Why is Prayer Weird?

Praying Hands2Prayer can often be strangely alien. If you think about it, prayer in our churches can be quite otherworldly. Prayer often seems to be inexplicably a-relational and bizarrely formulaic, which conflicts with the reality presented in the Bible.

In God’s story we find that prayer has depth, ceaseless frequency, and a naturalness many of us do not experience. Maybe before I offer some reasons why I think this is the case, let me give a brief description of what I’m referring to today.

The Inexplicable Prayer Meeting: In my experience, a weekly hour-long church prayer meeting consists of a 45-minute discussion about the week to harvest any medical prayer requests.  Once the harvesting is complete, the meeting ends with a 15-minute prayer time where each person takes a single turn to pray. When finished, we go home with some sense of accomplishment. We’ve ticked the box that so many Christians have no desire to tick.

But the strangeness of the meeting doesn’t end there. The actual prayer time is quite foreign. You might hear people speak in spooky voices that seem to take possession of warmhearted people.  Or you may even hear people pray in archaic language that anyone under the age of 150 can’t understand without some careful translation—as though God says, “I love it when you call me ‘Thou!”

I could go on, but you get the picture.  We don’t talk like this to our friends, family, or spouses, well anyone really, yet with God we do.  Then we wonder why we don’t pray. Prayer just doesn’t make any sense, it isn’t natural, and lets face it, God doesn’t seem to respond all that much.  We don’t pray, but when we have to, when it’s a must, we’ll dutifully break out our spooky voice and pray.

Some Inexplicable Advice:  If this is true, and prayer is a duty, we can’t possibly live up to Paul’s command to “pray without ceasing” (1Thess 5:17).  After all, do we do anything without ceasing? And if we do, it can’t possibly be prayer, can it? It’s just so strange to pray to God … that is, it would be if God hadn’t commanded it.

Leaders that offer instruction on prayer instinctively begin with the importance of prayer (feel the vice squeeze down?) followed by a list of advice in order to develop a habit of prayer.  Some advice may include:

  • Much praying is not done because we don’t plan to pray, so plan it!
  • Pray with some sort of structure like ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication).
  • Pray until you pray

I don’t say all this as if I haven’t struggled to pray or haven’t given and used such advice.  Not too long into my walk with Christ, I was told if I had difficulty praying to try to pray through ACTS.  At the time I thought it was great advice, “Finally,” I thought, “a way to make sure I say all the things I needed to say to God!” Yet after awhile I started to realize I was more concerned about order above anything else. My “conversation” with God was robotic and not truly conversing with and baring my heart to God.  Yet I didn’t know what else to do, talking with God just didn’t seem instinctive or easy.

When I finally got into the Bible consistently I discovered this entire struggle was absent. The Bible assumes prayer just happens. From Moses, to David, to Daniel, to Jesus through to the early church, prayer just happens in all circumstances, in every situation, without end.  Prayer just overflows from a relationship with God.  It is as if communication is the very essence of any relationship.

Why is Prayer so Sci-fi Weird? So far I’ve been slightly subtle, but the answer comes down to how you view God.   If we understand God to be the unmoved mover (the eternal monadic God that set everything in motion with a single decree), then there’s no place for prayer.  Prayer is as alien to God as it is to us. Prayer, in this reality, isn’t the communication innate to any relationship.  Instead it’s some kind of relational dissonance: a creature attempting to speak to a non-discursive deity.

God is a Communicative Spreading Goodness: But thankfully, God has been a Father-Son-Spirit God for all eternity.  God’s glory before the creation of the world was a loving communion (John 17).  That is, God’s essence is relationship bonded by communication and other-centered love.  The overflow of this reality was the motivation for creation. The Trinity desired to have a creation to share his communion, his goodness, and his ethos with his image (male-female person united in relationship).   You can imagine Adam and Eve talking with God in the cool of the day in the Garden because they just loved talking with one another.  You can picture them enjoying the presence and warmth of communion with the other.  This was the reality before death and hostility crept in when the image bearers rejected life with God by exploring the reality of making themselves god–the primary object of their affections and reference of reality.

But wait . . . what’s even more amazing is that this God invites us back to participate in his community again.  The Father, motivated by love for his creation, sent his Son to defeat death and make a way for life to return to his creation.  And this gift of grace is the communicative bond the Father and Son share–the person of the Holy Spirit.  Now as part of the Bride of Christ we have the pleasure to speak to our Bridegroom and our Father who poured their love upon us by the Holy Spirit.

Like everything else in Christianity, we tend to pile instructions on top of advice.  However, if we are missing out, the solution won’t come from better techniques, but from a clearer view of God.  And when we glimpse the communicative self-giving love of God, isn’t our response to communicate back?  That’s prayer and there’s nothing weird about that!


5 Responses to Why is Prayer Weird?

  1. Heather Brain September 3, 2013 at 9:42 pm #

    “If this is true, and prayer is a duty” – you seem to be drawing a judgement on people’s hearts with this comment. We all know prayer is about the heart, regardless of language, grammar, etiquette, and eloquence. We all know we should pray how we feel led to pray – stumbling, faltering, organised, or archaic. I felt the tone of the article to be a little too critical for me to feel comfortable – We are brothers and sisters after all and let’s praise God for our differences rather than criticise others. Can there not be unity in diversity? Heart expression of a love relationship in a variety of forms – it’s just that my form may not be the same as that of others, and isn’t that alright?

  2. Gretchen September 3, 2013 at 11:21 pm #

    Thanks so much for this post. Dave. It follows the same vein as several conversations I’ve had with my daughter lately about prayer. I love what you said, “the solution won’t come from better techniques, but from a clearer view of God.” And the best way I know to get a clearer view of God is to immerse ourselves in the Bible. It’s there that we discover the relationship with Him that makes prayer so natural and not a weird experience at all. Thanks for the good words!

  3. David Searight September 5, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

    Heather, thank you for your comment. My blog offers not a critique of those that struggle to pray, but rather a critique of the strange ritual version of prayer that has become normal in some settings. I believe the ritualistic version of prayer that I’ve experienced, and I know many others have as well, reflects a view of God who is primarily distant and not the God of the Bible who is with us. The churchianity reflected in this formulaic prayer intimidates the very people you describe. All of God’s children should feel free to pray naturally with their God, just as they naturally communicate with their friends, spouses, etc, which will result in as much diversity as there is variety of people in the church. Some more will be eloquent than others, some more direct, or more wordy. How great is the beauty of Christ’s body! But the a-relational methods I mentioned above only cause people (especially those who are new to the faith or our not-yet-Christian-friends) to think “I can’t pray like that” or “I don’t want to say weird things like that.” So I completely agree with you: heart relationship expressed in response to a biblical view of God is the goal. And if we were able to consistently present a clear view of God, then it might be true that we would all know prayer is about the heart. Thanks for your helpful comment on this issue

  4. Hollie Gale September 16, 2013 at 6:45 am #

    “we tend to pile instructions on top of advice. However, if we are missing out, the solution won’t come from better techniques, but from a clearer view of God. And when we glimpse the communicative self-giving love of God, isn’t our response to communicate back?”

    David- so well put! I loved this article!totally made me laugh, out loud, watching reels of ‘instant replays’ flash through my mind ;)

    You know, that last bit I quoted has been something I have been thinking about loads lately. Just recently having returned from my visit home, and enduring the worse case of homesickness I have every experienced, my prayers have been sooo wierd! Don’t worry- I haven’t gone all archaic ;)- rather its just more ‘hearty’ and sometimes there aren’t the words, so I just sit and enjoy Gods company! In the last few months I have felt a new depth in my relationship, like we do with one another the more we get to know others. Then reading your blog, I thought, that is it–!

    Take a dinner party- if those attending don’t know one another, conversations are fairly scripted – how are you, where do you live, what do you do, do you have kids… All fairly informational. But then, imagine a get together of close friends! Sometimes just a ‘look’ says so much because these people can read you like a book! I laugh thinking about taking my ‘script’ into the latter dinner party– it is sooooo often what Christians do when we pray! It’s no wonder prayer is wierd! Our *religious* ways make it like that- but may our conversations with him be honest and tangable today. Thank you David

  5. Mallori Hunt October 15, 2013 at 10:29 pm #

    This makes me think about my struggle of praying in a group setting. We, non- prayer warriors, are afraid to pray in front of other Christians and non-Christians because we may not do it “correctly.” Your post reveals that it is heart behind the prayer, not the order of the words or the words themselves. The power of pray is undeniable. Maybe next time I pray in front of others I should pray about it first! Seeing that my fear is not in my prayer but instead the people surrounding me. :)
    Thanks David.

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