If you had to compare your prayer life to a famous person, who would you choose? I recently asked this question to several people, and some of my favorite answers were:
- Eli Manning—Because my prayer life is so inconsistent.
- Kanye West—Because my prayers tend to be focused on myself.
- Tim Duncan—Because I know prayer is good, but it’s honestly pretty boring.
- Alex Trebek—Because my prayer life is a facilitator of random knowledge.
These answers, while entertaining, reveal a common attitude that I find amongst many Christians when it comes to prayer. We know that prayer is very important, but we struggle to be engaged fully and consistently daily. When I ask people about their prayer lives, many people express a sense of struggle and shame.
Why do we struggle to pray? Some might people might suggest it’s because of our lack of discipline, others might suggest that we don’t truly desire God, and even others might blame it on the distracting nature of the technology-centered culture that we live within. While those things might be true at times, I want to propose a different problem, one that rarely gets addressed.
Here it is: We pray like computers, not like humans.
A computer is an inanimate object that transfers information back and forth with some distant server. It lacks emotion, relationship, imagination, and attentiveness to place. Most of all, it lacks the five senses (or fifteen, depending on whom you ask) that are normative to the true human experience.
Many of us imagine prayer as something you do with your eyes closed, hands folded, hunched over, and in a room by yourself. Much like this picture:
This posture isn’t something you find in the Bible. At its best, it keeps us from being distracted, but at its worst, this posture has a formative effect on our prayer lives. It’s a posture that one takes when they pray like a computer—dull, focused merely on the task of transferring information to God, as if he’s dusty server in a distant land. It cuts us off from our senses, ignores our environment, and disengages from the harsh beauty and brokenness of God’s world.
This isn’t how humans were meant to pray. What if our prayer lives are so stagnant because we aren’t coming to God as real humans, with the full engagement of our five senses, being attentive to place, and encountering God in all aspects of life, from vocation to recreation.
Praying Like a Human
What does it mean to pray like a real human? Among other things, I’m convinced that we will have a deeper and richer engagement with God if we intentionally craft rhythms of prayer that consider:
1) All Senses: God has given you the sense of sight, smell, hearing, taste, and touch. From Israel’s feasts to the waters of baptism, we see hundreds of biblical examples of worship that includes the full engagement of our senses. Our prayer lives would be enriched if our confession of sin took place next to a dumpster, or if we climbed a mountain that overlooks our city to pray for the various communities in our midst.
2) All Places: Your physical location has a profound impact on your life. What would it look like to seek out physical locations that correspond to the content of your prayers? Perhaps you could craft a daily prayer walk where different landmarks remind you to pray for specific things—like a playground reminding you to pray for your children or a bakery reminding you to pray for your daily bread. Or, perhaps, you could visit places of historic injustice, or museums that document such events, to guide your prayers of lament and for justice.
3) All of Life: Imagine if your prayer life wasn’t secluded to the so-called “sacred” parts of life, like church buildings and devotional times, but engaged the fullness of life, including your daily tasks of making spreadsheets and changing diapers. What if your Facebook feed and news headlines became your prayer list? What if you took time to acknowledge God as the source of the goodness, truth and beauty you encounter through the goods and services you contribute to through your job.
4) All Emotions: God knows when we are afraid, angry, confused, ashamed, sad, etc. Our hearts are not hidden from God, and since he already knows what we are feeling, we should follow the example of the Psalms and bring these deep emotions to the Lord. When you are angry about ridiculous public discourse on the internet, bring that anger to God. When you are struggling with doubt, know that God isn’t afraid of your questions. When you look at your bank account and feel a sense of fear, use that as an occasion to cling to God.
All throughout the biblical story, we see an invitation to worship God in the fullness of life. We are free to pray like real humans—involving our five senses and the myriad of emotions we genuinely feel. We should meet with God in meaningful places, carefully considered with the same level of intentionality we have when choosing where to live or propose marriage. Prayer should engage the full scope of life, from filet mignon to foreign policy. “Boring” should not be a word that describes prayer to the God who gave us the Grand Canyon, the NBA Finals, honey badgers, and the color turquoise.
The problem isn’t our intentions; it’s our imaginations. Few people have showed us how to pray like real humans to speak to the fully sensory, emplaced, emotional, fully present, and yet, transcendent, Creator of the cosmos. My intention over the next few blog posts is to help you craft an intentional prayer life that engages your physical senses, significant places, daily activities, and deep emotions. My hope that this won’t add hours of activity to each day, but will help you re-imagine your daily rhythms as occasions for prayer, seeing the majesty of God in the seemingly mundane.