30 August 2022

The prayer mood.

As we know, prayer is talking with God. You have something to tell him? Start talking. You want him to talk to you? Ask him stuff. It’s not complicated; it is just that simple.

It’s just we overcomplicate things. We learned a bunch of prayer rituals, which we figure gotta happen every time we pray. Gotta get in the prayer closet. Gotta assume the right posture: Head to the ground, facing Jerusalem; or eyes closed and hands folded; or facing the sky, arms lifted high. Whatever your tradition dictates.

And just as we put our bodies in a posture, we put our mindset in a posture too. We figure the best way to get ready to receive God, the best way to submit to his will, is to assume a prayer mood, an emotional state which we imagine is best for prayer.

You might not even be aware you’re psyching yourself into that state. It’s just you always have. It’s what you’ve always seen other Christians do, and that’s how you picked it up. You feel you oughta be humble when you approach God, so you mentally lower, or even degrade yourself. You feel you oughta be open to stuff he wants to teach you, so you imagine your mind wide open, ready to accept anything. You feel if God’s gonna be present, it’s time to put on a display of loving him with all our mind, so you conjure up that feeling as best you can. And so on.

I was just reading something by E.M. Bounds, who’s full of bad advice when it comes to prayer… but unfortunately his books on prayer are really popular. He believed we should ask God for “a fervent spirit” when we pray, so we can be all intense and passionate and emotional and anxious. Wait, didn’t Jesus teach us not to be anxious?

Most of us know this prayer mood thingy isn’t mandatory. After all if we had to attain this mood before we could pray, the devil could easily keep us in any other mood but the prayerful one. So, thankfully, we never think of it as, “God’ll be displeased if I don’t feel this way when I pray.” But we wanna feel this way. It helps prayer feel good.

So, positive attitude. Clear mind. Loving, humble, focused thoughts. Emotions on the surface… yet more or less under control. Any stray thoughts, any unpleasant emotions—any pessimism, pride, or evil—has gotta be shoved aside. If we can’t do these things, it still totally counts as prayer; we just won’t consider it a good prayer. It’ll feel ineffective.

Yeah of course all this thinking is crap.

Prayer’s not about how we feel when we pray. As the psalms demonstrate, we can feel any which way. Sometimes the psalmists were psyched about talking to God… but sometimes they were distracted, agitated, irritated by all their enemies whom they wished God would curb-stomp. Sometimes their emotions were in check; sometimes they most definitely weren’t.

It’d be nice if prayer felt good. But it isn’t necessary that it has to. And since we can’t trust our emotions, who says it always has to?

Why do we do this to ourselves?

The main reason we Christians try to psyche ourselves into the prayer mood, is because we wanna feel God.

He’s invisible, y’know. Intangible. Always here, but it’s so easy for us to fall unaware of this. Well, we wanna be aware of him. We want a God-experience. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Problem is, sometimes we want a God-experience so bad, we’re willing to make up our own. We wanna feel something tingly about our prayer life. So when we pray, we conjure up some tingles. It’s really easy to do. Start with optimism and positivity. Ramp it up till it feels almost supernatural.

In prayer, we realize we’re making contact with a holy God. When we don’t feel all that holy (often ’cause we’re not being all that holy lately) we wanna mentally and emotionally “clean up a little,” so to speak. We straighten our thinking and feelings, so as to have a shiny-looking mind for God to read. Then we speak with him. Sure, we realize God knows everything, including what messes we really are; but when company’s coming over, even when they’re family members who know just what sort of pigsty we keep, we do wash the dishes, vacuum the rugs, and spray Febreeze on all the chairs so they don’t smell like ass. Same deal, sorta. Just making the heart smell less like ass before we present it to God.

Or we don’t feel free to vent our frustrations and worries at God, so we wanna “get in the game” and shove all that negativity out of ourselves before we petition God. Ditch the selfishness, make ourselves feel more love, and get ready to speak to the Almighty.

If any of this stuff sounds phony, it’s ’cause it totally is.

The prayer mood is a mask we’ve put over our hearts, instead of our faces. Because as soon as our prayer is over, we ditch the mood. The love, positivity, charity, humility, submission, excitement: We switch ’em off and go back to normal. Normal, however that looks like for you, is who we really are. The prayer mood is what we pretend to be when talking with our Father.

Ever read Jerome Bixby’s short story, “It’s a Good Life”? The Twilight Zone did an episode of it in 1961, and The Simpsons parodied it in 1991. In the story, there’s a powerful little boy who can read minds, and everyone forces themselves to think nothing but happy thoughts, lest the boy smite them. Yes, we know God isn’t gonna smite us. But still we try to clean up our minds, and likewise think only happy thoughts to him when we pray.

In contrast, when we read the psalms, notice how the psalmists never bothered to work themselves into any prayer mood. They prayed as they were. Often they weren’t happy nor optimistic: They were bummed. They were pissed. They were a mess, and they didn’t hide it.

Often we initiate prayer, but sometimes God starts to talk to us, and you’ll notice he never bothers to wait till we’ve first put on our prayer mood. He just starts talking. Catches us with our pants down. Sometimes literally: We’re just about to sin, and the Holy Spirit picks that very instant to say, “Don’t.” Ge 4.5-7 Hey, somebody’s gotta say “Don’t.”

The prayer mood isn’t fooling God. Shouldn’t fool us either. It’s kinda stupid of us to put on this show for him.

As a substitute for prayer?

Certain people believe the prayer mood is prayer. Our optimism, our receptivity, our happy thoughts: We’ve opened ourselves up to God, so how is that not a form of prayer?

In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1803 poem “The Pains of Sleep,” he described it like so.

Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray
With moving lips or bended knees;
But silently, by slow degrees,
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close,
With reverential resignation
No wish conceived, no thought exprest,
Only a sense of supplication;
A sense o’er all my soul imprest
That I am weak, yet not unblest,
Since in me, round me, every where
Eternal strength and Wisdom are.

Now, you’ll notice how Coleridge never actually described talking to God. Nor making any prayer request. “No wish conceived, no thought exprest”—no communication with the Almighty whatsoever. Just emotion. “Only a sense of supplication.” But no real supplication. No communication. Just warm fuzzy feelings.

Plenty of pagans, and even some Christians, describe “prayer” as anything but actual talking to God. It could be an attitude. A mood. A feeling, wish, or sensation. Anything but actual talk. They won’t deny prayer can take the form of talking, but they don’t want to limit prayer to talking. They want prayer to be all sorts of other things too. Of course, when it comes to the practice of prayer, they do all the other things instead of talk. Some of ’em even adopt a snobbish attitude: “Talk? Prayer’s more than mere talk, y’know.”

“That is exactly the sort of prayer we want,” commented the senior devil Screwtape in C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, right after quoting this very Coleridge poem. If the devil can get us to stop speaking with God altogether, and exchange him for our self-generated emotions, great! Once we get hooked on those emotions, any simple medical condition, in which we find ourselves no longer able to manufacture these emotions, will be immediately misinterpreted as “no more God.” And that’ll be the end of our religion.

Okay. Lest you get the wrong idea about Coleridge’s prayer life, his poem does go on:

But yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
A lurid light, a trampling throng,
Sense of intolerable wrong,
And whom I scorned, those only strong!

When tribulation came, the poet ditched all this high-minded sense of eternal strength and Wisdom personified: He talked to God. ’Cause that’s prayer.

No, I’m not saying when we don’t pray, God will sic the devil on us, and get us to break our dependence on the prayer mood. He doesn’t have to resort to that. Suffering comes on its own quiet often in our sin-plagued world. God often shoos away our woes, but if they’ll help grow us or get our attention, sometimes he lets them come around. That’s how we learn to ditch our silly, immature beliefs: A cold wet slap of reality.

The prayer-mood form of fake prayer creates no challenges in our lives. No growth in our relationship with God. Nothing but the sort of self-satisfaction which comes from doing something which feels holy… and isn’t. Don’t do that. Seek God, and not an emotional substitute for him.