I have a confession to make. For most of my life, I have hated praying. I have always known it was important and, theoretically, one of the most powerful tools made available to followers of Jesus. But I rarely experienced that power in all the years I spent growing up in church, or as a volunteer and professional leader in various ministries. Prayer was my place of shame, and I struggled with the guilt of hating prayer and not doing it well, or sometimes, even at all.
For an extrovert addicted to people, prayer seemed like the worst kind of torture. The only reason I attended prayer nights in college was because I knew I'd get to hang out with cute boys who said they loved Jesus, procrastinate studying and then socialize afterwards. The thought that I was supposed to spend dedicated time talking to an invisible God daily was a laughable impossibility for someone as undisciplined as me. The Church may as well have told me that I should run a triathlon or climb Mt. Everest...I knew people did it, but I knew I never would or could.
But God in his goodness never gave up on me. He introduced me to Pete Grieg, who started a prayer revival in the post-Christian UK. In his book "Red Moon Rising," I read about how his revival started in the boiler room of a church and how that was incredibly appropriate because prayer was the hidden, unglamorous, dirty work that tapped into the power of the Spirit. Without the boiler room, there was no power in the building, and without prayer, there is no power in the Christian life or Church. Here are some of the other things I learned on my road to not hating prayer:
First and foremost, prayer is about surrender. The Lord's Prayer even begins with it: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done." Ultimately, prayer is about connection and it's hard to be connected to anyone when your heart is turned inward only on yourself. The Lord's Prayer begins with an acknowledgement of who God is and the most logical response of surrender. When we orient our heart toward God in the same way, we open the pathway for real connection with God and power in Him.
Prayer is like art. There is no one right way to do it. When I say I didn't know how to pray, that's not to say I was doing it wrong...it's to say that I didn't understand what I was doing or why. I thought it was about checking off a box on my to-do list, or getting things I needed or wanted. I didn't understand that prayer wasn't about the results, but about growing my relationship with God. Like art, it was about expressing myself and communicating with an audience of one—God—and, like art, there's an infinite number of ways to do it.
Prayer is like science. It is not about executing something to perfection, but about a journey of exploration. You try things out, you experiment, you fail, sometimes you set things on fire or make a mess. But, ultimately, it is about discovering something--in this case, discovering Someone.
Prayer is like learning a new language. For many of us, prayer doesn't come naturally. It takes practice and commitment to recognize the sounds of a new language and to make sense of what is being said. Likewise, if we expect to hear God and understand him without any practice, or a commitment to do so, it's a certainty that the end result will be frustration, rather than a better understanding of when God is speaking and what God is saying to you. The more I pray, the more I hear, because I'm practicing that language.
Prayer is like working out. It's a muscle we can develop through spiritual exercise. Like physical workouts, it is often difficult to get motivated to start. Sometimes, it's helpful to workout with others who function as personal trainers, coaches, and cheerleaders; they increase our motivation and accountability. In the same way, our community can help us develop our prayer "muscle". It's not meant to always be done alone (good news for us extroverts!).
Prayer is more about listening than talking. This was my biggest misunderstanding of prayer. God always delights in our willingness to express ourselves and pour our hearts out to him, just look at the psalmists! But if we stop there, we are missing the point. The true power of prayer is in the connection we have with who we are praying to. And true connection only happens when we listen as well as talk, whether it be with God, or with other human beings. Ultimately, prayer is not about changing God, but letting prayer change us.
This is now a passionate mission for me—to help others like me discover that they can learn how to pray and that it doesn't have to be boring (but it is often work!). It's not that I am now an expert in prayer, but that I know what it's like to struggle. As someone once described the Christian journey—I am one beggar telling another where to find bread.
So I invite you to join me in the boiler room and to embark on an upcoming prayer experiment with me. Soon, on Wednesdays from 7-8pm, I will be leading a "prayer lab" of sorts, where we will learn about prayer by trying it out. I will share different prayer tools and then let you loose to try them out with and on each other. It will be a safe, non-judgmental space for you to share your struggles with prayer, ask lots of questions, and then experiment…and to have fun! If you are interested, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up.
P.S. As a sidenote, someone I know prays over the Sandburg campus during off hours and the Packing House to ask for God's blessing and protection over them both. If you feel so inclined, I encourage you to do the same--even if you're just driving by!