Matt Woodley observes that when we start to realize God’s role in our prayer life, the things we assumed would draw us away from prayer—pain, sadness, distractions, anxiety, lust, anger, and even our inconsistent prayer life—are the very things that connect us to Him.
For nearly a hundred years, a beautiful mural of Jesus has held pride of place in the Sanctuary of Mercy Church in northeastern Spain. But in August of 2012, an 80-year-old church member named Cecilia Gimenez decided to “touch up” the painting. Ill-advisedly, Cecilia worked solo and botched her project.
At first, Spanish authorities claimed that someone had vandalized the mural. When Cecilia finally came forward, The New York Times called her do-it-yourself effort one of the “worst art restoration projects of all time.” The BBC reported that the once-dignified portrait of Jesus “now resembles a crayon sketch of a very hairy [and fuzzy] monkey in an ill-fitting tunic.”
In the ensuing media storm, Cecilia didn’t seem to understand all the fuss. After all, she was just trying to help. At last report, the town council was trying to recruit real art experts in an attempt to repair Cecilia’s “restoration” work.
I’ve never destroyed a work of art, but I can relate to this woman in at least one way: I know what it’s like to botch my well-intentioned but solo spiritual “projects.” For example, I’d like to offer God a consistently beautiful prayer life, a spiritual work of art that’s filled with praise and petitions, passion and power, focus and intensity. But when I honestly assess my prayer life, it usually resembles a spiritual “crayon sketch.” It’s not that I don’t pray. It’s just that I often pray poorly, feebly trying to connect with God while I fight distractions, nurse grudges, fret about petty matters, slog through doubts and questions, and sometimes feel more of God’s “absence” than his presence.
After serving as a pastor for over 20 years, I’ve met some true prayer warriors, but I’ve met many more prayer botchers—people who struggle in prayer, people like me. We struggle with hurts like a friend of mine who told me, “I try to pray about my wayward son, but it feels like picking up a fallen and live electrical cable; I just can’t touch it.” We struggle with distractions like the poet Denise Levertov, who tried to pray and then confessed to God, “I stop to think about You, and my mind at once like a minnow darts into the shadows.” Like the desperate father crying out, “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24), we wrestle with doubts. Sometimes, we even stagger under their weight.
No wonder the apostle Paul offered the following terse analysis of our prayer lives: “We do not know how to pray as we should” (Rom. 8:26). In other words, when it comes to prayer, we’re all incompetent.
Un-botching your prayer life
Is it possible to turn lackluster prayer lives into beautiful works of art? First, let me state emphatically that I’m a huge fan of spiritual disciplines, those bodily practices—like reading Scripture, being alone and silent with God, attending worship services, serving the poor and vulnerable, confessing our sins to fellow believers—that help us pay attention to God’s presence and will for our lives. All of us need to develop a pattern of concrete, consistent, and creative ways to be like Mary, “who was seated at the Lord’s feet, listening to His word” (Luke 10:39).
Unfortunately, however, many of us approach prayer with an unbiblical assumption: It’s up to me to learn how to pray as I ought. In the heart of an ordinary Christian, it sounds something like this: If I could just pray better, longer, more consistently; if I could pray with fewer distractions and doubts; if I could clean up my lust and anger and greed and resentments, then I could finally get my prayer life together and connect deeply with God.
This approach to spirituality undermines the heart of the gospel, which, as Tim Keller often reminds people, turns “religion” on its head. Religion says, “Obey God so you can be loved.” The gospel says, “In Christ, you are deeply loved; therefore obey.” Applied to our prayer life, we no longer have to say, “Un-botch your prayer life so you can come to God,” but “In Christ, you are connected to the father, so start living like it.”
Then how should you approach your prayer life? Consider the following two scenarios (adapted from an illustration by D. A. Carson). On Monday, after waking up too late for your “quiet time,” you rush to work where you get chewed out by your boss, contend with unreasonable customers, and eat too much for lunch (for the third time this week). You come home and throw a frozen pizza in the oven, impatiently rush the kids to bed, and then watch a few sitcoms instead of finally carving out some time for prayer. Feeling ashamed and disconnected from God, you manage to squeak out one pathetic prayer: “I blew it, lord, but tomorrow I’ll try harder.” Then on Tuesday, you spring out of bed 30 minutes early for your extended quiet time. At work, your boss praises your efforts, you share your faith with a co-worker, and you spend your lunch hour fasting as you volunteer at the local homeless shelter. When you arrive home, you make broiled pecan-crusted salmon, patiently help the kids with their homework, host your church’s small group meeting by offering deep theological insights, and then spend another hour in intercessory prayer. You drift off to sleep feeling satisfied that you’ve finally gotten your spiritual act together.
On which day did you act like a sub-Christian Christian? Both. Why? Because on both days you were trusting in your own efforts to connect with God. Despite your firm belief that we’re saved by Christ through grace alone, on both days you lived as if your prayer life depended on you.
But when Paul said, “We don’t know how to pray as we should,” he didn’t mean we should fall back on our own resources. He wanted us to return to the heart of the gospel. In other words, regardless of our current or past spiritual condition, “we have peace with God through our lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Even when we’re clueless about how to pray, “the spirit . . . helps our weakness,” interceding for us “with groanings too deep for words” (Rom. 8:26).
You are not alone
In one sense, this entire approach to prayer is based on a doctrine called justification by faith. It simply means that we always approach God on the basis of Christ’s shed blood for us, not our ability to spot and fix our spiritual issues. But it isn’t just an abstract doctrine; it also has profound and practical implications for our prayer life. For instance, consider again Paul’s statement that “we don’t know how to pray as we should.” Let’s say that you know you need to pray, you might even want to pray, but you just don’t know how to do it. Perhaps you’re overwhelmed with guilt, grief, or depression. Like my friend with the wayward son, you consider prayer almost a dangerous task. You don’t have the right words. You don’t even have any words. How do you pray?
Remember that you aren’t alone. The Holy Spirit will help you in your weakness. So you can offer up your groans and sighs, your defective little crayon sketches, and with a few masterful strokes, the Spirit turns them into a work of art and brings it to God. Your role is simple: come into his presence through Jesus the son, and let God’s Spirit groan within you.
Or let’s take another recurrent problem of prayer—distractions. You try to pray, but your mind flits from one thought to the next. How do you handle your short attention span? Well, you could tell yourself you’re a spiritual slob and must try harder. Or you could really believe that you stand in the grace of Jesus at this very distracted moment. You are not alone. As a matter of fact, the Spirit is already gently reminding you of Jesus’ words, “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
When we start to realize God’s role in our prayer life, the things we assumed would draw us away from prayer—emotional pain, sadness, distractions, anxiety, lust, anger, and even our inconsistent prayer life—actually draw us more deeply into prayer. If you feel insecure, pray about it. If you feel far from God, pray about it. If you feel anger or even hatred towards someone who hurt you, pray about it. Offer your hate to God. If you feel abandoned by the God who said He’d always be there for you, pray about it.
About four years ago my personal and professional life unraveled. It’s a long story with a happy ending, but it didn’t seem happy at the time. Most of my prayers were “answered” in a way exactly opposite what I had prayed. Needless to say, I was steamed with God. I used the book of Psalms to rail against him, and then I just ran out of words. Raw and abandoned, I honestly didn’t know what to say anymore. So I just sat with him. I even remember saying to God, “I can’t pray, at least with words. So I will sit here and read this novel, but I want You here too. Stay with me.”
It certainly wasn’t my best or boldest prayer, but God answered my request. He stayed and transformed me in ways that I can’t fathom yet. He also taught me a precious lesson: ultimately, when you have Jesus (or more importantly, when Jesus has you), you really can’t botch your prayer life—if you’ll come to Him, again and again.
The article was selected from In Touch magazine.