Pushing Back Against the World: Thoughts on Prayer
I think that we often acknowledge this as true (perhaps even by putting a NotW sticker on our cars) but fail to recognize how hard it is to follow Jesus as Lord without caving in to the world’s way of thinking and doing… and thus slowly caving in to the world’s way of being.
The obvious examples are ones like sexual behavior, or greed, and so I’m not going to discuss those. Instead, I want to look at a more subtle pressure from the world: on our prayer lives.
Because of my writing, speaking, and study, over the past five years I’ve had the opportunity to pray and worship in a variety of settings, in different Christian traditions and with different styles of prayer: liturgical and structured, or extemporaneous; charismatic, or very low-key; low church, high church; with a pastor, with a priest, or with fellow lay people; in a beautiful church building, gathered in a community center, in a living room, or sitting on lawn chairs outdoors.
I’ve learned a great deal about prayer from all of this.
I’ve been pushed out of my comfort zone.
I’ve helped push other people out of their comfort zones.
And here’s something of what I’ve learned.
People who have a living, vibrant relationship with the Triune God are people who have living, vibrant prayer lives. People who truly know Jesus and are committed to following him on the way of the Cross pray in a different way than those who are just tagging along with Jesus without a radical commitment to following him.
Style of prayer is absolutely irrelevant to the level of seriousness. Depending on a person’s personality and circumstances, the best way to interact with God in prayer might be through praying the Daily Office using the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, or having a daily quiet time; it might be through blasting praise songs or walking in silence. What matters is taking Jesus seriously; taking the work of prayer seriously; immersing oneself in Holy Scripture and taking God’s Word seriously; this is what cuts across the lines of church tradition and personal preferences.
I repeated “taking it seriously” for a reason. Because another thing I’ve learned from seeing all these different prayer styles and worship traditions is this: no matter what style of prayer you use, the world will still press in and try to distract you from the work of prayer.
Here’s what the world says – at least a few of the whispers I’ve heard, and had to deal with:
- Prayer’s a good thing, but in moderation. If you pray too often or too intensely, you’re a Jesus freak.
- Prayer’s a good backup plan. Sure, pray if you want to about your issues, but God helps those who help themselves. You have to take action yourself.
- Prayer is about getting what you need. (And you know best what you need, of course.) It doesn’t have anything to do with shaping who you are.
- Prayer is about spiritual things, so pray for general “blessings” but don’t bother God with specifics. (Note that between 3 and 4, the world can effectively shut down a Christian’s prayer life by converting it to a vague wish-list.)
- Prayer is a little embarrassing. It’s ok to ‘forget’ to pray before a meal (especially in a restaurant) and the proper etiquette is to keep it short and general.
- Prayer is strictly personal. Taking seriously the idea of God actually listening and responding – much less the idea of acting on guidance from prayer… hmm, that’s Jesus freak time again.
Notice a common thread in all these little whispers. The Enemy doesn’t try to say “Don’t pray.” (That would be too obvious – as Christians we know we’re supposed to pray.) Instead, he tries to moderate, mute, constrain down our prayer so that our conduit to the Holy Spirit becomes a narrow trickle rather than a overflowing well of life-giving water.
The way we act affects what we believe. Lex orandi, lex credendi – the law of prayer is the law of belief. If we fall into the habit of acting as if prayer were an optional extra in the Christian life, then it won’t be surprising if we find ourselves believing that Jesus is an optional extra in our worldly life. Nice to have for comfort, but that’s it. Radical call to holiness? Thanks but no thanks, right?
I spent two weeks in Massachusetts this summer volunteering for the C.S. Lewis Foundation at the site of the future C.S. Lewis College. For two weeks, 24/7, I was around people who love the Lord in an exuberant, no-holds-barred way, and are passionate about beauty and truth, and about doing everything to the glory of God.
One iconic moment for me was when I was walking back from lunch with Kevin and Eric, two of my new friends. Kevin of them commented that he had a really horrible headache that was interfering with his writing. I said something sympathetic. Then it suddenly occurred to me that it would be good to lay hands on him and pray for healing.
For a moment, something in me resisted: that seemed excessive. A little embarrassing. Better to just shelve the impulse to pray in public, and say a little prayer on my own, later.
Then I recognized the temptation: not to reject prayer entirely, but to minimize it, to not take it seriously—to say to God, “Sure, I hear Your call to pray for my brother in Christ, but I’m going to do it in my own time, and in my own way. Because it’s really about me.”
I turned to my friend Kevin and said, “Hey, can I pray for you?” He said, “That would be great!” So he sat down on a stone wall, and Eric and I laid hands on Kevin’s shoulders, and I prayed for his health and for a blessing on the work he needed to do. And then Kevin thanked me, and went up to his room. Remaining behind for a moment, Eric turned to me and said, “You were obedient to the Lord, in doing that. Well done.”
Those words, from someone with a deep connection to the Lord, stuck with me In the face of all the world’s pressure to minimize, contain, and sterilize our relationship to the true and living God, prayer is a precious way to push back.
Every moment of conscious, deliberate prayer is an act of profound obedience. It doesn’t matter how we feel at that moment – whether it’s a joyful moment of connection to God, or fighting against a sense of futility – He is there, and hears us, and responds. In ways that run deeper than we can imagine.
This article first appeared in my Now What? blog for Conversantlife.com.