Praying when we suck at prayer.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 September

Hey, we’re not all experts.

Years ago I was reading Richard Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, a useful book on prayer. In it he described the most basic, elementary form of prayer he could think of, which he calls Simple Prayer. Basically it’s just talking with God, which is all prayer really is.

But I believe there’s a form of prayer even more elementary than Simple Prayer: It’s what I call the I-Suck-At-Prayer prayer. It’s the prayer every new Christian prays. The prayer every pagan prays when they’re first giving prayer a test drive. The prayer even longtime Christians stammer when we’re asked to pray aloud, and suddenly we feel we’ve gotta perform… but not overtly. Christians might pray every day and rather often, yet we’ll still pray the I-Suck-At-Prayer Prayer from time to time.

It’s based on discomfort. It’s when we realize we need to pray in a manner we’re not used to. Maybe somebody else has been leading our prayers. Maybe we’ve been praying too many rote prayers—it’s easier to use the prayer book, or the pre-written prayers in our favorite devotional, and just got out of the habit of extemporaneous prayer—praying without a script, talking to God just like we’d talk to anyone. Some of us feel incapable of it, so we never do pray like that.

So we stammer. Stumble. Suffer stage fright. And our prayers become big ol’ apologies to God for how poorly we’re doing. “Forgive my hesitation; I need to pray more often.”

Foster described Simple Prayer as the starting point of prayer. But plenty of people don’t even make it to the starting block. We get too hung up on “I suck at prayer,” too busy apologizing for our inability to express ourselves, too busy flogging ourselves for not praying “properly.”

I put “properly” in quotes ’cause we Christians often have a screwy idea of what’s proper in prayer, and get way too hard on ourselves because we don’t meet our own unrealistic expectations. Usually we’ve picked up these ideas from “prayer warriors” who make their showy public prayers sound impressive—and people assume their prayers oughta sound like that.

Hence we wind up with Christians who…

  • feel we should only pray in King James Version English.
  • replace every “um” and “uh” in our speech with “Father God” and “Lord Jesus,” and other names of God.
  • pad our prayers because we’re not sure short prayers are effective.
  • try to psyche ourselves into a prayer mood because we don’t know the difference between emotional and spiritual.

As I’ve said, prayer is talking with God. Nothing more than that. If we can talk with our family members, we can definitely talk with God. (If you struggle to talk with them, or they’re distant instead of gracious, I get why God might be a problem.) We don’t have to sound formal. We don’t have to speak in bible language. We don’t even have to be articulate—though we should make an effort, ’cause we are trying to communicate after all. We just gotta go find some privacy, open our mouths, and talk with God.

Publicly sucking at it.

Betcha you’ve seen this before: You’re in a prayer group. Either it’s the regular group, or it’s an impromptu group; you’ve gathered to pray for whatever reason. The leader says, “Everybody pray for what they need most, and I’ll close… so why don’t you start?” Singling out the one person who really doesn’t wanna start. That person squirms a bit.

Of course that person doesn’t wanna pray. They believe they suck at prayer.

Yeah, I’ve totally been the prayer leader who did this. And I’ve totally singled out the people whom I know don’t wanna pray. Because the only way we get better at this is through practice. So I’m gonna make ’em practice. Come on, Christians: Plow through the discomfort and just pray, dangit.

I used to make the mistake my youth pastor did: “Whoever feels led to start, just go ahead and start.” Then we’d bow our heads and wait ten seconds. Twenty. Thirty. A full minute. Some kids can hold out for minutes. But by this point one of the more devout kids, or the pastor, would go bonkers over the silence and just start praying already. And all the kids in the room who could hear the Holy Spirit shouting at them, “Just pray already! Be bold! Ignore that fear! I didn’t put it in you!” breathed a sigh of relief, ’cause now they could go back to ignoring him.

Yep, I’ve been one of those kids. Adults totally do it too. So rather than let history repeat itself, badly, I pick people to pray, and have ’em pray. They need the practice.

I know they don’t always wanna. Not everyone is comfortable with public prayer. Sometimes it’s that all-too-common, all-too-silly fear of public speaking. (Guess what: The only thing anybody cares about, is that you don’t bore us. Keep it brief and you won’t.) Sometimes it’s because we think we’ve nothing to contribute, or nobody cares about our prayers. (Again not true.) Sometimes it’s because prayer time has been going too long already, thanks to the long pauses and the long prayers, and we just want it to be done.

I figure it’s the prayer leader’s duty to keep things moving, so sometimes I’ll give directions. “Okay Sam, you start; you got a minute. —Thank you; now Morgaine; you got a minute. —Now Ollie; you got a minute. —Now Edith; you close. Amen.”

Of course your own prayer leaders won’t necessarily do this, nor think to. So you’ve gotta make up for their lack of discipline. Be ready in case you’re called upon. Prepare a prayer in advance. Write it out if you gotta. Whip it out when it’s prayer time. Don’t contribute to the long pauses; contribute to the dialogue.

(And if you wanna bug people, end with, “I feel in my spirit that [person in the room] needs to pray next.” I used to drop this on people in college. They really hated it. But it does keep the prayer moving.)

Get comfortable with it.

In his book, Foster pointed out how some of us balk at doing something till we master it to some degree. Correctly, he points out prayer doesn’t quite work like that: It’s not something we master. The “prayer warriors” might imagine they’e mastered it, but all they’ve really done is learned how to make themselves sound impressive.

Nope, nobody masters prayer. Y’see, mastery’s about control. We become experts and know how to handle the situation. But in our relationships with God, he’s in control. We don’t get to be. So when it comes to prayer, of course we feel out of control: We are. That’s totally normal.

So what do we do? Get comfortable with being out of control. Get used to the idea God has the situation in hand. We don’t have to!

Those feelings of inferiority and inadequacy? Ignore them. Shut ’em off. Feel like you’re not worthy to approach God? Ignore those feelings too. Don’t confuse your emotions with your spirituality; part of the Spirit’s fruit of gentleness is learning to master these emotions, particularly when they get in the way of worship. If they keep you from praying, they’ve gotta go. Push them aside as best you can, and pray anyway.

Once we’re in proper control of our emotions, God recognizes this, and floods us with all the right emotions. It’ll be awesome. Meanwhile, trust him to do that once we’re ready. Shut ’em off. This way we can stop worrying about how amateurish and stumbling we sound. God doesn’t care at all about that. He’s just pleased we’re praying.

Practice. Lots of practice! It makes us more comfortable with our prayer lives. Take every opportunity to pray. Chat with God about the stuff you’re thinking, the stuff you wanna do, your worries, your dreams, and so forth. Talk to God about all the same dumb small talk you do with your friends: Weather, TV shows, football games. Seriously. God actually doesn’t mind talking about that stuff with us. It’s fellowship, and fellowship builds relationship. And gets us comfortable with prayer.

Keep plugging away at prayer. We’re aiming for the point where we can no longer tell God, “I’m not a praying person.” If prayer’s truly gonna be life-changing, it has to become a mundane thing in our lives. It’s always gonna be a big deal, but it’s gotta stop feeling like a big deal, an action for special occasions, a ritual, a church thing. “I suck at prayer” needs to become as ridiculous to us as saying “I suck at eating.” Of course baby Christians are sloppy at prayer, same as baby humans get food everywhere. But we need to grow out of this phase as quickly as we can.