Prayer can be scary. Who wants to talk to God, only to leave with the nagging feeling that no one was listening? Isn’t talking without someone else responding one of the signs you’re dealing with a crazy person?
Prayer can be intimidating. When the girl sitting next to you has a spiritual vocabulary to earn a 1600 on the PSAT (Prayer-SAT!), it’s just not safe to open your mouth. Didn’t Mark Twain once say it’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear ignorant than to open your mouth and remove all doubt?
Prayer can be confusing. What are you supposed to say? Is a short prayer better, or a longer one? Is it better to write your prayers down, or to speak them off the top of your head? What’s the right way to pray: speaking out loud, under your breath, or even in your head? Is it OK to pray prayers that are not found in the Bible, or must we just read back Bible prayers back to God? Is the Lord’s Prayer a model for prayer, a prescribed prayer, or both? When to pray: in the morning, during the day, at night, in bed, in the car, at church? Is body posture important: standing, kneeling, lying prostrate, hands up, hands folded, eyes open or closed? Which is better: private or corporate prayers? Is it OK to come to God with your doubts, fears, things that make your angry? Or are such prayers “not of faith” and therefore not appropriate? If you don’t tack-on “in Jesus’ name” at the end, is that like a letter without postage?
Prayer can be heartbreaking. Will you be able to cope if God delays answering you, or if his answer is No, or Not yet? Does God care when your loved ones die, despite your prayers? Does God love you when your friends refuse to believe in Jesus, despite your prayers? Does God really think it best for you to be holy if not happy, despite your pain?
Prayer can be down-right dangerous. Will you lose your faith in God if he doesn’t answer you? Will others lose their faith? Will the unbelieving world mock believers who pray seemingly futile prayers to a God who seems hidden? Will history be altered for the worse if God actually does grant my ignorant prayers?
To quote a Billy Joel song, “Mama, if that’s movin’ up then I’m movin’ out!” No wonder so few Christians today confidently pray in faith, especially in America. The stakes seem too high and the reward too uncertain. Who would buy a lottery ticket for $100? That’s what many see on prayer’s price tag. It’s just not worth it, and I can live without it—like everyone else. Is there a way forward?
Paul Miller, author, teacher, co-founder of Serge, and Executive Director of seeJesus, understands you because he thinks like you. He has been there, wrestled with the same questions, and come out the other side a praying man. His book, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, is medicine for the soul hungry for prayer to be meaningful but without the roadmap to see the way. The back cover reads:
Let’s face it, prayer is hard! In fact, prayer is so hard that most of us simply do not pray unless an illness or a public setting such as saying grace at a meal, demands it. Prayerlessness is rooted in a core unbelief that can shape our lives, even as Christians. Because of prayerlessness, our lives are often marked by fear, anxiety, joylessness, and spiritual lethargy. If prayerlessness marks your life more often than not, then this book is for you. Basing the text on the popular A Praying Life seminar, which has encouraged thousands of Christians to a vibrant prayer life, Paul Miller writes to the heart of the matter. This is, indeed, the book for any Christian who wants to know the joy and power of a vibrant prayer life.
While I’ve considered many of the questions and objections asked above at some point in my life, I had resolved most of them with the right answers. But I still wasn’t praying the way that I hoped I would be by now. “Why is that?” I asked myself. “If I believe that God hears and answers prayers, and that he loves to give good gifts to his children, and that he always works everything out for the good of his children according to his good pleasure—if I believe all that, why am I not praying more?” What I found is that Miller not only reinforced the biblical answers I already knew, he gave me an intimate picture of his life that encouraged me. I discovered that a praying life is attainable, not spiritually weird, joyful, and faith-building as God acts.
They say that good preaching is “both taught and caught.” A Praying Life seeks to do both for the discipline of prayer. As for me, I “caught” a praying life while I read the book, and have found my prayer life (super-) naturally sustained even after reading it. That’s the beauty of learning to pray from a good teacher who lives his subject matter.
Miller organizes his book in five Parts. In Part 1, the main lesson is that we learn to pray like a child. Adults make prayer harder than it should be because they don’t think like children anymore. Grown-ups don’t tend to see the value of reverting to a child-like mindset for anything. Prayer is no exception. But Miller shows that the Bible calls us to approach God in prayer as a child. Not just positionally, but emotionally as well. We need to become like a little child. We need to learn to talk with God like he is our Father (because he is!). We need to spend time with our Heavenly Father so we will understand the value of such time spent. We must learn to be helpless in the same kinds of ways that little children are helpless. We need to approach God as our Daddy-God (“Abba”) and do so all the time. We need to bend our hearts to the Father.
In Part 2, the lesson is that we learn to trust again. Miller argues that cynicism is the spirit of the age, and Christian are not immune to this great sin. Cynicism is antithetical to faith. We need to understand cynicism so we recognize how it shapes our attitude toward prayer. We need to learn the way out of the poison of cynicism, which is following Jesus. We need to “develop an eye” for Jesus—in other words, we need to begin to see where Jesus is at work in the world shaping his disciples into his beautiful image, through the lenses of creation, fall, redemption, and recreation, and worked out through confession of sin, repentance and faith. Here is Paul Miller talking about cynicism and prayer:
The focus of Part 3 is that we learn to ask God our Father. In these chapters Miller discusses why asking God is so hard. In today’s modern world, we tend to divide the world into feelings (“true for me”) and facts (“true for all”). Prayer gets categorized as a feeling, and then it feels phony to us, not connected to the factual world. So we cynically sweep it under the rug of our lives. But this view of the world is rooted in Enlightenment philosophy and breaks down under the postmodern critique. Secularism is an unstable worldview because of this feeling-fact false dichotomy. The biblical worldview, that all things are real and thus under the domain of God’s truth, is consistent and corresponds to reality. After addressing conceptual worldview thinking, Mill then walks us through a few petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, showing us what they mean, and challenging us to believe Jesus’ extravagant promise about prayer. We don’t ask for our daily bread. We don’t ask for God’s kingdom to come. We don’t surrender completely by praying for God’s will be done. We don’t realize how personal God really is, and why it is that we can ask him. He has saved for his good pleasure and adopted us into his family. He loves to provide for his children!
Part 4 appeals to the human spirit in all of us that yearns for meaning in our personal stories, and for significance in connection to a great story. A praying life means living in your Father’s story. There is something mysteriously wonderful, Miller writes, in watching a story unfold. We get to experience the Father’s love. We need to understand the pattern of stories as a way to make sense of unanswered prayer. We must get a feel for how God places himself in the Great Story of history. We should beware praying without a story, because such a-contextual prayers can lead to bitterness, selfishness, and despair. We need to value hope, and grab on tight to the hope that the end of the Gospel Story provides. All this should cause us to live in stories that are shaped and connected to the Gospel. We must all live in Gospel Stories.
In the last section of the book, Part 5, Miller offers some practical advice and tools to pursue a praying life. He encourages the use of prayer cards and journals, giving examples how he makes use of these tools to enrich the life of prayer. He talks about listening to God—a topic that is somewhat controversial in the church. (This part left me a little uncomfortable as Miller described the still small voice of God that he occasionally, even frequently claims to hear. Some would call me a cynic, but that sounds like hearing voices or mistaking the voice of a Bible-saturated conscience for the pseudo-audible voice of God. I’m more comfortable with the definition of prayer as our words offered to God, whereas God’s words to us are the Scripture. But other faithful and orthodox Christians disagree, and I respect them.) Miller finishes by reminding us that stories in this world will remain unfinished because all stories are connected to the Great Story, and God is still “writing” that story. The ending has been revealed, but the means to that end are the chapters that God has chosen, by his grace and in his wisdom, to write directing and responding to us. Think about that. It’s an almost incomprehensible idea, that God is using our weaving our stories and prayers into the Great Story. That thought alone should be enough to move us to participate in the life of God through a praying life.
Here is a talk Miller gave about some of the subject matter in A Praying Life: