Prayer: Bending God to My Requests. Really?

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”
― Søren Kierkegaard

Too often my prayer life appears more like the toddler asking a parent, or perhaps a grandparent (knowing a request will more likely be granted) for some favorite piece of candy. Prayer boils down to making a list of demands of God. We want certain things, demanding time certain delivery. Now. We ask with urgent appeals, maybe even going so far as bargaining with God so that he will grant what we want, ASAP.

We often fail to recognize what prayer is really all about. Instead of bending God to our world, reducing our discipleship to making a shopping list we carry into God’s storehouse, prayer in the Biblical sense is more about God bending us toward him, putting his list, what he wants for us and the world, on our heart.

But this is not natural, at least initially. We often come hardwired to respond in certain ways which do not resemble God’s list, but rather ours. Prayer however, when coupled with several other disciplines we will explore this year on our inward/outward journey are designed by God to weaken or break our natural response mechanisms to life. The contrast between praying our way and praying God’s way, and similarly behaving our way or God’s, perhaps becomes most evident when we are engaged in conflict.

I still recall my dive into a different kind of praying during a silent retreat in Mexico many years ago. Up to that time, I had practiced daily “quiet times” and even done a wilderness retreat with a forty-eight-hour solo component during college, all of which were significant but had not prepared me for praying a different way, a Jesus way. The first few days of the retreat were difficult as it took time to compose my soul. There were many distractions in my heart. The flood of thoughts from my inner noise kept cascading across my mind like a full blown waterfall from the winter thaw. (Pause for a minute: Sit with the photo of Snoqualmie Falls below for a minute. Listen to you inner noise. Can you hear?)

At that time in my life, I was coming out of a stubborn dry spell, after some major interpersonal conflict in a church division that had occurred and disagreement in some ministry decisions on our leadership team. At one level, I was not sure if I wanted to continue in ministry. Here again, the importance of the disciplines of disengagement found their role in my life. My “epidermal” responses were in a ready state, almost pushing me into automatic, programmed modes of behaving, responding to the stimuli and conflict all around me. How hard it is to be a Kingdom person in times like these.

Dallas Willard reminds us that solitude and silence allow us to escape the normal patterns of our epidermal responses, giving space with God’s help, for a different kind of Kingdom response, for praying a different way. God is not interested in “first strike” capability in a person’s response mechanism. Solitude and silence “break the pell-mell rush through life and create a kind of inner space that permits people to become aware of what they are doing and what they are about to do.” Again, he notes, “muddy water becomes clear if you only let it be still for a while.” (Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 358-359).

Part of the process in this kind of prayer is best practiced while observing some kind of solitude and silence. Pausing to tap into the current of the Kingdom, finding our place in the alternative set of values, behaviors and attitudes, being renewed, and finding a new way of thinking about the same events we have just experienced. This is praying as Jesus wants.

Next Up: Praying with the Examen

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