When Prayer Falls Flat
Prayer isn't always exciting. In fact, it's usually ordinary. That's okay; ordinary is good. But sometimes, it's much less than that: something's missing.
Sometimes, you're bored. You've made the discipline of prayer your personal practice and a part of your daily life, but the prayers are 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 page. The discipline of regular prayer is 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 prayer life.)
Prayer Communication Breakdown
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?
A Prayer Relationship Checkup
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 start praying for them, 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, you feel abandoned or alone, and that can make it hard to relate to God, or hard to stop yourself from turning your prayers into merely a place to vent about your problems.
- Perhaps you don't care about the poor or oppressed. God does, very much -- and God is asking 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 helpful, 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), or maybe you're swooning over the realm of politics. Which god do you follow?
Or, it may be something about yourself and your frame of mind.
- Maybe you're busy praying, 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. Praying 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.