Growing your life of prayer
Learning how to communicate with God
Christian Spirituality >
Prayer > Growing A Prayer Life; (Please, use the following link for
personal prayer requests.)
WHEN PRAYER FALLS FLAT
Prayer isn't always exciting. In fact, it usually isn't. It's usually ordinary. That's okay; ordinary is good. But sometimes, prayer is something less than that: something's missing.
Sometimes, you're bored. The habit is there, but the relationship is at a standstill. (You married folks should ask your spouse about that....) That means it's time to stop yawning and see what's happening with you. It may be time to :
- change where you pray.
- remove all distraction from the outside (cell
phones, beepers, limiting how many people know where
you you do it, etc.)
- use a different prayer position.
- allow yourself to move around. (As a diabetic, I
know how drowsy I can get when the blood sugar rises,
as it often does when I'm still for too long.)
- check out your diet.
- try one of the many simple devotional techniques.
- get more sleep.
- stop overworking yourself.
- briefly write out what's on your mind.
- if you're just blanking, try going to a memorized or pre-written prayer, such as the Lord's Prayer or the Jesus Prayer.
(Please note that there's a lot of 'sometimes', 'maybe', and 'often' in this section. It's a spiritual matter, and those aren't well-suited to tight rules. You'll have to learn how to
discern the Spirit's voice in your situation.)
Usually, such minor adjustments are enough to curb your drifting. But, let's say, you've made the adjustments, they work briefly, and then SLAM! It hits you. God's not there. Sometimes one must taste the absence in order to keep savoring the presence. And sometimes God steps aside so you can learn to persevere in prayer, to keep working at it on trust.
But then, as you keep plugging away at it, it becomes clear that something else is at work. It's not really that God has stepped away, after all. It's that there's a communication breakdown. God's apparent silence is due to a problem at your end. Something's rocking the
relationship. When you reach this point (and sooner or later you will), it's time for you to find out what's up. What could it be?
It may be about other people:
- Maybe you're harboring resentment or anger against someone, or against a group of someones. In that case, first ask God to forgive you for the anger, then hold them in prayer, then ask God to open up an opportunity to go to that person and renounce that anger in their presence. Then, get up, and go
reconcile with that person.
- Maybe you're comparing, treating yourself better or worse than someone(s) else.
- Maybe your parents, spouse, or children has veered off-course. For most of us, these are the relationships that are closest to our hearts. When something goes wrong between you and your family, it can also become hard to relate to God, or to stop yourself from turning your prayers into merely a place to vent about it.
- Perhaps you don't care about the poor or oppressed. God does, very much -- and God calls on you to do the same. And to act on it.
- Or, you reduce people to categories, slapping labels on them. (For example, "the poor", "the oppressed".) Categories can be handy and even useful, but not to the point that you think of those people in terms of their types rather than as persons.
You may not be dealing straight with God:
- Maybe the one you're angry at is God. Whatever it is between you and God, it does no good to pout and go off to sulk. Say it. SCREAM it, if that's what it takes. Let your body express the anger. Whatever you do, share your anger with God. The Lord will see you being truthful, and will respond with love and grace.
- Maybe the Lord can't get a word in edgewise from all your talking. To pray right, there must also be lots of time for quiet listening.
- You're the man/woman with a plan, and you try to get God to act according to your plan.
- Perhaps you treat God like a marionette. The most common form of that is the "prosperity gospel".
Perhaps there's another god in your life:
- Maybe you're still involved with the pretenders to the Lord's throne. Maybe it's superstition. Maybe dabbling in the occult, or paganisms old or new. Or you still 'play' with an ouija board or tarot cards, or pay attention to horoscopes and palm readers. You may think of it merely as a way to spit in the face of unjust religious authorities, or maybe as just a fun little game and nothing more. All reasons are bad reasons. Even a little of this does a lot of damage to your relationship with the real Lord. You're cheating on God; you're being a disloyal lover.
- Perhaps you recently compromised with the world around you in a way that compromises your relations with God at its very root. For example, the Christians among the executives of Enron or Bear Stearns, whose dealings smack of the idol Mammon (Wealth). Which god do you follow?
Or, it may be something about yourself and your frame of mind.
- Maybe you're focusing on prayer, but God's calling you to spend less time praying so you can spend it doing something else that God wants you to do.
- Perhaps God has become quiet so you could hear your own doubts. You may not even have known they were there. But they are. When God is quiet, you may for the first time actually become able to know them, name them, and deal with them before their voice rules yours.
- Maybe you're withholding from the Lord the fruits of God's most creative gift to you: your imagination. For instance, imagine yourself in a scene from the Bible, or
visualize how you would go about being of service to others, yielding each detail before God as you envision it. The richer the detail, the more real it will seem to you.
- Maybe you've had deep mystical interchange with God before, but you rarely thank or praise the Lord for anything specific. Simple gratitude goes a long way toward making you spiritually humble and receptive.
- Maybe you're going to God with a laundry list. God doesn't do the honey-do thing.
- Maybe when God's trying to tell you something, you change the subject. Trouble is, you'll fail to duck God this way, because while you can distract people that way, you won't take the Lord off focus.
- Maybe you spend a lot of time and attention on prayer methods, theologies, and histories of devotion, one layer of complexity atop another until it resembles a Rube Goldberg contraption. Or, maybe your life itself has become too complex for you. It's time to simplify, to turn all attention back to God.
- Maybe you're saying to God, "Here, You do it!", but God's been trying to tell you, "No, that's your responsibility." God makes us a partner in the divine mission, and that's a great honor, but it means struggling, working, breaking, hurting. And from that, growing, learning, deepening, wisening.
- Maybe there's a specific sinful act you do that's been eating away at you. A sin that angers God. When you at last can name the sin and call it sin, you can take it before God to ask for forgiveness. Prayer time can be the start of
repentance - turning away from the sin and committing yourself against it with your life.
- Perhaps you noticed your lack of passion, and started trying to "work up" the feelings again. But trying to feel it is not the same as actually feeling it; it might actually block the passion from returning. God wants the real you.
- Maybe you're not convinced deep down that you really need God and need to be a part of God's purposes. Maybe you think your own plans are doing well and God's help would be just a nice added 'plus'. Yet, when there's no sense of weakness, no keen awareness of our human limits, no awareness that it's God's power that makes things work, then prayer loses its sense of urgency, and life loses its touch with reality.
Then, There's Hitting Bottom
"We must lay before Him what is in us, not what ought to be in us."
--- C.S. Lewis, *Letters To Malcolm*, p.35
It sounds like a lot of things can go wrong. But there are those few times that nothing can prepare you for, no set of questions can lead you through, and no joyous experience of the past can carry you over. It is when the course of your life takes you to a spiritual dead end. Not only are your prayers stuck, but the entire content of your life has turned empty, or even disastrous. And you feel more than just that God's hiding away; you may feel like God simply wants nothing to do with you -- like a lover that suddenly left town. You can mentally 'know' God's love, and you can remember when you basked in God's love, but that seems like rubbish in your current misery and lostness. Such times are different than the common lulls and low points in life. I can tell you that at those times God rips away even the good things about your life so you can love more directly and honestly. I can tell you that God is not far away, but closer than ever. I can even direct you to the apostle Paul's letters, to ancient Hebrew prophets, and to
authors who have gone through this -- who share what they've come to understand about it. But why should you believe me or anyone else? There are no set answers to your own "dark nights of the soul". You have to sort them out yourself. The only choice that remains is to wait for God, and pay close attention. The nights do end.
A Relationship? With God?
Many people wonder how someone can have a relationship with an invisible, transcendent God. But these ways of blocking out God are, for the most part, the same ways we block out other people, and they were discovered by the faithful thousands of years before there was such a thing as 'psychology'. These blockages, and many others, undermine the trust and truthfulness that's needed for building any relationship, including that with the Creator of All, the Lover of My Soul. So use the above (and below) probings as a diagnostic check-up. Awaken to these possibilities, and keep praying for guidance on these matters, even if you find your faith to be weak. You'll be led further into a mature faith in Christ. Then prayer can once again be spending time alone with Someone who loves you. Even when you're stuck, prayer is still working if you keep at it. It's working because the Spirit is at work; the God of prayer's working on you.
Another suggestion is to get one person to be your prayer partner - not your pastor (though your pastor needs one, he/she needs to choose his/her own). Seek out someone of the same sex whom you can trust, who is spiritually mature, and who is willing to commit the time and effort to it.
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Probing Deeper Into Prayer
One key way of getting deeper into your relationship with your Creator is to get deeper into prayer. But sometimes, we're afraid to ask questions about prayer, especially to ask ourselves about how we pray so we can at least find out where we're at right now. Thinking about prayer can carry us further into the mystery of what it's like to have an actual
relationship with someone we can't contact with our senses. God places relational treasures at many spots along our journey.
Ask yourself some of these questions, and try some of the dares. There are many of them, but they are of the kind that puzzle people their whole life long. Go through them prayerfully, one by one, preferably with a pad and pencil or a notebook computer. The questions range from simple to very, very hard. I know that when I first asked myself questions like these, I was surprised by my answers. I was surprised by the emotions that came out (and sometimes, by the lack of them). I found out how much I didn't know, or thought I knew, or had simply evaded by pasting up a churchly clichè. I hope that you, too, can discover a lot about yourself, the
community of faith around you, and the One who wants to talk with you.
Ask about prayer itself
If you pray:
- How do you pray?
- In what settings do you pray?
- What do you pray for?
- Do you receive it? Do you receive something else?
What do you feel when you do not receive it?
- What do you expect from prayer?
Did the Divine response surprise you?
- When you pray, what thoughts most often break in?
- Do they spring from the prayer, or do they pull you away from the prayer?
- What is the one thing which most puzzles you about prayer?
What do you find hardest to accept?
- When you pray for someone, do you picture their healing, or being helped in some other way?
- If so, can you picture yourself with them as they heal?
- If not, is it that you don't believe that healing is possible?
- What do you most remember from your childhood about prayer or about people praying?
- Have you ever been so concerned about someone that you felt driven to pray for them?
- Is there a catch-phrase about prayer that especially gets on your nerves? Why?
Check out at least two of the early Psalms; for instance, Psalm 5 (the main Jewish sunrise prayer), 12 (against treachery), 8 (a praise of God as Creator), or 10 (re the prosperity of the wicked).
- What do you notice about what they are praying about, and how they are praying about it?
- Do you find any of it disturbing? Why?
- Which of these Psalms do you most connect with? Why?
How Close Are You?
When have you most felt that you had lost touch with God? Why?
When have you felt most intimate with God?
How have these moments affected your prayers?
What lessons did you learn, if any?
Have you ever been angry at God?
If so, when did you tell that to God?
What was it about?
Did there seem to be a response, then or later?
Was there ever anything that you felt was personally demeaning or insulting to put before God? Why?
What do you think God really thinks of you?
What is the strangest prayer you ever heard someone pray?
- When you find yourself really angry over something, have you ever stopped yourself, and taken at least a moment to ask the Lord, "What is happening here?"
- When you ask God to forgive you, do you accept that forgiveness? Why or why not?
- Have you ever felt afraid to pray?
- Is there something you're afraid of, or afraid to ask? Why?
- Does anyone else you know seem to fear something about prayer?
- How do you think you'd feel if God woke you up out of a sound sleep?
- If you've experienced this yourself, what did you do next?
- What kind of changes happened from it?
- When you were ill or in serious trouble, did you ever feel the prayers of others?
- What was that like? What were you getting from those prayers?
- What other effects did the prayers have?
- What have you prayed for that, when you look back on it, you're glad you didn't get? Or prayed that it would not happen, but you're glad it did?
- How would your life be different if God had granted it?
We double-dare you!
(Actions you might think of trying for
Some dares that anyone can try :
- If someone comes to mind right now: Take the time right now to pray for that person.
- Take the opportunity to pray with a group of praying people you don't know.
- Maybe you're one of those who finds all this talk about prayer so boring it puts you to sleep. Hmmm..... when you're having trouble going to sleep, pray! (Not about going to sleep, but about other things that matter to you.) Don't worry. God doesn't get insulted if, while you're doing this, you fall asleep.
- Do your prayers and/or meditations with a notepad and pencil (or notebook computer), for writing what comes to mind.
- When you're listening to a song that presents a situation that happens in real life, pray about those who live in that situation.
If you are not attending a church: let's take up a challenge. Attend a worship service at a church. Any church you choose, chosen for your own reasons.
- Within the service, when do the worshippers pray? When does the priest or leader pray?
- What do they pray for?
- Why do you think they pray for that within a worship service?
- In what ways are the prayers a part of what binds the worshippers together?
- If it's a liturgical church (the kind with the robes, candles, and chants), take note of the Prayers Of the Church, which usually happen somewhere between the Sermon and
Holy Communion. It is intercessory prayer, praying to God on behalf of others.
- What is it that they are praying for?
- What do you think such prayer does for those praying
- Or for those being prayed about?
If you're a church-goer, dare these:
- When some news item really grabs your attention, made you
angry, sad, determined : Pray about it -- not just once or
twice, but at least once a day for four days, and from then
on as long as you feel led to keep doing it.
- Try asking someone if you could pray with them --- but
only when they're openly struggling with something in their
lives, or at some other appropriate moment. (Odds are they'll
- Try praying a section of the Bible (say, a psalm, a
prophecy, the Lord's prayer, or a section from Paul's
letters), phrase by phrase, with breaks of time in between. Take the
time to savor it, and pay attention for the Spirit's
- When you drive by a church, pray for that church -- when you next stop the car, of course -- that they may grow in faith and as people.
Also, perhaps for their financial situation, or perhaps that
they be lit up anew by the Spirit.
- Your church bulletin and newsletter have many activities
listed in them. As you read them, pray for each activity,
holding them up before God for guidance and for the power to
do what they set out to do.
- In your worship community, who are the "gifted intercessors" (people whose special gift is praying for others)?
- What do you think makes it so special when they pray intensely for someone or something?
- Pray for them.
- Pray with them.
If you are in a church or cell group: dare these :
- How and why does your church/cell pray? How often do they
meet for it?
- Does your church have any goals for their prayer life?
How can these goals be gauged or measured?
- How embarrassed do you get when praying aloud in the
presence of others? Do you pray for different things when with them than in private?
- Some groups take on a special burden or concern in
prayer, like, say, a nation, a missionary, a neighborhood,
those struck with a certain disease, etc.. What similar
concern most touches the heart of you or those praying with
- How can the group's/church's prayers best support its
- What was the most intense prayer that your group ever
What do you think caused that level of intensity?
(Please, use this link for
personal prayer requests.)
|ver.: 03 February 2012
Prayer Diagnostics. Copyright © 2002-2012 by Robert Longman.