The Lunatic’s Guide to Prayer
I sometimes imagine that life as Christian is like living in a mental asylum, in which we are gradually, cured of all the lunacies we once had. We progress slowly from ward to ward, being healed of our various psychoses and hallucinations, and slowly gaining a mind that approaches reality. Well such is my paraphrase of Romans 12:12 (the renewal of your mind").
One area in which my treatment has been long and painful is on the subject of prayer (and who knows - I may still be slightly unhinged). I have believed many crazy things about prayer over the years, and participated in many bizarre prayer sessions. Like the time we all gathered round the candle in the darkened cathedral, and sat silent and deep as owls for 40 minutes, and then left, convinced that we had prayed the most profound prayer. Or the stage when I thought that my own ecstatic private prayer language (in which I sounded very- much like a Russian Jew with a limited vocabulary and a bad ease of stuttering) was irresistible to God, and that by virtue of using it I would be guaranteed a positive answer. Or the period during which I basically gave up asking God for anything, since He, in his eternal, fixed and unchangeable decrees would not be budged on anything, and so asking him to respond to my requests was a waste of my fleeting, mortal breath.
I could fill this short article with further embarrassing examples, and this might be amusing and even profitable. But more profitable still would be some of the things I have learn’t during treatment. "Just read this book", the Doctor told me, “especially this section with Matthew 6 at the top of the page. It might help you to get over the worst of it." And sure enough, upon reading Matthew 6 I learn’t some important things about prayer from the Master himself, the Lord of all reality'.
Here are four things I learn’t.
1. Prayer doesn't have to be long and repetitive
Being somewhat deranged, I had always thought that the longer and more impressive the prayer, the more likely God was to heat and respond. This was a recurring theme in some early phases of my Christian life: the all-night prayer vigil phase; the repeating a set prayer like a mantra over and over again phase; the keep praying until you have gained the victory phrase; and the aforementioned special prayer language phase. In all of them, the common theme was that God somehow needed a very large quantity' of words from me, either to fill him in on all the ins and outs of my situation, or else to impress him by the sheer length of the prayer so that he would feel obliged to say ‘Yes'.
Jesus' teaching on prayer could not be more different. Don't heap up empty phrases, he says. Don't think that you have to communicate information to God (as if he needed to know)~ in fact, pray like this, he says ~ and he goes on to provide a sample prayer that is all of 52 words long. No drama, no show, no ecstasy, no repetition, no special times or places, in fact, no real method at all. Just a short series of requests to a Father in heaven, who is both all knowing and generous.
It's so simple. Why did I have to make it so complicated?
2. You pray for God
Having been afflicted with the very common neurosis that everything (including God) existed basically for my sake, my prayers over the years always featured a large proportion of requests about me. My work, my future, my Friends, my busy schedule, my stress, my children-pretty- much anything, it, fact, that had 'my' in front of it.
What struck me immediately about the Lord's Prayer, however, is that 'me' and 'my' don't even get a look in during the first three requests. According to Jesus, the very first things we should pray for are about God. They are requests for the Father to do something for himself and his own sake, without reference to me at all, or any of my relatives.
If it seems a little strange to be asking God to do something for God (to make his name holy, to bring in his kingdom, and so on), it is no more strange than asking God to do something for us. After all, as Matthew 6:8 reminds us: God knows what we need even before we ask him. Presumably, he can and will provide for us, even if we do not ask him to, and he can and will bring in his kingdom, even if we do not ask him to, We are not bringing new information to the Father's attention-either with regard to our own needs, or with respect to God's eternal plans.
Yet we are urged by Jesus to pray for these things. In his kindness and wisdom, God uses our prayers as part of his eternal plans. Like a generous father involving his children in his work (even though he may be able to get it done easier without them), our Father in heaven wants us to pray for his work, for his glory, for his kingdom.
3. You pray for bread, one day at a time
I had always liked the 'daily bread' request of the Lord's Prayer, because it held so much scope for expansion. Clearly 'bread' was a metaphor for all physical needs and wants, which in my view could legitimately cover just about anything ~ At last, after the high-minded spiritual goals of the first three requests, Jesus was giving me permission to let rip with all the things I really wanted God to do for me.
Funny how I had never really thought about that little word 'daily'. Don't look too far ahead, says Jesus. Don't sweat on the medium and long-term. After all, you've lust prayed for the long-term to be God's kingdom. Just ask God to provide your necessities for the coming day. That's all you need to worry about at this stage.
This is very disturbing, when you think about it, especially to self-obsessed lunatics like me. Not only is life not all about me, but the future is also not all about me. The future is God's. In terms of my physical needs, I don't need to focus too much further ahead than tomorrow.
4. You pray to survive
Another common feature of the crazy people is that they often think they are the most grand and indestructible people in the world. They are Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Superman. I have been a borderline case in 'this department’ over the years. I know that I am anything but perfect, and certainly not indestructible, but I also don't like to spend too much time dwelling on my frailties. I do okay. I survive. I'm not so bad after all, and the world is not such a nasty place. And my prayers accordingly aren’t much taken up with depressing details like confession of sin and surviving temptation.
But according to Jesus, apart from praying for God to meet my daily requirements, the other two really important things to ask for are all about how weak I am, and about how dangerous the Christian life is. Please forgive me, and please help me to make it through the time of testing and evil-which is a not very subtle admission of the obvious facts: 'I'm a sinner and "I don't fancy my chances against temptation and evil.
I am not Napoleon. I am a weak and tired foot soldier facing a terrible enemy. I need deliverance. That's what I should be praying for, both for myself and for others.
I suppose Jesus was the most completely sane person who ever lived, the one with the most perfect grip on reality.
Certainly the more time I spend listening to him; the more I feel my own lunacy fading away.
On the subject of prayer, he showed me how simple and utterly centred on God prayer should be. He showed me how God's kingdom is not only what I should long and ask for, but how it even dictates what I should think about myself and what I should ask for myself.
It's obvious when you think about it. I was mad to ever think otherwise.
adapted from an article by Tony Payne