When I ask people about what keeps them from praying, they often list reasons like being too busy, too distracted, or not knowing where to start. A few really get honest and say, “I can’t imagine a loving God” or “I’m too angry at God to pray.”
I don’t think everyone has the same exact struggle with prayer, but there is something about that last reply that makes me wonder about a root issue for many (most?) of us. At the heart of our struggles to pray is this: Perhaps we don’t pray because we can’t imagine a God who is worth praying to.
Yes, life is busy, but if we could imagine a loving and attentive God who is present with us like a parent, would we be more inclined to change our schedules?
Sure, distractions are an issue, but we can learn how to focus our attention. If we imagined a God who is loving and present, then we certainly can develop a few healthy prayer habits.
Prayer can appear daunting for those who have not been taught how to quiet themselves before God, but if we thought that God loved us, we can read books and ask others to teach us.
This may not be true for everyone, but it’s at least true in my experience. I’ll offer the excuses about my time or my ability to focus, but deep down, there’s another issue at the root: how I imagine God.
I don’t write this to shame anyone. I truly believe that many Christians have been taught that God could take us or leave us, that God is angry or disappointed in us, and that God is just a breath away from banishing us to hell if we make one false move. Who would be motivated to pray to that sort of God?
We don’t imagine the father in the Prodigal Son story. We imagine a judge, oftentimes an angry judge.
I wasn’t motivated to pray and I became discouraged when I attempted prayer because I didn’t imagine God as a loving parent. I imagined this passive-aggressive judge playing hard to get.
Mind you, a loving parent will still help us face our flaws and challenge us to make changes, but there is a level of presence and commitment in a loving parent that I had been missing with God.
Jesus wanted us to start calling God our own parent, he welcomed his followers into his family, and he sent his Holy Spirit to dwell among us. To accept the words of Jesus as the basis of our relationship with God can dramatically change our motivation to pray and our response to prayers that don’t give us the results we expect.
Here is an excerpt from my new book, Flee, Be Silent, Pray: Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians, that digs deeper into this root issue of love and trust for God that can dramatically impact how we pray:
The unconditional, parental love of God is precisely what Jesus communicated to us through his baptism and transfiguration. In these two pivotal moments of Jesus’ ministry, anxious Christians will find more than enough hope.
What formed the foundation of Jesus’ ministry? The beginning of his ministry (baptism) and the point at which he turned toward Jerusalem (transfiguration) were both preceded by identical statements from God the Father: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:16-17 NIV)
While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5 NIV)
It is easy to jump past these statements, just as it’s easy to overlook how frequently Jesus set off to pray by himself. If Jesus is a member of the Trinity, we might ask, why did he need the affirmation of God? Why did he wake up early to pray, pull praying all-nighters, and venture into the abandoned wilderness?
To a certain degree, Jesus modeled what ministry and a relationship with God is supposed to look like. He was fully God and fully human, but he mysteriously manifested the power of God through his humanity. Paul writes: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:5-7 NIV). I’ll leave the trinitarian particulars of Paul’s statement to people who are smarter and better read than I am. What we can’t avoid is the fact that Jesus ministered fully in human likeness and received the loving affirmation of God, who identified Jesus as his beloved Son at two pivotal moments in his ministry.
Before Jesus preached about the kingdom, healed the sick, or dined with the outcast, he received affirmation from God. Because of that affirmation, he had nothing to prove. His identity was secure, and there was nothing anyone could give to him or take away from him that mattered more than the loving affirmation of the Father. He was God’s beloved Son, filled with love to share with those in need and to protect himself against the anger and criticism of others.
Jesus’ love for others was ever present, empowering him to show compassion to the crowds who were tired, hungry, and needy, always asking for another miracle. His love extended to the quarrelsome Samaritan woman, who engaged in a theological debate in the heat of the day in order to mask her personal history. When his friends ran away, executioners drove nails into his body, and mockers shouted insults, Jesus gasped words of forgiveness. As Peter stood before him sopping wet, half naked, afraid, and ashamed of denying him, Jesus extended mercy and acceptance to his friend.
Where did this capacity for love come from? While I don’t claim to know the deep mysteries of God, the Bible appears to point to the baptism and the transfiguration as essential high points in the ministry of Jesus. We ignore them at our peril. Here is God literally speaking words of love and affirmation for his Son.
If you’ve ever thought that hearing God speak from a cloud would help you figure out what to do with your life, that’s exactly what God did for Jesus. It is amazing to think that God could have said anything at all to Jesus at the start of his ministry and before its final climax. Yet he chose to say, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”
What would we expect God to say to us from a cloud? What would be so important that God would literally shout it from the sky? The anxious Christian’s version of God’s message would sound something like “Don’t forget that the Bible is inerrant and fully inspired in all that it ordains and teaches!” or “You should have gone on that mission trip!” or “Why don’t you pray more?” or “Don’t ask any questions about the doctrine statement you signed at your church!” or “I hope you are having pure thoughts right now!” or “You better not be ashamed of sharing the gospel. Now what’s your name again?” Christians from traditions other than evangelicalism may imagine other versions of this frustrated, disappointed God who just wishes we could get our act together.
The force of God’s affirming love for Jesus may be lost on us. We assume that of course God loved Jesus, since Jesus is God and God loves God and of course God would like Godself—or however the Trinity works. But just as Jesus came to change what his listeners thought about the kingdom of God, Jesus also helped us redefine the love and acceptance of God. Jesus modeled a life grounded in the security of God’s love. This preemptive love and affirmation introduces us to grace and to the pure gospel of God’s loving care for us as our Creator. If we can grasp what God wants us to know through these interactions with Jesus, the rest of the Gospels make a lot more sense. God’s single line for a beloved Son summarizes the parable of the prodigal son.
Whether we have rebelled and run away or we have stayed behind and judged those who don’t measure up, God the Father runs out to both of us. Both the rebellious and the self-righteous are being pursued by the parental love of God. Both have a place with the Father. And as a word of caution to those who believe they have earned God’s approval through their religious practices, those who are willing to confess their failures are more likely to recognize the love of God.
Read More About How to Pray…
After years of anxious, hard-working spirituality, I found peace with God by practicing contemplative prayer. I’ve written an introduction to this historic Christian practice titled:
Flee, Be Silent, Pray:
Ancient Prayers for Anxious Christians
On sale for $8.49 (Kindle)
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**Photo by Ian Froome on Unsplash