Prayer is not an easy topic to discuss. If I’m being honest, most of the time I’m reluctant to even talk about it. It is so deeply personal and unique to each person that it can be hard to find common ground from which to make a discussion. On the other hand, the Bible is very direct on prayer, offering very clear instructions on how and why we should pray. And like the very true humans we are, we take that and very often turn it into something else.
Somehow or another, we convince ourselves that prayer needs to be certain things in order to “count”. It’s an appalling idea if you really think about it. It presents an image of God listening carefully to us while holding a checklist. If we miss a box, He clicks his tongue, scratches our name out, and goes on to fulfill the requests of someone who actually knows how to speak to him.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Part of God’s whole mission in sending Jesus was to provide access to himself while we’re still on this earth. He wants to hear from us. Even knowing how painfully human and messy we are he still wants to hear from us. We can approach him. He wants us to approach him. So how do we put down all our human notions and ideas around prayer?
There are definitely things we need to consider in praying, but I want to focus more on what our prayers absolutely and definitively don’t need.
1. Prayer doesn’t need to be eloquent
The notion that we should be deeply respectful in prayer is a good one. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, we tend to confuse respect with formality. All too often our prayers begin reading like a cover letter, begging some high-up CEO to please, please consider us. We’ll be brilliant if we’re just given the chance. Thank you for your time. I hope to hear from you soon.
The problem with the need for eloquence in prayer is that it brings us to hold God at arm's length when the very point of prayer is to get as close to God as we can. We need closeness with God and formality kills that intimacy.
Look at the Lord’s prayer. For all the beauty of it, it is shockingly simple and straightforward. It takes no time for flowery language or poetry. It gets to the heart of need and dependence without wasting any time on trying to make one’s self eloquent enough to come before God. It assumes it has words enough to convey the needs.
Praying simply and earnestly gets us out of our own way, which is very much the point. We are, after all, trying to talk to God one on one, not perform for him. Simplicity removes performance.
2. Prayer doesn’t need to be long
Some of the deepest, most heartfelt prayers are the shortest. Yes, you have Jesus in the garden the night of his arrest, praying so long and fervently his disciples can’t stay awake. We tend to look at that episode as the ultimate goal for prayer life and measure ourselves first against Christ and then against the disciples who seemingly couldn’t keep up.
But what about on the cross? We could almost forget to count Jesus’s words to the Father as prayer but there’s no doubt that those gasping, pleading sentences were wholly divine and prayerful.
Some of the most deeply felt prayers in my life have been five words or less. God, it hurts. God, please help. God, what do I do?
I have to think that those prayers, as short as some of Jesus’s on the cross, are heard just as much as when I have more to say. I can’t imagine God is counting the words of my prayers, watching for them to hit a minimum before he listens. Yes, there are times when we should spend long periods in prayer. I’m not suggesting that we always pray a few words and call it good. What I’m suggesting here is that we are not held prisoner by the length of our prayers. The person who prays earnestly for a minute is heard every bit as much as the person who prays earnestly for an hour.
3. Prayer doesn’t need to be tidy.
I feel quite sure that God would much rather hear our confused, disjointed ramblings than hear nothing from us at all. In fact, in some cases, words aren’t needed at all. Romans 8:26 reminds us of that fact by saying “And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words.”
Consider the fact that so often our prayers burst out of need. In a moment of intense need, we rarely have our thoughts organized and neatly outlined. When I think of my hardest times and the prayers that came out of them, those prayers very rarely had coherent whole thoughts. There were definitely groanings that cannot be expressed in words, though. I’ve had plenty of those, and I’ve always had the assurance that those are perfectly legitimate, whole, and heard prayers. Praying from a place of struggle is not a detriment to our prayer life.
There is much comfort to be derived from our struggles. So often when we’re struggling the most we pray the most earnestly. If there’s anything to be celebrated in hardship, it’s that it shows us our dependence on God and reminds us to simply talk to him.
Nothing teaches us how to pray quite like hardship.
Prayer is a deeply personal endeavor, but its practice deeply improves our lives and our relationship with God. Like any relationship, ours with God requires communication. Those moments when we get out of our own way and talk to him with simplicity and freedom from performance are key to building a prayer life that is a conversation, not a cover letter. God wants to hear from you just as you are. No practice or perfection needed.
Let’s find some joy,