The last time I saw Isabelle alive she was in the hospital after a heart attack. She was in her 90s. Life support machines clicked and wheezed around her.
“Eugene, I’ve lived a long enough. My husband’s long passed. No reason to prolong this.” Her daughters shuffled nervously behind me. “I want you to pray that God would take me home. Now! The other pastors wouldn’t.”
I took her feathery hands. What’s the right way to pray? Especially for someone to die?
I summoned my pastoral eloquence. “Lord, Isabelle has run a good race. She’s beloved by you and so many. She’s tired.” Her daughters held their breath. I balked. “Father, heal her. Either here or by taking her home, your will be done. Amen.”
Isabelle squeezed my hand and her gauzy eyes popped open. “You’re going to have to nudge Him harder than that!”
What is the right way to pray?
The Bible Says
Every major character in the Bible prayed. From Abraham to Zechariah. From Sarah to Elizabeth. Their prayers don’t sound much like the right kind of church prayers I’ve uttered or heard. Instead they sound like the arguments I used to have with my mom. Loud, emotional, real!
Hannah was unable to conceive children in a time when that was a horrible stigma. Her “rival” teased her mercilessly. For years. Finally Hannah rushed from the dinner table and in “deep anguish” prayed:
“Lord Almighty, if you will only look on your servant’s misery and remember me, and not forget your servant but give her a son, then I will give him to the Lord for all the days of his life, and no razor will ever be used on his head.” (1 Samuel 1)
I would have counseled Hannah, “Calm down. You’re upset. It’s not good to bargain with God.”
Fortunately, I was not there to stifle her troubled and emotionally honest prayer. Hannah spewed every ounce of herself on God. She didn’t edit or minimize as we so often do. We generally avoid emotions and especially in prayer. “God, be with Aunt Edna and bless her cat,” we intone. Hannah packed her prayer with emotional content. God recorded no offense. Her son, Samuel, was born from that prayer.
“I loathe my very life; therefore I will give free rein to my complaint and speak out in the bitterness of my soul.” (Job 10:1, NIV)
Many believe Christians should nary complain.
I know what they mean, I think. They believe we shouldn’t resemble the kid who whines he wants a blue birthday cake instead of a red one. This leads to the idea that the right way to pray is giddy thankfulness, grudging stoicism, or bland waffling. These stuff our pain into the depths of our stormy souls. As if God, and we, won’t see the true us through the storm. This disables our willingness for God to heal the real issues we face.
This stems, in part, from misunderstanding Paul’s prayer advice: “Be joyful always.” And from never reading the biblical book containing little joy and only complaints: Lamentations.
In truth Paul journeyed to joyfulness through complaint. “. . . .join me in my struggle by praying to God for me. Pray that I may be rescued from the unbelievers in Judea. . . ,” he wrote to his friends in Rome. (Romans 15:30)
In the “trouble and trust psalms” the Psalmists pray through trouble to trust. Instead we attempt to vault over trouble and land flatfooted on trust. But it took the Psalmists years to move from the troubled soul to the trusting one portrayed in these verses. We may learn math facts quickly. Not so life facts. All the while God patiently waits.
If we fail to complain in prayer, as even Jesus complained, we never reach true trust.
There was a period when our two oldest children suffered on-going, serious illnesses. I prayed polite, correct prayers for their healing. Finally I screamed to God, “I’m a better father than you are!” Ironically the healing that prayer began was mine. I’d been emotionally frozen in my own father issues. That prayer loosed my chains. I now better trust God as Father.
Is there a right way to pray?
There Is No Formula
There are as many prayer formulas as car models. At times you need a Tacoma truck and at times a Lamborghini. At all times you need heartfelt, personal prayers that engage God emotionally and honestly no matter the formula. That’s not to say carefully crafted prayers are wrong. In one extremely spiritually dry period I read “Daily Prayers for Orthodox Christians.” It lifted words to God I could not.
But the danger in these formal prayers is we allow them to create space between our souls and God’s heart. Like Hannah, Job, Jesus, and a host of others there must be times we spill our own emotions into words!
Isabelle did not care about the right way to pray. She wanted her desire to shake off her decaying body and stride into the presence of Jesus expressed. And maybe I didn’t nudge Him hard enough. But God heard our prayer. She passed two days later.
In his book Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference? Philip Yancey says, “If you are praying, you’re doing it right.”
What prayer formulas have you tried? Have they been meaningful?
Do you have a time when prayer lifted you into the very presence of God?
Do you feel as if you can share your emotions and complaints with God?