“Praying right.”

by K.W. Leslie, 03 May

Prayer is, as I’ve said, simply talking with God. But for many Christians, it’s a profound ritual which connects us with the divine… so that we can get stuff from him.

This is why their focus is so much on effective prayer. On powerful prayer, and how “the power of prayer” can change one’s life. On appeasing God… as if he’s a petty human oligarch who won’t give us what we want unless we suck up to him in just the right ways, and if we get any one part of the ritual wrong, “Whoops! Didn’t do that right. No grace for you.”

From time to time I get rebuked for “praying wrong.” For not being formal enough, not bowing my head, not closing my eyes, not being solemn enough (or at all; I have no problem making jokes with God), not taking my hat off. I remind you when the LORD first spoke to Moses, he never told him to remove his keffiyeh; only his shoes. Ex 3.5 But y’know, different cultures.

The idea that we activate prayer through our good works, is of course crap. But popular crap. And because the people who practice this crap will actually get their prayers answered—not because they did the rituals right, but because God is good; it’s correlation not causation—they’re convinced the crap works. You’re never gonna change their minds about it. I’ve tried; I’ve failed.

Since they are still legitimately talking with God, I figure that’s the important thing. Yeah they’re wasting their own time and effort in trying to talk with him “right,” and they unnecessarily agitate themselves over the rest of us who “boldly approach the throne of grace” He 4.15 i.e. approach God informally, ’cause we can, ’cause he’s Dad. But don’t let them bug you. Talk with God, and don’t fret at all about making sure you’ve prostrated yourself properly. He doesn’t care about that, and we shouldn’t either.

Typical prayer rituals.

“THE RIGHT SPIRIT.” Before Christians pray, many of ’em advise us to get in the right mindset for prayer—“the right spirit,” they call it. I call it “the prayer mood.” In short, they psyche themselves into feeling like they’re lowly, needy, and humble—they’re approaching the Almighty, and they don’t want to come across like they’re worthy. They psyche themselves into feeling open-minded, accepting, loving, hungry—God might have stuff to give them and share with them, and they don’t want to come across like they’re unwilling to take it.

People who try to teach us on having “the right spirit” for prayer, remind us of all the emotions they figure we need to bring into our prayers with us:

  • Gratitude, ’cause God’s about to grant our wishes.
  • Expectation, ’cause we’re s’posed to expect God to answer us.
  • Awe, ’cause God is awesome.
  • Remorse, since we’re dirty sinners. (And maybe have to beg forgiveness for some recent sins.)
  • Humility, ’cause we’re approaching a holy and mighty God, and we’re not worthy.
  • Confidence—yes, at the very same time as remorse and humility—’cause we’re daughters and sons of God, and oughta come boldly before his throne.

And so on. Some of these emotions straight-up contradict one another, like humility and confidence. Good luck trying to juggle them! But, claim these prayer experts, we gotta. We gotta get this right-spirit cocktail mixed just right, or God’s not gonna like it. Maybe he won’t go so far as to shun us when we approach, like a blind date who discovers they’re horribly allergic to our body spray. But he’s not gonna be as receptive as he would be to someone who knows how to suck up with all their mind.

POSTURE. Western Christians tend to have three pre-approved yoga poses positions to get our bodies into when we pray.

  1. THE MANTIS. Heads down, eyes closed, hands folded. This one is fairly common—especially in churches where the preacher wants you to raise your hands if you have a prayer need, which is hard to do when people are praying with their hands lifted. Speaking of which:
  2. THE SQUIRREL. Hands outstretched, facing the heavens. This is the way the ancients used to pray; it’s sorta like we’re welcoming God. But for some reason many Christians like to do this with their eyes still closed—even with their heads still bowed. Which is probably a good idea if the sun’s really bright, but it makes us look a little less welcoming.
  3. THE DOG. Or “lying prostrate”—facedown, on the ground. This is the way medievals approached their kings. Very appropriate for praying in private; not so much when you’re saying grace during lunch at Taco Bell. (Dare you to try it though.)

Jesus says we’re to keep our prayers private, so a lot of the time Christians pray secretly—during staff meetings, in the middle of classes, in any situation where we can be persecuted. Yet even in these situations, some of the prayer postures will quietly slip out. Christians will close our eyes, fold our hands, lift our hands, face down, face up, and various other “tells” which expose the fact we’re praying. Once you get into the habit of prayer postures, it’s not so easy to get out of!

INCANTATIONS. No, I’m not kidding. An incantation is a series of words one has to say as part of a religious ritual. It’s not just a pagan thing; Christians do incantations too.

’Cause we’re taught, “When you pray, you gotta start with, ‘Dear LORD’ or ‘Precious Heavenly Father’ or ‘Father God,’ or ‘Abba Father’ ”—we’re taught we have to “dial up” God with certain initial phrases. As if he isn’t fully aware of our actions and intentions every second of our lives—“Oh, are you speaking to Me? I thought you were just talking to yourself.”

And then there’s Amen when we disconnect. Oh, and don’t forget to pray for all this stuff “in Jesus name.” Doesn’t Jesus tell us to ask for stuff in his name? Ac 14.13-14 Isn’t it a guarantee he’ll grant us our requests? So that’s a necessary requirement, they’ll insist.

No, I’m not saying we should never ask for stuff in Jesus’s name. We absolutely should. But it’s absolutely not an incantation: It implies we’re asking as Jesus would want us to ask. And if we don’t, it won’t work. That’s why it’s not an incantation.

Neither are the rote prayers we’ll sometimes use, like the Jesus Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer, which we think might do one thing or another. We can’t just recite words without some real meaning and intent behind them. They don’t do anything otherwise; they’re just noise.

TONGUES. This’ll get me in trouble with certain Pentecostals, but it’s still true: We don’t have to pray in tongues every single time we pray. Tongues are optional. Always optional.

’Cause these folks insist if we don’t pray in tongues, we haven’t properly invited the Holy Spirit to be part of our prayer. And that’s utter rubbish. Whom do you think gives us the power to pray and be heard in the first place? Whom do you think is talking to us when God talks back? Whom do you think is indwelling you right this minute? The Holy Spirit is never not part of a prayer. (Unless, obviously, it’s a fake prayer, and we’re only showing off instead of talking with God.)

Tongues can definitely enhance our prayer lives… but what enhances ’em far more is following Jesus. I’ve known far too many people who suck at following Jesus, and they’re pretty sure their religious activities make up for this, which is why they emphasize tongues so much: Praying in tongues is easy! But their personal lives are a mess—because duh, they’re not following Jesus. Tongues isn’t a substitute for devotion. Neither is any other prayer practice.

And so forth.

These are the prayer rituals I come across among the Christians I know. Different Christians are gonna know of different rituals. Like how to set up your prayer closet, what kind of worship music to play in the background, whether to use candles and which kind, whether to use a prayer shawl and how, beads and prayer mats and prayer journals and all sorts of other tchotchkes.

I’ve written on a few of these things, but I’m gonna wrap up this particular article and remind you: No, you don’t need any of these things. You might want them; you might find ’em useful. Are they needs? No.

Prayer is talking with God. That’s all. Now, when you’re making a phone call to a family member who lives far away, do you have to go into a special private room for phone calls? (Sometimes you do; the kids are noisy!) Do you light candles, put on soothing music, kneel on a mat face-down, and recite an incantation to this family member? “Blessed art thou, Bubbe my grandmother, mother of my mother, who art in Denver; hallowed be thy name”? No, and she’d think you’re ’shrooming. God knows better, but he likewise looks at our similar behavior towards him as just as ridiculous. It’s not really making us closer, y’know.

It is making some pretty good money for people who sell books about how to get better at prayer, though. Save your money and just pray.