We can recite a prayer and go through the motions of talking to God. But we know (and certainly, God knows!) when we don’t ‘feel’ what we’re saying.
Praying is not about saying the right words. It is an intention and a relationship with God. As Victor Hugo said, ‘Certain thoughts are prayers. There are moments when, whatever be the attitude of the body, the soul is on its knees.’ How do we reach a point when our prayers have that level of sincerity and honesty? Or more importantly, what stops us from getting there? Here are some questions to ask.
1. What kind of God are you praying to?
We all hold a certain image of God. Some of us think that He is distant and uncaring—all-Powerful, but cold. We feel that we need to earn his Love and compete for His attention. Or, we may have an image of a fickle God. We think that the bad things that happen to us are punishment for something we had done wrong, but wonder why other people have it so much easier. We may feel—on a subconscious level—a deep resentment towards Him for whatever he have gone through.These issues can prevent us from trusting God. In fact, we may not even like God, or feel that He likes us.
The first step is to acknowledge these issues and bring them to God. Have a good, long talk with Him. Vent your frustrations, raise your fists against the heavens. Don’t worry, He can take it—He’s heard it all before. It’s okay to have questions, if they lead us towards a more sincere and honest relationship with God. ‘Lord, this is what I’m afraid of. Please remove these obstacles and help me see you as Goodness and Creativity itself.’
If you have a hard time even doing that, then start from scratch. Erase this image of God you have in your mind—inherited from childhood, traditional religions, or negative experiences with other people—and ask, ‘What kind of God can I trust?’ Imagine the kindest, most loving, most inspiring God you can.
2. Who do you see yourself to be?
Do you feel unworthy? Many of us pray timidly, fearfully, apologetically. ‘I’m sorry to bother you, God…’ ‘This is just a small thing, but…’ Or, we fall into a vicious cycle. We want to pray, but feel guilty that we haven’t been praying, so we don’t pray anymore.
But God loves us! It’s hard to believe that, but it’s true. God loves us more than we can ever love Him back. He is happy to hear from us. He is eager to bring us closer to Him and give us the peace, joy and renewal that we seek. When we go to Him in prayer, He doesn’t growl, ‘What do you want now?’ He welcomes us like the proverbial Prodigal Son (or Daughter), and listens to each word with an infinite patience and understanding.
We’re not used to this kind of unconditional love. We’re used to being judged, measured against social standards, criticized, abandoned, betrayed. We’re trained to work for rewards or to win approval. But we don’t need to do anything to win God’s love—there is nothing we can give Him that doesn’t come from Him already.
The only thing He asks us to do in prayer is to show up—with an open heart and mind.
3. What do you expect God to do?
Sometimes we treat God like one big Divine Vendo Machine: insert prayer, get wish. But when we truly open our hearts to Him, build a deep and consistent prayer life, and trust that He has the best possible intentions for us, then we can let go of a particular outcome.
For example, when we pray for a job, and don’t get it, we can say, ‘God doesn’t care!’ or we can think, ‘Maybe He has something better in store for us,’ or ‘Maybe there’s a reason why I shouldn’t have gotten that job—a danger or difficulty that He averted before I knew it.’ Or maybe there’s a specific lesson that He wants us to learn. Does He want us to grow in perseverance and patience, as we stick it out in our current job? Does He have a mission He wants us to fulfill? Or—if there is no reason we can think of for His decision—can this be an opportunity to grow in faith, and turn to God (not our job, or any material thing) for our peace and fulfillment?
Though prayer can change circumstances, the most powerful thing it can do is to change us. We are stronger, and wiser. We stop obsessing over the problem that first brought us to prayer, and realize that there is more to us (and life) than what we thought. And we come to feel that whatever we ask is so much smaller than what we have already been given: the unconditional love of a God who is with us every step of the way. ‘We have to pray with our eyes on God, not on the difficulties,’ said Oswald Chambers.