Lessons from a Prayer Prodigal

By Jennifer Durrett
In Formed
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I am not a prayer warrior.

Am I allowed to say that? I really struggle with prayer and deeply admire people who don’t. If prayer is one of your spiritual gifts, consider my lack-of-giftedness officially on your prayer list.

My biggest problem isn’t that I’m uncomfortable praying out loud, or that I get too busy and forget to pray (although that does happen); it’s that I simply don’t understand it. I have too many unanswered questions about prayer. Is it possible for a prayer to change God’s mind? Since God exists outside of time, can I pray for something after it’s happened? Is there even any point to praying anything other than “God’s will be done”? My struggle to grasp prayer is a pretty big problem and frankly one I’m embarrassed to admit considering I’ve had the better part of 35 years to fix it. And that I currently work at a church.

In addition to finding prayer confusing, I sometimes simultaneously find it… boring. I know, this is terrible. And hard to say out loud. As a chronic “doer,” prayer is often the last thing I find myself prioritizing. It’s what I do at the end of the day, after I’ve knocked all the real stuff off my to-do list. Or it’s how I care for a hurting friend after I’ve sent a card and a meal and told them I’m praying for them. Somewhere along the way, as I learned that it was noble and good to make prayer a regular part of my day, I think I also got the message that prayer was… regular.

I have a pretty standard southern background, which means I grew up deeply involved in church. My faith is woven throughout my life in such a way that I’m usually at a loss when people ask for my salvation story. Some really great people taught me about a really great Jesus when I was little, and the rest is history. And while knowing God at a young age is an incredible gift I don’t take lightly, sometimes I feel like having an upbringing baked in Christian tradition can be a bit of a disadvantage. Hearing about something enough can make it seem ordinary. I’ve wondered lately if this is part of my struggle with prayer. As a believer with years of church under my belt, it’s easy for me to pray out of a sense of duty rather than wonder. There’s danger in approaching anything like we’ve got it all figured out, and prayer is no different.

Despite all this, I continue to pray. But because all this, I often hit stages of life where my view of prayer seems particularly fuzzy or stagnant or disconnected. When this happens, it helps me to come back to the things I’ve found to be true about prayer. These are the things I want to share with you today, in hopes that you may find a bit of clarity to cling to when your view of prayer seems filled with uncertainties.

Prayer orients us.

When prayer is feeling particularly elusive, this is the first thing I bring myself back to. Regardless of what follows, the initial act of praying is a posturing of the self towards God. It’s the act of quieting the other voices in our lives and creating space for the only voice that really matters. In his book Prayer, Philip Yancey refers to it as “corrective vision.” By shifting our focus from the minutiae of our own daily lives to the vastness of the Creator of life, we can see both more accurately. And if that is the ONLY thing prayer ever accomplishes, what a beautiful gift it is.

Prayer doesn’t have a formula.

There isn’t one right way to pray. Thank God for that, right? Prayer will look different from person to person, and even across the seasons of our lives. Prayer can happen in the morning, at night, and any moment in between. It can be a song or silence. A battle cry or a cry for help. Prayer can be full of joy, anger, lament, gratitude, confusion – whatever we have inside of us is fit to bring before God in prayer. When we can’t muster up our own words, we can even use the words of the Bible or words of others through written prayers. While I used to feel like using written prayers was a little like cheating, I’ve grown to see what a lovely gift the prayers of others can be. When we don’t have the clarity or energy to pray, the words of others can fill in, and even help shape and stretch our own understanding of God and prayer.

Prayer is a little big magic.

Sometimes when I’m explaining God or heaven or prayer to my four-year-old daughter, I use the word magic. I felt a little uncomfortable the first time I did this; like someone might appear to confiscate my Christian parent card (and my Harry Potter books). It’s hard to admit that not everything about my faith is black and white, especially to a preschooler. And while I’m always careful to explain that it’s a different kind of magic than what we might read about in story books or see on TV, I’ve become more and more comfortable with this explanation. Because so many things about God are pretty magical, aren’t they? Our brains will never be fully able to understand the majesties and intricacies of God and His workings in our lives. The fact that we have a direct line of communication to God SHOULD be impossible for us to comprehend. The “magicalness” of prayer makes it more approachable, not less, because it means we don’t have to know why we’re praying or how to pray or what the whole point is anyway. All we need to know is that God will stand in the gaps for us. Which leads me to my next point.

Prayer is an act of faith.

No one has prayer all figured out, and anyone who says they do is crazy. But at the end of the day, we as believers are told to pray. We also know that Jesus himself prayed. And sometimes, as psychologist and philosopher William James said so well, “the reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.” We pray because God created us to do so. Our bodies, our minds, and our voices yearn to connect intimately with God. Sometimes we can get in our own way, but if we step out in faith and do it anyway – God promises to meet us there.

FORMED

God is calling us, the people of Irving Bible Church, to become a multi-ethnic movement of missionary disciples, formed in the way of Jesus for the sake of the world.

We want to be a transformed people who experience vibrant spiritual growth together. We want the Spirit of God to shape us more and more into the likeness of Jesus as we follow him.

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