“Be not forgetful of prayer. Every time you pray, if your prayer is sincere, there will be new feeling and new meaning in it, which will give you fresh courage, and you will understand that prayer is an education.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky
I keep bumping into people these days who are suffering. Or at least, for some reason, our conversations seem to turn to this subject. Probably because I’m not doing a good job of hiding my grief. I’m working on it.
“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” ―
The truth is that we are all going to experience times of suffering. Even very religious people. Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton has a quote in his book Half-Truths that makes a lot of sense:
- Suffering is not God’s desire for us, but it occurs in the process of life.
- Suffering is not given to teach us something, but through it we may learn.
- Suffering is not given to punish us, but sometimes it is the consequence of our sin or poor judgement.
- Suffering does not occur because our faith is weak, but through it our faith may be strengthened.
- God does not depend upon human suffering to achieve his purposes, but sometimes through suffering his purposes are achieved.
- Suffering can either destroy us or it can add meaning to our life.
This helps me as I frame my own experiences and try to help others with their own hard road.
“It is of great importance, when we begin to practise prayer, not to let ourselves be frightened by our own thoughts.” ―
When on the topic of suffering it always leads to more conversations about praying. American Christianity has too often reduced praying into something small and practical, like a pocket knife. You only use it every now and then and after a while you even come to forget it’s even there in your pocket.
Praying gets reduced to something that’s too small when we only think of it as a means to get our problems solved. Maybe it’s not a pocket knife but a fire extinguisher? Here’s a third metaphor I often use for prayer, a drive up fast food window. When we pray, we place our order, do our duty (pay at the first window), and expect results at the second window. Sounds very transactional, very practical. I’m not sure that’s really the point of praying.
Why do think God wants us to talk with him?
We studied religion in one of my classes this past summer. Sociologist Christian Smith has formulated a definition that fits all religion:
Humans are religious because they hope for superhuman powers to help them realize human goods and avoid bads, especially to grant them blessings, prevent misfortunes and aid them in crises; and because they wish to enjoy the various forms of identity, community, meaning, expression, aesthetics, ecstasy, control and legitimacy that practicing religions offer.
What I think sets Christianity apart from religion is that its central focus is about a relationship between God and humankind. Certainly all the other elements of Smith’s definition are a part of Christianity, but the relationship seems essential. The story of Adam and Eve paints us a picture of this first relationship. Of course at this point they’ve been eating on an apple…
When the cool evening breezes were blowing, the man and his wife heard the Lord God walking about in the garden. So they hid from the Lord God among the trees. Then the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:8-9)
Could it be that at the heart of our prayers is an answer to that very question? Is God desiring to walk with you and asking “where are you right now?”
I think we pray mostly out of our broken experience. If we will keep on praying, just like working on any relationship, we will build something, something essential. There is much that praying can accomplish. Here are just a few examples:
- Praying can help you turn loose of problems. When you pray and share them with God, you are no longer the only one to carry each one. As you talk through what’s heavy on your heart, you will notice that each problem seems to loosen and even grow more distant.
“One way to get high blood pressure is to go mountain climbing over molehills.” ―
- Praying can remind you of God’s eternal presence. He doesn’t go to sleep or ignore you to tend to other business. The conversation that is prayer can start and stop at any time. He is present during all of your feelings as well. Your mood is not going to chase him away.
“Praying and sinning will never live together in the same heart. Prayer will consume sin, or sin will choke prayer.” ―
- Praying can help you to care and love others more. Remember, your own problems begin to fade as you pray, you then have room to attend to others. When you pray you can be strengthened and encouraged to help with the burdens of others. You can even be used by God as an answer to prayers.
- Praying enables you to process what’s happening right now and in the past. Don’t keep it all bottled up inside. Talk it out with God. Let your feelings and frustrations even your fears flow out in a stream of conversation with God. Believe that you are being heard. Believe that God desires to get involved in your life, right now. That includes all the baggage you’ve been hauling around.
- Praying helps you to grow up in your perspective. It really isn’t all about you. But sometimes, when everything is crashing in, it can seem like it. Praying, over time, can help to remind you of the long road you’ve already marched on. This long view will enable you to keep life in perspective, to remind you that this world is not your home and that what’s eternal is what really matters.
“Praying demands that you take to the road again and again, leaving your house and looking forward to a new land for yourself and your [fellow human]. This is why praying demands poverty, that is, the readiness to live a life in which you have nothing to lose so that you always begin afresh.” ―
- Praying, over time, builds a long term relationship with God. Any relationship that matters takes time. You know this. How are you supposed to hear back from God in this sort of relationship? Listen to the Holy Spirit that resides in all believers. Read your Bible all the way, all the time. Open your eyes to signs and wonders that might be happening under your nose.
- This one is important. You don’t have to be religious to pray. You don’t have to be in a church, have all your sins confessed, be in total agreement with God or quit all your nasty habits first. Praying can happen right this second no matter who, what, where or how you are. God is already listening.
My favorite lesson about this truth is when Jesus is having a break the rules conversation with a Samaritan woman at the water well. She is not at all on the right track in her life but the Son of God is right there in front of her offering her more than she knows she wants… Jesus replied, “If you only knew the gift God has for you and who you are speaking to, you would ask me, and I would give you living water.” (John 4:10)
“Pray the largest prayers. You cannot think a prayer so large that God, in answering it, will not wish you had made it larger. Pray not for crutches but for wings.” ―