I am currently reading two books on prayer, both to help with my own prayer life and because I am leading a small group study on prayer at church. When it came to choosing a topic for the small group, I was initially reluctant to consider a study on prayer. Certainly it’s an area where I need to grow. But how could I possibly lead such a study when my own prayer life is so inadequate?
As we talked about the new year, however, and the areas of our lives where we would like to see God do something new in us, I wasn’t the only one to have a concern about my prayer life. Perhaps, I thought, my own need in that regard was a reason to pursue a study on prayer more than a reason to avoid it.
I chose these two books, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home by Richard Foster and The Folly of Prayer: Practicing the Presence and Absence of God by Matt Woodley, in part because I found discussion guides to these books available online (here and here). No doubt there are other good books out there I could have used, but based on the discussion guides I was confident the books were worth buying.
I’ve read plenty of books on prayer before, heard sermons, and done Bible studies. Usually I just end up feeling more inadequate, as I compare the poverty of my own prayer life with the examples of powerful prayer I read or hear about.
Inadequacy is not necessarily a bad thing to feel within the context of prayer – how could a messed-up human (i.e. any of us) feel otherwise when approaching God? But too often, it results in my feeling reluctant to pray, because what I have to offer God is so poor that it hardly seems worth bothering with.
One of the aims of these books is to remove that attitude as an obstacle to prayer. Foster starts out with a chapter on what he calls Simple Prayer. It’s the kind of prayer that people often feel guilty about because it seems too self-centered. I tell God what’s on my mind, which is often about myself – my problems, my worries, my hopes and wishes and dreams. I ask for things that I want, though I know there are people whose needs must be greater than my own.
Even people who aren’t religious may sometimes engage in this sort of prayer. When terrible problems come, it’s natural to cry out for help, even if you’re not sure there’s Someone really listening. Such prayers are sometimes the beginning of a life of faith, as Someone does answer.
If we’ve been believers for any length of time, however, we may think such prayers beneath us – or rather, beneath where we think we should be, spiritually. I should be praying for other people instead of for myself, and telling God how great He is instead of how unhappy I am.
If I never get beyond Simple Prayer, never get to praise and intercession, then something has gone awry in my faith development. But what Foster stresses in this first chapter is that it’s by prayer that one grows in prayer, and one won’t get past Simple Prayer by refusing to engage in it.
I probably knew that, intellectually, if I stopped and thought about it. I figured my rather me-centered prayers as I walk the dog and reflect on my concerns about the upcoming day are better than no prayer at all. (At 6 a.m., in the cold and dark – at least this time of year, with the irritation of her pulling in the wrong direction and with having to pick up her poop, that sort of prayer often seems about as good as it’s going to get.)
I can remember pointing out, in other Bible study groups, that any kind of prayer is better than no prayer. Even if we’re mad at God, God would rather hear from us what we’re mad about than have us simply ignore Him.
But I still viewed such prayers – at least when they were my own – in a negative light. Perhaps sort of like junk food for the soul – an indulgence that wouldn’t hurt once in a while but shouldn’t be a regular part of one’s diet.
Then I started reading this book by Foster. “God receives us just as we are,” he writes, “and accepts our prayers just as they are. In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer.”
What a wonderful image, and what a freeing idea. I remember when my older son was just a baby, carrying him on my shoulder and feeling his little arms hold onto me, and realizing that my love for God was probably similar to my son’s love for me at that point. He couldn’t understand the idea of self-giving love, he could do little beyond reaching for me and letting me hold him, but he responded to my love by loving me in what way he was capable of.
I had often wondered whether I really loved God, since my love – such as it was – seemed so weak and so shot through with wanting what God could do for me. But if He is my Father and I am His child, then I can reach for Him with my puny little faith and enjoy His love and His gifts, as my son reached for me and enjoyed my love and care for him.
My son didn’t draw many pictures as a young child. He disliked crayons and preferred not to draw at all rather than make a picture that didn’t come out the way he wanted. (I had always wondered what had made me such a perfectionist myself; when I saw how young our son started showing signs of perfectionism, when we were careful not to push him to do better, I realized how much of it must be inborn.) When he did make a picture, we were thrilled, no matter how childishly drawn – that’s what pictures by young children are supposed to look like.
There are a lot more chapters in Foster’s book. Obviously he doesn’t intend us to pray only Simple Prayers. But it’s a great relief to think that my praying, no matter how poor it seems to me, is welcomed by God in the same way that a child’s drawing, no matter what it looks like, is appreciated by his parents. If I can just talk to God, and not feel guilty that I don’t have better things to say, perhaps I can come to think of prayer more as something I want to do, rather than something I do because I’m supposed to.