the life of God, right alongside your Brother King.
That's why prayer is so important. It's not because it's fun, or nice, or effective, or commanded. It's because prayer means meeting God, being a part of his life. That's what we're made for, and that's what Christ shows us that we can do.
If your prayers feel stifled by the distance, power, and perfection of God, then here are four things to remember.
1. Christ's incarnation shows that time and eternity fit together.
God isn't playing cat and mouse. His eternality doesn't mean that your prayer doesn't matter. We know this because the Son entered time, and remains in time. By doing so, he didn't cease being the eternal Son of the Father. He was both the eternal Son of the Father and the temporal Son of the Father. He prayed for things at one moment and they happened at another moment, not because God's eternity was infringed, but because eternity and time go together.
Think about it. The Father, in eternity, responded to his Son's requests, in time. He eternally hears the request of his Son at one moment, and eternally responds to that request in the next moment. His responses, like Christ's requests, were both eternal and temporal. They had to be, or else his eternity would have to get turned off and on, which is impossible. Time and eternity fit together. Christ's entry into time proves it, and you can count on it.
God can eternally answer your past, present, and future prayers. He can eternally take them into account, and apply them throughout time as he sees fit. Your prayers count. He asks for them. Christ models them. So pray!
2. The incarnate Christ is praying for you at this moment.
If the perfection of God makes you afraid to pray, remember that you aren't alone. The one who takes your punishments and becomes your brother, who gives you his righteousness and peace and life, is your constant companion in prayer. He's like you. He's still 100 percent human. And he wants to make you like him, with the courage to pray.
3. “We do not know what to pray for,” but the Holy Spirit prays for us.
Prayer need never be a performance, because God understands that we don't get it. Sometimes we dry out, or speak childishly, or get confused. He understands that so deeply, that he commits to transforming even our dryness or childishness into intimate prayer, so long as we say it with the Holy Spirit. And the Spirit is not far off. He's inside you. He's closer to you, and to God, than your thoughts about yourself are. Closer than your blood. He can give you to God with a grace and power that transcends language, so you don't need to perform.
4. If you are praying, then you are in the presence of God.
Because the Son and Spirit are praying with you, when you pray you are with God, whether you feel it or not. God’s really there, Father, Son, and Spirit. We won't always experience him, but he is faithful. Focus on that--his faithfulness--more than your feelings or fears.
Focus on Christ.
By remembering these things, my prayers were freed. They became more creative, because Christ is creative. They became more audacious because Christ is audacious. They became more vulnerable because Christ is vulnerable.
They taught me to ask, "What words could express my communion with the Trinity, right here and right now?" And it turns out that those are very different words at different times. I can't pretend I'm other than I am when I pray; I have to bring my current thoughts and feelings and desires. And my time and place always reveal different things about the God whose glory fills the world. Now, when I pray, I try to see and speak precisely the glories that God is revealing to me. What variety!
Finally, these things taught me the simple truth John says to conclude his gospel: that "were every one of [the things Jesus did] to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." That's why, now, prayer opens my lips to loose more words than I could ever otherwise say. Prayer isn't the dryness of language. By Christ, it's the living center of speech. Seek it by finding him. Go ahead. You may! Right there and right now.