I’ll say it right up front: this is a posting for people who like prayer. I know of lot of us scoff at prayer, you’re all very welcome here, I would love to talk about that sometime soon, but not today.
I like prayer but unfortunately (like many of us), I am not particularly good at it. There have been moments— those prayers of earnest seeking when God is suddenly so present for one tiny instant, and then the wave crests and it all ebbs away. Or those vindictive moments when I remember to turn to God, then am shocked to discover I have found my way to love for my enemies. Those are the times when the power of prayer is like an electric force coursing through my body.
Then there are the other times… When my mind keeps getting distracted by shiny things. When I know I promised to pray for someone but can’t remember who. When I feel like a petulant child with my bullet-stream of requests, when I want to pray better but can’t think how, when I wander from topic to topic or (being honest) fall asleep.
How can we pray better? How can we have more of the immediate, intimate prayer life we want? Partly the answers must be found individually. The Christian walk is a relationship, and as there is no single secret to a happy marriage, there is no single secret to an intimate prayer life. However, there are some common threads, and I would like to highlight two that have proven meaningful for me, which are: space and intention.
We live in a busy time. Everything is crammed in; nothing receives the attention it deserves. As 2013 New York Times editorial rather poignantly put it, “Being a Working Mother Means Always Having to Say You’re Sorry.” Little wonder, then, that our prayer times are crammed in as well. 1 Thessalonians 5:17 does instruct us to “pray without ceasing,” but again, the analogy to marriage is a good one: simple small acts of love are wonderful, but they don’t replace the periodic date night. Any healthy relationship requires genuine investment.
This is not to say that neglected prayer time is one more thing to feel guilty about. Guilt may have its place, but it’s not a fruit of the Holy Spirit. A better way to think of it is that, when we crave deeper intimacy with God, a way is available to us. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” says Christ. When that thirst for God becomes greater than the other needs that press in upon us from every side, he is there to be found.
As a practical note, one way to carve out space in our lives is with a clear start and finish. Small prayer-time rituals can have enormous value: ring a bell, light a candle, roll out a prayer mat… any such practice can reduce the muddy splashing of the everyday onto our sacred space/time.
Prayer needs to have the right focus, which is surprisingly easy to forget. During my flickers of transcendent prayer, the clearest memory is what I felt. So, the attempt to recreate those feelings is one very natural, but very wrong, approach to prayer. Because it is such an easy mistake, many Christian authors have written about it.
Way back in 1875, Hannah Whitall Smith wrote, “The common thought is, life is to be lived in the emotions. As they are satisfactory or otherwise, the soul rests or is troubled.” More recently, Bill Bright described the Christian experience as a train. “The caboose we will call ‘feelings,'” he writes, “It would be ridiculous to pull the train by the caboose. In the same way you, as a Christian, should never depend on feelings or seek after an emotional experience.”
Much of the core gospel message is concerned with love, which we think of as an emotion, but in scripture, “love” tends to be more of an action verb: “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son,” “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us,” “Let us show love, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service.”
Christian love, by definition, is other-focused rather than self-focused. The richest prayer life becomes available to us when create real space and time in our lives for it, and when our focus is on God, his work in the world, and our place within that.
Leave a comment! What practices help you to have a deeper and more transformative prayer life?