You may have heard that prayer is essential to living a spiritual life. We often hear people say “I need to pray about that” or “take it to God in prayer”. But what actually is prayer, how should we do it, and why is it important? The first question we need to answer is what even is prayer?
There are as many answers to this question as there are people who pray. One very common understanding of prayer is that it is a way we ask God to do something for us. We ask God to heal Grandma’s cancer or help little Jimmy stop getting into trouble at school or to keep the weather nice for our family picnic.
And this is a great place to start, but it’s a terrible place to stop. This kind of prayer, traditionally referred to as a petition, is shallow. It is primarily concerned with what you need and how you can get God to give it to you. It’s a kind of negotiation with your creator.
If you have kids you may be familiar with this from the other side.
“Mom, can I please play video games? I promise to be good”
“Dad, tell my sister to stop beating me up”.
As a parent, you know there’s nothing wrong with these kinds of questions but you’re holding out for the day when your child asks you something more like :
“I’m having trouble with my friends at school, what do you think I should do?”.
That transition from asking God to do something for you to asking God for wisdom and guidance is a sign of maturity in your prayer life, just as it is in our children. Our prayer lives are meant to mature.
If we always view God as the Cosmic Coke Machine into which we put all the right things and push the right buttons and out pops what we want, we will be praying at an immature level. But that doesn’t mean we should stop at asking God for guidance and wisdom either.
As we continue to mature in our prayer we discover yet another, deeper level. It is the simple love of God and gratitude for all his works. There is no sweeter moment for a parent than when a child says something like
“Thank you for everything you do for me, I love you”.
Usually, it is after a child has grown and had time to reflect on why you didn’t give them every cookie they asked for, or how they didn’t accept the advice you gave them because they weren’t ready to hear it. Words like these from a child mean you have helped them to grow into a person with humility and understanding.
Yet, even beyond gratitude there is a hidden mystery in prayer that runs deeper than any metaphor of parent child relationships can describe. It is the mystical union, the joining of what is mortal with what is eternal. It is a kind of prayer which moves beyond what God has done or could do. It moves beyond what you need and want and are grateful for. It moves beyond ideas and words altogether.
This is the hidden mystery behind prayer, it is the contemplative experience, it is what every mystic is searching for. Because this kind of prayer exists beyond ideas and formulations it is completely possible, and even quite common, for a person to be living this kind of prayer without even realizing it.
It is less something you do as something you become. This is what Paul meant when he taught us to pray without ceasing. This is the prayer that envelopes our entire being. This is the prayer all the others were preparing us for.
And so, this prayer is the most important. Again, that doesn’t mean the other prayers are bad. It’s good to pray for healing, or for wisdom, or to give thanks. These are all genuine expressions of our human condition, and being real and genuine with God is so important. So pray those prayers because they are good.
But also find the prayer which is not an idea, which is not a conversation with God but a union with God. It should be the ultimate goal of every Christian to become like Christ. To have our being in Christ. To live in him as he lives in us. With patience and genuine desire you can become this kind of prayer. And I pray that you do.
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