What words, feelings, or images come to mind when you hear this word? If I’m honest, I’ve experienced a full range of associations throughout my lifetime.
I recall praying before meals and at bedtime during my younger years. The word that first comes to mind associated with prayer is repetition. I’m absolutely certain that my younger brother and I prayed the exact same words time after time after time after time. It was truly mindless and took very little effort. “Father in heaven, thank you for Mommy and Daddy and Jason and me. Give us nourishment and strength from this food we’re about to eat. In Jesus’s name, amen.” This took anywhere from 3.8 to 5.2 seconds, depending on how hungry I was.
As I consider my middle school years, the word that comes to mind is fear. At the end of my Sunday school class, the teacher would randomly choose someone to close in prayer. Please don’t let it be me, please don’t let it be me, I would think to myself while avoiding eye contact with the teacher at all costs. If I did happen to win the unlucky “prayer lottery,” a bigger fear loomed: that I would accidentally pray that repetitive mealtime prayer. “Father in heaven, thank you for Mommy and Daddy and . . . oops . . . uh, I mean, thanks for this Sunday school class. Amen.”
Regarding other times throughout my life, the phrase waste of time seems to fit. Certainly, God has more important things on his list than listening to my bumbling prayers. “Don’t interrupt me right now, I’m listening to Billy Graham praying.” Sorry, God, I’ll come back later.
On occasion, I’ve wondered if my prayers were even getting past the ceiling. After leaving my mouth, how far would my prayers go before they dissolved in midair like mist out of a spray bottle?
Another word associated with prayer that has come to mind is work. Many of us would agree that when something feels like work, it’s difficult to stay motivated. I tended to lump prayer into the same category as pulling weeds or sweeping the driveway.
How about the word boring? Yep, been down that avenue as well. I’ve thought to myself at times, "nothing seems to be happening," or "this isn’t very exciting." I remember hearing about the “prayer feats” of the great prayer warriors down through the ages and thinking those folks must have been from another planet. How did they pray for three hours, five hours, or whole days without getting bored?
And so, we find ourselves tangled up in these complicated notions about prayer, or worse, about God himself.
Many of us have grown up with these faulty views. As a result, lots of us find little motivation to pray or seek God in light of their misconceptions.
I’m so grateful my misconceptions weren’t the final answer on prayer. We don’t need to go through life struggling in the dark trying to find our way. God wants to flip on the light switch in our hearts and minds in order to give us a new perspective.
Prayer is simply enjoying a vibrant relationship with the God who created us. It’s talking to and hearing from “Daddy.” In fact, the disciples of Jesus would have heard him referring to his heavenly Father as “Abba,” the Hebrew word for Daddy used by Jewish boys and girls when addressing their earthly fathers. They witnessed an intimacy between Jesus and his Father that seemed anything but boring. Before long, one of the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Jesus responded by saying, “This is how you should pray,” and his sample prayer began with “Our Father,” in other words, Abba or Daddy (Luke 11:2).
This would have been somewhat revolutionary to the ears that heard Jesus give this lesson on prayer. Up until this time, most Jews addressed God as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Doesn’t have the same intimate, relational tone like that of Abba. Jesus was closing the relational distance between God and his people. He was showing people what his Dad was really like. In fact, after Phillip asked Jesus to show them his Father, he responded by saying, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father! So why are you asking me to show him to you?” (John 14:9).
Essentially Jesus was saying, “Hey guys, you know all the wonderful things you’ve been seeing the past couple of years? Well, you’re seeing my Dad’s heart in all those things.”
Addressing some religious leaders, Jesus said this regarding his Father: “I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him everything he is doing” (John 5:19–20). We see Jesus in constant communication and relationship with his Dad—like a little boy or girl walking hand in hand with their daddy and looking up for direction and guidance. “Let’s turn here, son,” says Dad. “Okay, Daddy, I trust you.”
When we spend time with God in prayer, we are being intentional about building that relationship. We’re sharing our heart with him, and he’s sharing his heart with us.
Without times of deeper conversation, relationships between people tend to be shallow and grow cold. The sharing of hopes, dreams, failures, and tears forges deeper bonds between us. It doesn’t take long before Shelley and I notice a distance forming between us due to our busyness and doing our own thing. At some point, one of us has to take some initiative by saying, “I miss you and long to enjoy relationship with you.” When you and I choose to spend time with our heavenly Father, we are saying, “I need you, I want you, I love you.”
In the days ahead, it’s my hope that our appetites are stirred to have a heart for prayer.