Prayer: Keeping it Simple

Simplicity is the characteristic of all real prayer and nothing pleases God better. He does not want so much formality in his service; great harm has been done by the reduction of devotion to a fine art dependent on so many rules. After all, everything depends on the Holy Spirit; it is he alone who teaches the true way of conversing with God and we see how, when he lays hold of a soul, the first thing he does is to withdraw it from all the rules made by men.

– Jean-Nicholas Grou, How to Pray

I struggle with simplicity in prayer. By simplicity, I’m not referring to intellect. I don’t think that prayers can be “too intellectual.” Our intellect is a part of who we are, and we’re to submit our intellects to Christ and use them in prayer. By simplicity, I mean honesty.

Many times my prayers feel empty and completely disconnected from myself. This happens to me often as a pastor. There have been (and will, no doubt, continue to be) times when I’ve been asked to pray for something or someone and have had no idea what to pray. Usually this happens in some type of public setting – the opening or closing of a meeting, a small group session, and, I’m ashamed to confess, in pastoral visitations. I’ll be asked to pray for a person or situation, will not know the situation well enough to know what to pray for, so I’ll simply start to spew words out of my mouth and hope they go somewhere. Often times the words “just” and “bless” shows up in these prayers more frequently than normal. (“Dear God, bless ________. I just lift him/her up to you right now. And I pray that you would just bless them….”) My prayers feel completely disconnected from what’s really happening.

Often times, I run into this problem when I’m not being fully present to the situation. Either I’m daydreaming and thinking about something else entirely. Or, I am paying attention to the situation, but strictly from a human point of view with no attention to the Spirit’s presence. And so I begin praying perhaps too quickly, usually jumping into speaking to God without having given any thought to what I ought to say.

What’s even more troubling is that I don’t just run into this problem when praying for others, but also when I’m praying for myself. (“Dear God, I pray your blessing upon this day. I just lift up all that I’ll be doing up to you. And I pray that you will just bless it…”) Many times, my prayers feel completely disconnected from myself. When I have my own times of prayer, I often jump into my prayers too quickly. I see them as an obligation to be fulfilled for the day, and give no thought to the prayer before I begin. So empty words begin to spew out of my mouth that have no connection with my heart.

As I’ve been working to overcome this, I’m finding three things helpful:

1.) Silence is OK. If I need time to more fully appreciate a situation or to know what to say to God, it’s better to take that time and wait to begin praying than to fill silence by praying empty words.

2.) Begin by meditating on who God is. Meditating on who God is, especially in light of what or who I’m going to be praying about has helped me to know what to ask God to do, since all that God does comes out of who God is.

3.) If I still have no idea how to pray for myself, begin by confessing my life to God. I’ve learned this from reading St. Augustine’s Confessions. Much of what Augustine writes is simply recounting to God his life experiences, and reflecting on what God was doing in those situations. Doing this myself has led to insights into who I am, and who I am becoming, that I had never realized before.

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