A few weeks ago, a friend (a fairly new believer) and I (a life-long, home-grown believer) had a conversation about prayer. How do you pray? What does it look like to pray? Do you always need to pray with your eyes closed and hands folded? Can you pray with your eyes open? What should you say when you pray?
This was a good and challenging conversation for me because, I really hadn’t thought about those questions or about what prayer is in a non-Christianese kind of way.
Well, somewhere in that conversation, the following analogy came to mind, and I have been thinking about it ever since.
What is prayer?
At its core, prayer is a way of communicating with God. As spiritual beings we are able to connect to and communicate with a spiritual God.
As an illustration of what this looks like, the image of children learning how to communicate with their parents came to mind.
Different Kinds of Prayers
Newborn babies communicate. They don’t use word, but they communicate. When they are hungry, they cry. When they are tired, they cry. When they are uncomfortable because they have a wet and poopy diaper or are too cold or too hot, they cry. When they are scared, they cry. When all their needs have been met and they feel safe and secure, they snuggle up in your arms, completely at peace.
Sometimes in our journey with God, the only thing we know how to do is cry out to him when we are scared or hurt or uncomfortable and rest in him when we are at peace. We may not have the right words, or any words. We may be sobbing uncontrollably, and that’s ok. If physical, human parents can accurately assess the needs of their baby without the use of words, how much more is God able to do so with us…
*Romans 8:26 says, “In the same way, the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”
As babies grow older and take on more of the traits of a toddler, they begin to pick up a few words. They imitate what they see and hear. Sometimes, we teach them words and phrases that demonstrate polite and appropriate ways of interacting with us – words like, “Please,” “May I…,” “Thank you,” “Ok, mommy,” and “I’m sorry.”
There are times in our journey when we need scripted prayers. These prayers may take the form of a psalm in the Bible, a song, the Lord’s prayer, or another prayer that has been written out. Why do we need these? Well, like the child who is developing in her communication, we still don’t have many words for what we are feeling or experiencing, and scripted prayers can help us put words to our heart when we don’t know how or for what to pray. Also like a child, we may need to learn to imitate first, and then branch out into making the prayer our own later.
In Matthew 6:9, Jesus gave his disciples a scripted prayer. “Pray then, in this way,” he says. What follows is what many of us have come to know as, The Lord’s Prayer. Was Jesus telling them they must always pray those exact words? Personally, I don’t think so. Rather, I believe that, like a child who learns first by imitation, the Lord’s Prayer stands as a model for us to learn from before branching off into the prayers of our heart.
The older a child gets, the more his communication with us progresses from simply letting us know when he needs something to letting us know when he is enjoying our presence. He may say things like, “I love you!” and “Will you play with me?” When he does things he knows he shouldn’t do, he may come to us and tell us he is sorry. My five-year-old prefaces her “prayer of confession” to me with, “Mom, well, yesterday, I kind of … (insert behavior she thinks she should not have done).
Likewise, our communication and relationship with God doesn’t have to remain at the “I need something from you” stage but can develop into a genuine joy of simply being in his presence. We enjoy being with him and we delight in telling him so. Some people refer to this type of communication as prayers of adoration. We may also feel the need to tell God about how we messed up – prayers of confession.
My five-year old daughter is quite the chatterbox. She loves telling me the stories that are going on inside her head, the things she did during the day, and any stories of what someone else did or things that happened to them. It doesn’t even matter if I know what happened during the day, she will tell me anyway because she enjoys talking to me and being with me.
Sometimes, I think we have this idea that all of our prayers need to be deep spiritual conversations, but I wonder if sometimes, God just likes to sit back and listen to our chatter. It may not make any sense, and sure, he definitely knows everything that has happened, but I like to think he enjoys listening to us because he enjoys being with us.
A common thread throughout each of the above examples is the fact that we don’t always know what to pray, and scripture seems to indicate that it is ok not to; that it is normal even.
Romans 8:27 says, “He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
It seems then, that what is most important to God is not the words that we say, but rather the state of our heart. What is the state of our heart when we are communicating with him?
As far as kneeling to pray or praying with our eyes closed, I love the response Anne of Green Gables gives when she is first learning how to pray.
“Why must people kneel down to pray?” she says. “If I really wanted to pray, I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or in the deep, deep woods and I’d look up into the sky – up – up – up – into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.”
Now, I truly believe there are times when kneeling enable us to express the humbleness we feel in being able to connect to so great a God. At other times, kneeling isn’t practical or, in that moment, doesn’t express the prayer of our heart. Similarly, there are times when closing our eyes to pray enables us to shut out the distractions around us and focus – enables us to get some alone-time with God. And there are times when it is more practical and beneficial to pray with our eyes open. Most of us have responsibilities throughout the day that require our eyes to be open. There is also the problem that sometimes, closing our eyes to pray would result in us falling asleep when we shouldn’t be sleeping.
I don’t believe that when Paul beseeches us to “pray at all times in the Spirit [Ephesians 6:18]” and to “pray without ceasing [I Thessalonians 5:17]” that he means we are to walk around with our eyes closed and hands folded, or that we are to be kneeling in prayer at all times. Rather, it seems to me that the idea of praying at all times has more to do with the idea of going through our days with an awareness and acknowledgement of God’s presence and a desire to be connected to him at all times. We know He is with us and we delight in talking to him with as much joy as we take in talking to our favorite person.
These days, most of my prayers take place as I go throughout my day. I take time to connect to God as I write, rejoice in the beauty and peace of the morning he has given, ask for strength and focus as my mind turns to the tasks of the day, thank him for the wonderful husband and beautiful girls he has given me, beg for wisdom and patience in guiding my children…
It is a great joy and honor to be able to come before the Creator of the Universe with the same kind of familiarity, love, and trust with which a small child approaches her loving parents. If we, as imperfect parents, can have so great a love for our children, how much more does our Father in Heaven love us and desire our presence before him. How much more does he love to communicate with us – to see our hearts and hear our words.
*All verses taken from the NASB