I wrote yesterday about the excitement of prayer. And much as I believe that prayer is everything I said–an ongoing opportunity to know God, a chance to see God's work in the world, and a source of gratitude–I still have a hard time praying. Why?
First, there's the distraction endemic to everyday life. The phone calls I need to make. The email I forgot to write. The question of when I might be able to exercise or what we'll eat for dinner.
Then there's my lack of faith, the niggling suspicion that God isn't listening, or that there isn't a God to listen at all. As I've written before, prayer is stupid, unless God is real.
So there's doubt that God is real, but there's also fear that God is real. What if God does answer my prayers? What if I am transformed? What if I have to see ugly parts of myself in order to become the person God wants me to become? Prayer is scary.
Finally, there's the temptation to try to get prayer "right," the temptation to try to show God the "good" version of me, the thought that my prayers will only "work" if they go according to some religious formula. We don't know how to pray or what to pray or whether our prayers are important enough. We want to get it right.
I'm going to write more tomorrow about methods of prayer, but for now I'll offer some broad thoughts on how to counteract the difficulties of prayer. It comes down to honesty, because in the end, God wants our honesty far more than God wants our piety.
I remember a time when my mother-in-law was sick with cancer, and I was pretty sure she was going to die. I didn't know how to pray for her. Was I supposed to pray for her healing? Or should I just talk to God about how sad I was that she was dying? I remember asking a minister how I should pray, and he said, "Pray like hell for whatever you damn well want." I think he was trying to force me to see that I needed to bring my whole self–not my attempts to say the right prayer, but my confusion and sadness and anger and hope–I needed to bring everything into my conversation with God if I was ever going to be able to see God in the midst of the situation.
The same is true for the other problems I mentioned. If I'm distracted in prayer, I can be honest with God about that. If I doubt God's presence, if I'm afraid God will answer, if I don't know the proper way to pray–in all of these things, I can be honest with God. Romans 8:26 reminds us ". . . the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans."
Prayer is hard. But in the midst of the doubts, the fear, the distractions, and the desire to get it right, God is present, listening, and inviting. In our laughter, our tears, our anger, our joy–prayer is God's invitation to bring ourselves into His presence and be transformed.