This is an excerpt from the introduction of Ragged: Spiritual Disciplines for the Spiritually Exhausted written by Gretchen Ronnevik (1517 Publishing, 2021), 122-125. Now available for preorder.
Martin Luther writes to his friend, “I’ll do my best to show you how I approach prayer. May our Lord God help us all do better in this regard. Amen. First, sometimes I feel I am being cold and apathetic about prayer. This is usually because of all the things that are distracting me and filling my mind. I know this is a result of the flesh and the devil always waging war against me, trying to prevent me from praying”
We all know it’s a good thing to pray. Luther points out two reasons that we don’t do it: our flesh and the devil.
I don’t know how I can address prayer without addressing the spiritual warfare attached to it. This is where I battle in my own life. This is where I have experienced demonic attacks. This is where I struggle with doubt and disappointment. I’m not always in the mood to pray, and yet praying is my greatest comfort. I am an emotional, sensitive person. Somehow, I think that makes me unreliable to write about prayer. I want to give you something stronger than my own flawed experience. But prayer must be connected to experience. In prayer, we recognize the Eternal One in a finite, present moment.
God has been so gentle with me in prayer. Does that mean he is like that with everyone? I don’t know. There is only a handful of times that I have been “brought low” in prayer, experiencing an intense humbling. Each time, I had arrogance that needed addressing.
If prayer is a conversation, it’s important to remember that God is speaking, so keep your Bible nearby. Prayer affects our knowledge and understanding of Scripture, and we look through the lens of Scripture to gain our knowledge of prayer. Scripture and prayer are inseparable.
God knows the challenges we face and our own limitations in assessing his message for us.
• Did God say...?
• Is God trying tell me...?
Prayer isn’t some type of sadistic test of our ability to practice “hearing God...maybe.”
We struggle to trust our emotions. But prayer isn’t some type of sadistic test of our ability to practice “hearing God...maybe.” Open your Bible, and have confidence that God isn’t trying to trick you or leave you open to deception. He’s right there. He has spoken and his word is living and active (Heb 4:12). He knows what you need to hear.
I bare all of my sin, both the intentional and unintentional, in prayer. The Holy Spirit loosens and convicts the sin I cling to as I pray, and my prayer becomes a confession.
Is that how it’s supposed to work with everyone? I come to prayer more often with an agenda of what I wish to accomplish, which sometimes gets accomplished, but it’s often more enjoyable if I pray just to talk, with no agenda at all—just for the sheer enjoyment of talking with God. Does that mean you have to do it that way? Not necessarily.
Many approach the subject of prayer from a logic and reason perspective. They ask “does it work?,” and I would respond with the questions, “What’s your definition of work? What are you expecting prayer to accomplish?”
If we define “prayer works” to mean that God gives us whatever we want like spoiled children, we will be disappointed. God is not Santa Claus. If we mean “prayer works” to mean that our intimacy with God will increase, I think we are closer. But how on earth does one describe talking with God? I asked this question to my aunt, who has for many years been a mentor of mine. She texted back, “Forget logistics. You learn as you go. That’s how it works.”
As we embrace mystery in the sacraments, as we wrestle with the physical and metaphysical, and try to clearly define what is happening and how it is happening, we may end up frustrated. Should we expect any interaction with God to be anything less than supernatural or full of mystery we don’t quite understand? We aren’t given full explanations as to how prayer works, how it changes things, or what exactly our role is. We just know that because of the sacrifice of Jesus, our high priest, God invites us into the Holy of Holies, to his mercy seat.
That’s the thing about prayer. We approach God imperfectly. We approach him as sinners wearing the covering of Christ. There cannot be any pretense about it. Pretense is in opposition to intimacy. We are who we are, and God is who he is. Don’t flower it up or try to be impressive. God will teach you as you go. Use written prayers if it helps. Write out prayers if it helps. Use the prayers of poets if they resonate.
That’s the thing about prayer. We approach God imperfectly. We approach him as sinners wearing the covering of Christ.
It is most wonderful to use the Bible in prayer, even praying some verses that you need help understanding, or praying verses in the hopes that they would sink into your soul and cause you to believe them. The sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, they are empty gestures apart from the word. But when the word and the physical acts are brought together, something sacred happens, and we don’t often understand the “how” of it all.
This topic of prayer mystifies academics. It does not fit into a tidy syllogism. Is it logical and formulaic, or is it emotional and instinctive? Both—that’s the crazy part. To pray is to spend time with the One whose logic is above our own and to remind us that faith is not dependent on what we see.
Our limited understanding of prayer does not need to inhibit us. In fact, I think sometimes the only way to understand is to just pray. Groan, if you must. Your understanding will grow, but your confidence in “knowing” will not. The more we learn about God, the more we are humbled by his majesty beyond what we comprehend.