The Problem with Conversation
Here’s a game: Start by imagining all the conversations you’ve ever had in a heap, a huge heap. Ok.
Now, remove every single one in which you give someone new information, whether it’s about yourself, or about algebra, sausages, about disco in the 1980s, a new show, or whatever. All those conversations are gone. No informing of any kind is allowed.
Ok. Look at your conversation heap again. Is it somewhat smaller? A lot smaller? More like a moderate pile? Great.
Next, take out every conversation in which you try to prove your superiority. (Hopefully that wasn’t too many.)
Then, every conversation in which you try to give someone a new experience. (Weren’t those lovely?)
And, last, remove every conversation in which you’re trying to persuade someone who’s made a mistake, or in which you’re trying to help them change. Ok? Good.
Look again: after all those removals, what happened to your conversation heap?
No offense, but do you need a little broom for that...mound you’ve got there? I mean, don’t blow too hard, or you might spread it all over the place.
Here’s the point: when you stop informing, proving, introducing, or persuading, you’ve limited what “conversation” means pretty significantly.
That’s why I had a problem with prayer. All my life, I had been told that prayer was “a conversation with God.” But that felt stifling. In a life of talking, talking, talking, it seemed like very few of my words or ideas qualified for God conversations. When God’s omniscient, I don’t need to keep him informed. When God’s perfect, omnipotent, and blessed, there’s nothing for me to prove or improve about him. What’s left to say? Just that mound’s worth. So, I’d kneel down, say my bit, and move on.
“Hi, God. Thanks again for everything, again. I could use your help with... everything. Still.” Pause. “Ok. That was great. K. Bye. Amen.”
When God’s omniscient, I don’t need to keep him informed. When God’s perfect, omnipotent, and blessed, there’s nothing for me to prove or improve about him. What’s left to say?
Did you catch the pause? I didn’t usually hear responses either. So maybe we should take another step in our game. Start with that little mound of conversations you ended with above, and finish by taking out all the conversations in which you hear someone else say something. Do you even have any conversations left?
And that's where I was stuck with prayer. My understanding of God's eternity, power, goodness, and knowledge blocked conversation. Prayers became reduced to forced beggary. God's perfection seemed to keep him distant, and my opinions on how things should work seemed insignificant. In respect to prayer, God was like a big cat to my tiny mouse: he already knew how everything would turn out, and just wanted to see how I would squirm around in the meantime.
Of course, I knew that couldn’t be right. At the time, I wouldn't have described my situation so starkly. Yet the fact remained: my prayers were dry, repetitive, and forced, and my understanding of God was at fault. Have you been there before?
I knew my understanding of prayer couldn't be right, because of the testimony of Scripture. The Psalms are full of cries to inform God or sway God. They include some of the most beautiful, varied language anywhere. I wished I could pray like that.
And I knew it couldn't be right because of the mature Christians in my life. I watched prayer come to them like breath, while I kept needing to say, "Dear God, Thank you for this day..." to even begin.
But those examples weren't enough to get me praying, because my efforts to imitate Scripture and saints were merely that: formal adjustments.
I didn't need to adjust my form or get new tips. I needed to know God better, because the God I understood wasn't the God of prayer. But how could I know him?
Meeting the God of Prayer
In the end, I stumbled into him, and my dryness died out, broke into lively springs. I met the God of prayer in the simplest, clearest way: by paying attention to Jesus.
That makes sense. He's the revelation of God that is God, the Word who's with God and is God. The messenger and the message. He is theology —both Theos and Logos— and in the end he's the answer to every spiritual question. I met the God of prayer by looking to him.
Here's the thing: Jesus prays.
If that doesn't strike you as weird, you should look again. The Holy Son of God, who was before the world began, who is eternal as God is eternal, who is powerful as God is powerful, who is perfect, prays.
That simple fact went smack against my sense of prayer as limited, weak, forced words to a good but unmoving master. Because, if God prays to God, then the language of prayer might be as deep as the language of creation. The Word who spoke the world also speaks in prayer.
Maybe creation itself was a prayer. Maybe prayer was a kind of creation.
That’s lovely, but, yes, a little abstract. So here’s what I began to realize it could mean in my life: that I could begin to pray with Christ, in the way he prays.
“I could begin to pray with Christ, in the way he prays.“
Like Jesus, I could offer myself for God’s glory, and actively receive God as he offers himself to me.
I could actively receive myself as he gives me myself.
I could recognize that God and I share a mission in the world, that by grace we’re co-workers, that God will allow me a to have part in his mission, that he'll allow me to help him shape it.
I could pray like Christ had prayed since before the beginning of the world. I could offer myself to God as I am (with all my hopes, fears, desires, sins, and glories), and receive God as he is (however he offers himself in perfect, benevolent freedom).
This, I think, is what “praise,” “thanksgiving,” and “presenting requests” really mean. Prayer is not a system of required exchange with an unmovable, far-off God. It’s not really a conversation, in any normal sense of the word. Rather, it's communion: entry into God’s very life and community.
Let me put this clearly. If your prayers feel stifled, like mine did, try to see the truth: that the God to whom you pray is the God who prays. When you pray, you aren't performing a ritual for a needy, demanding deity. You're entering the life of God, beside your Brother King. His prayers for you and the whole world are an already-moving stream. You get to step in.
This is why prayer is so important. It's not because it's fun, effective, or commanded. It's because prayer means meeting God, and being part of his life. That's what we're made for, and it’s what Jesus shows us we can do.
Four Reminders for Praying Freely
So, if your prayers feel stifled by the distance, power, and perfection of God, here are four things to remember.
1. Christ's incarnation shows that time and eternity fit together.
God isn't playing cat and mouse. His eternity doesn't mean your prayers don’t matter. We know this because the Son entered time, and remains in time. By doing so, he didn't cease to be the eternal Son of the Father. He is both the eternal Son of the Father and the temporal Son of the Father, so there can’t be a contradiction between the two. Jesus prayed for things at one moment and they happened at another moment, not because God's eternity was infringed, but because eternity and time go together.
The Father, in eternity, responded to his Son's requests, in time. He eternally hears the request of his Son at one moment, and eternally responds to that request in the next moment. His responses, like Christ's requests, were both eternal and temporal. They had to be, or Jesus’ eternity would have had to be turned off and on, which is absurd.
Time and eternity must fit together, because Jesus is fully God and fully man. His entry into time proves it, and you can count on it.
God can eternally answer your past, present, and future prayers. He can eternally take them into account, and apply them throughout time as he sees fit. Your prayers count. He asks for them. Christ models them. So pray!
“God can eternally answer your past, present, and future prayers. He can eternally take them into account, and apply them throughout time as he sees fit.”
2. The incarnate Christ is praying for you at this moment.
Hebrews 7:25 says, “[Jesus] is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.”
So, if the perfection of God makes you afraid to pray, remember that you aren't alone. The one who takes your punishments and becomes your brother, who gives you his righteousness, peace, and life, is your constant companion in prayer. Jesus is like you: 100% human. And he wants to make you like him, with the courage to pray. Join him.
3. “We do not know what to pray for,” but the Holy Spirit prays for us.
Prayer need never be a performance, because God understands that we don't get it. Sometimes we dry out, or speak childishly, or get confused. He understands that so compassionately, that he commits to transforming even our dryness or childishness into intimate prayer, when we say it with the Holy Spirit.
And the Spirit is not far off. He's inside you. He's closer to you, and to God, than your thoughts about yourself are. Closer than your blood. He can give you to God with a grace and power that transcends language, so you don't need to perform. Simply offer yourself as you are to God, however you are, and wait to receive him, however he gives himself.
4. If you are praying, then you are in the presence of God.
Because the Son and Spirit are praying with you, whenever you pray you are with God. This is a fact, whether you feel it or not. Your feelings about God’s presence are less reliable than his promises to be present. If you feel like God’s not there, then your feelings are wrong.
And it’s ok to be wrong, so long as we stay humble and admit it.
God’s really there, Father, Son, and Spirit. We won't always experience him, but he is faithful. Focus on that —his faithfulness— more than your feelings or fears. If you feel like God is absent, keep praying. Don’t stop. Trust patiently.
“Because the Son and Spirit are praying with you, whenever you pray you are with God.”
Focus on Jesus
By remembering these things, my prayers were freed. They became more creative, because Christ is creative. They became more audacious because Christ is audacious. They became more vulnerable because Christ is vulnerable.
They taught me to ask, "What words could express my communion with the Trinity, right here and right now?"
"What words could express my communion with the Trinity, right here and right now?"
It turns out that those are very different words at different times. I can't pretend that I'm different than I really am when I pray; I have to bring my current thoughts and feelings and desires. Likewise, my time and place always reveal different things about the God whose glory fills the world.
Now, when I pray, I try to see and speak precisely who I am and precisely which glories God is revealing to me. What variety!
These four things taught me the simple truth John says to conclude his gospel: "were every one of [the things Jesus did] to be written, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written." Like John, prayer opens my lips to loose more words than I could ever otherwise say, more words than the world could contain. Prayer isn't the dry, dusty leftovers of language. By Christ, it's the living center of speech.
Seek that center, friends, by finding Jesus. Go ahead. You may! Right here and right now.