2 Ways we get prayer “wrong”

Perhaps we think the offer of God to us is too good to be true...

Are we sure that we’re praying right? Me neither.

Let’s consider praying “right” by first looking at praying “wrong.” We get prayer wrong by praying either as an employee or as an orphan.

As an “employee,” we adopt the attitude towards prayer that we might adopt to a job we don’t want—we don’t have to like it, we just have to do it. It’s “just” a job. “Real” life is what we do off-the-job. On-the-job, we show up, and we endure, knowing that it does not matter to anyone whether the job matters to us, as long as we get the job done. Over time, such a job drains us of life, so we turn to addictions to numb ourselves against the pain of spending so much of life at work and having so little life to show for it.

How does such an attitude affect prayer? Well, we don’t like spending time in prayer, but we’re told that if we don’t show up, we’re in trouble. Tedious Masses in ugly churches with lousy music and bad homilies? Doesn’t matter—show up or burn in hell. Reciting long lists of prayers that don’t make sense even if they’re not in Latin? Doesn’t matter—God’s watching and doesn’t like disappointment. God sees everything—there will be an audit, so we’d better comply!

The danger of praying this way is risking becoming like the older brother in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. (Luke 15:11-32) We can become resentful, keeping score and nursing grievances. Surely God wants better for us!

And praying as an “orphan”? Orphans live fearfully for they have nothing and no one. We worry, living in a world we find indifferent or dangerous. Worldly cruelty causes us to believe we’re orphans. But to live and pray as an orphan is to reject Jesus’ revelation of our heavenly Father.

We can see the gift of God rejected when a child is aborted; we might even begin to imagine how the gift of God is spurned when a child intended by God is contracepted. Do we have the moral imagination, humility and courage to countenance the barbaric cruelty inflicted upon God’s heart when we, who have the gifts of life and grace, fail to receive and reciprocate God’s offer of his most intimate love?

Whenever friends tell me they’re expecting a child, I say that a precious gift they can give to their child is to tell him, in words and in deeds, “You are worth my time.” How much more is that true of our relationship to God! Yes, I’m thinking of the smallness of time and heart we offer to God in prayer, but not only that—I’m thinking also how little of time and heart we offer to God moment by moment, breath by breath, none of which we deserve or can earn, as we go about our busy day, doing what we think are vast and urgent things, without a thought for the presence of God.

God constantly hovers about us, eager to offer us all that we truly need, eager to offer the gift of his very self, and we take little or no notice. Instead, we slog through our day as orphans, as practical agnostics if not practical atheists, as if there is no Paternal Providence for us. Perhaps we think the offer of God to us is too good to be true; perhaps we think we don’t deserve it so we shouldn’t seek it; perhaps we’re determined to save ourselves. I don’t know. Each has to puzzle that out for himself. But I do know, because Jesus said so, that he yearns to embrace us, and our scorn of him causes him grief.

We are not orphans! We dishonor our heavenly Father when we live as if we were. We deny our adoption living as if there’s no one to love us or protect us. Someone confident in his father’s love never hesitates to ask for what he needs; a confident heir is glad for another opportunity to receive his father’s love. Jesus taught us that—He lived His whole life that way. We must do the same.

Spiritual maturity is nourished above all by prayer. The work of God is to make us heirs to an eternal kingdom. If we pray as heirs, we can endure the trials of this life, knowing that Christ offers us his victory, and that no person or power in this world can deprive us of the inheritance that he has won for us. As heirs, we may gladly offer God the worship that is his due, for he is worthy, and we are grateful.

When I write next, I will speak of raising our children to be saints. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.


Fr Robert McTeigue, SJ


Father Robert McTeigue, SJ, is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has taught and lectured in North and Central America, Europe and Asia and is known for his classes in both rhetoric and medical ethics.  He has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry and religious formation and now works in seminary education.