If you’ve been a Christian for a while, you’ve probably got a grown-up idea of what prayer looks like. You know what we’re talking about—the multitasking type of prayer. Not on your knees by your bed, with your hands folded like a little cherub from a Renaissance painting.
Not holding hands around a dinner table like in the movies. No, you’re too busy for that. It’s 2018 after all. Some days, you can’t be expected to take actual time out of your day to pray. Some days, you’ve got to do it on-the-go.
Many grown-up prayers are like the drive-thru version of praying. A quick, mindless activity to and from work, or while you’re washing dishes, maybe in the shower or while you’re drying your hair. They’re little bursts of prayer in between the main events of life, like a football player pointing to the sky after a touchdown, giving a quick, cursory shout out to God before getting back to the real business of life.
It’s sort of a necessity mandated by the infamous verse in 1 Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.” Clearly, if we’re going to pray without ceasing, we can’t spend the whole day on our knees. This is going to require praying on-the-go. “How hard could it be?” we figure. It’s just praying, after all.
But let’s be honest. It is tough. Though 55 percent of Americans say they pray every day according to Pew Research Center, there’s reason to believe they might struggle with the quality of “prayer time.” Barna found that 42 percent “find it difficult to find time” to pray and read their Bibles regularly.
As a result, oftentimes these pressed-for-time prayers turn into small hiccups of half-finished sentences and staccato ramblings. We say “Dear God,” and then go until we’re distracted by anything at all. In fact, more than 60 percent of Christians told Barna they are easily distracted while trying to spend time with God.
Oftentimes, these prayers become less and less prayers and more the vague feeling that maybe we should pray, which eventually becomes a feeling of shame for not praying more, which eventually just turns into cynicism and apathy.
Pepper is a 29-year-old nutritionist who lives in Kansas City. She has a husband, two sons and a thriving business. She goes to church regularly and loves to serve, but after several years of trying to juggle praying on-the-go while being a working mom, she’s stopped praying altogether. “I think I’m just not a pray-er,” she says. “I’m just not.”
If you’ve been a Christian for any amount of time, you’ve felt like Pepper. Prayer felt like a chore. Then the amount of time you spent not praying started to feel like a weight hanging over your head, and eventually your grand ambitions to pray without ceasing turned into not much praying at all, outside of the quick blessing before lunch.
Surely, there’s a better way out there.
THE BETTER WAY
“The biggest misconception people have about prayer is that it’s talking to God,” says Aaron Niequist, a pastor and the author of the book The Eternal Current, about spiritual practices. This is Niequist’s conviction: The problem isn’t that we’re not praying enough. It’s that we don’t even know what praying is. The reason we exhaust ourselves with prayer and give up in despair is that we’re trying to do something God never asked us to.
“If prayer is telling God stuff, then praying without ceasing is impossible and kind of ridiculous,” Niequist says. “Jesus didn’t even do it. I think I grew up with that same idea that praying without ceasing basically as ‘do quiet time more.’”
So if prayer isn’t just doing quiet time more, and it’s not talking to God, then what is it?
The biggest misconception people have about prayer is that it’s talking to God.
The Jewish philosopher-turned-Catholic nun Edith Stein wrote that “the limitless loving devotion to God, and the gift God makes of Himself to you, are the highest elevation of which the heart is capable; it is the highest degree of prayer. The souls that have reached this point are truly the heart of the Church.”
There’s a back-and-forth implied here that transcends talking to God. “True prayer is neither a mere mental exercise nor a vocal performance,” said the great 19th-century preacher Charles Spurgeon. “It is far deeper than that. It is spiritual transaction with the Creator of Heaven and Earth.”
On the one hand, this takes some of the pressure off. Prayer isn’t the constant, ongoing yammering we’d imagined it might be. That’s good news because, well, that wasn’t working.
But on the other hand, this means that prayer is something different than we imagined.
“When I think of ‘without ceasing,’” says Niequist, referencing the Thessalonians verse, “it’s way more the participating in each moment rather than adding words to a situation. Way more staying aware that I am already immersed in the presence of God.
It’s like having eyes to see what’s already true: God’s already here, God’s already doing stuff. I don’t need to convince God of anything But could I have eyes to see it, and could I be the kind of person that could actually participate with that movement?”
This is a type of prayer that’s transactional, with God and you communicating at a level deeper than spoken language.
The temptation with this is, of course, to substitute a vague feeling of reverence for prayer altogether. You know how it goes. You start thinking about how prayer is just a general feeling of being consistently open to God. It sounds good in theory—it even lines up with some words in this very article—but it doesn’t always work. And that’s because, like with any relationship, an authentic connection with God takes disciplined intentionality.
Niequist compares it to a marriage.
“If I say to [my wife], ‘I don’t ever want to take you out on a date, I don’t ever want to specifically focus on just us, let’s just be around each other,’ that’s not going to work,” he says.
“Yet at the same time, just being around each other is the most meaningful thing, and it’s actually what we do for most of life. But those intimate, focused moments are what deepen those roots and build the connection so we can just be together as we’re driving the boys somewhere, as we’re cleaning up the house or whatever.”
In other words, any marriage or close friendship is going to involve a lot of time spent just hanging around each other, being open to each other, willing to hear what the other has to say and learning the rhythm and movements of each other’s life without necessarily being engaged the entire time. But if that’s all you’ve got, then you’re not really in a relationship. You’re probably just awkward roommates who don’t really click in a meaningful way.
Because these relationships also take work: dates, team-ups, communication and conflict resolution. Those intentional times add meaning and comfort to the unintentional times and vice versa.
“I think that with any spiritual practice, we get out of it the time that we put into it,” says Jana Riess. Riess is the co-author of The Prayer Wheel, a book about medieval prayer practices. “You can’t just wait for the muse to strike you, or a time of desperate need or great joy. It’s just the day-to-day living of life with God. We sit down and we take time to do that, we are equipped to listen better to what the Spirit is trying to say instead of vomiting our guts out.
I hate to make those tired comparisons to exercise, but it is kind of like exercise. In that you get out what you put into it. Even a small amount is very beneficial.”
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.