I’ve been a Christian for a little while now, but I have to admit: I don’t really like to pray. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that I have a hard time staying focused. Some people say they can hear or feel God talk to them, but I don’t feel anything. It makes me wonder if I am doing it right. Do I have to pray to be a good Christian?
–Unimpressed by Prayer
Can I tell you a secret? I’ve considered myself a Christian for more than 30 years, and I still struggle to pray. But I’ve learned some things about prayer over the years—mostly about what it is not—that have helped me.
Prayer is Not Easy
First, prayer is not easy. You’ve already discovered this. Talking to God is simple, but like any discipline (and prayer is a discipline), sometimes it can feel like a chore. To use a cliché, it’s like going to the gym: You may not want to go—you grumble at the idea of lifting that weight or running that mile. It’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. Sometimes it even hurts. But you know it’s good for you and you like the overall effect of working out. Day by day, as your muscles break down they become stronger, fat melts away, and you feel healthier from the inside out.
Prayer is similar. It can be tough to focus. Sometimes the silence of prayer feels downright loud as other thoughts, worries, fears, and even painful moments flood your brain. How are you supposed to get your mind and your heart in a place of gratitude, confession, and praise? Philippians 4:6 tells us, “Don’t worry about anything, but pray about everything. With thankful hearts offer up your prayers and requests to God” (CEV). Through consistency and intention your focus will gradually strengthen and that challenging silence may even begin to feel like home.
Prayer Doesn’t Make You Good (or Bad), It Makes You Better
Speaking of challenges, prayer does not make you a good or bad Christian. So let’s remove the pressure to be perfect Christians. Jesus came to rescue imperfect people. Prayer is an opportunity to embrace our daily challenges, to identify and sort out the things in your life that are broken—the pain of a failed relationship, a split family, a trail of bad decisions, health challenges—and to ask God to change the way we think about or view these situations; to find guidance on how we should address them or how we should change our own behaviors. All this to bring us healing and wholeness, which leads me to my next point.
God Doesn’t Need You to Pray
Prayer is not for God. He already knows what you need, and he already knows what you’re going to tell him. I know what you’re thinking, If God already knows what I am going to say, what’s the point of praying? Easy, Grasshopper. I know this idea makes the prayer thing confusing, but here’s one way to look at it: God relates himself to us as a father figure (among other things). Most parents already know what their children need before they need it or ask for it. But, as a child matures, the responsibility to make their request becomes their own. In the act of asking, the child is learning important life skills: how to identify, talk about, take responsibility for their feelings, and how to assess their needs in order to get them met in safe relationships.
Prayer helps you learn those same spiritual life skills with a couple of added benefits. Prayer is designed to interrupt the chaotic rhythms of life. It brings us to the present moment and teaches us to slow down, breathe deep, and filter your life through a lens of gratitude. Prayer benefits the one praying, deepening your bond with God by bringing your thoughts, your will, and your desires in line with the purposes he has for you.
There Are Many Ways to Pray
Finally, there is no “one-size-fits-all” way to pray. You can literally pray any time, anywhere, in any way. And knowing yourself is part of discovering how you best connect with God. For me, praying out loud is like sending a Tweet—I have so few words. But with a journal and a pen, I’ll write God a letter. I know people who paint their prayers, write songs and poetry, or simply sit in silence. There are tons of prayer expressions and methods developed through the ages, from praying the scriptures (Lectio Divina), to personal examination (The Examen), and even visualization (Ignatian Method). The Living Prayer Center on theupper.org is a helpful resource to read up on these methods.
If you struggle with what or how to pray, remember: there is no one to impress. The Book of Matthew warns about “practicing your religion in front of people to draw their attention” (6:1a). We get twisted up, thinking those with the most elegant prayers must be the most spiritual. Maybe they are. Or maybe they’re gifted speakers. God is more interested in your fumbling, tongue-tied sincerity, than your eloquence.
Just like there are many ways to pray, there are many ways God communicates to you. You may not hear him right now, and that’s OK. Even the famous Mother Teresa felt she didn’t always hear God, yet she understood that he is always present. When an interviewer asked what she prayed about, she answered “I listen.” When asked what God said to her, she answered, “He listens. And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.” Prayer is an invitation to be present with God. Even when we don’t literally hear words, the act helps shape us to live and behave in the wise, gracious, and loving way that reflects a wise, gracious, and loving God. But don’t just listen for his voice; look for it. I see God’s voice in books and articles, in texts from friends, in quotes on Instagram. There’s no limit to the way God can speak to you.
I can’t say you’ll ever experience a mystical feeling when you pray (but I can’t say you won’t), because sometimes—maybe even most times—prayer is practical and even mundane. But I think that’s the point. Jeremiah 29:13 says, “Seek me and you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.” In the practice and sincerity of seeking God through your own communication style, you will find him in ways that are personal and meaningful to you.