Prayer isn’t a complicated idea. It’s just we overcomplicate it.

Prayer is talking with God. No more; no less; that’s all.

Yeah, you’d be surprised how many people, including us Christians, think I’m oversimplifying and it’s way more complicated than that. Prayer, they claim, is a profound mystical and spiritual undertaking which must only be done thoughtfully, seriously, soberly, and ritually. Only then will it work.

It’s all crap, but it’s awfully popular crap.

First, they insist, we must adopt the right mindset. (No, you might not actually feel it, but do try.) Psyche yourself into it. It’s what I call the “prayer mood.” It’s kind of an attitude of “Have mercy on me, oh Lord; I suffer.” But mix in there a few other sanctimonious things. Like gratitude and expectation, ’cause we’re s’posed to have faith that God’ll actually answer our requests. Like awe, ’cause God is awesome. Like remorse, ’cause we’re dirty sinners—yet at the very same time, confidence, ’cause we’re daughters and sons of God and must come boldly before his throne. He 4.16 There’s all sorts of contradictory information about how to feel when we approach God, and good luck regurgitating all of it at once. It’ll get messy.

Next, posture. They have three pre-approved positions we can get ourselves into for prayer. The most common, especially in church services, is “head bowed and eyes closed.” Then there’s facedown on the ground—appropriate for praying in private, but not so much when you’re saying grace before supper at a Taco Bell. (Dare you to try it though.) And lastly there’s hands outstretched, facing the sky, sorta like we’re welcoming God—but for some reason our eyes should be closed, which is probably a good idea if the sun is really bright, but makes us a bit less welcoming.

Then there are the incantations. No, seriously. An incantation is a series of words one has to say as part of a religious ritual, so when Christians teach us we gotta say ’em, they’re teaching incantations. And here you thought they were just for witches. (I can’t help it that they’re in denial about this fact simply because they’re Christian incantations.) There’s “Dear Lord” or “Precious Heavenly Father” or “Father God” or whatever initial words we use to “dial” God. And there’s nearly always “Amen” we use to “hang up.” Oh: Don’t forget to include we’ve prayed for all this stuff “in Jesus name,” which means whatever we think “in Jesus name” means. (Usually it means “I said ‘in Jesus name,’ so now I get what I asked for. Right?”)

Okay, are we done? No?—apparently there are beads and prayer cloths and prayer mats and prayer closets and other tchotchkes? Well, I’m done, ’cause I wanna get back to what prayer really is: Talking with God.

It’s a conversation, y'know.

Because “prayer” is a different word than “talk,” people assume prayer is an entirely different thing. It’s not.

“Pray” used to mean “beg,” as in the King James Version’s many uses of “I pray thee.” Ge 18.3 KJV, etc. Most instances of “pray” in the Old Testament have to do with begging God—same as a lot of instances nowadays. Most prayers are requests. Nothing wrong with that, but this idea of begging is pretty deeply embedded in our ideas about prayer. Hence all the goofy language and posture, and trying to feel pathetic lest God read our minds and find out just how selfish our motives really are.

But not all prayer consists of requests. Sometimes it’s thanksgiving. Sometimes praise. Sometimes apologies. Sometimes we’re sharing what we’re going through, or venting our frustrations or outrage. Sometimes we have questions and know God has answers. Basically, all the reasons we humans talk to one another, we talk with God.

Yeah, even lying and gossip. We don’t always realize we shouldn’t be talking about that stuff with God—or even what we’re telling him. But still: Prayer is just talking.

I say talking with God because prayer is conversation. It’s meant to be, anyway. Plenty of Christians treat prayer as if it’s one-way: We talk to God, and we says… nothing. Absolutely nothing. May as well be talking to a statue. If he does communicate anything, it’ll be through a sign or an omen. Never speech. He may have done that sort of thing back in bible times; not anymore. All that prophecy stuff stopped as soon as Revelation got written.

This thinking is not only wrong, it’s dangerously wrong. Assuming God never talks back means you’re gonna reach a point, as everyone does, where you wanna hear from him so bad, you start looking for those signs and omens. You wind up interpreting a lot of meaningless coincidences as if they’re meaningful messages from him. “Look, a white cat just crossed my path! This means something!… Um… God must want me to murder a white man?” No. Bad Christian. Stop that.

God doesn’t play charades. Yet pagans and Christians alike teach he does, and if they aren’t already leading themselves astray, some con artist or devil inevitably will. Don’t go there. It’s a game you’ll always lose. Listen for God. He’ll answer.

What, in an audible voice?

When I tell people we can hear God, often they mockingly reply, “You mean he speaks to you in an audible voice?” Um… okay, sure. In an audible voice. In perfect King James Version style English. In a rich baritone. But surprisingly, with a New Yorker accent—I know, you were expecting British, weren’tcha? Never Israeli, oddly enough.

But seriously. God does speak back, and how he does it most of the time is through the spirit.

You have a spirit. So do I. So does every human. If you’re new to this Christianity stuff, you may not know anything about it or how it works. That’s okay. You’ll learn. Practice makes better.

God is spirit. Jn 4.24 Spirit isn’t physical: It’s not made of atoms and molecules. I won’t presume to guess what it is made of, for God hasn’t said (although some Christians claim he told them—and no he didn’t, ’cause their explanations are too stupid to have come from God). Best not to speculate, and get the wrong idea. Just remember: Spirit isn’t physical. Hence an audible voice, which is physical (two physical objects smack together and make a soundwave) isn’t God’s usual means of communication. He can talk that way, just like I can communicate through an airhorn in Morse code if I really had to. But more often he just speaks to us spiritually, in a way our spirits can pick up.

Listening to your spirit is tricky, and will take its own article. Maybe a series of ’em. I’ll just say this for now: It doesn’t mean interpreting your feelings or emotions. It doesn’t mean every clever idea which pops into your mind is God talking to you. It doesn’t mean God grants you the ability to recognize what’s an omen and what’s not. And it’s way easier to do when you learn what sort of things God might say—and the best way to learn what God might say is to look at what he did say, in the past. So read your bible. Look for direct quotes from the LORD, or Jesus. Get familiar with what he sounds like. Makes him all the easier to recognize when he is speaking.

Wait, you haven’t told us how to pray! Or when! Or how often! Or…

Oh, relax. That’ll come in other articles.

For how to pray, read Matthew 6.5-15. Jesus gave instructions.

For when: Pray whenever you like. There’s no ideal time of day. Morning people will insist the very best time is first thing in the morning. For them, it may be. For me, first thing in the morning is most definitely not the time to pray; it’s time to feed over-chipper morning people into, ironically, a chipper. Praying when I can barely put two thoughts together is dumb. If you aren’t up for talking to your best friend at that time of day, don’t inflict your incoherent mindset on God. Pray when you can focus. (Unless it’s an emergency. Or unless you’re never focused—’cause you gotta pray sometime.)

For how often: Pray at least once a day. More often if you wanna pray more often. Less often if you’re rambling. Mt 6.7-8 God wants us to get to the point, and we needn’t pray any longer than that. If that means it’s a 45-second prayer, so be it.

And for what: You know what you need from God. Pray for that.

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