I’m terrible at prayer. Because I am a pastor and the writer of a discipleship blog, I have to explain. We all have our heroes of the faith. We all have people we look up to and wish we could be more like. I wish I could save souls like Billy Graham. I wish I could serve the needy like Mother Theresa. I wish I could build a massive congregation like Adam Hamilton, Rick Warren, or Andy Stanley. I wish I could pray like John Wesley and George Muller. Wesley rose every day at four in the morning so he had enough time to pray for several hours. Muller ran an orphanage in England with no funding other than what God provided in answer to prayer. There is a famous story of a morning when there was no food in the house and fifty children to feed at breakfast. They set the table then sat down to pray, thanking God for providing the meal. While they were praying there came a knock at the door. It was a local baker who felt a leading by God to bring bread. Shortly after, a man from the local dairy came to the door. His milk wagon had broken down nearby and the milk would spoil before the wagon was repaired and the milk taken to market, so he thought it best to allow the children to drink the several large milk cans full for breakfast.
Compared to that, I’m terrible at prayer. I would be too chicken to lead hungry children in thanks for breakfast when the table was empty! Yet, God showed up. That takes a lot of faith. I have faith, but I would shrink away from doing what George Muller did because it feels like I am putting God to the test, demanding a miracle, and setting the kids up for disappointment. Here are some other reasons I’m terrible at prayer:
I’m not as regimented as John Wesley. I pray, but I try to fit prayer into my life rather than living my life around prayer. Wesley’s early morning prayer hours were non-negotiable. They came first. Instead of being too busy to pray, he knew he was too busy NOT to pray! Bill Hybels wrote a book about that!
My mind wanders. I often start out well, but as I sit in silence, my mind starts to wander. I feel guilty about that sometimes because I’m talking to God. Have you ever felt your mind drifting away somewhere else when talking to your grandmother at the nursing home? How about when talking to your spouse or your boss? It is not only inconsiderate, it can get you into trouble. I pray because I want to draw closer to God, not offend God because I’m daydreaming in the middle of our conversation.
I sometimes fall asleep while praying. That’s embarrassing. Remember watching that kid trying unsuccessfully to stay awake in class? Remember how embarrassed he looked when he woke up to see the whole class looking at him? Ever been that kid? (That’s why I never EVER give anyone a hard time for falling asleep when I preach. God gives us what we need most in worship, and for some people that is evidently a few more minutes of shut eye!)
I don’t hear God talking back. There are those people who begin sentences with “the Lord has revealed to me…” I know that we all receive different spiritual gifts. I almost never “hear a word from God” when I pray, but some people do. Some people in church will say that in order to manipulate the situation. They know that too many people who struggle with prayer will defer to them if “God told them so.”
I’ve never prayed a miracle into existence. Again, let’s keep theology in mind. Miracles are also gifts of the Spirit given to some and not others, so I shouldn’t expect to rival the apostles by healing sick and raising the dead. Maybe it’s because I’ve never trusted enough to ask for something really bold like breakfast at the Muller orphanage.
I am not the only person to feel unworthy when comparing myself to the “Olympic Champions of Faith.” But remember, just because I can’t outrun Jesse Owens or Usain Bolt, that doesn’t mean I should never run. Just because I can’t serve like Mother Theresa, it doesn’t mean I don’t serve. Just because I can’t pastor like Andy Stanley, it doesn’t mean I don’t pastor my flock. And just because I can’t pray like George Muller, it doesn’t mean I don’t pray. Whoever said that discipleship is a competition anyway? God doesn’t hold up scoring cards to rate our performance when we serve or pray. Which brings us to the real point of this post.
What if the people who score a zero, one, or two in prayer are actually more easily able to enjoy the gift of prayer than those who know they score a perfect ten? How is that possible?
Why Being Terrible at Prayer is Actually a Good Thing
My single favorite book on prayer is “Prayer” by Norwegian Theologian O. Hallesby. In it, he says one of the most amazing things I’ve ever heard:
“What is that attitude of heart which God recognizes as prayer? I would mention two things. In the first place, helplessness. This is unquestionably the first and the surest indication of a praying heart. As far as I can see prayer has been ordained only for the helpless. It is the last resort of the helpless. Indeed the very last way out. We try everything before we finally resort to prayer. This is not only true before our conversion. Prayer is our last resort also throughout our whole Christian life. Prayer and helplessness are inseparable. Only those who are helpless can truly pray. Listen to this, you who are often so helpless that you do not know what to do.”
“To pray is nothing more involved than to let Jesus into our needs. To pray is to give Jesus permission to employ His powers in the alleviation of our distress. To pray is to let Jesus glorify his name in the midst of our needs. The results of prayer are, therefore, not dependent upon the powers of the one who prays. Our intense Will, our fervent emotions, or our clear comprehension of what we are praying for are not the reasons why our prayers will be heard and answered. To pray is nothing more involved than to open the door, giving Jesus access to our needs and permitting him to exercise his own power in dealing with them. He who gave us the privilege of prayer knows us very well. He knows our frame, he knows that we are dust. That is why he designed prayer in such a way that the most impotent can make use of it. For to pray is to open the door onto Jesus. And that requires no strength. It is only a question of our will. Will we give Jesus access to our needs? That is the one great and fundamental question in connection with prayer.”
So, if I am reading this correctly, there is no such thing as bad prayer. I am not disqualified because I’m timid, unfocused, undisciplined, and sleepy. I am qualified simply because I come. I welcome Jesus in, despite my distractions, weariness, caution, and guilt. After all, the only rule in prayer is that we must be completely honest with God about who we are and what is going on inside and around us. Prayer is not necessarily more effective because I’m more skilled at it than other people. Prayer is effective simply because we come to God, stay for awhile, and are completely open while there. When I am terrible at prayer, I know I can’t make anything happen through prayer. I am powerless. This realization is what is needed most. God has the power, not us. We will not arrogantly get in God’s way. We will not dare to think we have a better solution for our problems than God. We will not give God orders. We will give God our problems and our helplessness to do much about them and let God do the rest. THAT is faith. THAT is prayer. That is what George Muller was doing all along.
So, are you terrible at prayer? No problem. Effective prayer doesn’t depend on us being good at it. Instead, we depend on God to be good in all things. So just be terrible at it with God. Does your mind wander? No problem. Just daydream with God. Are you falling asleep during prayer? No problem. Rest in God, then thank God for watching over you while you slept once you wake up. Spend time together with God and see what happens.