"Tell me, what do you love?" The pastor who taught me about prayer asks this question whenever he helps people learn how to pray. He believes it’s crucial because of his conviction that prayer is not some ethereal spiritual act disconnected from the shape of our lives. Rather, he insists that it is our free-flowing communion with God—something that happens amid (not in spite of) all the wonderfully peculiar things (our passions, desires, quirks, and hopes) that make us unique.
If someone loves to garden or run, to take photographs or concoct magic in the kitchen, then this will tell a person something about the way he or she will encounter God and speak to Him. These common moments provide the particular spaces where each of us should look most keenly for God’s presence, because He knows us and meets us in the subtle contours of our souls.
This vision for prayer shreds any false dichotomy between our life with God and, well, our life. Jesus’ incarnation teaches us, at the least, that our body and the most human details of our existence (eating, sleeping, working, laughing, crying, playing) are not at odds with our encounter with God but, rather, are precisely where He desires to embrace us. In other words, prayer draws us deeper into the love of God and deeper into the art of living (as if these two could ever be separated). Or, as Francis of Assisi put it, “The result of prayer is life.”
The fact is that prayer shapes us as people invigorated by the power of the Spirit, who are learning how to freely live and love. It forms us as children of God.
Too often, we are tempted to view prayer as something we are to accomplish so that we can then move on with our real business. Perhaps we think of it only as fuel for the work we need to achieve, or we consider prayer to be the spiritual task required before we can receive blessing. If, however, prayer roots us more deeply into our true life, then our attitude toward it overwhelms these small visions.
The fact is that prayer shapes us as people invigorated by the power of the Spirit, who are learning how to freely live and love. It forms us as children of God, helps us resist the burdensome lie that we are wholly responsible for our well-being, and teaches us to let go of our anxieties because the One who conquered death has told us we need not fear.
Prayer teaches us that though we may be hungry, we can trust our Father to give us our daily bread. It molds us as men and women who believe with our whole heart that though evil may threaten to crush us, God’s kingdom will come on earth even as it already exists in heaven. Prayer returns us, again and again, to what the apostle John described as life “to the full” (John 10:10 NIV). In other words, prayer sustains us with what we most need to fully live: God.
Because prayer happens while we are immersed in the particulars of life, there is no single formula to follow. The church bears witness to a long history of faithful believers communicating with God in a diversity of ways. This has certainly been true in my life. There have been seasons when my prayers were disciplined and measured and others when they were spontaneous and energetic. There have also been times that the only words I could muster were, “Lord, have mercy.”
The experience of the prophet Elijah provides helpful instruction here, as his prayers varied dramatically. The common thread, however, was the way he continually encountered the truth that his life depended on the Lord: If God failed to act on his behalf and sustain him, then he would be ruined.
When Elijah met the prophets of Baal atop Mt. Carmel, he entered a crucial showdown (1 Kings 18:20-40). One prophet for Yahweh, 450 for Baal. Each side would place a sacrifice on an altar. Each would pray. Whichever sacrifice was consumed by fire would signal who served the true God.
In prayer, it’s true that we search for God, but it’s even more true that God comes for us.
Baal’s prophets went first with frenzied petitions, cutting themselves and performing ecstatic acts of devotion. Hours passed, and there was no fire. When Elijah stepped up for his turn (only after upping the ante by soaking the ox with 12 large jars of water), he uttered a plain, succinct prayer, asking God to intervene. Fire fell, and the sizzling heat consumed the ox, the altar, and the water.
In that moment, Elijah exhibited absolute confidence in God. Only days later, however, gloomy Elijah groveled in despair. Surely, we muse, if you’ve seen fire fall from the sky, your faith would never falter. Yet, immediately after the Mt. Carmel face-off, Elijah received word that Queen Jezebel intended to kill him. This time, the prophet was not courageous; he wilted (19:3). Elijah plopped down under a tree and asked to be left to die, but God’s angel met him, fed him, and prodded him toward Mt. Horeb.
Of course, Horeb (or Sinai, also known as the Mountain of God) holds much significance for Israel. It is the place where Moses met God in the burning bush and later received the Ten Commandments. For an Israelite, Horeb represents the fact that God is always present and loves to speak to His people. With the burning bush, God went looking for Moses hiding in the desert. And in the cave, God sought out Elijah, who believed his life was finished. In prayer, it’s true that we search for God, but it’s even more true that God comes for us.
Disillusioned and weary, Elijah prayed to God from the cave. Actually, his words were more of a jaded complaint: “I alone am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (v. 10). Prayer, we discover, does not have to be vibrant or full of faith. It doesn’t even necessarily need to be correct (he was not the only faithful one remaining, after all). Elijah’s prayer (like certain psalms) teaches us that if we can simply be honest with God, that will, for the moment at least, suffice.
A wise pastor once gave me a liberating piece of advice: “Pray as you can, and not as you can’t.” Whenever we live under the burden that our prayers must follow a prescribed form, we easily forget the most important part of our prayer actually isn’t our contribution—the most vital fact is that we have a loving, powerful God who listens to us with pleasure and longs to guide us into life that is beautiful, good, and true. God’s words sustain us whenever ours turn thin. And in those moments when our spiritual energy wanes, He is the one who seeks us out and carries us forward.