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Are you trying so hard to pray “right” that you are praying wrong?



Meg Hunter-Kilmer - published on 10/23/16

God can work with honest prayers. It’s pious pretense he has trouble getting past.

The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those whose spirit is crushed. –Psalm 34:19

Abba, Father, all things are possible to you. Take this cup away from me, but not what I will but what you will. –Mark 14:36

There’s always something painful to me about listening to people try to pray spontaneously when eloquence seems to be a higher priority than sincerity. Perhaps it’s because I have the same inclination—I ought to make sure I sound good, censoring my language of anything too Catholic if it’s a mixed audience, being sure to frame my prayer in a Trinitarian way. Better still if I can preach while praying: “Lord, remind us that your goodness provides more than all we can ask and imagine.” Bonus points for Bible references.

There are people who pray eloquently, and that’s lovely. The trouble comes when we form our prayer—either spoken or silent—to sound good and not to bring our hearts before the Father.

This, I think, is a temptation most of us who pray. Maybe we’re not looking to sound fancy or poetic, but we want to make sure that we pray right, that we ask for the right things and thank God for the right things.

I can’t tell you how often people ask me if it’s okay to pray for such and such a thing. I just have a hard time believing that there is such a thing as a bad prayer if it’s sincere. Oh, praying for the suffering and destruction of your enemies certainly isn’t ideal, but at least it’s honest. God can work with honest prayers. It’s pious pretense he has trouble getting past. When we spend our prayer congratulating ourselves for our piety like the Pharisee in today’s Gospel reading, we close our hearts to him.

If you’re in doubt, take a look at the agony in the Garden, where the perfect person prayed what seems to be in imperfect prayer. He prayed against the Father’s will, didn’t he?

Not exactly. He told the Father what was in his heart. Then he submitted his heart to the Father.

This is the prayer of a couple open to life that still hopes for a negative pregnancy test. This is the prayer of a sick man longing to live but willing to die. This is the prayer of a high school senior who’s entrusted her future to the Lord. “This is what I want, Lord. But more than that, I want you.”

When you pray this prayer, begging for what you long for but trusting the Father to give you what you need, you may well find the first part of your prayer refused. God loves you too much, after all, to give you everything you want. Prayer won’t always change the situation, but it will change you.

Maybe you’re not ready yet to submit to God. Maybe you can’t ask for his will to be done. Maybe all you can do is stand before your crucified God and rage against him. Maybe your sorrow is too great for any words of trust. Still, that is a good prayer. Because you’re offering him your heart, whether you’re allowing him to heal and transform it or not.

Every honest prayer is a gift of our hearts to God. And in laying our hearts before him, bound by anger or fear or pride as they may be, we’re accomplishing the true purpose of prayer. The reason we pray isn’t to get God to do things; the reason we pray is to get God.

George MacDonald, whose writings were profoundly influential on C.S. Lewis as Lewis became a Christian, put it this way:

“’But if God is so good, and if he knows all that we need, and better far than we do ourselves, why should it be necessary to ask him for anything?’ I answer, What if he knows prayer to be the thing we need first and most? What if the main object in God’s idea of prayer be the supplying of our great, our endless need—the need of himself? What if the good of all our smaller and lower needs lies in this, that they help to drive us to God? Hunger may drive the runaway child home, and he may or may not be fed at once, but he needs his mother more than his dinner. Communion with God is the one need of the soul beyond all other need; prayer is the beginning of that communion, and need is the motive of that prayer.”

What we need is not answered prayers. What we need is for God to be close to our broken hearts. What we need is for God to save us whose spirits are crushed. And while he longs to accompany all who suffer, we hold him at bay when we refuse to honor him with our sincere prayers.

So give him your heart, bitter and vengeful as it may be. Even if you can’t get “not my will but yours” out. He doesn’t want to hear empty, pious poetry; he wants you. Do him the honor of being honest in prayer and see if he doesn’t start to move more than you thought possible.


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