Why Prayer Is a Mess, And How to Clean It Up

–Daniel S. Ferguson

Let’s face it: prayer is weird.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the prayer awkwardly offered up by a worship leader during musical interludes, or if it’s the obligatory prayer at the end of any church meeting of any kind, or if it’s just by yourself. Prayer is weird. Maybe not to everyone, but it is to a lot of people, anyway.

Here’s why. Prayer is supposed to be a connection between us and God, and I’m consistently told that it’s like a conversation. Except that it’s nothing like a conversation. Barring a legitimate theophany, where God’s voice thunders from on high, prayer isn’t like a conversation at all. God doesn’t talk back directly with any consistency whatsoever. It’s like trying to talk to someone who’s giving you the silent treatment. It’s awkward, and it’s tense.

Prayer is something I’ve struggled with for the better part of a decade. It’s a discipline with very little noticeable payoff, at least in the short run, and I’ve never really known what to pray.

I’ve come seriously close to leaving the Christian faith entirely just over the issue of prayer. The idea of talking to an invisible entity who doesn’t talk back and who is seemingly unmoved by my attempts to converse with it strained my sanity, and I didn’t really know what to do with that.

Until very recently I realized something. I’ve been talking to an invisible entity who doesn’t talk back my entire life, every single day: Myself.

Self-talk is essentially the same thing as prayer. You speak openly, even out loud, to some mysterious entity who isn’t physically in the room and who never directly talks back. We all do it all the time, dozens of times per day.

So I started something recently, just a simple, small change. Instead of talking to myself, I simply changed the object of my self-talk to God. Instead of saying, “Daniel, this is rough,” I changed it to “God, this is rough,” and so on.

That’s it. That’s the only change. There have been three major results so far:

  1. Prayer has become easier. I now don’t struggle with what to say. I just talk about what’s going on around me, just like I would with self-talk. No need for flowery language or for something “significant” to talk about with God. I just talk.
  2. Prayer has become more consistent. Paul says to “pray without ceasing” (1 Corinthians 5:17), and I had always found that to be impossible. How on earth can one pray constantly? Well, I discovered that I performed self-talk pretty constantly, so changing the object of my self-talk to God has helped me to fulfill this Scriptural command.
  3. Prayer is much more positive than self-talk. For most of us, self-talk isn’t particularly positive. I definitely struggled with that. I was my own worst bully. I probably gave myself the worst verbal abuse I’ve ever suffered. But I can’t talk like that with God. I can’t really call him names the same way I called myself names in my self-talk. By changing the object of my self-talk to God, I discovered that my mental arena became substantially more positive and life-affirming.

So that’s that. This is a relatively new experiment for me. I hope that it helps you. I’ll let you  know how it goes for me in the long run

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