Prayer for Those Who Are Bad At It

I ceased to pray because I thought God wanted me to prove my worth in his presence. That is where prayer goes to die.

Exasperated by my spiritual life, I thought about how little I prayed and felt no desire to do it. How can I be a spiritual leader and suck so badly at prayer? This is a sobering question to ask oneself in ministry. What I didn’t realize at the time, and what no one told me, was that this was an invitation, a prodding, to prayer that actually felt real. But it didn’t feel like an invitation, so I simply stopped praying and I turned to things I seemed better at.

Have you ever wondered if you were bad at prayer? Have you wondered if others understood something about prayer that you didn’t? Have you ever promised God that you will try harder in prayer, only to discover you really can’t, or won’t? If so, you are in good company.

Some people seem born to pray. They exude delight at the chance to remain in prayer, petition, and praise. For others—for myself—prayer has been a struggle. Prayer has never come easy. If you are at all like me, you are tempted to place conversation with God on the periphery of the Christian life (or we just ignore it and come to believe it is for only those rare few who find it to be more “natural”).

The problem is that I could never get away from the fact that I knew I was supposed to pray, and as a Bible student and eventual seminary student, it seemed like I should want to. Sadly, it was only then, confronted with my guilt, that I would once again start praying, only to find that it was still isolating, lonely, and seemingly fruitless. This was my dilemma: prayer was something I knew I should do, but I failed to be honest about how difficult it was. Why? Because it didn’t seem to work like I wanted it to or expected it should. This made it difficult to face the fundamental fissure in my faith: prayer sounded good as an ideal but felt bad and confusing in reality.

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I would sometimes fall asleep while “praying” and then feel guilty that I couldn’t stay awake. In response, I spent as much time trying to get my act together as I did asking for forgiveness for being so bad at prayer! If I wasn’t sleeping, my mind was wandering, and, once again, prayer became a time to navigate my guilt. Why am I so bad at this? became the question that plagued me. I began to wonder if I just wasn’t cut out for prayer. Maybe I’ll just leave prayer to the experts, I thought. Prayer mirrored all the things I didn’t want to see about myself, so it was easier to focus on things that made me feel like I was growing. As a Bible student, that meant learning Scripture, but it can easily be anything that makes us feel like we’re “doing better” at the Christian life.

It wasn’t until seminary that I finally began to see the deeper and more profound problems with my approach to prayer. It was the words of John Coe that struck me deep in my heart. “Prayer is not a place to be good,” he told me, “it is a place to be honest.” Up until that point, I had spent the bulk of my Christian life trying to be good in prayer. Prayer was a place to stand before God and perform, and I was failing miserably. It was like a dream where you are sitting at a grand piano, ready to play for a sold-out stadium, and only then realizing that you don’t know how to play piano. No one signs up for that. But my problem went beyond not knowing how to pray. I ceased to pray because I thought God wanted me to prove my worth in his presence. That is where prayer goes to die.

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To resurrect my prayer life, I needed to understand that Christ and the Spirit have created a place for me to pray in the presence of the Father. They have called me their own, so like Jesus in Gethsemane or the Spirit in my heart, I can pray the truth of who I am to the God who knows, sees, and understands. This is why:

Prayer is not a place to be good, it is a place to be honest.
Prayer is not a place to perform, it is a place to be present.
Prayer is not a place to be right, it is a place to be known.
Prayer is not a place to prove your worth
It is a place to receive worth and offer yourself in truth.

When you come to realize you suck at prayer, the good news is that you are not alone. God even tells you that you suck at prayer! Just read Romans 8:26! Instead of condemning you, God offers an invitation to learn where prayer becomes real.

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