In our own lives, prayer is often confusing and ill-defined. It is distorted and neglected. It is a burden and an obligation. It is reduced to another habit of being a “good” Christian. Prayer is another thing to “work on” or “keep up” in our spiritual life. It is a method in the quest for a more fulfilling, happier life.
In all of this the primary question remains:
What is prayer?
We fail to see that our definitions begin with misguided presumptions, and we continue to perpetuate the same superficial view of prayer facing my intimidated youth group students.
Therefore, the answer to our primary question, “What is prayer?” we have to turn to Jesus. Jesus is the pray-er. The symphony of His life was guided by an unceasing prayerful note. He did not pray out of duty. He did not pray under the duress of guilt and shame. He did not pray to get God in line with His plan. Rather, He prayed because He is the Son of the Father. Jesus grasped His identity and as a result cast a vision for life as God intended — a prayerful life. He prayed as beloved dust.
What becomes clear as we observe Jesus praying is that to pray as beloved dust means to pray in reality. We pray in the reality of who we are. We pray as beloved children of the Father. We pray as dusty ones, sinful and broken.
We are called to pray in the truth of our identity. If we do not pray in the truth of who we are, then we cannot truly call prayer being with God. Being with God implies that we have actually shown up; we are actually present. Prayer is not a place to hide and cover like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden. It is a place to be honest like Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. It is not a place to avoid the truth. In fact, prayer is a place to learn the truth. As Eugene Peterson said, “We are most our true selves when we pray.”
And yet, we all are tempted to embrace a false posture in prayer. Perhaps this false posture is sitting in our dustiness. Rather than relating to God from our acceptance in Christ, we try to self-generate righteousness to make Him love us. Maybe we don’t avoid our sin in prayer, but we sulk in it. We spend our time in prayer brooding, beating ourselves up, and trying to manage our dustiness. In effect, prayer becomes a place to commune with ourselves rather than with God. We search within for answers to the problems we uncover and continue to roll around in the dust over and over, thinking it will clean us off just like Dusty the chinchilla. Prayer becomes a place for self-talk, self-fixing, self-condemnation, and self-obsession.
For many of us, it is difficult to receive fully the good news that we are God’s beloved.
It is hard for us to turn to another for rescue, healing, and redemption. If our earthly parents did not embrace us with unwavering and intimate love, it is challenging to receive our identity as beloved of our heavenly Father. Yet, God is calling us to pray with Jesus, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:15). In contrast, perhaps we embrace the promises of a beloved child while rejecting our status as dust. This may take the form of presuming upon God. Perhaps we treat God like another of life’s resources rather than the sovereign Creator of the universe who is beyond our grasp. In effect, we domesticate God to fit our world. Many of us refuse to acknowledge our finitude and temporality in prayer. We stubbornly pretend as if we have things under control in prayer, rather than acknowledging the truth that we are feeble and needy creatures.
Yet, God is calling us to pray like Jesus, on our knees in desperate need of the One who is above all things.
If we are honest, prayer feels like a challenge. We have made prayer a chore as opposed to a gracious gift. We have made it a place to project a false self, rather than rest in our true selves. Jesus offered us a different vision of prayer. What we see in Jesus is One who prayed in truth. Jesus prayed from His identity as beloved dust. This is prayer. Not a duty. Not a ritual. Not another “to do.” Rather, it is a place of abiding.
Prayer is being with God who is always with you.
This call to be with God can be a big step; the false postures we have spent years perfecting will not simply be undone by awareness and willpower. These false postures are habits of the heart connected to deep beliefs about God and ourselves that can only be transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit.
Our false postures in prayer can only find transformation in prayer itself.
If we give ourselves to the Holy Spirit’s work of purging false postures and beliefs, we should take a cue from Jesus. He showed us what it looks like to pray in reality, in the truth of our identity. He pointed us to a resource to put off these false postures in prayer. We have His sheet music. There are 150 prayers in the book of Psalms. We can pray them with Jesus. They can help to locate us in God’s redemptive work within. There are psalms of lament, praise, thanksgiving, and confession. As we enter in to the ancient prayers of the people of Israel, God will begin to open up vistas into the truth of our identity in relationship to Him. As we pray the words of the Psalms, we will hear the voice of God singing the truth of who we are in light of who He is.
When I look at Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which You have set in place, what is man that You are mindful of him, and the son of man that You care for him? – Psalm 8:3-4
How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? – Psalm 13:1-2
There is no soundness in my flesh because of Your indignation; there is no health in my bones because of my sin. For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden, they are too heavy for me. – Psalm 38:3-4
My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever. – Psalm 73:26
For You formed my inward parts; You knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. – Psalm 139:13-14
We must not forget that the prayers of the Psalms are God’s Word. As such they are “right” speech. They reveal the truth of who God is and who we are. They are not simply prayers offered by men, but are God’s revelation. Could there be a better place for us to learn how to pray? As Dietrich Bonhoeffer insightfully stated about the Psalms,
The child learns to speak because the parent speaks to the child. The child learns the language of the parent. So we learn to speak to God because God has spoken and speaks to us. In the language of the Father in heaven God’s children learn to speak with God. Repeating God’s own words, we begin to pray to God.
Like a child, as we pray the Psalms, we are learning to talk. We are learning to speak to God. We are learning to relate to Him. We are learning that He is God and we are not. We are learning that we desperately need His forgiveness. We are learning that by His abounding love and grace our Father calls us His beloved.
As we pray the prayers of the Psalms, the full picture of our reality will come into focus. We will be set free to be honest about our reality and our relationship with God. As we express our true feelings, the seal of pretense is broken, and the cave of the soul is revealed. We put voice to deep feelings of regret, hurt, and pain. We ask Him to search us and know us (Psalm 139:23). The poetic words of the Psalms are rhythmic tools of the Holy Spirit to welcome us into reality and invite us to sing with Jesus. In short, the Psalms invite us to pray as Jesus prayed, that our lives may declare,
My heart is steadfast, O God! I will sing and make melody with all my being! – Psalm 108:1
Excerpted from Beloved Dust by Jamin Goggin and Kyle Strobel, copyright Thomas Nelson, 2014.
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Have you ever felt that praying was a chore, a duty to check off your To Do List as part of daily life as a Christian? Are you totally honest with God in prayer? Pause today and think about how you relate to God in prayer. Ask Him to show you how you view prayer with wrong thoughts and to show you how to think and pray differently.