Exasperated by my spiritual life, I thought about how little I prayed and felt no desire to do it. How can a spiritual leader suck so badly at prayer? This is a sobering question to ask oneself in ministry. What I didn’t realize at the time, and what no one told me, was that this was an invitation, a prodding, to a kind of prayer that actually felt real. But it didn’t feel like an invitation, so I simply stopped praying and I turned to things I seemed better at.
Have you ever wondered if you were bad at prayer? Have you wondered if others understood something about prayer that you didn’t? Have you ever promised God that you will try harder in prayer, only to discover you really can’t, or won’t? If so, you are in good company.
Some people seem born to pray. They exude delight at the chance to remain in prayer, petition, and praise. For others—for myself—prayer has been a struggle. Prayer has never come easy. If you are at all like me, you are tempted to place conversation with God on the periphery of the Christian life (or we just ignore it and come to believe it is for only those rare few who find it to be more “natural”).
But I could never get away from the fact that I knew I was supposed to pray, and as a Bible student and eventual seminary student, it seemed like I should want to. Sadly, it was only then, confronted with my guilt, that I would once again start praying, only to find that it was still isolating, lonely, and seemingly fruitless. This was my dilemma: prayer was something I knew I should do, but I failed to be honest about how difficult it was. Why? Because it didn’t seem to work like I wanted it to or expected it should. This made it difficult to face the fundamental fissure in my faith: prayer sounded good as an ideal but felt bad and confusing in reality.
I would sometimes fall asleep while “praying” and then feel guilty that I couldn’t stay awake. In response, I spent as much time trying to get my act together as I did asking for forgiveness for being so bad at prayer! If I wasn’t sleeping, my mind was wandering, and, once again, prayer became a time to navigate my guilt. “Why am I so bad at this?” became the question that plagued me. I began to wonder if I just wasn’t cut out for prayer. Maybe I’ll just leave prayer to the experts, I thought. Prayer mirrored all the things I didn’t want to see about myself, so it was easier to focus on things that made me feel like I was growing. As a Bible student, that meant learning Scripture, but it can also be serving, preaching, learning, or giving. Anything that makes us feel like we’re “doing better” at the Christian life can replace prayer, because we rarely leave prayer with the sense that we are killing it.
It wasn’t until seminary that I finally began to see the deeper and more profound problems with my approach to prayer. It was the words of my mentor that struck me deep in my heart. “Prayer is not a place to be good,” he told me, “it’s a place to be honest.” Up until that point, I had spent the bulk of my Christian life trying to be good in prayer. Prayer was a place to stand before God and perform, and I was failing miserably. It was like a dream where you are sitting at a grand piano, ready to play for a sold-out stadium, and only then realizing that you don’t know how to play piano. No one signs up for that. But my problem went beyond not knowing how to pray. I ceased to pray because I thought God wanted me to prove my worth in his presence. That is where prayer goes to die.
To resurrect my prayer life, I needed to understand that Christ and the Spirit have created a place for me to pray in the presence of the Father. They have called me their own, so like Jesus in Gethsemane or the Spirit in my heart, I can pray the truth of who I am to the God who knows, sees, and understands. This is why:
Prayer is not a place to be good, it is a place to be honest.
Prayer is not a place to perform, it is a place to be present.
Prayer is not a place to be right, it is a place to be known.
Prayer is not a place to prove your worth, it is a place to receive worth and offer yourself in truth.
When you come to realize you suck at prayer, the good news is that you are not alone. God even tells you that you suck at prayer! Just read Romans 8:26! Instead of condemning you, God offers an invitation to learn where prayer becomes real.
But what do I do? Let me suggest one simple step. Whatever your struggle is in prayer, pause and be open to the truth, and bring that to God! If you want to stop praying or avoid it, tell God! If you are bored in prayer, bring that to God. If your mind wanders, take what your mind longs for and bring that to God. The key in prayer is that when we’re honest, prayer comes alive. When we name the truth, and begin to pray about the things we really care about (and not merely the things we think we should care about) then we discover that prayer becomes real. Trying harder in prayer won’t get you anywhere. Simply learning a new technique doesn’t reach the deeper struggles of prayer. Take your brokenness, inadequacies, failures, sin, and struggle to God. It is here that we discover God has already been praying for us in these very places (Rom. 8:26-27).