Prayer is such a diverse topic that whenever you try to pin it down in ‘prayer is’ statements, you will always, invariably, miss some of it’s subtlety and nuance. So for the point of clarity, the element of prayer I choose to cover in this blog post is just that – one of, what I believe to be, the essential elements to prayer.
This quote from Eugene Peterson’s ‘Eat this book’ sets the scene for us well:
“Some of us are taught to think that reading the Bible means sitting in God’s classroom and that prayer is politely raising our hand when we have a question about what he is teaching us in his Deuteronomy lecture. The Psalms, our prayer text within the biblical text, shows us something quite different: prayer is engaging God, an engaging that is seldom accomplished by a murmured greeting and a conventional handshake. The engagement, at least in it’s initial stages, is more like a quarrel than a greeting, more like a wrestling match than a warm embrace.”
Prayer is meant to be intimate. This intimacy, by extension, is meant to show itself in authenticity, of both words and feelings. Thus, both the how we pray –language, tone and emotion – and what we pray about – authentic experience, feelings and thoughts – are vital.
Disturbing, isn’t it? And yet, this is exactly the kind of language we find operative in the Hebrew Psalms. This language is provocative, yet it is genuine; it is angry, yet transparent. You see, prayer is messy – because we are often messy.
If our prayers are delivered in sterile ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ language the question remains, are we really showing up in this encounter?
Prayer is a primal experience, it comes from the gut. It is this kind of language that we are looking for here:
“What are you doing to me?”
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that”
“What about him? He’s better off than me!”
“Please kill them all for what they’ve done to me!”
If you read through the Psalms, as if they were all written from the perspective of one author, you would be forgiven for thinking that the author has deep psychological problems. The Psalms fluctuate from rage to sadness to triumph to despair to silence – the length and breadth of human emotion. What person speaks like this? If you had a friend like this you would likely disown them. So volatile, so insecure. Wave upon wave of feelings, blown by the wind of their passions as they vent and introduce you to the depths of their person. Again I ask, what person speaks like this? Well, there are people that behave like this. Temper tantrums one second, “I love you’s” the next.
We call them children.
Little children haven’t yet learned the ‘social graces’ by which we learn to suppress the depth of our feelings, and the depth of our hurts. They haven’t yet acquired that particular ‘adult skill’ of hiding behind a fig leaf (Genesis 3:7) and presenting a socially acceptable person to the world. What a wonderful gift – to not yet be susceptible to the socially accepted lies of “who I am not”. It reminds me of Jesus’ words in Matthew’s Gospel, “unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. (Matt 18:3. NIV)
The point I am trying to make here is that prayer doesn’t have to be pretty, it just has to be real! Without this authenticity we are liable to have either a very superficial relationship with God, or none at all.
To learn how to pray we must first unlearn some of our misgivings of God. He is not easily angered, nor burdened by our cumbersome exhibition of feeling. He seems to delight in the honest temper tantrum as we expose ourselves to His searching gaze. Our healing is in this light. It will not be found in the darkness of ‘acceptable prayers’.
Prayer is this reality into which we are invited. And so, I invite you this week to throw caution to the wind and speak to God of the genuine, authentic, perhaps messy reality that is contained inside you. Share boldly, wrestle, shout if you need to. God has broad shoulders and will welcome hearing from the ‘real’ you.
Blessings and peace,