I don’t know if anything in Christian thought and practice is more confusing than prayer. After decades in ministry, I have found that it’s an area where people are the most consistently frustrated, disoriented, and mystified.
One of the biggest problems I’ve found over the years is that we primarily learn how to do it by praying with others. This means that we have a lot of enculturated ideas about how to do prayer. We develop our impressions of the correct prayer posture (head down, eyes closed) and even tone and vocal inflection from the people around us.
When you add these habits onto the questionable teachings many of us receive on prayer, it can create real problems. Here are three areas where you might want to buck the trend in your prayers.
1. Stop hiding how you truly feel
When I compare the way biblical characters talk to God and the way we do, I’m dumbfounded. Throughout Scripture, people were real and raw with God. But that’s not something you’d expect to see at church. And because we seldom hear anguished, resentful, or exasperated prayers, we don’t know how to pray when we’re angry, bitter, and fed up.
At one point, the prophet Jeremiah tells God:
“You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived;
you overpowered me and prevailed.
I am ridiculed all day long;
everyone mocks me.
Whenever I speak, I cry out
proclaiming violence and destruction.
So the word of the Lord has brought me
insult and reproach all day long” (Jeremiah 20:1–7).
Did God deceive Jeremiah? Probably not. But this doesn’t make Jeremiah’s prayer any less meaningful or valuable. The fact that angry prayers like these exist in Scripture should tell us something. Too often, people use prayer to showcase their good theology or Scriptural knowledge, and God just wants us to be real.
If you think about it, roughly 70 percent of the Psalms are laments. How many laments have you heard in church? How many songs of lament have you sung in worship?
Can you imagine wanting to communicate with your children, but instead of being honest about how they’re doing and how they feel, they just keep telling you what they imagine you want to hear? That would sad and exhausting.
2. Quit talking to God with religious jargon
Christians have a lot of insider language that mistakenly passes for real communication. We say bizarre things like “love on,” “gird up,” and “hedge of protection.” And that gobbledygook gets thrown into our prayers. For some, that includes throwing archaic King-James language into our prayers. “I beseech Thee . . .” does not begin a prayer that anyone needs to hear in the twenty-first century.
What happens is that biblical phrases and Christianese expressions get strung together into a sort of prayer Mad Lib that sounds pious but is often meaningless. I don’t know how many time’s I’ve heard the equivalent of, “Lord, your Word says . . .” which isn’t necessarily wrong, but it’s too often a way that people use prayer to impress others with how much Scripture they know. It’s like pretending to make a joke to someone you know when you’re really saying it for the benefit of everyone else in earshot.
Speak from the heart even if it’s simple. And if you’re in a public prayer time, don’t feel like you have to contribute.
3. Abandon non-specific, generalized prayers
One of the curious things about prayer is that it quickly reveals weaknesses in our theology. If you believe that nothing happens that God hasn’t already willed, it’s going to impact the way you pray. Why pray for a specific outcome if we don’t really believe it’s going to make a difference. If it’s good and within God’s will, it’s going to happen anyway—right?
Meanwhile, that’s not the way Scripture talks about prayer. The Bible talks about prayer as if outcomes are legitimately riding on our input. It’s hard to believe that Jesus would ask us to pray that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven if prayer was just an empty formality.
In Mark 9, Jesus returns from the transfiguration to find the majority of the disciples unsuccessfully to cast a demon out of a child. After Jesus casts the demon out, the disciples ask him what the secret was. Jesus’s response was, “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mark 9:29). Think about that a second. This would mean that this child’s freedom was already aligned with God’s will, but it still required some partnership with the prayer.
This seems to line up with the rest of Scripture that portrays God as collaborative and desirous to work alongside human beings that have legitimate agency and authority. Unfortunately, we tend to pick up a habit of praying sort of non-specific, toothless prayers. If you listen to a lot of corporate prayers, you’ll find them to be largely broad and vague.
When we’re going through a rough patch, we often ask people to pray for us without specifying the outcome we’re looking for. Why not ask people to pray in a specific direction? James tells us that prayer is powerful and effective, but it’s hard to believe either is valid if prayer isn’t also focused and determined.