When I was a baby Christian in my early 20s, I decided I wanted to be a prayer warrior … someone who really knew God and saw lots of results from their prayers. It was a lofty and very naïve goal.
Fifty years later I feel like I’m finally learning to pray!
In these intervening years I’ve wanted to quit talking to God in different seasons because of the common frustrations of talking to a God who isn’t like us and who doesn’t answer prayers as I expected He would.
Here are four lessons I’ve learned about why prayer is so hard.
1. I expect God to think like I think. It makes sense to me, for example, that God would want my dad to come to Him sooner rather than later. If I follow His rules in prayer then the boxes will be checked and voila my prayer should be answered.
I prayed for my dad for years. Decades actually. Finally, I realized my father did know God but his generation never talked about their faith like ours did. I was expecting God to change my dad to fit my vision of who he should be.
2. I expect God to see like I see. For many years my prayers for my children were for their success, their friendships, their accomplishments. Being thoroughly schooled in our culture’s thinking on the benefits of self-confidence, I wanted God to bless my children’s efforts to prosper in school in every area, believing that was what they needed to experience a positive self-image.
But God sees the heart and knows it matters far more than exterior success. He did not answer my prayers for my daughter’s friendships because He wanted to teach her to depend fully on Him instead of friends. Her loneliness in high school was used to deepen her faith more than being surrounded by a group of girlfriends. Today she is a godly woman, mama to seven sons, and a gifted wise Bible teacher.
3. I have a lot more pride than I ever imagined. I’ve always worked at being nice, polite, and kind, so I always assumed pride was not my big sin. In the parable of the prodigal son, Jesus made it clear the father loved the older brother as much as the wayward son, but the older brother’s pride in being good kept him outside the door. My pride keeps me at a distance from God more often than I realize.
4. I don’t understand God’s ways, “My ways are not your ways” (Isaiah 55:8) so in my disappointment I retreat from Him. Verses like Isaiah 45:7, “I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the LORD who does all these things” make me want to give up in prayer because I don’t know how to relate to a God who creates darkness and calamity. But God knows if He answered all my prayers I’d see Him simply as a vending machine, as the Wizard of Oz, and not as He really is as LORD of all.
All the unanswered prayers, the disappointments in God, the bewilderment at the way He works, have birthed and grown in me a love and awe for God I would have never known otherwise. I have seen He is God and I am not. And it is all for my good.
So why should I keep praying?
Because I am His loved daughter. Though I have often been discouraged in prayer, I have never walked away for good. I belong to God. I’ve always returned and said, Teach me, Lord. Help me understand and learn and grow. Not my will but “Your will be done” (Matthew 6:10).
I am His. I am loved. He is my perfect Father. Just as I delighted to hear my children tell me their stories … most of the time … so God loves to hear from me … all the time. He loves to hear me say to Him, “I will follow You and trust you,” just as I loved hearing my children choose to trust me and to believe I had their best interests at heart.
If you belong to God He always wants to hear from you too. Here are three things I’ve learned about prayer that might help and encourage you.
1. Prayer is not a formula but a relationship. God wants to hear from me, but He also wants to talk to me … if I will take the time to listen. It’s not a formal procedure but an ongoing conversation … all day … back and forth.
2. Prayer needs both honesty and truth. I tell God how I feel. I write in my journal words I wouldn’t want anyone else to read. And sometimes I catch myself saying something untrue as I’m talking to God. Then I say, “That’s not the truth about my husband, or my friend, Lord, it’s just how I feel right now.”
3. Prayer needs surrender. In any prayer, or at the end of every day’s conversation I express to God some form of surrender, words that echo Jesus’ instruction in the Lord’s prayer, “Your will be done.” The key to prayer is bringing my woes to God is surrender and trust before saying amen.
This is the longing of God’s heart toward us, that we learn to trust Him. And it is the longing of our hearts to trust Him fully.
Rather than giving up in prayer, keep going back to God asking Him to help you in every circumstance of every day. Remember this promise: “ … casting all your anxieties on Him, because He cares for you” (1 Peter 5:7).
In this new year I’d love for you to join me in growing in prayer by reading my new book My Heart Ever His: 40 Prayers for Women. It’s in our store!
May you see Him as He is and may your heart be ever His!