I have had a great time lately, learning about how people pray – or don’t pray.
It seems like a lot of people have experienced their childhood faith wearing out, but they have not succeeded in growing into something new. Maybe they replaced developing their relationship with God in prayer with mindfulness, which is an anxiety-reducing knock-off. Maybe they replaced following Jesus, whose example of true humanity is suffused with prayer, by following the wisdom and moral principles of Jesus without the presence of the Holy Spirit, since they were not feeling the presence.
There are many books written about these questions and troubles [Pastors’ Goodreads], but many discouraged people did not find the time or have the motivation to develop their understanding and practice of prayer, so they just stopped. Now, in Jude’s colorful term, they are “clouds without rainwater.” Jude is upset that such people keep the desert landscape dry, even though they should have water. They upset me, too, but I prefer to see them as clouds who have the potential to rain, if they are ever filled with living water as Jesus-following clouds are designed to be.
In the troubling era of our lives when faith needs to grow beyond its childhood and adolescence, I think people often miss a couple of basic steps of development.
If you’re troubled, your struggle might be with Bible passages like this one:
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)
(Like I said, great books are written about these things. Maybe you should make the whole year about reading a book about prayer every month.)
When some people read this particular part of the New Testament, it causes them to test out prayer quite materially, since the Lord appears to promise a material answer, especially with the line “everyone who asks receives.” This can be proved false quite quickly when someone does not recover from cancer or one does not get into the college they want or someone can’t find a suitable mate. The fact that it has been miraculously proven true for centuries, now, is not satisfying if one feels their test did not “work.” When one’s scientific experiment proves the theory of prayer unrepeatable, it makes a lot of people think they might be doing something that is just not valid — “It’s not working for me.”
Many people seem to miss the point of the teaching: the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him. Prayer is an entry into a much deeper territory than manipulating the material world with a satisfying sense of power.
I sometimes think Harry Potter’s magic, however well-intended, makes people without wands distressed. Prayer is not like magic, it is relating to the living God at the invitation of Jesus Christ. Getting beyond the distressing loss of the magic of childhood (obviously some people hang on as long as possible) is a key problem with faith we need to solve. Prayer is the solution. We will always need to approach God as child-to-parent, but Jesus is calling us to get into our adulthood and learn to deal with the deeper things of God and ourselves.
Sometimes even Disney asks the right questions;
Given my recent exploration with people, I feel like offering two important steps that might help you get a new start with prayer if you’ve basically given up on it.
Come to prayer loved
The Lord’s teaching above implies what John says in his letter.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18)
One of the big childhood issues that prayer brings up is fear of not being loved — “Am I really alone?” The answer of God in Jesus is, “No you are not alone, you are loved enough to find and rescue. I would die for you.” If God needs to prove her love for you every day to satisfy your nagging fear, you are more like a child of your parents or a child of this age than a child of God.
Don’t come to prayer covetous
The comparisons the Lord makes in the teaching above are mirrored in what James says in his letter:
Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, in order to spend what you get on your pleasures. (James 4:1-3)
We think of our desires as expressions of our needs. But, most of the time, they are about wanting what we see or perceive others having that we don’t. It would be great if competition were a pure quest for the best, but it is usually an attempt to be better than someone else, or better than the self I am.
Such covetousness reinforces the shame we feel about being ourselves. So prayer can end up a terrifying process of asking the questions: “Am I wanted? Do I matter?” I often feel sorry for Jesus, God trying so hard to undo our shame: “Of course I want you just as you are as I show up in this moment. I made you to matter and you matter to me.” We have trouble hearing that from anyone, maybe more from God. We are so well defended against the dreaded answers we expect to our questions, we may learn to avoid prayer too. If you come to prayer out of covetousness instead of trust, the experience could end up a self-fulfilling prophecy about how ineffectual prayer is.
Jesus demonstrated how a human prays and connects with God. Thank you, Jesus! And he taught his first disciples, and all the rest of the disciples like us, about how to pray. People did receive that Holy Spirit as the great gift of connection Jesus unleashed and such people have been teaching us more about prayer ever since. Prayer is such a great reinforcement of our togetherness with God, such a great way to become open to our value as we pray in all the forms we are given; it is the basic way we relate to God. And it is amazing how often I receive the “fish” I crave, too.
This small post hardly solves your problems, if you feel disappointed with prayer. It brings up more questions than it answers, I’m sure. But I hope it gives you an idea for exploring two basic steps you might just be discovering and opens up new avenues of learning you might have missed so far. You are not alone and you do matter. And you are part of a circle of hope, or could be, who would love to struggle with you as you grow into your adult faith.