I have always been a little jealous, but at the same time impressed, with folks who give a lot of time and effort toward praying. I am especially impressed by those who, without any hesitation, put so much faith in the act of prayer. These “prayer warriors” model for the rest of us a relentless belief that God hears our prayers and that God answers our prayers. Indeed, these folks will not only offer continual prayers for life’s challenges, they will see the outcome of those challenges directly related to their prayers.
But I have always struggled with prayer. I know how to pray; at least when it comes to the correct structure, the right language, and the exact tone of the voice. But these are merely surface issues that do not reveal what happens in my mind and heart when I am praying. I struggle to have any sense of assurance that God actually hears my prayers. I guess I am very much like the proverbial person who says that when he prays it feels as if his prayers are not even reaching the ceiling.
It is not for a lack of trying. In fact, at some points during each day I will stop and pray. More often these are short periods when I have moments to myself, but they can also be more extended sessions of prayer when something heavy is weighing on my mind. So, I do consider myself as giving an effort toward the activity of prayer.
But I still have this problem of not really feeling, as do some, as if my prayers really matter that much, either to me or to the people for whom I pray. This is probably the reason why I rarely tell folks that I will pray for them. I am certainly not one of those who when someone requests prayer on facebook, others will post the comment “praying” as if something magical is about to happen by my praying.
For one reason, I am not sure I will remember to pray for them. For another, I’m sort of doubtful that my prayers will do them any good. I am often tempted to say to those who ask me to pray for them, “I don’t think you want me to pray for you. You might be better off asking someone else.”
I don’t mean to be flippant, or cold, or faithless by thinking such thoughts about prayer and my own effectiveness or ineffectiveness at prayer, but this is the reality that I have faced for years in my own Christian journey. I am often unsure how to pray, and I am very often unsure as to whether or not God hears my prayers, and as to whether or not my prayers are that effective.
Perhaps many other folks struggle with prayer, at least at some point in their life. And, if we do struggle with prayer, we may need to be honest with ourselves that this is not only natural, but normative. Admitting this may actually be the first step to moving toward a more authentic prayer life.
But, why, if scripture commands us to pray, do we struggle with prayer?
The obvious answer to this question is that we are human, and prayer, at least as we understand it, does not mesh with our normal way of living as humans. This may be particularly true because we rely so much on science and technology to provide answers to life’s big questions and life’s big struggles.
The problem is also compounded by the fact that in our normal ways of living, interacting, and conversing with other beings, we experience their presence through one or more of our senses. We can see them, hear them, and touch them. There is in most cases a two way conversation, and at least most of the time we are pretty sure that the person with whom we are speaking hears us.
But this does not happen with God. We cannot see God, nor touch God, and although many people claim to have heard God, most of us have not heard the voice of God, at least in ways we hear the voices of others. Our nature as finite human beings who interact with other human beings through verbal and non-verbal communication hinders us from interacting in this way with an infinite being such as God.
I also think we struggle with prayer because we do not know for what we should pray. Of course, there are needs that we and others have, some of which are so great that we cannot help but pray. But even in these situations we really do not know how to pray, and we struggle with the words we should be expressing to God.
The problem here is that the tragic situations that we and our loved ones encounter are periods in which life seems to spin out of control. These times of suffering bring to the surface our doubts about life with God. We move from periods in our life when things are going well, to periods when it seems that our world is crashing in on us.
In these moments of disorientation we really do not know how to pray. May be this is why the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans that in these times when we do not know how to pray, the spirit of God intercedes for us with sighs that are too deep for words.
What Paul is telling us is that the spirit intercedes for us because the spirit knows us and knows our life situations better than we do. The spirit is in tune with what is the heart of God for us and for our world. And, at the heart of God is the love of God that Paul so beautifully describes as never being separated from us. This means that no matter what we encounter in life, God is always on our side, even if we do not realize that God is there or that God hears our prayers.
But there is also something very important we should understand about prayer that we often do not consider. Prayer is not really about us.
Our prayers, whether we feel they are reaching God or not, have nothing to do with who we are, but have everything to do with who God is. In prayer, we are not saying to God that we are worthy of our requests. Rather, we are saying to God that we are helpless without the God who loves us and who has promised us hope and joy.
In this regard, prayer is not about what I want and need for my life; it is about where God is leading me in my life. I may struggle to believe that God hears my prayers or that God will answer my prayers, but the hope that all of us have is that God is with us, loving us, and moving us to places where God desires to use us, even if we do not understand.