I think that those of us who are Christians all agree that our Number One priority is to make sure our children have a strong, healthy relationship with God. We also all agree that prayer is vitally important to building that relationship.
So, how successful are we at it?
I'm going to ask you a couple of questions. Please be brave and honest while answering them.
Can you honestly say,
- "I really look forward to my prayer time every day."
- "I often enjoy prayer so much I lose track of the time."
- "Most of my prayer time is not spent begging God for favors for myself or others."
- "I feel that I know God really, really well."
- "Praying for 15, 30, or even 60 minutes at a time is easy for me."
For years I have pondered why I - and, to be honest, a whole lot of other people - are not the joyous prayer warriors we should be, let alone such shining examples that our children are mighty in prayer as well. And, just in time to write this column, I believe I finally have an answer.
We can unlock the power of prayer when we realize:
- Prayer comes in two flavors: intimate and formal
- We have to start with the first two words of the Lord's Prayer
What Books on Prayer Are Missing
When I first tried learning how to pray, several decades ago, I bought every book on the subject that I could find. They turned out to be either rapturous accounts of how wonderful someone else's prayer life was, or full of little formulas for approaching God.
The most famous of these little formulas is probably the Navigator's "A-C-T-S" method, in which "A" stands for adoration, "C" for confession, "T" for thanksgiving, and "S" for supplication. This is fine as far as it goes, as a mnemonic tool to remind us not to obsess on just asking for our needs, but surely this is not the way we talk to any other person. "Bill, I'm just going to tell you how great you are for a minute, then spend another minute wracking my brains for ways I've let you down, then another minute thanking you for everything you've done for me, and one final minute asking you for stuff I need. And this is how I'm going to talk to you each and every time we're alone together." Way to go to build marital intimacy!
The people who emoted in their books about their great relationships with God, on the other hand, did seem to have something good going for them. Unfortunately, they did not convey exactly what it was. They would talk about "falling into the arms of God," "just lifting up your heart and loving Jesus," and so on, without explaining how you're supposed to do all this. As is typical for people to whom something comes easily, they assumed the reader could do what they did and just needed more motivation to get started.
I'm assuming you have motivation, and maybe even have had some good times with God in prayer in the past. But the idea of spending 15 minutes or half an hour daily with God is daunting. Let me tell you why it's daunting.
- It's not because you're not pious
- Its not because you don't care
- It's not because you don't think prayer is important
It's because you don't know God well enough, as a Person, and don't know what to talk about except to beg for favors for yourself and others. Begging for favors isn't all that much fun, and it doesn't take up that much time unless you go around collecting petitions from all and sundry. Plus, you feel silly continuing to pray for the same requests day after day when you don't even know if they've been answered yet.
Now, let me tell you why most of us don't know God as well as we might.
The First Two Words of the Lord's Prayer . . .
. . . are "Our Father." Jesus told us this prayer was the pattern for all our prayers: "After this manner pray ye." It does not start, "Our King," or "Our Judge," or "Our Boss."
So I am suggesting for you that the starting point for a disciplined, powerful prayer life for you and your children is to get to know God as a father. If this is not your starting point, than all the rest of your prayer life will be dry and dull.
How do you do this? Simple! You start by talking to him, intimately. First, you have to get away from other people to some environment where you can hopefully talk aloud without attracting undue attention. The Bible tells us to go "into your closet." Unless you have a huge, empty walk-in closet, you can't do this literally. The point is that you have to shut out the world around you. Don't laugh, but this can most simply be done by just going into a room by yourself and throwing a towel over your head. (If it makes you feel better to call it a "prayer shawl," go right ahead.) Whether you're a visual, auditory, or kinesthetic/tactile learner, that will shut out your natural distractions. If you can concentrate enough just by closing your eyes, that's fine, too.
Then, you do what you always do when you want to get to know a new person and have them get to know you: you volunteer information about yourself, ask questions about the other person, and listen and respond to the answers.
Since this is God you are talking to, you might run into these complications:
"Since He already knows all about me, isn't telling him about myself and my hopes, dreams, and needs just a waste of time?" Answer: it would be if He didn't specifically want you to tell Him these things. Which He does. Remember what Jesus will say to those who don't get to enter the kingdom of heaven: "I never knew you." (Matthew 7:21-23) Yes, God knows all about us, but He wants to know us in the way we know our friends, spouses, and relatives: by having us voluntarily share ourselves with Him - our aspirations, dreams, needs, worries, and triumphs.
"I know intellectually God is perfect, but emotionally I can't help feeling like He's let me down in some ways. This makes it hard to tell Him how I feel, because I don't want to sin by complaining against Him." Be aware that the divinely-inspired Psalms are full of complaints against God. Consider Psalm 10, which begins, "Why standest thou afar off, O Lord? why hidest thou thyself in times of trouble?" or Psalm 13, which starts, "How long wilt thou forget me, O Lord?" Doesn't that sound like complaining to you? Even Jesus, on the cross, cried out, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" Of course, having voiced these complaints, the Psalms eventually end with God's consoling answers. But if even Jesus Christ could feel emotionally forsaken by God the Father, it is possible for any Christian to feel the same. In fact, this experience is so common that medieval writers gave it a name: "The Dark Night of the Soul." God would rather have you vent your emotions, good or bad, directly to Him than try to cover them up and pretend everything is OK when it isn't. And when you do admit your ill feelings, then He will answer you, clear up your misunderstandings, and make you feel so much better.
"I don't want to be presumptuous." Think of it as being vulnerable. A little one can tell Daddy anything. And in this case, Daddy already knows it all already.
"Doesn't the Bible warn us against speaking to God with 'many words'?" Actually, it's "vain repetitions" (Matthew 6:7). Pagan religions teach that there is merit in how many times you repeat a religious phrase or turn a prayer wheel. The Bible teaches us that prayer is not supposed to be this kind of painful duty that earns merit because of how much endurance it takes to keep on doing the same thing again and again.
So, I have a suggestion for the Navigators. Try adding the letter "H" for "hanging out with God." That turns "ACTS" into "CHATS." Less struggle, more joy . . . and more quality time with Our Father, who is in Heaven.