Sometimes I feel like the disciple who said, “Lord, teach us to pray …”
Although I have been a believer since I was 7 or 8 and have prayed regularly, I sometimes have an empty feeling about my prayer life. That emptiness develops when I have been praying earnestly about some person or some crisis. When it seems that God has answered the prayer and granted what I was asking for, I celebrate and then a sense of apathy comes because my prayers have been answered.
The emptiness often comes when I have prayed long and earnestly with no clear answer or result. Hopelessness and despair settle in and prayer seems pointless.
I realize this empty feeling shows a lapse of faith. Having discussed the problem with spiritual people whose wisdom and insight I value, I understand that almost every person sometimes has the same experience at times. Some classify the feeling as a “dry spell” in their relationship with God, and others see this as a lapse of faith.
I don’t fully understand, but I think my soul hibernates at times for a renewal that opens new connections with God.
Books on prayer abound, describing and analyzing prayer as one of the great spiritual disciplines. My favorite book is Richard Foster’s “Prayer.” Foster looks at the many aspects of prayer, showing how prayer can enrich worship experiences and personal relationship with God. He also shows how prayer brings greater self-awareness.
Some of the wisest insights about prayer come from people who lived in isolation and had time and occasion to search deeply into ways of communicating with God.
At times prayer feels like sweet incense rising up to heaven. At times prayer is like a soothing balm bathing my soul with peace and trust. At times prayer seems like a raging fire in my spirit as it reaches out to God and all creation.
For many years I have been an advocate of simple prayers. For example, we think about a special concern or a person in need of health or spiritual care and we offer a prayer immediately. The “minute prayer” satisfies the need to communicate with God frequently about all life, but it does not build a lasting connection or relationship with God.
What creates that relationship is the song-like prayer rehearsing what God has done in creation or in salvation or in responding to the prayer requests of believers. The relationship grows when I thank God for the amazing qualities of Jesus, our Lord and the redeemer of the world — the embodiment of God’s love.
Because of the many people — friends, family, colleagues, students, former students, church members — on my prayer list, the burden often feels too overwhelming. So I have to re-think the theology of prayer.
Since God knows the needs of every person before I pray, is my prayer unimportant or unnecessary? What good are my prayers? I believe in prayer, but my prayers are finite and God’s presence is infinite. So how does prayer work and how is it beneficial?
Prayer is communication with God. When asked to teach the disciple how to pray, Jesus gave a model prayer of 34 words, recorded in Luke 11: “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.”
When Jesus faced the cross, he prayed intently about the event, asking to evade it, and finally submitting his will to God’s. In Paul’s letters he prays for people, for churches, for conflicts, for whole regions, for troublemakers. His letters are seasoned with spiritual prayers.
Then how do we pray? We pray with reverence for God, with faith in his power and love. We sometimes pray very specific prayers about people and circumstances. We often pray to glorify God. When we feel that our prayers are not rising above our head, we open our hearts and let God warm and revive us.
So what is my theology of prayer? It is very simple. Our prayers are the expressions of our faith and trust in God. Our prayers are love messages. Our prayers are sobs of pain over suffering. Even when we are petitioning, the fact we pray shows our faith. And when we don’t know how to pray, Paul teaches us that the Spirit translates.