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Prayer Isn't Telling God What to Do

Are you talking at God ... or with Him?

Have you noticed those really long commercials for medicines and drugs that keep finding their way to our televisions? You’ve seen them: hurting and ailing people surrounded by dark clouds and lightning who, after a dose of Fixitall, are perfect happy people running on the beach with their dog on a beautiful sunny day.

(Warning: Fixitall is not recommended for those with genital herpes, diabetes, heart conditions or a clear conscience. Please consult with your doctor before using.)

Glued to the TV, we are left believing all of this is possible if we ask our doctor about this or that. If only you had this or that pill, you’d be this happy. It wouldn’t work if the pictures of the people in the commercial were all depressed, alone or crying, would it? You can’t sell over-the-counter drugs with pictures of people not fixed by them.

Unless you’re Christianity. Christianity markets a method of talking to God that doesn’t solve all their problems. This form of talking and listening (we call it prayer) often creates more problems than it solves.

But it works. To build muscles, people lift weights. To grow trust, Christians pray. Nothing else builds trust quite like facing all of your ongoing problems and unsolved struggles by getting down on your knees and not trying to fix them the way you would your gutters or broken refrigerators. In this way, prayer is trust in the form of silence and contemplation and honesty.

What kind of questions are you asking?

The idea of prayer in the Bible is perhaps way different than the other religious traditions. It says that when we don’t know what to pray for, God actually prays on our behalf. What other faith buys into the idea that God prays for them and listens to Himself? I think it’s a stellar and profound idea. Now, this also assumes Christians are the sort of people who don’t have fabulously eloquent prayers. This is the sort of movement for those whose prayers are wildly boring. Maybe in other people’s religions, if their prayers aren’t good enough, the gods won’t hear them. In this movement, the Jesus one, God spots those who don’t have the strength to lift up good enough prayers.

When I was in college, I picked up this little book about how to have good body posture when you talk to others. I think the title was something like Body Posture in One Minute. For a book on interpersonal communication, it was a horribly written book. But it taught me almost everything I know about prayer. The book talked about when you talk to people and meet them for the first time, most of us start our conversations with closed-ended questions that don’t spark conversation, like, “Are you good?” “Do you have a job?” “Are you going to school?” The book said the best way to be good at the art of conversation is to ask more open-ended questions. It will always spark better conversation. Open-ended questions require the other person to talk more about themselves, giving them space to be vulnerable, honest and real. And most of the questions that do that begin with the words how, why and where.

Sometimes when I pray, I feel like God is not speaking to me. I should say, most of the time. But when I read that book, it became clear to me. When I pray, I only ask God closed-ended questions. “God, can you provide for me this month?” “God, give me patience.” “God, I need forgiveness.” When I read that really bad book on conversation, everything started changing.

Now I have experienced that when I open up and ask God open-ended questions, it gives God much more of an opportunity to talk. “God, why am I so worried about my savings account?” “God, where are you?” “God, how are you going to forgive me?” If the Bible is right about something, God has more words than yes or no. He has a fully formed dictionary and can talk. We talk to God as though he knows only two words. Ask God bigger questions, and you will find bigger conversation a reality.

You are not the third Adam

The kind of conversation we are speaking of began in Eden. To be sure, it’s almost certain that God didn’t invent the garden because He needed more vegetables. He invented the garden and put Adam and Eve in it because He wanted someone to walk around with and talk about vegetables. “God, how did you invent carrots?” “How’d you pull that whole sunset thing off, God?” The garden is about friendship, not farming. God could have simply invented a carrot if He was hungry. God’s invention of the garden was simultaneously the invention of prayer. Prayer, I guess, is a result of eating the fruit in Eden, isn’t it?

Before that, prayer consisted of nothing more than coming out of your tent right by the avocado trees and walking up to God by the river and saying, “Hey, wanna go swimming?” I think that was the sort of thing God was after when He started the world. Afternoons with Eve and Adam. Just being together in the river by Eden. Soon, though, eating the fruit forced their modes of conversation to change. It went from face-to-face to eyes-closed-for-a-minute, ending with an amen and “in Jesus’ name,” like a married couple deciding to relate only by tweeting each other through the day. What a sad replacement.

From walking with God in Eden to formulaic statements ... But while the Bible says that the first Adam led us all into sin, the Bible also says that a second Adam came who would redeem everything. His name was Jesus. Jesus came to redeem and turn around all the ridiculousness that the first Adam created. It is implied in the Bible that the second Adam got done everything that needed to be done. No one else could do what He did. Prayer is practicing the realization that you are not the third Adam. Someone else already got the stuff done that needs to get done.

Prayer just keeps the book open.

Excerpted from Messy: God Likes It That Way, by A.J. Swoboda, published by Kregel Publications (2012).

16 Comments

85,086

Anonymous commented…

Interesting. I can totally see this transforming the way I pray in private, subtly but substantively. But it would feel weird to pray this way in a group setting - it is so ingrained in me that group prayer is for asking for things - wisdom, guidance, grace, answers, direction, etc. - it would feel weird to ask open-ended questions to God on behalf of a group. Wouldn't it?

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Tenndad60 commented…

John 5:17 changed my understanding of prayer. Jesus said: " My father is working until now and I am working." God is able to accomplish all his holy will the catechism tells us. He is at work all around us; all the time. When I pray I seek to gain a clearer understanding of what he is up to ( as much as my limited understanding permits). He is Spirit. I am not. He has an eternal perspective. I do not. In my prayers I seek to "row with the current" of His will not against it. God is going to do what His eternal decrees have ordained. When and how remains to be revealed and is in some unfathomable way involves my free choices.

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Indigo Child commented…

So, at a drive thru window, you speak (thought) sideways into a little microphone (man-made) and expect to get a burger and fries (man-made)? Yet, when a spiritual being (human) prays (thought) to a magnificent creation (sky) which was created by the most spiritual and amazing thing in all of universes (God), there should not be some sort of expectation? Ignorance is deadly.

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Melissakircher83 commented…

Lovely. This is what I enjoyed about the book "The Shack". It made the experience of God as a triune personality, something I could imagine as tangible. I could imagine gardening with the Holy Spirit, walking on water with Jesus and baking with God. I think the hard part is that deep down we all long for this kind of relationship with God, but it's very hard for it to feel real when we can see who we're talking to or hear an audible voice back. I'm not saying God does not speak, I clearly can distinguish his voice from my own thoughts. And I am responsible for praying the way that you suggest. It's just that in the muck and mire of every day life and pain, my humaness cries out for a God that can give me a hug I can feel. That can brush the hair off my face and ask me to go for a walk and spend some time together.

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Melissakircher83 commented…

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